Review: Focal Clear

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Test Focal Clear

The French manufacturer Focal is expanding its range of audiophile headphones with the Focal Clear, a model designed with the purest hi-fi traditions in mind. As an open-back model, the Focal Clear is designed to offer exceptional sound spatialization. True to its reputation as a leading speaker driver designer and manufacturer, Focal spent months developing a new driver optimized to work very close to the ear. Since the constraints are different from those presented by an acoustic speaker, Focal has designed a new cone composed of aluminum and magnesium. The Focal Clear headphones benefit from the same acoustic technologies originally developed for the Focal Utopia headphones, the flagship model in the brand’s audiophile range.

?The Focal Clear is derived from the Focal Elear, with optimized transducers (see our conclusion).?

Open-back headphones

An open-back design is the first of the Focal Clear?s advantages. In this configuration, the drivers transmit the sound both inward toward the listener’s ear and outward toward the listening room. A design which has stood the test of time, it is known to create optimum working conditions for the driver. By comparison, a pair of closed-back headphones has specific constraints, including backwaves, which are reflected by the ear cups and affect the driver?s behavior, and pressure from the air trapped in the earpieces. It is thus very rare for a pair of closed-back headphones to have a linear frequency response and a stable impedance curve.  Consequently, the resulting sound is seldom free of coloration. With this in mind, Focal has made the (reasonable) choice to adopt an open-back design in order to allow its new drivers, with their M-shaped dome drivers to express themselves freely.

Test Focal Clear
The metallic outer grill of the Focal Clear?s earcups.

Focal M driver

Each of the Focal Clear?s earpieces is equipped with a single wideband driver. This driver is solely responsible for reproducing all bass, midrange and treble frequencies. Designing a driver capable of offering a balanced delivery across the entire audio spectrum is no small task, and satisfying the most demanding ears is thus a true challenge. Drawing from years of experience in designing speaker drivers, Focal developed an exclusive driver for its Clear headphones. This driver is composed of the same aluminum and magnesium alloy as the manufacturer?s inverted dome tweeters which, thanks to its stiffness and damping abilities, ensures a smooth and precise sound delivery. Bigger than a tweeter (40 mm vs. 25 mm), the Clear?s drivers feature a 25-millimeter-thick and 5-millimeter-high formerless copper coil to ensure perfect excursion control. According to Focal, the Clear?s M-shaped dome extracts the smallest details of each recording.

Test Focal Clear
The Focal Clear?s M driver.

High sensitivity

The Focal Clear headphones have a frequency response of 5 Hz to 28 kHz, with minimal distortion. With a sensitivity rating of 104 dB for 1 mW and a nominal impedance of 55 Ohms, these headphones only require a relatively small amount of power to deliver sound at high level, and they do not require a strenuous effort from the amplifier?s power supply. This means that the Focal Clear headphones may be used with a portable audio player or even a smartphone. However, due to the headphones? open-back design, they are most suitable for listening in the quiet environment of a living room, for example, and the use of a dedicated headphone amplifier is highly recommended.

Test Focal Clear
The Focal Clear?s memory foam earpads.

Made in France

The Focal Clear?s design and impeccable finish impressed us as soon as we opened the carry case. A beautiful object which immediately gives off the impression of being very comfortable. The thick headband, lined with leather and perforated microfiber, is pleasant to the touch and fits comfortably. The earpieces feature 2-cm-thick memory foam pads lined with perforated microfiber. Joined to the headband by a piece of solid aluminum, the earpieces are covered with a thin, solid metal grill. The cable is sheathed with tangle-resistant fabric, and the 2.5 mm mini jack connectors found on the earpieces are secured by an automatic locking system.

Test Focal Clear
The Focal Clear?s thick headband is lined with leather.

The accessories

The Focal Clear comes with an elegant, semi-rigid carry case with a fabric finish and a zip closure. Three detachable cables are provided: one unbalanced 3.5 mm mini-jack cable, one unbalanced 6.35 mm jack cable, and one balanced XLR cable.

Test Focal Clear
The Focal Clear?s carry case.
Test Focal Clear
The accessories included with the Focal Clear headphones.

Listening impressions

We listened to the Focal Clear with three different sources: a smartphone, a compact Encore mDSD USB DAC, and the new FiiO X7 Mark II portable audio player, which combines exceptional balance with a wealth of micro-details.

When listening to the Rolling Stones? Sympathy for the Devil, a recording notorious for its complex sound layering, there was no doubt that the Focal Clear headphones knew their business. The bass guitar on the left was lively, while the piano filled the right of the soundstage without overshadowing Mick Jagger’s voice, which is clear to the point where the slightest breath is audible. The backing vocals found their rightful place, while the high-pitched electric guitar is generously rendered.  The listening experience was rewarding and never aggressive. On the Four Tops? Reach out, I?ll Be There, the Focal Clear demonstrated that it is perfectly at home with older recordings. The magic happens, much more so than with overly compressed mixes, so unfortunately common today. Once again, the level of definition in the lows was striking, and the bass guitar was perfectly clear, yet seamlessly integrated. No instrument or voice seemed neglected, regardless of the frequency range.

Test Focal Clear
The Focal Clear headphones are very comfortable.

Next up was the Spinners? It’s a Shame, a pop hit from the 70s. The Focal Clear headphones managed to transmit all of the artist?s energy, and we could just imagine his antics behind the microphone. The listening experience was truly captivating. Melody Gardot’s Your heart is As Black As Night was, for its part, full of beautiful tones, from a superb restitution of cymbals and saxophones to a refined and controlled delivery of the muted trumpet. The live version of La Ballade de Jim, by Alain Souchon and Laurent Voulzy, surprised us by revealing layers of sound we hadn’t heard before, such as the audience?s applause during the choruses. Bravo.

Test Focal Clear
The Focal Clear headphones and the FiiO X7 Mark II DAP.

The sound signature

The Focal Clear headphones shine for the width of their soundstage, which retains its breadth even at high volume. As with many open-back headphones, the bass register is generous but not extremely abundant. The lows blend in perfectly with the clear and distinct midrange, and the listener can easily be captivated  and even astounded by the similarity of listening to a dedicated loudspeaker. As for the highs, they are bright but never invasive or exaggerated. In short, the Focal Clear’s sound signature is a tasteful blend of neutrality and just the right amount of verve.

Test Focal Clear
The connectors of the Focal Clear?s interconnect cable feature an integrated locking system.

Conclusion

It is difficult to find fault with the Focal Clear headphones.  There is, of course, the very nature of open-back headphones to consider, as they aren’t known for shaking the listener?s eardrums with massive helpings of low frequencies. The Focal Clear?s strong points include rich tones, impeccable timing, and great definition. For demanding listeners.

How does the Focal Clear compare to the Focal Elear?

The drivers used in both of these headphones are made of the same aluminum and magnesium alloy, and both adopt Focal’s M-shaped structure. However, the sound signature differs: the Focal Clear is smoother in the upper-mids with a bit more clarity overall. The Clear?s soundstage is wider and deeper. Both pairs of headphones have the same sensitivity rating and are easy to power.

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