Enter the Next Generation: Focal Elear Headphone

This story originally appeared at InnerFidelity.com

I'm disoriented.

For some time now, there has been a drive in the headphone world to escalate the price of high-end headphones. Wood display cases, leather headbands, esoteric cable conductors, and numerous other characteristics shout out, "I'm glorious! Empty your wallet before my greatness!"

Unfortunately, while the sound quality has improved relative to their less-expensive brethren, high-end headphones to date have not delivered any where near the improvements in sound quality that their price tag promises. This has been happening for about 5 years now, and I've gotten reluctantly comfortable with the condition. And then the Focal Elear comes along...and rocks my world.

THIS is what a $1000 headphone should be. Unapologetically masculine styling...and sexy; confidently strutting exquisite materials and build-quality; and delivering sound of a quality I've not heard before on headphones. It walked in my office, swept all the headphones off my desk in one grand gesture, and said, "Here I am. Deal with it."

I don't think I have yet. I'm not confident I've got a firm grasp of what I'm hearing...and frankly, I'm not sure I will have for a while. I'm disoriented, but you need to know about these headphones. I'll give it my best shot, but I can't wait until the Focal Elear gets out in the wild and we start hearing feedback from the community. I'm certain it will be very well received...I'm just not certain of how it will be heard by everyone. This is BIG!

Focal Elear ($999)
The Focal Elear is a full-sized, around-the-ear, open-acoustic headphone. The styling is absolutely terrific; a very masculine look in black and gray. As much a sculpture as headphone, fit and finish dissolve into a confident whole. "I am headphone, hear me."

The black leather headband terminates at either end with a black anodized aluminum fittings emblazoned with the Focal's name. The microfiber covered memory foam headband pad is plush and does a good job of distributing the weight of this moderately heavy headphone (450gr w/o cable) over a good portion of the top of my head.

The adjustable yolks are formed anodized aluminum. Headband size adjustment is quick and easy to achieve fit, detents hold position securely. Ear cup rotation is accomplished by the headband arms actually rotating within the headband receiver. The system permits about 20 degree of relatively easy rotation. I haven't seen a mechanism like this before; it seems to work very well indeed, and seems to be an elegant solution to reduce complexity but retain function.

Ear capsules are covered with a fine metal mesh in a graceful domed shape. Due to the angled driver, the driver cover fitting is somewhat forward of center of the capsule. This metal ring has "Elear" written on it at the top, and "Fabrique en France" and "Aluminium-Magnesium" on the bottom segments between the three attachement screws. The center of the driver cover fitting is an even finer metal mesh, and has a Focal logo attached in the center.

Ear pads are Microfiber covered memory foam with ample 64mm X 56mm openings. Ear pads are attached to the ear capsule with sturdy plastic tabs, and can be removed and replace with a simple tug and push.

The very long (13 feet) cable is in a "Y" configuration, connecting to each earpiece with a mono 3.5mm plug. The player end is a Neutrik 1/4" TRS plug. Focal claims this is a very low impedance (<90 mOhm) OFC cable; its twin-lead design and shielding is claimed to deliver very low crosstalk. This cable should be very easy for capable enthusiasts to modify for balanced operation with either 4-pin or two 3-pin XLR configurations.

Also included is a magnetic closure storage case.

The Elear was very comfortable for long listening sessions. It's slightly on the heavy side, but the fit is simply outstanding and I had no sense of excess bulk on my head. The only comfort/ergonomic problem I had was the weight and stiffness of the cable, which is significant. Once you're settled in for the listen it's not a problem, but you definitely feel it dragging and swinging about when you're moving around. On the other hand, it's nice to have that quality, long cable when your listening chair is a bit distant from your rig or you're moving around the office.

In terms of styling, build-quality, and comfort, the Elear kills it. This is a sweet piece of gear!

Acoustics and Driver

Focal is famous for their speakers and drivers—that doesn't necessarily mean they know diddly-squat when it comes to headphones, though. I was a bit skeptical when I head about these coming out, but after having a good hard look at the Elear all I can say is, "Man, somebody knows a hell of a lot about headphones over there." From my laymans, but fairly experienced, eyes, the Elear is one of the most beautiful acoustic designs I've seen. I'd put it right up there with the Sennheiser HD 800 S.

At the heart of the Elear is a driver unlike any I've seen before. The overall configuration is driven by the shape of the dome itself. Made from an aluminum/magnesium alloy, the dome is extremely light and stiff. Unlike normal plastic film headphone diaphragms, the bulk of the surface area is taken up by the dome. This is important for a number of reasons:

  • There is less opportunity for for trapped air resonances around the edge of the dome, outside the voice coil.
  • The wide diameter of the voice coil allows for a large opening behind the dome to release sound from the back of the driver with less opportunity for resonances and poor tuning.
  • Focal claims the large, stiff dome shape propagates the sound wave front more naturally towards the ear.

Attached to the rear at its annular crease, the dome is driven by an unusual voice coil. Most voice coils are built by wrapping the wire around plastic tube called a former which is then attached to the driver diaphragm. The Elear voice coil is built by wrapping the wire and adhesives around a form, but the form is removed before the voice coil is attached to the dome. This makes for an extremely light voice coil, and therefor a more responsive driver.

The dome is attached to the frame with a surround that acts as a suspension allowing the dome to move back and forth freely. The surround is an astonishing 80 microns thin and permits the dome to move relatively long distances without impediment keeping distortion low even at high volumes.


Focal Elear baffle plate.

The entire driver assembly is mounted to the rear of the angled portion of the baffle plate, and the dome is position slightly forward, aiming back at the ear. There is a metal grill covering the driver; when I scrape it with my finger tips I hear just a little sound that may be characteristic of this element. I often tap on various parts of headphones with my fingernails to see if I hear sounds. I would say the Elear is far better than most in this regard; it sounds fairly similar wherever I tap...which is a good thing. (You might be surprised at how many times headphone bits made odd noises if you haven't tried this yourself.)

Around the driver in the baffle plate is a large array of vent openings covered in a very fine open mesh. This leaves a fairly large opening for sound to escape the ear cup, travel through the mesh and into the ear capsule, and exit the ear capsule through the outer metal screen making this a very acoustically open headphone. The sound from the back of the driver exits through the central screen of the outer ear capsule; the two acoustic signals never meet until outside the headphones. Very cool.

Physical Summary
All-in-all, the Elear is exactly what I would expect to see in a $1000 headphone...it's just shockingly satisfying to actually see it. This is an absolutely gorgeous headphone, extremely well designed and built. If the sound is as good as its build, this thing is a knock-out.

Let's have a listen...

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