October 26, 2018 15 min read 16 Comments
Review written by Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
The Elegia is a closed-back dynamic headphone and Focal’s latest offering in their “high-end” and “at home” headphone line, as well as the first closed-back model in that series. It joins the open-backed Utopia, Clear and Elear in the line-up, and comes in at $100 less than the normal retail price of the Elear - making the Elegia the least expensive headphone in the series.
I first heard the Elegia in the CanJam section of RMAF 2018 - and my first impressions there were that they sounded like a “closed-back Clear or Elex”. I didn’t get to spend much time listening, and show-conditions are a long way from ideal for evaluating sound anyway - even with closed-back headphones, but that initial impression was positive enough to make me quite anxious to get my hands on a pair for proper auditioning.
Just one week later, I had a retail set of Elegia in my hands via Headphones.com - and it is my own (purchased) pair of headphones that I’m using for this review.
The Elegia are equipped with a new iteration of Focal’s 40mm aluminum/magnesium M-dome driver, which takes advantage of the headphone’s bass-reflex configuration to reduce the range of driver articulation required for a given sound pressure level, allowing for a 20% shorter coil (4mm vs. 5mm). As a result, impedance has further dropped from the 55 ohms of the Clear (and 80 ohms of the Elear/Elex), while sensitivity has increased very slightly to 105 db/SPL, which makes them the easiest-to-drive cans in the family (even modestly powered players will drive them well).
These are coupled with a special, volume-optimized, enclosure that employs a progressive vent to help dissipate low-frequency back-wave from bass notes, in combination with a series of acoustic diffusers that break up standing waves and further dissipate any residual back-wave pressure. Finally, a specially shaped EVA foam absorber sits behind the driver to control higher-frequency reflections.
Headphones used, for comparison, include the Focal Utopia, Clear and Elear, Massdrop x Focal Elex, Fostex TH900 Mk2 and Massdrop x TR-X00 (Ebony), Sennheiser HD820, Sony MDR-Z1R and ZMF Eikon (Padauk).
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.
This is “typical Focal”, sharing a number of design elements/components with the rest of the line-up, from the configuration of the yokes, and the solid detents for positioning the cups, the leather/microfiber headband and a colorway that is a mix of Elear and Clear - i.e. black and grey. Ignoring their closed backs, they’re closest to the Elear in overall appearance.
Focal remain one of a select few high-end headphone builders that deliver products that actually look and feel like they’re worth the asking price. They’re built more like high-end tools with a luxury finish than your typical headphones.
The Focal Elegia package consists of the headphone, the excellent Focal double-zippered case - with a generous cutout for cables (one included) and a spot for the included 3.5mm (1/8”) to 6.35mm (1/4”) screw-on TRS adapter.
The included cable is a 1.2m (4 foot) long 3.5mm (1/8”) TRS-terminated single-ended cable - which appears to be identical to the short cable that accompanies the Clear. The length is appropriate for portable use, though the cable is rather stiff for use on the go. For desktop listening it is probably long-enough (it works in my setup), but it’s easy to see that a lot of users will need something longer and want something a bit more flexible.
I don’t remember the cable with the Clear being quite this microphonic, but revisiting it is turns out that it is. I tend to use my own modular cable system during reviews as it facilitates much faster and more convenient swapping between headphones and sources, so had not really noticed this before.
Like the rest of the Focal line-up, these are among the more comfortable headphones I own. Broadly speaking, they feel a bit firmer than the Elear or the Utopia in terms of clamping pressure, and are a little bit warmer (temperature) when worn for longer periods; overall pad comfort is closest to the Elear.
If you’re sensitive to headphone weight (I’m not), you may be interested to note that at 430g the Elegia are actually the lightest headphones in Focal’s high-end line-up. 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. As I’ve found with the rest of the line-up, these are an easy all-day wear.
How do the Elegia sound?
In a word … excellent!
These are about as close to being a closed-back reference headphone as I have heard so far. And while not absolutely perfect, might just be as close to that goal as any closed-back model in my collection.
The Elegia sound fundamentally like a combination of the Clear and the Elex. If Focal’s intent with the Elegia was simply to stay true to the sound of the Clear or Elex, but in a closed-back package, then I think it is safe to say that they’ve succeeded.
In contrast, if Sennheiser’s goal with the HD820 was to deliver an HD800S in a closed-back package, then they were rather less successful. While the HD820 is still the closest thing you can get to an HD800S in closed-back form, it deviates from the open-back model’s signature and performance to a greater degree than the Elegia does from the Clear or Elex.
All sealed cans will reduce the “sense” of openness you get - even when not playing music, as they shut out the small environmental and ambient cues that are a big part of that “open feel”, and the Elegia are no exception here. However, beyond that there is no additional closed-in-ness to their performance. Where some closed-back headphones result in what I can best describe as an almost claustrophobic feeling (for example something I get with the Fostex TR-X00) the Elegia retain a greater sense of physical spaciousness and openness.
In listening, the Elegia present in a largely neutral fashion, with just a little more mid-range presence than to be considered absolutely neutral.
Timbral differences between instruments one rung apart in the same family, such as violin and viola are readily discernible (i.e. you do not have to rely on their different placement in the spectrum/tonal differences) … the first movement of Mozart’s “Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major (K423)” providing one clear example of this. The thicker sound, and slower note-swell, of the viola being easily apparent vs. the quicker, tighter, shriekier notes of the violin.
Brass has excellent bite and edge without any hint of steeliness nor any unnatural sheen. Horns will initially glare at you, just as they ought to, and then decay away naturally – softening appropriately as they do.
Here’s a look at the frequency response profile of the Elegia:
NOTE: Any measurements herein are ONLY useful in comparison to others made on the same setup (see “Notes on Measurements”) – and in that sense should be considered relative rather than absolute. Differences between different measurement rigs make comparisons to other published measurements questionable at best.
Of note is the fact that unlike almost every closed-back headphone I’ve heard, Focal didn’t start by jacking up the bass. In fact in comparison to the open backed models it measures at a reduced level. I find that particularly interesting as the Elegia does not come across as lacking anything on the low end - and bass-presence in music is very similar to that of the open-backed models. It carries a bit more impact, and rumble is more obvious in extremely low notes, but the actual levels when listening seem extremely similar.
And that bass is clean, taught, articulate, punchy, nicely textured and generally well controlled. When dealing with music with extreme bass-levels (e.g. Trentemøller’s “Chameleon”) it’s possible to excite some minor upper-bass bloom – but this was not apparent otherwise.
Sub-bass slam and impact are solid but un-emphasized. They have more in common with the Elex or Clear than with typical closed-back designs - with a hint more impact and mass. Low-end extension is, similarly, closer to that of the better open-back headphones than bass-heads will generally want – but it will easily satisfy those with a more neutral preference.
This might be a first for me … a closed-back headphone that doesn’t have some level of bass elevation or artificially increased warmth. If elevated bass, especially emphasized sub-bass, is what you’re after in a closed-back headphone, you’ll want to look elsewhere. And again, somewhat curiously, despite the apparent reduction in bass level versus, say, the Focal Clear, visible in the frequency plots they do not come across as lacking bass at all.
There is no bass-bleed into the midrange.
The Elegia has a very subtle mid-forward presentation – deviating just enough from neutral to be apparent, without really upsetting overall balance; this helps keep the mids clean relative to the upper bass.
Midrange detail is excellent, and extremely smooth (as opposed to grainy, rather than in absolute frequency response). Linearity is impressive, if not quite on the same level as the very best open-backed models - but close enough that a back-to-back comparison would be necessary to make the distinction - and still quite a ways beyond what other, comparable, models can manage here.
Vocals project well and the combination of tonal purity and excellent dynamic capabilities, deliver an extremely emotive rendition of whatever you play through them.
No hints of plasticity, nor any sense of the artificial, exist here.
Like the mids, the upper registers are portrayed in a smooth yet highly detailed manner and exhibit an unusually airy and spacious rendering for a closed-back design. Sparkle, when called for, is present without intimating brightness. Extension is excellent. There is no steeliness nor added harshness, grain or grit here.
Running some of my “torture tracks” for sibilance with female vocals, for example most of Julia Fordham’s self-titular debut album, or Heart’s “Heart” (maybe there’s a naming-trend here), shows the Elegia are reproducing only what they are fed. They won’t make excuses for a poor source or recording, nor will the round-off anything that’s already harsh or bright or wince-inducing, but they will not exacerbate it either.
Like the rest of the Focal line-up, the Elegia excel when it comes to dynamics. Macro-dynamics are sit-up-and-take-notice in their raw impact, and make for an involving and exciting musical experience. These are not cans you’ll find any lack of dynamic impact with. Large shifts in level are immediate and dramatic when called for - Mahler, Beethoven, Berlioz (at his peak) all call on these dynamic capabilities … and yet the Elegia are fully capable of rendering subtle inflections in vocal level, finger or bow pressure on strings, and tiny shifts in how emphatically a cymbal is being caressed with wire.
The isolation afforded by the Elegia does, like most closed-back cans, present a more void-like backdrop against which transients burst forth from - coming from nowhere and receding just as quickly, while preserving natural instrumental decay. Very-fast electronic pieces, with lots of staccato content, really showcase the transient capabilities of the Elegia, and Focal’s overall line-up.
Surprisingly, the closed-back nature of the Elegia does not result in a reduced or compressed stage relative to other Focal headphones (except the Clear which offer a slightly more expansive delivery). At the same time, they aren’t any more expansive, wider or deeper than the rest of the line-up either.
It’s not a three-blob affair here, nor do they sound closed-in, but the stage is not especially wide nor is it thrown particularly deep. Given suitable material, imaging is sufficient to generally place instruments and voices in 2D space – e.g. you can tell the placement difference between first and second violins but perhaps not which row or where in a row (usually the preserve or a well-sorted speaker setup anyway).
Exceptions here being a notably more impressive performance with binaural material, and a surprisingly large response to the “Matrix” function on the SPL Phonitor X - which while not helping much with placement, does expand the overall image.
Absent a desire for elevated/excessive bass, or fun(ky) signatures, isolation is the primary driver for me when considering a closed-back headphone. And in that regard, I am more concerned with how well a closed headphone keeps sound in, than how it does in keeping it out - largely since at any reasonable listening level the combination of mechanical isolation and the music itself will easily drown out all but the noisiest of environments. If you are looking to block ambient noise without music playing, then you should be looking at active noise-cancelling headphones (or ear-plugs).
One simple example here is to say that listening at my normal listening level of about 80-85 dB, my fiancé doesn’t hear anything coming from the Elegia when she’s laying next to me. A more useful approach is to measure what’s audible when the headphones are playing:
The graph, above, shows how the Elegia fair in this regard. The environmental background noise level was at 42 dB for this process and tests were made 1 meter from the ear-cup. The vertical axis indicates how loud the headphones had to be playing for a given frequency to be audible to an outside listener. Thus it shows that lower frequencies are less audible - requiring a level of 102 dB for a 100 Hz signal to be externally audible, and dropping to 77 db for a 10 kHz signal to be perceptible on the outside.
Which means in a typical office environment (60-70 dB ambient noise level), unless your co-workers habitually sit in your lap, they’re not going to hear anything coming from the Elegia unless you’re playing them so loud that you won’t be hearing much of anything yourself in pretty short order. And if you wanted to wear them on your bus/train commute, you’re not going to disturb anyone else.
Comparisons here are focused on other closed-back headphones, with the exceptions being the two principal open-back competitors in Focal’s own line included as a reference for existing Focal headphone owners. Notes here are intended to be brief and focused, and I’ve included comparative frequency plots to help give a better picture of relative performance.
Of the headphones in my collection, the Clear and the Elex are the closest sounding to the Elegia - in fact they’re very close both tonally and in terms of timbre. If you were after a closed-back Elex, then you don’t need to look any further on that front. The Elear are a significant departure from all three, and without a pad-swap (to the Elex or Clear pads) do not really make the grade here.
From a purely technical perspective, the Elegia have resolution and clarity, as well as micro-dynamic performance that falls somewhere between the Elex/Elear and the Clear and otherwise perform on about the same level as the Elex.
These are the polar opposite of the Elegia, with the Fostex delivering huge, exaggerated, bass with impressive slam and impact, a hot treble and with mids that need more presence and a smoother profile.
The TH900 Mk2 can be a lot of fun to listen to with the right music (and ideally a pad swap), but they’re simply not competitive with the Elegia on tonal, timbral or technical levels.
The TR-X00 also have elevated bass, though far more tastefully so than the TH900 Mk2. Compared to the Elegia they’re almost claustrophobic when not playing music, and are unmistakably closed-back in nature when they are. Which is not to say the TR-X00 isn’t a nice sounding can, but it has a more editorial slant on its delivery than the Focals, falls behind on dynamics, and while detailed the mids here have an almost plasticky-sense to them when compared directly to the Elegia.
While I think the HD820 get a bad rap, something I think is largely down to an insistence on comparing them directly to the HD800(S) rather than other closed-back cans, and are expensive for what they offer, they’re more resolving, spacious and extended than the Elegia and offer better bass-slam.
On the other hand, the Elegia have much better tonality and balance (i.e. are clearly more neutral), comparable-to-superior dynamics, and a similar degree of openness to their presentation. They’re also about 1/3rd the price of the HD820, which makes them a bargain in comparison and puts a big question mark over the Sennheiser’s from an already-tenuous value proposition.
As I mentioned previously, if Sennheiser were shooting for delivering an HD800(S) with isolation in the HD820, and Focal were shooting for a Clear or Elex with isolation in the Elegia, then it’s quite obvious that Focal got a LOT closer to that goal than Sennheiser managed.
The plot below does not tell a sufficiently powerful story as to how very warm the Sony headphones sound compared to the Elegia here. The Elegia is much taughter and far more controlled on the bottom end and absent any bloat, possesses a much more even handed midrange and has a much better sense of air and space, and is a paragon of neutrality next to the MDR-Z1R.
The Sony is more comfortable and similarly easy to drive, but sonically just completely fails to live up to the performance, technical or otherwise, of the much cheaper Elegia.
Previously my choice for most-neutral closed-back from my collection, the Eikon have a warmer and somewhat richer presentation than the Elegia. Bass presence and sub-bass slam favor the Eikon, where dynamics, raw resolution and a greater sense of openness favor Focal’s model.
The Eikon has a more immediately inviting signature, and is both seductive and sonorous, where the Elegia is more neutral, with somewhat better mid-range presence and a little more resolving power and general ability in raw technical terms. I could mix on the Elegia … and then sit and enjoy the music afterwards - with the Eikons I’d probably not get any actual mixing done - but if I did it probably wouldn’t work out quite as well for anyone subsequently listening to it (unless, of course, they also had Eikons on hand).
Focal’s Elegia are something of a revelation. They not only sound excellent, falling somewhere between the Massdrop-modified Elex and the Clear tonally as well as technically, and with an unusually open-sounding delivery, but they’re the least expensive, lightest, easiest to drive headphones in Focal’s “high-end” line-up. And that lower-price includes Focal’s excellent carry/storage case.
The Focal Elegia are, for me, the new sweet-spot in my closed-back collection and the closest thing I have to a “reference” headphone in closed-back form.
They are neutral, pure, capable and technical enough to be a solid reference headphone, without being at all clinical or musically un-involving. Indeed, it was with rapt-attention that I made multiple passes through “Carmen”, “Before the Dawn”, “Eye in the Sky”, “You Want it Darker”, “Random Access Memories” and so on. On top of which, they offer very good isolation – sufficient for use in any scenario where I would want closed-back headphones, without suffering from a closed-in feel or delivery.
What the Elegia is not is your typical U/W shaped response - bass-centric, hot-trebled, closed-in sounding closed-back can. Those have their place. I have a couple such pairs that are enormous fun with the right music and mood. But if that’s what you’re after, or you were looking for the “Focal” sound with a big dollop of extra bass, then the Elegia are not for you.
Normally I would advise anyone against buying closed-back headphones unless you absolutely need some degree of inward, or outward, isolation. In the case of the Elegia, that distinction isn’t nearly as necessary. While there is a slightly reduced sense of space and openess with the Elegia vs. the Elex or the Clear, it is not nearly so pronounced as with most other closed-back headphones I’ve tried (or own). The Clear is still technically a little more capable than the Elegia, and a better bet if you are not specifically looking for something that offers isolation.
It is necessary to step up to the HD820 to get a better, overall, technical performance, but this comes at high cost, and with some issues with tonality/neutrality that may shift the Sennheiser’s out of consideration for those wanting an HD800(S) that can isolate. Based on feedback I’ve heard on the HD820 from others, I suspect, tonally at least, most will prefer the new Focal’s.
Every successive new model in Focal’s line-up seems to usefully address criticisms raised against earlier models. The Elegia continues that trend while adding a solid, easy to recommend, closed-back model. And while it remains a little galling to think in terms of “good value” when talking about headphones costing $900 - it is a fitting moniker for the Elegia.
Highly recommended! If you're a non-basshead looking for a reference-class closed-back headphone, you need to have these on your audition list!
-Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
Notes on Measurements
Measurements were taken using a miniDSP EARS unit and the “RAW” calibration profile (microphone compensation only – no headphone curve calibration). This is situated in an acoustic isolation chamber that prevents emissions from the rear of the cups being reflected back to the test stand. The entire rig is further acoustically and mechanically isolated from the outside environment, such that ambient noise is under 30 dB (limit of my SPL meter).
Each headphone measured was calibrated at 84 dB output at 300 Hz; plots are aligned accordingly. Results are averages over 5 placements on the test stand, to attempt to account for variance in placement/fit issues and are presented using 1/12th octave smoothing.
The peak around 4.5 kHz, seen in all measurements presented here, is an artifact of the measurement rig (which at some point I will compensate out and republish accordingly).
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