Enter the Next Generation: Focal Elear Headphone Page 2


Sound Quality
In the fewest words: shockingly good! They're so stunningly dynamic I had—and still have—a hard time setting the volume. Turn it up too loud and a piano strike will punch out one of your eyeballs; get it set right and everything just pops!

I suppose similar things have happened before, I've fallen to the new toy syndrom and thought a headphone was really good at first...then got poke in the ear with the annoying fault. But my first listening experiences with the Elear seemed different. So much was so right that any remaining tonal imbalance was not very meaningful in the overall experience. The Elears just seemed full-bodied and transparent...I was left to think only of the music dancing in my head.

Oh well...I suppose I must try.

The Elear has excellent overall tonal balance. Bass is slightly low for my tastes, but bass is very tight and punchy, and extension is extraordinarily good for an open dynamic driver headphone. The textural character of string bass, tubas, and large drums is clearly evident in this transparent, undistorted bass. Even though I've got a mild basshead penchant I was in no way left wanting in the low registers.

The transition from bass to midrange is seamless and the midrange sounds liquid, coherent, and amazingly dynamic. Conga drums take on an immediate realism I don't think I've heard before—absolutely eye-blinkingly impactive and harmonically expressive. Were I to niggle, I'd say the upper-midrange/low-treble is slightly low compared to the overall midrange making this a slightly laid back headphone in the presence region...were I to niggle.

But this plays to my penchant for a slightly relaxed sound. Treble above 3kHz is also slightly low in level relative to the midrange baseline, which reinforces this slightly relaxed sound. I don't want to play this up too much; I didn't even hear it 'til I started to compare against other headphones. Listening to the Elear alone, things are so close that your mind accommodates quickly. Other than it's big brother, the Utopia, and maybe the upcoming Ether Flow, this may be the only headphone in this category where my recommendation won't come with a "Yeah, but..." (HD 800 too strident; Ether too thin in the bass; planars to splashy up top) It's just damned good.

The only place I could find to really put my finger on some sort of problem is a narrow peak in response at 10kHz that makes things a bit zingy. I found it using pink noise and it became ever more clear to me afterward over time. I tried to EQ it out, and was successful in getting the tonal balance right there, but I also felt like using the EQ to narrowly notch out that one area blunted the treble response. In the end, I preferred the un-EQ presentation even though I could focus in and hear the problem at will. When I didn't will it, the problem receded into the background and was not an annoyance.

Despite what I heard and measured as quite good transient response, I didn't hear the Elear as having particularly impressive imaging. This surprised me a bit as these two things go hand in hand in my experience. The image on the Elear is very stable and well proportioned, and it's of good size, though more in width than depth. But I was expecting a little bigger image from the measurements. Perhaps it's the amazing dynamic punch of these cans—in my experience you typically get one or the other but not both—or possibly it's the feature at 10kHz getting in the way of good localization. Anyway, it's a solid image, but it's not no HD 800 S.

Sennheiser HD 800 S - By comparison, the HD 800 S is a leaner, cooler sounding headphone. Imaging on the HD 800 S is wider and deeper, and transient response cleaner and more apparent. Presence region is more up-front giving vocalists a bit more immediacy with the HD 800 S. On the other hand, the crispiness of the HD 800 S can be quite annoying, especially with poor recordings. Gone is the bass heft and dynamism of the Elear; it sort of feels like switching from a near-field system with small monitors to a big floor standing speaker rig. I'd much rather listen to the Elears...much.

Focal Utopia - Have only had this headphone for a few days now, so not quite sure of myself here. I'll go into this comparison in more detail when I review the Utopia. Tonally, I find the Utopia a little more forward in the upper-midrange and presence region, giving these cans a slight advantage with vocal overtone balance. Treble region overall is slightly more emphatic giving this headphone a more neutral presentation throughout; treble is also more refined with a significantly lesser peak at 10kHz. It's possible the bass seems just a tad stronger in the Elear given the slightly more emphatic upper-midrange and treble. To my ears, this is a markedly more refined sounding headphone.

HiFiMAN HE1000 - The HE1000 is rather an unusual sounding headphone; it develops a lovely, ephemeral sense of space and a softness to the music. The Elear by comparison delivers a meatier presentation with a more solid sense of body and weight to the sound. The Elears imaging is much more forward and of significantly small size as perceived. The HE1000 is more laid back in the upper half of the midrange giving it a more distant and less full-bodied sound. This is not a clear call as these two headphones sound quite different. Personally, I prefer the punchier more meaty sound of the Elear, but I can easily see it going the other way depending on your tastes...and, of course, your wallet as the HE1000 is three times the price.

Mr. Speakers Ether - Having only just receive the new Ether Flow, I'll take a step back and compare the Elear to the Ether. The Ether is clearly bass-light relative to the Elear. Having just listened to the HE1000, it seems to me the Ether sort of splits the difference between the two. The Ether sound has a less dynamic and softer sound than the very punchy Elear. Switching between the two, the Elear can sound slightly honky in the upper midrange by comparison, while the Ether can sound a little veiled when listened to right after the Elear. Again, matters of taste will likely split this decision, but the better bass response of the Elear will likely have more folks going in that direction.

Audeze LCD-X - The LCD-X and Elear have more in common in their tonal character than I expected—FWIW, I've gotten side-swiped a few times by the LCD-X; I think it may be a better headphone than I think it is. The LCD-X seems a bit more veiled than the Elear with it's treble registers just a dB or two lower than the Elear, but the LCD-X has pretty clearly better resolution and control of the bass. LCD-X treble seems a tad hazy, while the Elear was resolving but has that little unneeded emphasis at 10kHz. It seems to me the Elear does a better job of transitioning from the midrange to treble, and therefore seems to have a more coherent overall presentation of the music as a whole. Despite the better bass impact and control, the Elear does sound like a more dynamic, punchy, and balanced headphone overall; I prefer it.

Sennheiser HD 600 - A lot of people are currently making comparisons between the Elear and HD 600. I tend to think that comparison is more about the fact that the HD 600 has been a staple mid-priced headphone among enthusiasts for years, and the Elear is likely to become similarly known. (Yes, I think the definition of "mid-priced" has shifted upwards over the years.) Switching from the Elear to HD 600 has me immediately missing the heft and dynamism of the Elear. The lack of bass extension, the infamous "Sennheiser Veil", and a general impression of decreased resolution have me pretty quickly saying the Elear is easily the better headphone.

The Focal Elear is a drop-dead gorgeous high-end headphone. Build quality is spectacular; comfort is very good (though the cable is a bit heavy); and the new purpose built aluminum/magnesium M-dome drive is a testament to the technical accumen of Focal.

Sound quality is superb; this is an extraordinarily dynamic and punchy headphone. Unlike most high-end headphones, the Focal Elear seem to have no Achilles heal. It's very easy to just get wrapped up in the music and be unaware of the headphones themselves. I'd like a dB or two more bass, but the terrific bass tightness seems to make up for it, and a slightly laid back character up top has this headphone pushing almost all of my buttons.

Oh my yes, these are hitting the "Wall of Fame" with a vengeance. Focal has done an absolutely beautiful job of producing a worthy high-end headphone. They've driven a spike in the diminishing returns curve that's going to have competitors scurrying to find ways to tighten their game up. This headphone is a game changer.

Editor's Note: Not sure how the WoF will shake out yet, I've got to review the Utopia and Flow to see how things relate.

Focal home page and Elear product page(scroll down).
Jude Mansilla's excellent video introducing the new Focal high-end headphones.
Head-Fi discussion threads here, here, and here.
Super Best Audio Friends discussion threads here and here.

Click here to view video on YouTube.

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