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Clear as a Bell: Focal’s New Over-Ear Headphones Reviewed

We spent some time with the French company’s gorgeous new auditory tour de force…

When Focal released their first super-high-end headphones, the $3,500 Utopias, the large gap left between them and the $800 Elear model left a natural space for a third model. This mid-range model, named Focal Clear, was finally released in October 2017.

They are referred to as mid-range only as a comparison to Focal’s flagship headphones; compared to the rest of the headphone market, Clear is still in the rarified stratosphere of audiophile headphones. Focal’s new offering is an all-out challenge to the high-end headphone market, offering significant material value and outsized performance that many competitors will struggle to equal. On that note, Robb Report recently had the chance to get our hands on a pair the new headphones for some real-world testing

The Clear are over-ear, open-back headphones. These are not meant to be a flight companion or a workout accessory, but rather are designed for serious listening in a quiet place as the open-back nature of these headphones makes them leak sound quite audibly. The Clear is fitted with custom aluminum-and-magnesium-alloy dynamic drivers, and they perform best with a headphone amplifier, as they have an impedance of 55 ohms.

The superior build quality of these headphones is evident from first glance. The design is thoroughly contemporary, with wire mesh surrounding a brushed metal circle emblazoned with Focal’s logo. The ear and headband pads are made from memory foam covered in perforated microfiber for comfort. The only evident plastic is on the outer rim of the ear cups, while the rest of the construction is sturdy metal. The packaging contains ample accessories, a surprise at this price point. Included with the headphones is a sturdy, luxuriant gray fabric case, hardened for protection. Accommodating a variety of setups, the headphones also include 3 different cables to fit a, including a standard 1/4-inch jack, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a balanced headphone jack. The cables are ample in length: two measure 9.8 feet and the other is 3.9 feet.

Over-ear, open backed headphones are typically known for expansive soundstages, but the richness of tone I experience with these headphones is something new. When spinning Electric Light Orchestra’s retro-futurist album Time, the excited blend of electronic synth-pop is separated into distinct parts, with rich layers of sound that seem to emanate from far beyond the headphones. More than once, I am startled by sounds that seem to be coming from behind the headphones, as they produce what seems to be a full 360-degree soundstage. The sound is balanced and completely enveloping.

Focal Clear Headphones

Focal Clear Headphones  Photo: Courtesy Focal

Having heard Focal’s top of the line Utopia loudspeakers on a number of previous occasions, I had some preconceived notions about how the bass would be presented in these headphones. To my surprise, the bass has proven much more complex than expected. The low frequencies are well represented, and they have the tight, controlled personality that I expected, but sometimes the slam of the bass is not what one would guess. On orchestral pieces, such as Solti’s 1972 interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the bass sounds incredible. It offers full detail and that rich tone really brings the low string section to life. On the other hand, when listening to rock music, such as The Black Keys’ “I Got Mine,” or electronic music such as Phantogram’s Eyelid Movies, the bass translates into the ear as just loudness. I attribute this to the wide open-back design, which is a trait shared by similar dynamic-driver headphones. The dynamic driver is just not going to pressurize the can like a planar magnetic headphone might. This minor trade-off is overshadowed by the Clear’s greatest asset, its smoothness.

The easiest way to detect if a headphone carries a smooth sound is by listening to the strike of a cymbal on the high frequencies. A more advanced method is to pay attention to the space between sounds—when one sound ends and another begins. On lower-end headphones, there is a certain brittleness or even absence of frequencies in these spaces. With the Focal Clear, the smoothness is buttery. Every frequency is where it belongs. Nothing is out of place.

To place credit where credit is due, Focal really knows how to build a pair headphones. It has had great success with its beautiful line of loudspeakers, and its team has put that knowledge to good use with in its headphones. Available now at Focal dealers worldwide, the Clear is sure to gain significant popularity with audiophiles thanks to its all-around good looks and incredible sonic performance.

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