• Focal Clear Review

    December 31, 2017 Luckbad 0

    The Focal Clear headphones are a new $1500 open back offering designed and developed in France. They look absolutely stunning! I had an opportunity to take these home and demo them for several days.

    Rather than a compiled retrospective review, I decided to present stream of consciousness impressions. This will reveal the journey I took while listening rather than being presented as a proper summary review.

    Focal Clear Specifications

    • Style: Open back circumaural headphones
    • Impedance: 55 Ohms
    • Sensitivity: 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
    • THD: 0.25% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
    • Frequency Response: 5Hz-28kHz
    • Transducer: 1.6″ (40mm) Aluminum/Magnesium ‘M’-shape dome
    • Weight: 0.99lb / 450g
    • Hard-shell carrying case
    • 24 AWG OFC copper cables with cotton braided sheaths
      • 3m balanced cable (XLR 4-pin)
      • 3m unbalanced cable (1/4″ TRS jack)
      • 1.2m unbalanced cable (1/8″ TRS jack)

    More information is available at the Focal website.

    Stream of Consciousness Impressions

    Days 1-2

    • These were opened the day that I walked into the store (Atlantic Stereo), a few hours before I arrived. Not at all burned in.
    • Visually beautiful with excellent build quality. Some of the sexiest looking headphones I’ve seen.
    • Earpads begin structurally stiff. Does it change over time? Answer: Yes, they’ve already become less stiff after a couple of days. Demo Elears and Utopias suggest they become more supple with break-in.
    • The headband is sleek but might not be padded or weight-distributed well enough for the long haul. It contacts right at the crown. You know where the Sennheiser HD650 has an intentional gap in the headband padding so even the pad doesn’t touch you? That’s exactly where the Clear rests.
    • Much better bass/extension than HD650. Still an open headphone though. They don’t rumble like closed cans.
    • If you’ve tuned your system to the HD650, these are going to hurt your ears with the same setup. This is the type of headphone you build your system around. It’s like the HD650 in that it’s vaguely what we’ve all been trying to make our HD650s sound like with mods. I can’t use the same tube in the Liquid Crimson for both headphones (The Clear demands something warmer). The Schiit Bifrost Multibit seems too bright with the Clear as well, so I switched to the MHDT Labs Orchid.
    • Treble is not as smooth as the HD650. A more engaging listen, but the Clears don’t let you lean back and forget about them with most music.
    • They’d be considerably more comfortable if my ears weren’t as tall as they are. As it is, my ears touch the top and bottom of the opening to the earpads.
    • The headstage is nothing special. I’ve seen people claiming outstanding soundstage, but they’re novices. It’s condensed, which is not the same thing as intimate. I can generally place instruments (imaging) and discern depth disparity, but it doesn’t go very far in any direction. Similar depth and width to Sennheiser HD6x0 (which is to say, it’s enough for headphones, but not exemplary). A few EQ notches actually make the depth pretty decent. Never had that happen before.
    • Some treble roughness, some hotter areas in frequency response that are apparent in certain music. Upper registers of female vocals. Piano keys ~D6-F6 and associated harmonics.
    • Some songs sound a little more tinny than I’m used to (U2 – New Year’s Day).
    • Tommy Emmanuel and most well-recorded acoustic guitar is sublime. I hate that word, but it’s so effin’ good with these. I listened to an entire album before trying a second genre and was convinced I needed these in my life.
    • Symphonies… I’m not sure yet. It does a good job of extension, but certain chimes, cymbals, and some higher pitched horns bring some heat. Too much violin and my ears start to hurt.
    • Electronic. Nope. Look, it does it better than most open headphones, but just because I can hear the full extension of Daft Punk – Doin’ It Right doesn’t mean it’s doing it right. I need rumble, slam, primal impact. Listening to Andrew Luce – Yours Truly should start to make me feel sick to my stomach if I turn the volume up. That requires speakers, closed headphones, IEMs, or an external force (e.g. Taction Kannon, SubPac, subwoofer).
    • Fast, not lush. Not exactly thin, but definitely not thick. These need a tube in the chain somewhere (to be fair, I say that about most headphones).
    • Some have said they heard these as honky, but I’m not getting that. Forward, a bit tinny perhaps, but I’ve heard honky, and these aren’t honky.
    • Because these are so good overall, I decided to perform a super simple reversible “mod.” I grabbed the foam from an old pair of HD650 pads and popped it between the driver and pads on the Clear. Definitely tamed some of the heat, but also put a little haze on them. Possibly enough that I could go back to my HD650 setup with them? Nope, not really.
    • Anyone who thinks these have significant clamp has never used a Sennheiser HD6x0 when it was new. I can feel it at the jaw line, but I know the pads will soften up and reduce clamp, so it’s a good thing.
    • I’m still dubious about the timbre of these headphones. Bowed string instruments don’t quite sound as natural to me as I want them to.
    • The death knell of the stock frequency response for me is that I find myself turning the volume down below my normal levels. That means I would need to EQ or a perform mods to make them long-term listenable.
    • Burn-in: I’m still not sure if they’re fully burned in. I haven’t noted any significant changes in ~20 hours of music going through them.

    Days 3-4

    • I left them burning in overnight. I do think I’m starting to hear differences, whether it’s real burn-in or brain burn-in I cannot say.
    • Today, cello sounds much more natural to me. Yo-Yo Ma is a secret pleasure of mine (I used to make fun of old people who listened to him) and The Cello Suites sounds outstanding right now.
    • I’m much more convinced after a couple of hours this morning that I want these. Eventually.
    • Most classical music still sounds better to me from modded HD650s than the Clear.
    • Clear aren’t ultra versatile. I don’t like heavy rock, most classic rock, or most modern music from them. They’re too revealing of the crap recordings.
    • For me, they’d almost be a one-trick pony. Or a couple trick pony, anyway. Acoustic guitar and jazz perhaps? Definitely the former.
    • Tough to justify a $1500 purchase for one or two genres.
    • Yesterday I wasn’t sure if my headaches were the Clear or a lack of adequate caffeine intake. Today, I’ve been listening to Audeze LCD-2 Classics most of the day. No headache. 30 minutes with the Clear and I have a headache. That means mods would be absolutely necessary in my case.
    • I keep bouncing back to Marvey’s comment on SBAF that HD650s sound absolutely Mid-Fi in comparison to these. Kinda? These are better in some very specific areas (which all do translate to “high fidelity”), but the HD650s are more enjoyable for some genres.
    • After wearing the clouds that are LCD-2Cs most of the day, the Clears really aren’t comfortable for me. I wish my ears didn’t touch the inside of the pads and there was decent weight distribution on the headband.
    • The Focal Clears are like a supermodel. Sexy, refined, gorgeous… but I’m having trouble falling in love with them.
    • I’d probably enjoy these more with a more liquid tube amplifier than my Liquid Crimson. The ampsandsound Mogwai Special Edition might be a perfect match (with the lower output impedance option).
    • The accessories are great. A form-fitted case, 3 very good cables (one short one for DAP/phone use, one long single-ended cable, and one long balanced cable), and… that’s it I think. But still plenty.

    Summary

    Why I would buy the Focal Clears

    • They’re the first $1000+ obtainable headphone I’ve actually liked.
    • Tons of potential. A few mods should clear up the little problem spots for me. Note that I have a significant treble sensitivity, and this won’t be an issue for most people.
    • Much better bass extension than my HD650s.
    • They are really exceptional for acoustic guitar / fingerstyle, and I listen to a lot of that.

    Why I wouldn’t buy the Focal Clears

    • Mild discomfort: I have very tall ears. They touch the top and bottom of the earpads. That won’t impact most people. What will impact more folks is that the headband primarily rests right on the crown of your head, which makes it so they never quite disappear when worn. With the earpads, dontfeedphils made a nice 3d printing template to put other pads on Elears and I assume it’ll work for these. That would be a definite experiment for me. I would also likely grab a replacement HD650 headband and velcro it up top for additional comfort (velcro facing out to prevent any damage).
    • I assume they’ll go down in price (or go on sale) like the other Focal offerings. It might be smarter to wait for a sweet deal closer to the $1000 mark since that will almost certainly happen in the future.
    • If I want to upgrade my Sennheiser HD650s–which I’ve spent considerable time and money building a system around–I now have to think about system synergy once again. That said, I have tubes, and tubes can tune the sound.

    Final Comments

    The Focal Clears are one of the most capable, clear, dynamic, and resolving headphones I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy. Note the keyword, “enjoy.” I’ve heard some headphones outperform the Clears in a few of these areas (the Focal Utopia, for example), but I actually enjoy the Focal Clears. They have some of the best bass of any open headphones I’ve tried, particularly with dynamic drivers (I should mention that closed headphones, IEMs, subwoofers, etc. will all still beat their bass). They do a lot right, and very little wrong.

    Main criticisms: They are a little bright for my personal taste/tolerance and eventually cause me fatigue, they don’t sound particularly full (they aren’t quite thin, though), and they can sound a little tinny with some music. The earpads don’t fit my tall ears (which even touch the inside of Sennheiser earpads, and these are a good cm less tall than HD6x0 pads), and the headband padding is inadequate (actual issue for some, as they’re not light headphones and they’ll likely contact the crown of many heads).

    I have no reservations recommending the Focal Clears to those who already have a solid headphone chain (good source, DAC, amp). I will likely pick up a pair for myself in the future.

    Shout out to Atlantic Stereo for letting me borrow the Focal Clear headphones.

    Other Resources

    Postmortem

    One way I judge gear is by feeling it out after it’s gone. Within 24 hours after they’re out of my possession, I have a much better understanding of how I feel about them.

    Sometimes I’ll have something that I think I can do without and sell it even if I like it (usually for monetary reasons). Other times I think I’ll miss something when it’s gone but I don’t.

    I thought I’d miss the Holo Spring L3 after demoing it for a week or so, but I never really did. I thought I’d miss the Eddie Current Super 7 and do. I didn’t think I’d miss the Garage1217 Project Sunrise III after moving up to better amps but did.

    I had the Focal Clears in to demo for ~5 days. They have outstanding performance and excel in many areas. Well-recorded acoustic guitar is better on them than anything I’ve ever used.

    They’re the first headphones I’d consider Hi-Fi that I actually like (yeah, it’s a marketing term, but I have a picture in my head of what that means).

    I anticipated missing them and starting to scrape together funds to buy them.

    But I don’t miss them.

    I don’t miss the fatigue. I don’t miss the hotspot on top of my head. I don’t miss the pads touching my ears. I don’t miss how they sound tinny on poorly mastered or recorded music.

    I guess my wallet is safe.

    I do miss their potential. I expect to one day hear a modded pair then make an impulse purchase.

    But, for now, the Focal Clear headphones aren’t in my future.

    I do miss the Schiit Gungnir Multibit more than I thought I would, so future funds might be dedicated to that instead.

    Categories: Headphones, Reviews

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