Gramophone Dreams #13: Audeze The King & Focal Elear Page 2

After listening to them with the Pass Laboratories HPA-1 and Ayre Acoustics Codex headphone amplifiers, John Atkinson declared, in his review, that the Audeze LCD-4s were the "best-sounding headphones I've heard." But while the LCD-4s are artfully handsome and fit nice'n'cozy on my head, I've struggled to enjoy them at any level that I could call the "best." I think this is because they're at 15dB less sensitive than the LCD-Xes, and have a high specified impedance of 200 ohms (footnote 1, the LCD-Xes are 22 ohms). To me, the LCD-4s exhibit that almost inscrutable darkness and hesitancy I associate with insensitive transducers. But they deliver a sound that's extremely clear, relatively rich and dynamic, finely detailed, and naturally balanced. By all audiophile measures, the LCD-4s must be rated Class A, superb, the state of the art.

Still, the LCD-4s sound a little remote and distant—but only when driven by Audeze's The King. When I drove them with the Pass Labs HPA-1 ($3500), they delivered levels of dynamics and descriptiveness that matched any headphones, except possibly the Focal Utopias and Stax SR-009s. The Pass HPA-1, designed by Jam Somasundram, is arguably the most not-there-at-all transparent audio device I have encountered in my tenure at Stereophile. It drove Audeze's LCD-4s with zero hesitancy and the greatest dynamic ease. Meanwhile, Linear Tube Audio's microZOTL2.0 ($1100), designed by David Berning, offers the most saturated tonal colors and the most delicious transparency I have heard. It drove the LCD-4s with a lively, satisfying grace that made me feel good inside.

An Enthusiastic Declaration: I enjoyed how The King drove all those tantalizing Audeze LCD models. But ranked above my desk are ten pairs of high-end headphones; The King let nine of them—including the organic-sounding AudioQuest NightHawks ($699), my hardworking and superbly articulate Sony MDR-7520s ($299), the rock-steady JH Audio Roxannes, and Focal's new Elears ($999; see below)—sound more lucid than ever. I can enthusiastically declare that Audeze's The King is one of the two or three best all-around headphone amps I have heard.

Meanwhile, the Pass Labs HPA-1 is equally godlike in nature—it does everything as well as The King does it, but very subtly elicits more high sentiment and tonal color from the recordings I love. Both are must-auditions for headphone connoisseurs who seek the best.

Then there's that shiny black cobra coiled up behind The King's throne: Linear Tube Audio's microZOTL2.0. It went neck-and-neck with The King in most musical areas except absolute clarity, hard punch, and microdynamics, where The King proved invincible. Nonetheless, I believe that the timeless beauty of the microZOTL2.0's sound quality may have crowned it Queen.

Focal Elear headphones
In the last "Gramophone Dreams," I hollered at length about how stunningly real and gigantically open Focal's new beryllium-domed Utopia Reference headphones sounded. The Utopias cost $3999, and on all counts they're superior to anything else I've heard. I felt sad when I had to return them . . . and then arrived the Utopias' far less costly siblings, the Elears ($999).


Most audiophile-grade, nonprofessional headphones are open-back types in which the outside is as open as the inside and the drivers operate as quasi-dipoles. Many audiophiles prefer open-back 'phones for their ability to let the music sound bigger and more spacious than through closed-back 'phones. But in the world of headspace listening, there's open and then there's . . . O P E N. My beloved and departed (:() AKG K812 ($1499), Sennheiser's exquisite HD 800 ($1399), Abyss's AB-1266 ($5495), Focal's Utopia ($3999) and Elear—all of these models sound extremely open. By comparison, even most other open-back headphones sound closed or semi-closed. This important distinction reflects very positively on the kind of value Focal offers in the Elear.

The Elears' radical openness is what moves sonic images from inside to outside of your head. When headphones are really O P E N, you can hear the sound radically change just by putting your hands near the Elears' earcups. The sounds of some open-back headphones don't change even when your hands completely cover their earcups. (I suspect this is because of various types of "acoustic filters" placed near the drivers.)

Clear, fast, descriptive—the Elears possess most of the Utopias' unmatched speed and transparency. But I thought that the Elears, unlike the Utopias, were a bit too even-tempered, maybe even a tad boring—they didn't waltz or soar like the AKG K-812s or Audeze LCD-Xes. I wondered why.

To meet their price point, the Elears are made of slightly less costly materials than the Utopias. The Utopias' 40mm-diameter, M-shaped (in cross-section) beryllium dome has been replaced with an identically shaped driver made of aluminum-magnesium alloy. The Elears replace the Utopias' carbon-fiber yoke with one of solid aluminum, and their lambskin headband with one of more ordinary leather.

These changes are not merely cosmetic. Headphones don't pressurize only my ear canals—they vibrate my head, neck, and spine as well. To me, all audio equipment sounds like the resonant nature of the materials it's made of. If this is true, then the sum of Focal's changes of materials from the Utopias should precipitate parallel changes in the sonic character of the Elears. Which they did. Especially in the 70–300Hz range. Both Focal models have delicate, beautifully rendered trebles; both resolve massed strings and choirs better than any loudspeaker I know; both make tight, state-of-the-art bass; and both sort out complex music better than any of their competition, whether speakers or 'phones. But the Elears sounded just a smidge thicker in the lower midrange and upper bass. To me, the aluminumness (aluminumitude?) of the Elear dome adds an extra, enjoyable measure of tonal color that's absent from the more pure and empty-sounding Utopias.


"Welcome to the rehearsal . . . " I've been obsessed lately with John Lennon's Live in New York City, produced by Yoko Ono, with Phil Spector (!) as "recording supervisor" (CD, Capitol CDP 7 46196 2). On anything but the most resolving systems, this 1972 concert at Madison Square Garden with the Plastic Ono Elephant's Memory Band is a sonic mess. Before the Elears, this album sounded congested and annoyingly diffuse—but the Focals removed the mess, and repositioned me: Instead of sitting in the back of the Garden, I was now up on stage, near Lennon, listening to him play many of the songs he wrote "after leaving the Rolling Stones." The Elears made a hard, grainy, difficult-to-listen-to recording into a smooth, addictive, play-it-over-and-over pleasure.


Moving from MSG compressor/microphone issues to gentle chants and the purist clarity of a single stereo mike, I played Island Music of the South Pacific, recorded live to two-track analog by David Fanshawe (1981 LP, Nonesuch Explorer H-72088). "Octopus Fishing" was recorded at dawn, in an outrigger canoe on a reef off Tonga Island. With a stick, the singer beats his boat, a carved-out log, as he sings and shakes in the water his bait of camouflaged stone. With the Elear, I could feel the canoe vibrating up and down my spine. The splash and slosh of water sounded 100% real, just an arm's reach away.

John Lennon and the canoe-drumming Tonga fisherman sounded more like real people through the $999 Elears than they do through my many-times-more-expensive floorstanding speakers. I love headphones!

In the Old Days . . .
. . . before Audeze and HifiMan (ca 2009), almost nothing was happening in headphones. There were Grado, Koss, Sennheiser, and Stax, but those companies updated their product lines maybe once in a blue moon. Nowadays, headphones are evolving even faster than DACs and streamers.

Which means that, in headspeaker time, a year ago is long ago indeed. The current evolution of headphone technology is the most exciting, intriguing, fast-moving, monstrously alive thing I've witnessed in my 100 years in audio. The advances offer more vivid reproductions of the sounds of recordings than I ever dreamed were possible. If you haven't been paying attention, the time to try on some supercans and get going is right now. I believe that all of the products I've discussed in this edition of "Gramophone Dreams" will eventually earn the status of classics—golden-age models that we'll still venerate 50 years from now. Audeze's The King, Linear Tube Audio's microZOTL, and Pass Labs' HPA-1 will surely pass that test of time. So will the Audeze LCD models, and Focal's Utopias and Elears. If you want to hear what's really on your records, I promise: These products will show you.

Footnote 1: JA measured 156 ohms across the audioband.

dalethorn's picture

I ordered the Elear from Todd the Vinyl Junkie. Nice friendly guy BTW. I wanted the Utopia, but at this point I decided I'd try the Elear first, on the premise that I'd be sharing my experience with at least a few people, whereas with the Utopia I figured I'd be all alone. If the Elear isn't convincing enough, I'll send it back for the Utopia, and that's what I'd like to read more of on the subject - i.e. people who bought the Elear and then decided they needed the better (or more neutral?) Utopia, and how that worked out for them.

Staxguy's picture

Um no. Not really.

What's wrong with the AKG 812 and Stax 009?

What's wrong with the Sennheiser 800?

lo fi's picture

I lurv cans and agree that they're going off like a cracker on Guy Fawkes night. Cans is where it's at in hi fi at the minute, and they are drawing a much needed younger demographic to it. That said, the rapidly escalating prices for each new flagship headphone release runs the risk of blocking their entry.

cgh's picture

I agree lo-fi. I own one of the first pairs of LCD-2 (driven by Auralic). I love them. Audeze pulled a VPI. Instead of thinking about their line they flooded the market with too many little ideas that didn't differentiate themselves, but they tried to differentiate greatly with price. Listening to my LCD-2s compared to LCD-4s and pondering that the differences cost $3000 doesn't make sense. The price should have a footnote that says "if we had only known in the beginning that we could have charged soooo much more". So much for economies of scale.

xtinct1's picture

I totally disagree. Headphones are unnatural compared to speakers. Simply put the image is always in your head unless you do binaural recordings. Headphones will never impact like speakers. The bass is always focused in your ears and thus there is no visceral impact on the body. Listening to speakers with your eyes closed and you can literally be fooled into thinking your transported into the environment of the performance. Although I respect headphones for their clarity as the music is focused directly to your ears; but even that is somewhat unnatural as there needs to be some sense of sound dissipation and reverberation as one would get in a live event. I am sorry for the rant but I am annoyed by so many comments stating headphones are a better way to listen to music. They simply aren't. And if you don't have the discipline to listen to music without being distracted, then you shouldn't spend your time and money on this hobby.

jasonmith's picture

These are very good when we stay on bed using organic bedding and listening song from this. It's so cool.