May 17, 2019 16 min read
Review written by Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
The newFocalStellia is the the French company’s second successive closed-back headphone release, and second in line to the crown title of “flagship” in their audiophile headphone range. While the Stellia shares technology from both theUtopia and theElegia, it is a striking departure in terms of style from the rest of the line up.
Initially I was rather suspect about the aesthetics of the Stellia, but they make more sense in person and in the context of the luxury-market that Focal is targeting. The look has really grown on me and has become a refreshing change in an audio world awash in black on black, more black with some silver, occasional carbon fiber and the fleeting appearance of pretty, natural, woods here and there.
Originally, I received the Stellia on kind loan from headphones.com, via “The HEADPHONE Community” as part of their “Community Preview Program”. It took me just two days to decide I wanted to keep them, so I purchased them for myself and it is my personal pair that is reviewed here.
The low impedance of 35 ohms, combined with the high 106 dB/mw sensitivity, makes the Stellia very easy to drive. An Apple USB-C headphone dongle will drive them to 115 dB and the little AudioQuest Dragonfly can push them to 120 dB with power to spare. Though, as ever, having more power on tap than is strictly needed seems to result in a more effortless and authoritative sense to their delivery. Just keep the output impedance of what you drive them with below 3 ohms or so, otherwise the frequency response can get a little wonky.
The Stellia are equipped with a new iteration of Focal’s 40mm M-dome driver, sporting an ultra-stiff pure Beryllium dome as with the Utopia, driven by a frameless 100% copper voice coil and suspended by a new, low-compliance, 110-micron NBR surround. Since these are closed-back cans, they can take advantage of a bass-reflex configuration to reduce the driver excursion required for a given sound pressure level, allowing for a shorter coil. As a result, impedance is dropped from to just 35 ohms and sensitivity improves to 106 dB SPL/mw, which ousts the Elegia as the former easiest-to-drive model in Focal’s stable and bestows that crown upon the Stellia.
The new drivers 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 as well as significantly stiffening the ear-cup. A specially shaped EVA foam absorber sits behind the driver to control higher-frequency reflections. Finally, new pads, using a dual-density construction and special perforation scheme, result in a more linear response up to about 10 kHz.
Stellia has an unapologetically luxurious sense to its execution; premium materials adorn these headphones, including the full-grain leather on the headband and ear-cups - something closer to the kind of thing one might expect from Hermēs than “headphones”. In the almost-two months I’ve owned them the leather on the head band has already started to pick up a subtle, but rich, patina and character often seen with high-end leather products.
This would be worth nothing if they were not solidly built … and here Focal continues their pattern of robust, purposeful, construction, in all metal and leather. They don’t rattle or creak. Connections are solid. The yokes stay where you set them. And as pretty as they are, they remain as much a serious listening tool as they are a luxury item.
The Stellia has, by far, the most lifestyle/luxury oriented packaging in the Focal line-up - eclipsing that even of the flagship Utopia. It is packaged in a large, heavy, leather-esque slip case that contains the now-familiar, and excellent, Focal headphone case (finished in textured cognac/black cloth) and a fold-out box that contains a wallet with all necessary documentation and a pair of cables.
The included cables are color-matched to the cognac finish of the Stellia; one being a 3 meter/10 foot balanced affair with 4-pin XLR termination and the other a 1.2 meter/4 foot single-ended 3.5mm (1/8”) TRS-terminated job. A 6.35mm (1/4”) TRS adapter is also supplied. Headphone-end connectors are a locking 3.5mm TS (mono) connector, the same as used by the Elex,Elear,Elegia andClear - so cables for those will work here too. That’s the good news …
The “bad” news is that cable ergonomics still seem to be a weak point for Focal. The Utopia and Elear had very flexible, non-microphonic, cables, but they were long and excessively heavy. Newer models, like the Clear and Elegia switched to a much lighter, and prettier, design, but they are relatively stiff and rather microphonic. And it is that more recent design that is the basis for the Stellia’s cables. While I have no complaints about them on sonic grounds, the shorter cable is a definite challenge for mobile/portable use, where it’s inflexibility and microphonics get emphasized significantly.
An easy all-day wear, Stellia rivals the Utopia for comfort, and those are about the most comfortable headphones I own. It is only the closed-back nature of the Stellia that makes them a little warmer feeling, combined with the typical, slight, sense of “enclosure” that accompanies all closed-back designs.
Pad-feel is very similar to the Utopia, but with slightly higher clamping pressure (I’d say they sit between the Clear and the Utopia in this regard). All-day wear did not result in any noticeable build-up of heat - possibly due to the vent. As with other Focal cans, getting, and keeping, a proper fit is quick and reliable; the yokes extend from within a hot-spot free headband, swivel naturally in their mounts and stay in place thanks to firm internal detents. Surprisingly, they’re actually lighter than the Utopia (435g vs. 490g), and only the Elegia weigh less among Focal’s offerings.
My first impressions of the Stellia, even right out of the box, was of a rich, warm, dynamic and highly resolving headphone; not neutral, but perhaps the most potentially broadly-satisfying Focal headphone so far. While the Utopia is closer to my ideal delivery and technical performance, the Stellia gets very close while adding a little warmth and some often-desired low-end weight to the experience.
It’s one of only a couple of headphones that, if pushed, I could take as my “only” headphone - at least where having some isolation was also a requirement.
Overall tone is somewhat warmer and bassier than neutral. This can lend a slightly larger-than-life quality to some instruments, and an increase in apparent scale, especially those with heavy low-frequency components. Double bass can sit a bit forward here, particularly with small jazz ensembles, and timpani can be a bit bolder than reality in big orchestral works. Otherwise, the tone is very natural from the upper-bass upwards. For primarily-classical or jazz listening, I would personally favor the Utopia here, but that means no isolation. A little EQ will sort this out if you need both. For other musical genres I find the tone to be extremely pleasant and has lead to many a longer-than-planned listening session.
The graph, below, shows the frequency response for the Stellia with no compensation (microphone calibration only), miniDSP-supplied HEQ compensation (supposed to be similar to the Harman Curve) and a custom compensation model which better represents what I personally hear (details on the measurement rig and process can be found here):
You can interpret the graph as suits your personal understanding of how such things relate to your own preferences and experiences - I’m not going to directly narrate it beyond saying that:
What’s most interesting to me here, and a continual point of contention between subjective and objective evaluation, is that the Stellia do not sound as tilted, either at the low or high-end, as the measurements here might suggest.
Timbre is excellent, with a hint of additional splashiness to cymbals and higher-pitched brass in the first few minutes of listening, after which it just becomes crisp with excellent air and just the right amount of sparkle. Beyond the slightly exuberant lower-registers, instruments are portrayed in a lifelike manner, are easily discerned, and with none of the just-perceptible steeliness that can, at the edges of discordancy, be heard with some other metal-dome drivers.
The Stellia exhibits the most powerful and impactful bass-delivery of all the Focal headphones to date. It is elevated over neutral, perhaps a tad more so than I personally find ideal (especially with excessively bass-heavy mixes), but it remains taut, fast, tuneful and extremely clean. There’s enough extra energy in the lower bass region to do a convincing job with big pipe-organ pieces, the sub-bass has enough slam to be consistently exciting, and the upper bass, while still elevated, tapers off before it begins to intrude into the midrange.
Even with highly bass-centered tracks (one I like to use as a test here, with extreme bass-levels, is Trentemøller’s “Chameleon”) I was not able to excite any upper-bass bloom, which I could with the leaner sounding Elegia, suggesting even better driver control and precision. This might be the best non-planar bass I’ve heard, in this regard, to date.
If you want a nice demonstration of bass-coherence, articulation, texture and tunefulness, rhythmic drive, tonal balance and separation, check out the first track (“Pemulwuy”) on James Asher’s “Feet in the Soil”. Yes, it’s a bit off the beaten-path. And it’s worth noting that the texture of the notes from the didgeridoo and the quality of the bass/drums warrants a lossless-copy. But if you’re open to new music and/or like “world music” or “ambient tribal” works already, it’s quite a treat … especially with the Stellia. And don’t stop with track one … the whole album is worthwhile (melodies become more of a thing from track two on) …
The most common gripe I’ve heard regarding Focal’s cans is that they need a bit of a low end boost. While not a bass-head model, the Stellia might take things a little far here … but at the same time, a broader array of listeners seem to prefer a little too much bass over a little too little. We’re not talking Fostex TH900 Mk2 orSony MDR-Z1R levels of bass here, though slam and speed are very close to the Fostex unit, and control and articulation run rings around the Sony cans.
Those seeking Focal-class dynamics, detail and resolution, while consuming a bass-biased diet of genres like EDM will almost certainly be very satisfied here - unless they’re out-and-out bass-heads. While no conventional headphone can truly replicate the feeling of low-bass notes crawling up your insides, or hitting you in the gut, audible growl and rumble are present when called for and more so than the rest of the line-up.
Lucid, rich, ultra-detailed, linear, and pure are the first words that came to mind when I first fired up the Stellia. Clarity here, as with the treble, manages to outshine the near-definitive clarity of the, appropriately named, “Clear”. Timbral weight and tonal density (I don’t know how else to describe it) are, as Goldilocks might have quipped, “just right”, and in a very similar place to the Utopia.
Elaine Paige’s multi-layered, over-tracked, staggered vocals as Florence in “Nobody’s Side” (Chess) demonstrate excellent separation and resolution; you can easily and distinctly follow any of her main, or overlaid, vocal lines and the subtle delta in note and tone of each.
I am used to the mids being somewhat recessed with closed-back cans, but there is none of that here. And the Stellia do not exhibit the slid mid-forwardness of the Elegia, either (probably due to greater low-frequency presence here). What remains is, I think, the most balanced and accurate sounding mid-range of all the closed-back headphones I have at my disposal.
The frequency response plot doesn’t do a very good job of conveying that the Stellia have an even-tempered, smooth, largely neutral and well-extended top-end. There’s no lack of air, space or sparkle, but it is not exaggerated either. Sibilance is notable purely by its absence, which renders edgy female vocals in a way that keeps their ragged, emotional, energy intact without them becoming harsh or grating.
Where the Utopia sometimes get accused of being on the brighter side of neutral, the Stellia are warmer and a little less energetic up-top. Back to back this can lead to a superficial impression that there is a big difference in apparent detail, but focused listening shows it is actually much closer than I’d expect. Yes, Utopia still manage to take the cake here, but it’s by a pretty small margin.
Resolution and detail delivery are only second to the Utopia within the Focal realm, and not by much. Micro-detail is more easily heard with the Stellia than with the Clear and, indeed, with most of the other headphones I own. There’s spot in a recording of one of Saint-Saëns pieces (“Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, Op.28 for Violin and Orchestra in B minor”), where on the Stellia, Utopia, ZMF Vérité andHD800S you can hear what seems to be the bow dragging inconsistently (or maybe has inconsistent pressure) it is not as apparent with the Clear and often glossed over entirely by some planar headphones.
Driven straight out of Chord’s DAVE DAC/amp, the transparency of the Stellia becomes very apparent. This was my preferred, solid-state, way to drive them, as there’s more than enough power here that adding an additional amplifier isn’t necessary (unless you want some coloration or other effect).
Dynamics, a consistent Focal-strong-point, are, again, superlative. Micro-dynamics are, in particular, better resolved here with delicate vocal nuances being projected more articulately. “You Want it Darker” (Leonard Cohen) conveys a deeper sense of emotion, due I think to more subtle inflection and more clearly delineated “gravel”, here vs. the most obvious/direct comparisons. Only the Utopia and the Vérité do better/as well here, and both of those are open-designs.
Musical impact is near-visceral, whether it’s the concussion from the canon’s in the 1812, to a rapid-fire drum sequence, the initial bite of a plucked string, or the staccato attack and instant decay of a manically played (presto agitato) piano (say the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Sonata #14, C minor, Op 27. … being attacked by someone who’s indulged their coffee habit a bit too far), the Stellia really delivers with no blurring or overshoot to soften these effects. Very few headphones can deliver here quite so convincingly, maintaining crisp, clear start/stop of notes in a primary melody or chain even when all hell is breaking loose elsewhere.
While mid-era “Prince” (that’s what he went by at the time!) stuff is usually my go to for seeing how well something can pick-apart a mix/master, due to his typically complex, multi-faceted, sometimes heavy-handed (if effective) editing style (in a suitably resolving setup you can sometimes here the tape-punch-points), perhaps a better example here is “7twenty7” (Roxette, “Have a Nice Day”). The Stellia retains the coherence and energy of the song, while exposing every layer, edit and track for what it is.
I got an immediate surprise when first listening to the Stellia, in that they were rendering a larger, less-compressed, stage than I am typically used to with Focal’s headphones. Of note is that the stage is definitely more expansive, with a better sense of depth (rather than “actual” depth), than with the Utopia. The stage is curved outward and away from the listener, and while projected closer than, say, from the HD800S, is not right in your face nor behind your eyes. Actual instrument placement, and separation, was rock-solid, and very well delineated laterally.
Engaging the “Matrix” (crossfeed) function on the Phonitor X was successful in yielding a more palpable stage with actual depth. Perceiving where a given section/performer is, back to front, becomes possible here. And while not necessarily my preferred way to listen to the Stellia (which seems to exhibit more of a tonal shift with the “Matrix” function engaged than other, higher-impedance, cans), is a pleasant option when listening to large-scale acoustic works. The sense of space in, and ambience of, a venue, as captured in simple, direct, recordings like The Cowboy Junkies “Trinity Session”, is surprising even without crossfeed, but it’s markedly more apparent with it.
A closed-back headphone is typically purchased to be used to shut the outside world out (attenuation) and/or keep sound in (leakage) so as not to disturb others around you. The chart, below, shows how the Stellia do in this regard relative to the two closed-back-headphones I’ve so far put through this evaluation.
They do better than the Elegia across the board, but fall short of the AEON Flow Closed in the most sensitive/important, areas of the frequency spectrum. The Stellia have taken over the bulk of my late-night/in-bed listening and so far I’ve had no complaints from my wife.
The methodology used to assess isolation is detailed here, along with information on the limits of what any headphone can be expected to keep out (since headphones are generally better at keeping sound in, than out).
This will cover comparison to what I feel are the most relevant cans (that I have access to right now), either based on price, performance, familial heritage and/or my regard for them. Additional comparisons will be made on the heapdhones.com forum (“The HEADPHONE Community”), in the main Stellia thread - and if there’s one you want specifically I will do my best to cover it there, along with comparative measurements.
At the point I bought the Stellia, I already owned the rest of the Focal line-up, including the Massdrop x Focal Elex variation of the Elear, so I was able to do direct comparisons across the range. And since pads on Focal’s headphones all use the same attachment scheme, and are all the same size, it is commonly asked how swapping pads between models affects their sound; so I put together a comprehensive “pad-rolling” comparison, covering all models with all current pads, which can be found here.
This will be the last time I can easily do such an all-up comparison, and will cover such in more detail in another, Focal-specific, article, however the most important comparisons, namely to the Elegia (because it’s the only other closed back in the line-up) and the Utopia (as the flagship and the most closely-priced Focal alternative), can be found later in this review.
Ahead of the all-up comparison article, the above chart shows the frequency response for the Focal line, including the Elex, all using the HEQ compensation profile.
Until I heard the Stellia, the HD820 were my favorite closed-back headphone. I still think the HD820 are excellent, and they offer both more palpable, dimensional and expansive stage rendering and a little more sub-bass slam than the Stellia.
Beyond that the Stellia exhibit superlative dynamics, both micro and macro, with better overall impact - as is typical of Focal’s drivers. They are also more accurate in terms overall tonality and timbre. Both headphones elevate the bass region somewhat, but the Stellia does it more convincingly.
The HD820 are one of the most polarizing headphones around, with people tending to either love them or loathe them. Personally, I love them, but over 8 months of ownership I have become increasingly aware that they can be rather fussy about fit, seal and positioning, something not made easier by the comparatively large, firm, pads. I don’t have issues with this personally, unless I’m desperately in need of a hair-cut, but with the Stellia I’ve seen no such issues anywhere … they fit, sit and seal consistently.
When the stars align, and the mood is just right, I find these an entertaining, if not-quite-right, guilty-pleasure listen. Compared to the Stellia, however, they exhibit too little control in the bass, less impact, weaker dynamics and a less predictable, generally overly-effervescent (even “zingy”) top end.
The Sony’s do offer markedly better isolation (both leakage and attenuation), something I need to add to the isolation comparison graphs, but otherwise they’re tonally awkward, less resolving, and do not portray instruments with the timbral accuracy of the Stellia (or, for that matter, any of the other headphones Focal offers).
I had quickly taken to the Elegia as an excellent-value, referenced-tuned, closed-back headphone and, indeed, they remain my preferred closed-back headphone at/around their price point (though the MrSpeakers AEON Flow Closed are close, and offer better isolation). But, compared to Focal’s flagship-closed-back, the Elegia can’t match them for detail resolution nor raw speed (though they’re still faster than most) and they’re notably lighter in the bottom end. There’s a hint of “steelier” timbral coloration with some instruments vs. the beryllium drivers in their bigger brother, which seem “cleaner”, also – and my preference is for the Stellia’s rendering (for what it’s worth, my three current favorite headphones all sport pure, or coated, beryllium dome drivers).
Less bass-emphatic than the Stellia, albeit with a slightly hotter top-end, the Utopia still rank as the best headphone Focal currently offers, and my favorite, overall, headphone at this time. The un-beaten resolution and micro and macro dynamics of the Utopia, combined with a more-to-my-liking tuning (I’m closer to having a neutral/reference signature preference than one with an elevated bass region), a hair more speed, and a slightly more natural/life-like timbral rendering, tip my favor to these.
The Stellia do portray a more expansive stage than the Utopia, and while not quite as “open” sounding as the, well, open-backed big-brother, certainly don’t sound closed-in. If stage is more important to you than speed or absolute low-level detail/dynamics then you might prefer the Stellia; for me, stage is the least important aspect of headphone listening.
If you were after a closed-back Utopia, the Stellia are currently the closest thing you’ll find. That’s not to say that they are a closed-back Utopia; they’re tonally different enough there that they’re really a unique offering - but they’re still the closest-performing closed-back headphones I know of.
Focal’s Stellia take the top spot as the best closed-back headphone I’ve heard to date. While they are not perfect, they provide the most enjoyable, satisfying, and overall technically-adept listening experience of any closed-back model I have heard. They are also the closest thing I’ve found to being a closed-back version of the Utopia, while also adding some often-requested low-end oomph, coupled with a similarly solid build and unique, and to me extremely appealing, aesthetics.
This doesn’t mean I think they’re better at everything than any one particular model (for example, the HD820 still outdoes them for stage and sub-bass presence and the Elegia are closer to neutral) but overall they do more right, for my tastes and preferences, with fewer and/or more minor compromises than any other closed-back headphone I’ve had my ears on.
It did not take me very long to decide I liked these better than the Focal Elegia either. To the point that, while the Elegia are my preferred closed-back headphone around their price-point - I knew quite quickly that they were not going to be getting any listening time next to the Stellia - which was the catalyst for me rationalizing my Focal collection down to just the Clear, Stellia and Utopia.
The Stellia are an easy and enthusiastic recommendation if you’re looking for a flagship closed-back headphone and one of only a couple that I could live with as my onlyheadphone (provided that I needed to account for having some isolation). And unlike the HD820 are much less fussy about seal, fit and head-shape in getting the best out of them.
If you’re looking for high-end performance in a closed-back package, these should definitely be on your audition list!
- Ian Dunmore (@Torq)
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