September 18, 2018 13 min read 14 Comments
Review written by Ian Dunmore (Torq)
Focal, based in France, are probably best known as a high-end speaker manufacturer. While familiar with many of their speaker designs, I actually had no idea they made headphones at all until their entry into the audiophile/high-end headphone market. And that occurred with quite a splash and accompanying fanfare, with the parallel launch of the highly-regarded flagship “Utopia” ($4,000) and the rather more approachable “Elear” ($1,299 originally, now $999).
The subject of this review, however, is the “Focal Clear” ($1,499) - an open-backed/open-acoustic, circumaural, dynamic-driver headphone, and the third model to enter Focal’s range. It offers a different presentation, both audible and aesthetic, to the existing models as well as significant accessory package, and sits firmly in the middle of the current line-up.
This pair of Focal Clear were originally received on kind loan, courtesy of “The HEADPHONE Community” and their “Community Preview Program”. I subsequently decided to purchase a set for myself via headphone.com.
On the technical side of things, the Clear features new, perforated, micro-fiber covered memory foam pads and a revised, lower impedance (55 ohms vs. 80 ohms) driver using a formless copper voice coil in place of the Elear’s copper-clad aluminum coil, driving the same 40mm aluminum/magnesium M-shaped dome.
In addition to the three “mainline” or “native” offerings from Focal there exists a “fourth model”; built in collaboration with Massdrop, it is a variation of Elear, with different pads, cables and a simplified all-black color scheme. Various reviews have suggested it sounds very similar to, if not the same as, the Clear, so I decided to add a pair to my collection and see if this was the case.
As a result, I currently own all four models of the Focal audiophile-series headphones; from front to back they are the Utopia, Clear (our focus here, and in the picture), the Elear and the Elex:
Note that while comparisons will be drawn between the Clear and the rest of the Focal line, the focus here (as in the picture above) will be firmly on the Clear themselves. More extensive “down to the minutiae” model-to-model comparisons, including to the Elex, will come in a subsequent, dedicated, all-Focal shoot-out article (complete with comprehensive pad-swapping experiments and comparative measurements).
Sources and amps used in this review includes the Chord DAVE, Chord Hugo 2, Schiit Yggdrasil, RME ADI-2 DAC, Sony NW-WM1Z, Questyle QP2R, Woo Audio WA234 Mk2 MONO, SPL Phonitor x and iFi Pro iCAN. Headphones used, for comparison, include the Sennheiser HD800S, Sennheiser HD650, Focal Utopia, Focal Elear, Massdrop x Focal Elex.
The majority of the music I use in my evaluations is in “Red Book” CD format (16 bit, 44.1 kHz), most of which comes from CD rips; an initial playlist for my audition listening can be found here. Where appropriate/referenced, I utilize a number of high-quality, high-resolution, albums, needle-drops, and also some native DSD content.
Focal’s execution of the Clear yields the same solid, purposeful and distinctly premium impression as its stablemates - and results in one of the few headphones that I feel really looks and feels the part - given their asking price. They feel sturdy without being excessively heavy. There’s no rattling nor any ringing of metal when you pick them up or tap them - unlike a couple of other high-end brands I could mention. The leather headband, bead-blasted aluminum yokes, metal screens/accents and even the perforated micro-fiber covered memory foam pads are all beautifully finished.
The all-grey/silver colorway is quite striking; they definitely stand out next to the rest of the line-up … and next to most other headphones too. Even though my aesthetic preferences still lean toward the look of the Utopia and the Elear, I think the Clear is a gorgeous, and finely-figured, headphone. My only real reservation is a slight concern that the grey fabric of the headband liner and the ear pads will get visibly dirty with prolonged usage. Only time will tell there.
The Focal Clear package is well thought out and unusually comprehensive. The outer box is no longer the presentation-case style/magnetic closure of the Utopia or Elear and is replaced by a much smaller slip-case style box. Inside this you’ll find a study, and stylish, double-zippered case - that has a large central cut-out for storing cables and a 3.5mm (1/8”) to 6.35mm (1/4”) screw-on TRS adapter.
The included cables, of which there are three (vs. one with other Focal models), terminate in recessed, locking, 3.5mm connectors on the headphone end (also compatible with the Elear and the Elex) and cover the most popular source/amp connections. There’s a 1.2m (4 foot) long 3.5mm (1/8”) TRS single-ended cable, intended for portable use (and threaded for use with the adapter mentioned above). Then there are two 3m (10 foot) cables, one terminating in a single-ended 6.35mm (1/4”) TRS jack and the other in a 4-pin XLR plug.
These are covered in a soft, pliant, non-microphonic grey/black herringbone cotton sheath and are substantially more comfortable to live with than the heavier, shielded, rubber-sheathed, cables that come with the Utopia.
These are among the more comfortable headphones I own. They don’t feel quite as nice as the Utopia, especially when it comes to the pads - the Utopia’s natural lambskin pads are just perfect for me. The clamp here seems to be a little firmer than the flagship, though certainly isn’t as firm as, say, an un-stretched HD650. Pad-comfort on the Clear is on par with the Sennheiser HD800S and the Elear/Elex
I’m not particularly sensitive to weight with headphones, so the 450g (just shy of a pound) of the Clear, which sits right between the svelte HD800S (330g) and the heavy-weight Audeze LCD-4 (548g), isn’t something I notice. Getting, and keeping, a proper fit is quick and reliable; the yokes extend from within the hot-spot free headband, swivel naturally in their mounts and stay in place thanks to firm internal detents. These are an easy all-day wear.
Two things stand out immediately with the Clear … the first being it’s namesake-trait - a distinct sense of pristine clarity and the second their raw dynamic prowess. Big swings in musical energy hit hard while still allowing you to hear the individual elements and minute details without effort. An immediately engaging listen, they continued to impress track after track, album after album.
The Focal Clear deliver a fully believable instrumental rendering, even with particularly tricky instruments - cymbals exhibit the perfect amount of bite, ring, body and decay, brass will deliver suitable rasp and glare when pushed but is never unintentionally harsh. Strings are incisive while carrying palpable body and the proper tonal weight of their host instrument. Successive glissandos on piano, or trombone, or the opening phrases on clarinet in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” show no undue emphasis or discordancy … just smooth pitch progression.
I find the overall tonality of the Focal Clear to be the closest to my notional ideal out of the entire line-up. They have a little less treble energy and a modest elevation of bass relative to their bigger brother, which are a little hotter than what I’d consider strictly neutral. And then they have much more appropriate bass levels, if still very slightly on the warm side, and no lack of upper-midrange presence compared to the Elear.
One of my “torture” test instruments here is the Piano, especially in solos. Partly because it has such broad range and versatility, and partly because I’m so intimately familiar with it from my own instrument and recordings - issues with this instrument stand out to me like a red dress at a black-and-white ball. Not only does the Clear portray the range from the extremes of pianissimo (ppp … etc.) to forte (fff … etc.) with precision, subtly and when needed raw impact, but the notes remain pure … with visceral attack and perfect decay … and when damped start and stop instantly. Even very aggressive and discordant play, pushing uncomplimentary overtones, are portrayed with sufficient realism that it’s very clear when there are issues here in upstream components, such as the DAC or amp.
The lowest registers are delivered with a modest elevation over neutral, adding just the right amount of warmth to the overall signature and offsetting the tendency for the extreme clarity on offer to come across as bright (it doesn’t and isn’t). Bass texture, articulation and delineation are excellent even when plumbing deep down into the sub-bass. And the Clear are fully capable of maintaining tuneful, bass lines, for example Dead Prez’ “Hip Hop” (Let’s Get Free) or “The Jerk” (Drums of Death, “Red Wave) at the same time as they’re slamming you with even lower tones. And if you can find a lossless copy, another revealing track for this sort of test is Ken Ishii’s “Prodrome” (Garden on the Palm).
If it’s bass-rumble and growl you want, the Clear can go there too. While perhaps not on quite the same level as the very best planar cans here (I’m not sure what dynamic cans really are …) … such as the LCD-4 or Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC- letting “Cherry Twist” or “High Roller” (“Vegas”, The Crystal Method) loose, or cranking up “Chameleon” (Trentemøller) will leave you in no doubt that the mid-range Focal’s can deliver the goods.
It is incredible just how capable the 40mm Focal driver really is here, particularly with regard to slam - something that, while slightly bettered by the HD800(S) (even if the sub-bass level on those needs be brought up via EQ a tad to show it off properly) and some of the better planar headphones, is thoroughly satisfying here.
With the Elear, and to a lesser extent the Elex, extremely energetic bass lines can exhibit some occasional intrusion into the lower-midrange, with its attendant affect of adding a slightly thick (though not quite “muddy” hint to the sound, the Clear avoids this behavior and retains a smooth and clear transition in to the midrange.
Pure, clean, even, balanced natural, lucid … even sonorous … with appropriate body and excellent speed and detail. The mids are in perfect balance with the overall response of the Clear. Very few headphones handle the midrange with such aplomb. Presence is spot on. No matter how energetic a bassline becomes the midrange remains pure and unaffected; always nimble, clean and fast.
Notably, the Clear does not exhibit the Elear’s distinct lack of presence in the upper mid-range (albeit fixable with EQ or using SonarWorks Reference/True-Fi) - and that gives the Clear a significantly more realistic portrayal of cymbal work, raw brass, and more excitable female vocals. Listening to these units back-to-back, this can result in the Clear sounding somewhat shouty if you were last using the Elear; and the Elear sound dull and a little muddy if you’re coming off the Clear. However, I hear nothing approaching shoutiness when just listening to the Clear, nor when coming to them from, say, the HD800S or Utopia.
Emotion in vocals, or from the ebb, flow and peak of a dramatic orchestral piece, is unmistakable and conveyed in a gripping fashion. A favorite audition piece (and my all-time favorite opera), Jessye Norman’s portrayal of Bizet’s “Carmen”, indeed the entire production (Seiji Ozawa, National Orchestra of France/Choir School of Radio France - Phillips) is a completely riveting rendering - and a veritable rollercoaster of emotional heart-rending via the Focal Clear.
The Clear deliver an extremely smooth, fully extended and airy treble. No additional zing here, and not a hint of brightness … just pristine clarity. Torture-track vocals exhibit absolutely no sibilance - unless it’s present on the recording, of course - and don’t emphasize it at all when it is. Heart’s “Heart”, in particular can really strain things here … but the Clear presents it cleanly - no matter how “enthusiastic” I get with the volume dial.
Cymbal strikes, and the resultant ring and decay have the right amount of bite without becoming steely or zingy. Triangles sparkle … the top end of harps sing. Percussion has excellent bite and impact, with the leading edges of drum-strikes being startling and with the right chain the Clear are fully capable of letting you hear the tonal and timbral differences here with regards to subtle changes in the sound that come from where the tip of the stick connects with the drum skin.
While the Utopia resolves very slightly more detail at this level … most recordings won’t show it, and the more even treble region on the Clear might just put them ahead in this regard.
As mentioned a couple of times now, the most overwhelmingly notable characteristic of the Clear is their apparent clarity. While coming in behind the Utopia in this regard, the difference is surprisingly small. Though, regardless of how similar they are supposed to be, the Clear hold a similar edge in resolution over the Elear and Elex … bringing out subtle details that you’d have to listen for on the more basic duo and raising them to a level where they’re just there.
Micro-dynamic resolution is superlative and, if the rest of your chain is up to it, will deliver vocals with such well-delineated texture that their emotional impact seems magnified and their presence more real and immediate. And even the very subtlest instrumental tremolo is readily discernible, rather than being subdued to the point of borderline inaudibility.
Overall dynamics are a strong point of the entire Focal line-up, and the Clear are no exception. The best word I can come up with here is “explosive” … take a trip through “Vegas” (The Crystal Method) or “Army of Mushrooms” (Infected Mushroom) and the combination of rapid-start-stop segments, interspersed with massive dynamic swings, seemingly huge vertical peaks of sound, are delivered with the impact of a freight train and yet the whole presentation remains fast and nimble. And this ability is demonstrated even when paired with some digital audio players (Sony NW-WM1Z, Questyle QP2R), never mind with higher-end desktop sources/amplification.
When fed directly from my Chord DAVE the absolute resolution of these headphones is also very apparent. In the dynamic world, that’s only really truly rivaled by Focal’s own Utopia and the Sennheiser HD8XX line. Playing Saint-Saëns’ “Introduction et Rondo Capriciosso” (Op.28 for Violin and Orchestra in B minor, EMI, 1987) through the Clear this way brings details sometimes lost in other chains to easy audibility - background movements within the orchestra/seating, the breathing of the soloist, the inconsistent drag and draw of rosin over string are crystal clear with, well, the Clear. The same track, level matched, through either the Elear or Elex demonstrates the increased resolve of the Clear quite effectively.
A consistent trait with Focal’s headphones is a somewhat flat, compressed stage with more limited ability to project an image than can be found in the likes of the HD800 or the Abyss. This remains the case with the Clear. And while they have a somewhat more expansive sound, overall, than their siblings, it is still the weakest point of both this model and the line. I’m still a bit puzzled by this, particularly in light of the ultra-fast, highly-resolving, angled drivers and superlative dynamics - traits shared with the two best-imaging headphones I own - but it is what it is and for me is the least important technical ability in a headphone.
Running the Clear with the Matrix feature (see page 11) enabled, as discussed in my review of the SPL Phonitor x, helps here somewhat, yielding an audibly wider image and improving the sense of depth … but even on optimal settings still doesn’t really approach the HD800’s abilities in this area. The effect is a lot more pronounced with binaural recordings than with regular stereo mixes.
For example, the binaural version of Amber Rubarth’s “Sessions from the 17th Ward” (Chesky Records), in addition to being musically delightful, and very well recorded/mastered, provides an extremely vivid means to explore the staging and imaging abilities of headphones. As such, it is an excellent album to use if you want to focus on how very similar headphones differ in their handling of stage and imaging. Here it makes the modestly more expansive delivery of the Clear (vs. it’s familial alternativeS) quite apparent.
So, using “Sessions from the 17th Ward” with the Focal Clear and the Sennheiser HD650, back to back, the Focal’s project an image that is significantly wider than one’s ears … well beyond the head in fact, where as with the HD650 the image is projected further forward but is MUCH narrower … maybe just out beyond the eyes, but inward of the ears.
The first thing to say here is that, Focal’s “Clear” are very aptly named. Few headphones reach this level of resolution or clarity. And the next thing to say is that, very shortly into my review term with the loaner-Clears, I decided to buy a set for myself. With excellent tonality, superlative dynamics, wonderful musicality, great balance, and near state-of-the-art resolution, they’re a very compelling , engaging and emotive listen.
I love these things ...
For most people, I think the Clear will prove to be the “Goldilocks” (they’re “just right”) product in Focal’s lineup. The Clear combines the most neutral overall tonality in the entire line-up, combined with technical performance on par with/ahead of its principal competitors and surprisingly close to the Utopia, with an excellent accessory package and offering excellent value.
They’re easy enough to drive to be paired well with a large array of DAPs yet scale well enough to show definite benefits with highly-resolving DAC and amp combinations. Even the better USB/dongle-DACs can do a solid job here. And both the Questyle QP2R and Sony NW-WM1Z do a first-rate job driving them, also.
The Elear are the first that come to mind, and the Clear are better across the board, both technically and tonally. Even putting the Clear pads on the Elear, while correcting the tonal issues, doesn’t bring the Elear up to quite the same technical level as the Clear. So much so that I’d skip the Elear and just save for the Clear. Similarly, the Elex while tonally better than the Elear also don’t quite match the Clear’s raw technical performance - particularly with regards to raw detail and micro-dynamic resolution.
For a little less, or a little more money, the HD800 and HD800S, respectively, trade blows with the Clear. Though the Sennheisers both require more power and attention in how you drive them, and the HD800 need, for me, both hardware modifications and EQ to reach their peak.
The Focal Clear impressed me enough during my loan/audition period that I elected to buy a pair for myself (completing my collection of Focal audiophile cans in the process). This might be the easiest headphone to recommend that I’ve come across. Most of a Utopia (my favorite overall headphone) for about a third-the cost. And probably the best performance/value ratio I can name right now.
Absolutely something to audition if you’re looking for an open-back dynamic headphone, and HIGHLY recommended.
-Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
As it comes to publish this review, Focal have just put their lineup on a sale/trade-in deal. At their normal asking price of $1,499 I thought the Clear were excellent value - to the point where I bought a pair. At the current $1,300 on sale (or $1,100 with a trade-in) you can currently get these for, they’re as much of a bargain as any $1,000+ headphone can be!
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