This week we tested the Focal Elear hi-fi headphones, an open-back, circumaural model fitted with Focal’s own dynamic transducers.
Focal is an acclaimed French brand specializing in hi-fi products. For decades, Focal has made a name for itself with its drivers and speakers. The manufacturer has only recently ventured into the world of headphones, and the Elear is the brand’s first high-end model. It is reassuring to see such a prestigious name challenging the big players in this market. Focal’s expertise in designing transducers could bring a breath of fresh air to a market which has a tendency to favor trendy products over musicality.
Open-back, circumaural headphones are designed to be used in a quiet environment because their structure allows outside sounds to be heard.. Moreover, the sound wave travels both inward, toward the ear, and outward, toward the listening room, which means that using open-back headphones can be seen as an inconvenience by those around you.
Focal Elear: presentation
Focal’s Elear headphones feature 40 mm aluminum-magnesium alloy transducers. The manufacturer is known for using these same materials for its acclaimed inverted dome tweeters. The transducers are fitted with M-shaped membranes and were specially developed for the brands’ headphones (notably for the luxurious Focal Utopia headphones). The transducer’s frequency response ranges from 5 Hz to 23 kHz, and it boasts a sensitivity rating of 104 dB (1 mW at 1 kHz). With an 80 Ohms impedance rating, the Focal Elear headphones call for a powerful amplifier, which means that a smartphone will lack the power to drive them.
Which amplifier for a good match?
A powerful DAP with an interchangeable amplification card, such as the FiiO X7 II AM3A or HiFiMAN HM-901S (with the Minibox Gold card), may be used to listen to the Focal Elear. Another possibility would be to connect a powerful headphone amplifier/DAC combo to a smartphone or computer. For example, the iFi Audio Micro iDSD was specifically designed for headphones with an average to high impedance rating, like the Focal Elear. For completely sedentary use, a headphone amplifier such as the Hafler HA15 or the excellent Hafler HA75 is a sure bet. Of course, the Focal Elear can be plugged directly into the headphone output of most any hi-fi amplifier, as the latter are usually paired with a generous power supply.
The Focal Elear comes with a carrying case and a 2-meter-long cable (6.35 mm jack connector).
The Focal Elear has all the qualities one would expect from a pair of open-back headphones, beginning with a spacious and well-layered soundstage. Since the sound wave is directed towards the back, it is thus not compressed by a closed enclosure, and the cone can vibrate freely without interference. In the absence of back waves, sound coloration is null. Nevertheless, the drawbacks inherent to open-back models are also present, especially considering that the transducers of this circumaural model are placed a few centimeters away from the ear. This distance separating the driver from the ear, although negligible, results in a loss of energy. This difference is especially noticeable when comparing circumaural headphones to a supra-aural model whose transducers are in direct contact with the ears. But the Focal Elear is far from being weak; in fact, it is one of the most balanced open-back headphones we’ve ever heard. The Focal sound signature is easily recognizable. The lows and mids are both pumped full of energy, and the highs are soft and tastefully highlighted. The balance is enjoyable, and extensive listening sessions cause little fatigue.
To summarize: the soundstage is well layered, the lows are reassuring, the mids are precise and textured without a hint of harshness, and the highs are lively without any hint of excessive coloration.
Note that being in a quiet, or even totally silent, environment while listening to the Focal Elear is the only way to fully enjoy the precision of the sound restitution.
Move Over, Janis Joplin, FLAC
This rock anthem brings out the best in the Focal Elear. Janis Joplin’s vocal range is precisely delivered, and we were able to clearly hear – her moving toward or away from the microphone. The snare and vocals are mixed in the middle of the soundstage and are perfectly balanced. The piano plays cheerfully on the right in response to the exhilarating electric guitar on the left. The organ’s cameo during the finale of the song is full of energy and truly electrifying.
Kashmir (live, Celebration Day), Led Zeppelin, FLAC
Not as much breadth as we would have hoped for with this epic live rendition of Kashmir. The blame is clearly not to put on the Focal Elear as it faithfully delivers a highly compressed mix. It actually might be a good thing, as isn’t this what high fidelity is about?
Perfect Day, Lou Reed, FLAC
Lou Reed’s melancholic ballad is very well mixed, and the Focal Elear feels right at home. The restitution of the violins is soft and generous, the piano benefits from a wonderful abundance of harmonics, and every note is accurately delivered. The bass guitar is clear and precise, and everything is layered as it should be. A superb performance.
Unfinished Sympathy, Massive Attack, FLAC
This is a challenging test on many levels. The main pitfall is certainly the bell sound, which is audible throughout the track and is often excessively highlighted to the detriment of more powerful instruments. Despite its emphasis on the treble register, the Focal Elear does a particularly good job in terms of sound placement and texture. The stereo effect is well defined and leaves room for the violins at each extremity of the soundstage, as well as to the famous bell in the background. The restitution is particularly realistic. The bass register is a bit shy, and we would have liked more oomph in the lows. But this is asking a bit much from an open-back model.
Mean to Me, Chet Baker, FLAC
Chet Baker’s technique on the trumpet is magnificently showcased from 1:40 to 1:50, and the Focal Elear extracts the subtlest variations in tone and rhythm. Throughout the track, the layers of saxophones on the right and drums and piano on the left never cover the sound of the trumpet. The magic happens, and the result is remarkable.
What we liked:
- The well-defined stereo effect
- The cohesive sound
- The unquestionable balance
- The unflagging dynamic capacity throughout the sound spectrum
- The absence of flashy sound coloration
- The compatibility with most amplifiers
- The wearing comfort
What we would have liked:
- A 6.3 mm jack to 3.5 mm mini-jack adaptor
There are many good reasons to fall for the Focal Elear headphones. The rich, precise sound, along with the excellent wearing comfort, are its main assets. The Focal Elear shows all of its potential after a few hours of break-in, at which point the listening experience becomes a true delight. With their analytical and natural sound, these great headphones won’t be taking any lessons from the heavyweights in their category. We would even affirm that this model seriously challenges some of its competitors, and might even send a few of them back to the drawing board. The Focal Elear are perfectly designed, and the type of truly hi-fi headphones we’d like to hear more often.French