Focal Clear review: headphones for the stylish audiophile

Monday, 23 October 2017, 09:24:50 PM. These $1,500 headphones from France feel and sound divine

Last summer, a high-end speaker company out of France shocked the audiophile world with two of the best pairs of high-end headphones, the $1,000 Focal Elear and $4,000 Focal Utopia. I loved them both. For this year’s reprise, Focal has cut the prices of those two models and introduced one that splits the difference between them with a silver marvel called the Focal Clear. Priced at $1,500, the Clear is a definite luxury purchase for any of us, but my experience with it over the past few weeks has confirmed that Focal has once again struck gold (or silver, in this case).

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In spite of my overwhelmingly positive experience with Focal’s earlier audiophile offerings, I really didn’t have high expectations from the Clear. On first look, they seem almost too pretty to be any good. Just let your eye traverse the undulating contours of the metal yoke that gently but solidly grips the ear cup. Gaze upon the finely patterned mesh on the exterior, which is highlighted by a keenly polished Focal logo that catches the light and just shoots playful reflections back at you. Oh, and feel those soft, perforated pads. These headphones make love to your eyes before they’ve started to do anything to your ears.

The Clear’s fancy looks are enhanced by a choice of three striped cables: one measuring 1.2 meters and terminating in a 3.5mm connector, a longer 3-meter wire with a 6.35mm plug, or another 3-meter cable with a chunky XLR termination. Each one of these individually — and as a group offering much more flexibility — trumps the Elear and Utopia’s cable options. Focal’s earlier cans came with 4-meter pythons that weighed almost as much as the headphones themselves. Focal has really stepped up its accessory game in 2017, providing a lovely hard carrying case that is shaped to fit the Clear perfectly. Because the company’s kept the same general dimensions and proportions across its three headphone sets, that case is compatible with the Elear and Utopia too.

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Weighing in at 450 grams (a smidgen under 1lb), the Clear should be an intimidating proposition to keep on your head for long periods of time, but they absolutely are not. Focal’s unchanged design remains as it has been because it’s just so well engineered. Weight distribution on the Clears is very well balanced. The entire headband (as opposed to just a hotspot at the center of my head) absorbs the headphones’ weight, and there’s a reassuring firmness to the clamp of the ear pads around my ears. These headphones will neither fall off from being too loose nor become painful from clinging on too tight. They’re also, dare I say, compact for a pair of ultra high-end headphones; I can wear them around my neck easily and they don’t produce the Princess Leia look of something like the MrSpeakers Ether Flow.

One point of concern with Focal’s design that I should raise is about its long-term durability. I have come across review pairs of the Focal Elear and Utopia that have developed squeaks and creaks from unloving use. I’m sure a careful owner wouldn’t have to worry with the Clears, but I can’t be as enthusiastic about their endurance as I can be about something like the eternal Sennheiser HD 650. Just bear in mind that these pretty and dainty silver cans should be handled with care.

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I’ve talked enough about what the Focal Clear look and feel like. How do they sound? Well, let me first say that you’ll want to get a nice and powerful amplifier to extract the most joy out of these. If you’re spending $1,500 on the headphones, you can’t be feeding them the $9 dongle your phone maker served you with. I use, and am mightily satisfied with, the $399 Schiit Jotunheim DAC and amp combo unit. The other thing worth acknowledging is that these are open-back headphones, meaning anything you listen to will be audible to everyone around you and you’ll be able to hear everything as if you’re not wearing any headphones. No sound isolation of any kind.

My first listening experience with the Focal Clear was nice, but something felt missing. As I kept jumping between various portable headphones and the Clear, the Focals consistently felt undernourished in terms of bass. I recount this experience only because I suspect it would be a very common one for most Verge readers. When you come to headphones like these, you’ll find yourself feeling somehow shortchanged. It’s like eating rice pudding without any extra sugar in it. Things feel too lean.

These are the headphones to get if you want to get addicted to lifelike vocals and acoustic instruments

But here’s the upside to this tale: if you make it out of the bass basement and just trust these headphones to show you what they’re capable of on their own terms, you’ll be deeply, profoundly satisfied. My eye-opening moment came when a good friend recommended Sentimental Swingers to me, a Bulgarian swing trio that does the sort of music I practically never listen to. It was while I enjoyed the trumpets and trombone of Unemployed Lovers that I really felt an affinity with the Focal Clears. I stopped looking for that earth-shaking bass and just enjoyed the music presented to me. The musicality of the high frequencies, the playful interaction between vocals, piano, and wind instruments was just enchanting. I later returned to Sentimental Swingers with other headphones and was let down by them all — nothing sung as sweetly or as coherently as the Clears.

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Confirmation of the emotive power of the Clear came when I was casually listening to the Bleach soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu. The track Never Meant to Belong is a forlorn piano tune that gradually builds up to a violin section which, when listened to on the Clear, almost made me shed a tear. The Clear live up to their name with an exceptionally taut and precise sound reproduction. If there’s any distortion coming out of these cans, I’m not hearing it. And if I may indulge in a bit of audio jargon, these headphones are about as transparent as you can wish them to be. By that I mean they take whatever source material they’re given and just serve it up in its natural form. Remember that unsweetened pudding.

Returning to my favored deep bass tracks like The Knife’s Silent Shout, I still feel a desire for some more bass than the Clears are giving me, but I don’t feel particularly deprived. Basically, these headphones give me more in terms of mid-range lushness and treble finesse — an advantage that presents itself with vocals, piano, classical and acoustic instruments — than they take away from the bass department. And, in all honesty, I’m probably just being greedy. I’ve seen Head-Fi’s frequency measurements of the Focal Clears, and they show an elevated bass anyway. It just isn’t quite as elevated as that of the earlier and cheaper Elears.

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Focal has crafted a surprising and delightful pair of headphones with its $1,500 Clears. As the company promised, they split the difference between the infinite resolution and detail of the ultra-expensive Utopia and the fun, engaging sound signature of the Elear. I’m getting every little detail and twinkle in my music, yet I still enjoy an emotional punch with tracks that seek to deliver it. Never mind how the Clear sound, they feel faithful and correct.

Outside of Focal’s own range, I would most readily compare the Clears to Sennheiser’s HD 800 S. The HD 800 S are in the same ballpark in terms of price, and they too have this addictive quality of beautifully presenting every distinct little detail in a recording. The key word here is “beautifully,” as I’ve seen and heard many, even more expensive, audiophile headphones that get lost in over-sharpening the treble and neglecting the bass.

I don’t think anything has been neglected with the Focal Clear. Focal made a choice to prioritize detail and precision in its sound over the more facile thrills of extra servings of bass. What has emerged from that decision is a fantastically well balanced sound married to an equally well thought-out and precise design. These headphones are just as pretty on the inside as they are on the outside.

My ultimate test for a pair of headphones is how much I want to keep listening to them after a review is complete, and right now, I don’t care to listen to anything else.

9 Verge Score

Focal Clear

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Good Stuff

  • No sibilance, no distortion, enchantingly pleasant to listen to
  • Lifelike vocals and instruments
  • Luxurious ear pads and enduring comfort
  • Excellent carry case and cable selection

Bad Stuff

  • More bass would have made them perfect
  • Not designed to withstand reckless use
  • You’ll need a good amplifier to get the most out of them

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge

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