Focal has been in the speaker business for more than 35 years, but it wasn’t until recently that they decided to take the leap into headphone development. Their initial products took the form of three “Spirit” headphones, now called the One S, Classic and Professional. The line was met with some critical acclaim by the audio press and that collection of sub-$400 closed-back headphones has since become a known quantity within a greater bustling market of personal audio products.
Having earned their sea legs through formal introductions, Focal is now poised for another update to their headphone offerings, this time including a dead-serious flagship effort named Utopia ($4k), a mid-tier Elear ($1k), as well as another refreshed closed-back piece “Listen” ($250). The focus of this review is to address the new Elear, but our formal review of the Uptopia can also be found [here].
By Dan Browdy
As the $999 Focal Elear is at a generally good price to performance ratio, a lot of us are wondering how it sounds. I, however, have a different question: what’s an elear? I briefly hit up the Google and came back with nothing so I got down to thinking. My first thought was that it’s an “eLear”, a PDF version of the Shakespearean tragedy, but that didn’t fit at all. My dearth of education in the Spanish language led me to wonder if it’s “El Ear”, obviously Spanish for “the ear”. Then I remembered that Focal is based in France, so that probably wasn’t it either. As a last ditch effort, I decided to put some effort into the Google search and found something interesting.
Elear appears to be the name of a Polish cavalry unit from the 17th century. They were chosen from the best cavalrymen in the army and they were sent into battle ahead of the famed Winged Hussars to soften up the enemy and put some fear into them. At one point, they earned the nickname “Riders of the Apocalypse”! Now that’s a name with some cojones. Let’s see if they live up to the name.
Unless you live in a very rural area, this Elear won’t arrive on horseback. The Focal Elear comes in a classy carrying case. The sturdy box has a magnetic locking mechanism and opens up to present a nice foam saddle in which to transport the Elear and its 4 meter (13 ft) cable. The padding on the inner top of the case is reminiscent of the acoustic foam that lines recording studios, audio labs, and world-class 2-channel listening rooms. This is very appropriate as the entire design of the Elear (and the mighty Utopia from which it is descended) is based upon putting a small, full-range loudspeaker into a headphone body and using the cups and pads to create the perfect listening “room”. This informs design choices like the unique shape of the cups, the angle of the drivers within the cups, and the construction of the ear pads. The most visually striking part of the Elear is its ear cup design. It’s a spherical section like many headphones, but, since the driver is angled, the sphere is sectioned at an oblique angle. It’s clear that form follows function here, and Focal did a great job of incorporating this off-kilter design into a pleasing aesthetic. The design of the rest of the headphone is understated in a way that I find very classy, making the off-center Focal logo all the more interesting.
The cups are stirruped in an organically curved aluminum yoke that is slightly off-axis to allow them to pivot while keeping the driver optimally positioned. The rotation is limited to a single axis within the yoke, while the entire yoke pivots on the other axis using a clever mechanism within the headband. That headband is leather and soft, distributing the headphone’s 450g of weight evenly across the top of the head with no notable hot spots. The height adjustment is a drama-free affair, easy enough to slide around but with a positive tactile feedback that makes it feel like it will stay put once you’re done adjusting. The clamping pressure is what I’d call just right; it’s tight enough to keep the unit secure without feeling like it’s putting too much pressure on the head. The headphone is slightly heavy, but it wears its weight well thanks to the overall design and balance of the unit. The removable pads are made of a soft microfiber cloth. They are plush enough to be soft against the head and form a nice seal, while being rigid enough to retain their shape with little issue. I’ve worn headphones in the price range that hit both extremes (too hard or too soft) and I find these to be a superb balance of the two. And since they’re not made of leather, pleather, protein leather, leatherette, lambskin, or any other leather-like substance, they stay nice and cool against the head. Between the pads’ 20mm depth, their rigidity under pressure, and the recessed drivers in the cups, there is plenty of room for my average-sized ears in there. The included cable is 4 meters long, slightly short for the lance of a typical Polish Hussar in the 17th century, but one of the longest cables I’ve seen included with a headphone. The OFC copper cable is surprisingly thick while still being extremely supple and resistant to holding its shape after being coiled in the box for a while. It connects to the cups via dual ⅛” mono connectors with a self-locking system and it has a ¼” TRS connector on the other side. There are absolutely no microphonics with this cable, a statement which the company says no accident. With its muted colors punctuated by reflective accents, the overall design aesthetic feels modern and classic at the same time. That, along with the sturdy construction and tight tolerances, just screams quality. It certainly doesn’t resemble the gaudy ornate armor of the Winged Hussars.
The ancient Elears were light cavalry that used short bows and swords from horseback to reach out and touch their targets. This Elear’s weapon of choice is a pair of 40mm aluminum-magnesium dynamic drivers. The drivers are descended directly from Focal’s highly-regarded lines of loudspeakers and pro monitors. The aluminum offers rigidity, and the magnesium adds some damping in the frequency ranges where the aluminum needs it most. Focal claims that the combination offers up an exquisitely linear response.
Another interesting benefit of the aluminum-magnesium driver is that there is surprisingly little outward sound leakage. This is a very open headphone; you can see right through it as shown in the photos. I expected it to leak as badly as the Hifiman HE-1000 or Sennheiser HD800 but that is not the case. I was told by Focal that this is because any metallic driver tends to have a much stronger impulse inwards than outwards, causing almost no outward sound to be generated. There is, of course, some inward leakage of outside sounds, but that’s to be expected with any open headphone. Focal has also incorporated their new “M” dome shape, which comes directly from the flagship Utopia headphone. The shape is used to eliminate certain avenues of distortion, giving a cleaner sound overall. The upshot of all this driver tech is that it offers a reported frequency response from 5Hz to 23kHz with very little distortion. The THD is reported to be <0.3% at 1 kHz / 100 dB. And while we’re talking specs, I’ll just mention that it’s got a 80 ohm impedance and 104 dB / 1 mW sensitivity, making it extremely easy to drive to loud volumes.
The Cavalry Charge
The sound of a cavalry charge alone was enough to cause defenders to break and scatter, allowing them to be easily picked off by attackers. Historians believe that the wings worn by the Winged Hussars clattered during the charge to make the sound even more fearsome. When I first put on the Elear headphones, my initial impression was of thunderous, deep bass — the pounding of hooves approaching at homicidal velocities. Further listening revealed an easy-going sound with big bass, lush mids and smooth, extended highs.
The boosted bass is the most immediate sonic characteristic of the Elear. It’s well north of neutral without getting into basshead territory like the Fostex TH-900 or Shure 1540. Being a dynamic driver, there is some bloom to the bass. It’s not as detailed as planar bass, but it can sound more realistic because of that. The bloom is well-controlled and doesn’t leak into the mids, giving it a large, enveloping feeling. The bass extends well into the sub-bass regions, giving a great physicality to the rumble when appropriate. It’s worth noting that, because of the mid-bass boost, the Elear can begin to lose a little bit of control on a track that’s mastered with a large mid-bass boost as well.
The mid-range frequencies are absolutely top notch. Lush and detailed with a nice body to them, these mids are up there with some of the best I’ve heard. Guitar, piano, and vocals were all rendered with a pleasing fullness. As big as the bass is, it doesn’t seem to intrude on the mids at all, leaving them feeling neither recessed nor forward. There are many people out there who still use the Sennheiser HD 650 because they’ve never found a headphone that can give them the same experience as a well-driven 650. Those people will definitely want to give the Elear a listen as this feels like a very natural and worthy upgrade from that venerable classic.
The treble frequencies are somewhat unique. The area where the upper mids meet the lower treble range feels toned back a bit, making for an easy listening experience. However, instead of the treble just rolling off like on many other comparably priced headphones, it seems to come back up after about 9k and extends out well past the limits of my hearing. This is an interesting dichotomy; the treble can sound both laid back and airy or extended at the same time. I think this is because the lower treble is laid back relative to the upper treble, rather than the upper mids. Either way, it’s extremely smooth without any potentially annoying peakiness.
I spent a lot of time testing different tracks listening to how the treble tuning affected the presentation. In many cases, it toned back harshness in a range that people can find unappealing. For instance certain cymbal splashes can be harsh on brighter headphones, but never on the Elear. In some cases, the hi-hat cymbal would fall in the laid-back range and push it way back in the mix, while the other cymbals were unaffected, being higher in the frequency range. As a drummer, I found that distracting, but it only happened on a minority of songs. More often than not, I’d just hear a nice reduction in sibilance and other fatiguing sounds. On those tracks, the treble offers an appealing balance of smoothness and extension. I didn’t find any pattern to genres that were more affected by the treble than others. It really seemed to come down to the mastering of any given track. “Acid Rain” by Liquid Tension Experiment is a great example of a track where I found the hi-hat to be pushed back in the mix compared to the rest of the drums. In contrast, “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel and “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock had no such issues.
With all this talk of the treble, you might expect the soundstage and imaging to suffer. Happily, that’s not the case. The separation and imaging was commensurate with other headphones in the Elear’s price range. The soundstage width is actually helped by the upper treble extension, falling in between the LCD-2 and HD800. I heard no significant flaws in this area that would detract from the overall listening experience. Detail retrieval on the Elear is very good, considering the price point. Because of its laid back lower treble, it can feel lacking in micro-detail at times. In the rest of the frequency range, however, macro-detail is quite good, presenting an enjoyable sense of musicality. It’s on par with something like the HE-560 or the cherry Omni, all good headphones for macro-detail. I spent a lot of time listening to the Elear on high-end rigs from the likes of Cavalli, Woo Audio, Questyle, Schiit, Audio-GD, Auralic, Nordost and Audioquest. However, I also made sure to try it on my trusty Astell & Kern AK100ii with JDS Labs C5 amp, and the Questyle QP1R. The Elear scaled down surprisingly well. Very little of the overall musicality and flavor of the headphone was lost in the transition. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this for people with more modest systems, but don’t expect it to sound its best directly from your phone.
Overall, the Elear has the big bass, lush mids and easy-going treble that you’d find in headphones like the Audeze LCD-2, Oppo PM-1, ZMF Omni in cherry wood or even the Sennheiser HD650. However, because of that extended, airy treble, it’s much more balanced and open sounding than any of those headphones. I might also compare it loosely to the MrSpeakers Ether 1.1 (open-backed). The Ether doesn’t have the same level of sub-bass extension and it keeps the treble flat all the way through, offering a slightly different flavor. Fans of brighter headphones like the Hifiman HE-560 or Sennheiser HD 800 might find that the Elear isn’t quite their flavor of choice.
The 17th century Elears in between battles had to forage for their own supplies. They were ruthless and bloodthirsty, pillaging enemy and friend alike. They were reviled by both sides, earning them that “Riders of the Apocalypse” nickname. You know, perhaps I was mistaken and these weren’t actually named after those guys.
The Focal Elear is a classy-looking, well-designed headphone with impeccable pedigree. It has a fun, lush, fatigue-free sound that’s easy to listen to for hours on end. It’s easy to drive and scales well to all kinds of gear. While this sound signature has not historically been my flavor of choice, I found myself falling for the Elear the more time I spent with it. All headphones have compromises, and that certainly includes those in the $1000 price range. Some headphones are defined by their compromises: shoddy construction or poor ergonomics or glaring flaws in the sonics. I believe the Elear will be defined by what it’s accomplished despite its compromises: sturdy construction, comfortable ergonomics, attractive design, appealing sound signature with no glaring faults, etc. Focal has done a great job of giving us the “full package” at an attainable price point.
By the way, I was able to reach out to Focal to find out what the name means and it turns out that it has nothing to do with the medieval warriors after all, sorry! Elear is a portmanteau of “Elite Ears”. Now that’s a much more fitting name!
More info: http://www.focal.com/
The [Utopia], Elear, and Listen is available for purchase from select dealers worldwide, but local reseller The Source A/V will also have them in stock. You can reach them by phone to place an order, contact info is [here].