Focal Elear Headphones Review – Open Back Nirvana
The Focal Elear headphones are almost otherworldly. They're so comfortable you barely know they're on—and the sound is pristine.
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When we got a chance to check out the Focal North America event last year we were given an opportunity to listen to some of their headphones. Then, we reviewed the Focal Sphear in-ear headphones and realized they were onto something. Last month we got a pair of the Focal Elear headphones, and they just might be the best earphones I’ve ever listened to. With over two decades experience using professional headphones, that’s no small endorsement.
Focal Elear Headphones Features
The French-manufactured Focal Elear headphones are an open back design with a unique mechanical and metallurgical composition. Elear claims to be the world’s first, full range, fully open back loudspeaker that’s “shoehorned” into a pair of headphones. The drivers are a blend of aluminum and magnesium and the outer rim is folded up onto itself to create a sort of “M” profile to the dome. Focal came up with the dome idea from the R&D behind their Utopia headphones. It promises low distortion and high fidelity.
Full Range Sound Without Crossovers
The Focal Elear headphones have no passive crossover and reproduce frequencies from 5Hz to 23kHz. In this way, there’s very little that can get in the way of sound reproduction, and you are truly dealing with a single full-range driver in each ear. As I listened to music ranging from classical to rock, “purity” was the word that came to mind first. We’ll get into more on that later on in our listening tests.
With regards to mechanical design, the Elear phones have some rather unique features. The ear cups have a unique ability to flex in either direction within the metal frame of the headband. The result is a conformity to your head regardless of its shape. Further, the microfiber headband is exceptionally well-padded. Beyond that, however, the soft ear cups are filled with memory foam and covered in the same microfiber fabric. They truly hold a majority of the weight without burdening the ears. The openings are also large enough to cup over my entire ear. The design spreads the weight of the Elear headphones evenly over your entire head. With many other models—even the Focal Listen headphones—fatigue sets in after about 30 minutes of use. Not so with the Focal Elears.
I wore them for six hours straight without any fatigue.
The Focal Elears are simply one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn.
Focal Elear Headphone Technology
When you boil it all down, a pair of headphones is a hyper near field monitor. You can’t get much closer than one inch from your eardrum. As you can imagine the challenge for product managers and designers is to optimize the driver and system to produce the most realistic soundstage possible under these conditions. It’s not that there aren’t advantages as well—but the design limitations are certainly clear.
The new ‘M’-shaped dome on the Focal Elears came from their Utopia design, but the bottom line is that this is as close to a massless driver as you can get until they figure out how to beam sound directly into your head. The driver is rigid, but moves under the slightest amount of signal—as you can see from the 80-ohm driver rating. Combining aluminum and magnesium into an alloy for the driver was a great call and you can hear the results. The real magic, however, is in the suspension. It has a thickness of just 80 microns!
Focal also used a 25mm x 4.4mm voice coil without a former (which they claim is a world’s first). It has a monolayer coating to make it even lighter than smaller voice coils used in similarly-priced headphones.
Focal Listen Specifications
- Type: Open back headphones, circum-aural
- Impedance: 80 Ohms
- Sensitivity: 104dB SPL @ 1kHz – / 1mW
- THD: <0.3% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
- Frequency response: 5Hz – 23kHz
- Driver: 1-37/64 in. (40mm) mylar/magnesium “M” shape dome
- Weight: 0.99lb (450g)
- Cable length: 13.1ft (4m)
- Connector: 2 x 3.5mm jack, 1/4 in. stereo jack
- Dimensions: 12-53/64 x 10-15/64 x 6-29/64 in. (326 x 260 x 164 mm)
- Includes: Hard carrying case, 13.1ft. (4m) OFC cable, 2 x 3.5mm jack, 1/4 in. stereo jack
Focal Elear Headphones Listening Tests
Queuing up Styx “Renegade” the kick drum almost shook my head it was so realistic. The intro vocals opened up wide in perfected stereo and the effect was chilling. The sibilance detail was outstanding. When everything came in, rather than blowing up into a mess, the mix maintained its balance. Tommy Shaw’s vocals and James Young’s guitar rang though with such gritty clarity and detail and the low tom that comes in after rang true with lots of reverb. The real magic came later, however when the multi-voice chorus comes back in and the hi-hat just cuts through the mix until the bass falls back in. It’s a great song, and a cool mix to listen to on a nice set of headphones.
Superchick “We Live”
An oldie but goodie, “We Live” is a great tune to listen to with some clean female harmonies. The electric “acoustic” guitars came through with some nice bottom end that just felt exceptionally natural. I also love the use of DJ effects in this song, and the interplay of bottom end drops and record scratches is just plain fun. The cleanness of this track and the combined male-female vocals in the second verse really pushed the limits of what a good set of headphones can reproduce without losing the upper midrange to micro distortions. I could really hear all the detail here, and it made these Focal Elear headphones stand out from the crowd.
Radiohead Moon Shaped Pool
The first track on this album, “Burn the Witch”, is particularly excellent for low end response and male vocals. On some headphones it can be a bit muddy, but with the Focal Elear headphone the fidelity of the track remained. You could really hear the percussive detail of the orchestral build and the string section hitting the strings col legno battuto with their bows. The vocals had a gentle reverb that decayed nicely underneath everything, and this track really made good use of the dynamics of the Elears. On the other end of the album, the ballad “True Love Waits” makes its studio debut with layers of pianos, ambient accents, and an extremely raw male vocal. That vocal really takes a present position up front in the soundstage, and it was possible to sit back and listen to this track several times to pick out the individual components.
Rage Against the Machine Rage Against the Machine
“Bomb track” isn’t the most beautifully lyrical song ever made, but in terms of production quality, it’s hard to deny the clean juxtaposition of electric guitar, strong vocals, harmonies, and solid drums. The kick on this album punched through the Focal Elears as if it was in the room with me. The strong guitars were clean and pure with absolutely powerful dynamics. And that’s what I took away from this demo—the Elear headphones have tons of dynamic range. From the most background hi-hat to the heaviest kick drum hit everything came through in its place.
From excellent dynamics to pristine fidelity, it’s nearly impossible to fault the Focal Elear headphones. The open back design makes for an incredibly pure listening experience. The detail, power, and clarity of these phones need to be a heard—and appreciated. At $999 they aren’t inexpensive, but if you want your money’s worth, you’ll certainly get it here.
For more information on Focal headphones, check out their website.