Focal Clear Over Ear Open Headphones Page 2


Sound Quality
The Clear is, in a word, clear. It's got a lovely, warm bass; coherent and even mids; and responsive treble that's neither too bright or too muted. It's clearly right down the middle and, more importantly, very well balanced throughout. Some have said it splits the difference between the slightly too bright Utopia and slightly too muted Elear, but I see it a bit differently.

My impression—and this is just a little fantasy in my head—is that Focal knew they were trying to build the world's best headphone, and decided the way to go about it was to build a no-holds-barred version (the Utopia) and then build a headphone as close to it as they could that retailed under $1000 (the Elear). By doing so they would learn a bunch of stuff and then be able to enter the market with the $1500 headphone they really wanted to build.

The $3999 Utopia is a beautiful headphone and has some really nice characteristics (terrific resolve), but has some flaws as well (cables too fat; no carry case; and a razor sharp bite at 6kHz). The $999 Elear is likewise a very good headphone at its price (terrific punch; warm character), but it has its failings as well (big missing region between 4kHz and 8kHz).

I like to think Focal released these two cans into the wild in order to start getting a return on their R&D investment—nothing wrong with that, they are solid offerings relative to the market—but also to get feedback in order to fine tune their understanding of what the market really wants in a high-end headphone...and then produce a killer product at $1500.

Well, to my ears and eyes, they nailed it. The Focal Clear is a spectacular high-end, end game headphone in every way. For the first time in...well, 25 years or more...I find myself tempted to reach into my wallet and pay real money to be able to call a headphone my own...if I wasn't spending everything I have on my step van camper build.


Is it perfect? No, nothing is, but it's damned near. I think the bass could be a bit more texturally resolving, and the mild bass accentuation does go just a little into the mids. Midrange is lovely, but the Utopia edges it out with a more effortless liquidity. The treble has just the slightest edge to it. I keep wanting to think the Clear is a bit bright, but it's not, there's just a hint of edge to it. The Clear is also like its siblings in that it can be almost unsettlingly dynamic, which, to me, makes the image rather shallow due to being so potently snappy.

But that's all just nit-picking. Tonal balance is the best I've heard. Bass extension is a bit better than the other two Focals, and bass response overall (the combined balance of level emphasis, dynamic punch, and textural resolve) may be the best of any open, dynamic headphone I've heard. Midrange tonal balance is great. Vocals are 'you are there' spot on in the balance of fundamentals and overtones. Treble tonal balance is spot on and wonderfully resolving. Cymbals, strings, and trumpets sound fantastically true to nature.

One of my very short evaluation tracks is Tiger Okoshi's "Bootsman's Little House" from the Color of Soil album. His trumpet is dynamic and intense, and if the treble is not right it can drill holes in your eardrum or fall flat. Rendered on the Clears it was spectacular! Simultaneously meaty and bright, intensely snappy and organic. I was able to listen to this track snippet—the first few bars as he blasts his way into the track—much louder without wincing than any other headphone I've heard. Quite the accomplishment.

I'll reiterate, the overall character of the Clear is clarity. I've said before that once you get close to neutral deviations become character. The MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Open, for example, has a sort of muffled deviation from neutral that becomes a warm and inviting character quite quickly as ones mind adapts. I like people with character, and I'm fine with some headphones that have character.

And therein may be the one potentially problematic point for the Clear: It has little character, other than just being clear. Sometimes headphones that are close to neutral and without too much character sound boring, which can be a good thing in some ways. I don't think the Clear falls into this category; it's neutral without being boring. Still, some folks may not like this in the long run.

Me? I think it's great. The Focal Clear is pretty much exactly what I'm looking for in a reference headphone. Absolutely straight down the middle transparency. No attention grabbing characteristics, either good or bad, just well reproduced music in my noggin. Lovely.

The Focal Clear is what an enthusiast headphone should be: It's gorgeous; it's comfortable; its accessories are spectacular; and its sound is clear as a Montana winter sky. It's not bright, or dark, or liquid, or even—some odd way—neutral. It's just competently and confidently true to the music.

It doesn't have the tightest bass I've ever heard, nor the most liquid midrange, nor the smoothest treble resolve, but it is the best all around headphone I've ever heard. Weak points are a bit lacking in bass resolve and midrange liquidity; a very slight glare in the treble; and not much image depth. (Also, not a good match for high output impedance tube amps.) Strong points are fantastic overall balance; great dynamics; and terrific vocal and treble realism.

For the first time I can unreservedly recommend a $1000+ headphone. If you've cautiously made the headphone enthusiast approved treck from a Koss Porta Pro to the Sennheiser HD 600/650, and have found your carefully protected wallet stuck there without a sure fire step up, now you have it. Even if it's a financial stretch, the Focal Clear is worth the struggle for an end-game headphone. That's not a recommendation I make lightly.

Oh yeah, the Focal is hitting the Wall of Fame, and hitting it hard. I'm going to have to do some soul searching over the next week or so to figure out how many headphones it's going to knock off the wall, but there will be casualties.

Watch on YouTube

Focal home page and Clear product page. threads here, here, and here.
Head-Fi thread and reviews.

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