Focal Clear Over Ear Open Headphones

Headphone manufacturers pay attention: If you want to build a high-end headphone, this is the way to do it.

I've got to wonder how long Focal's strategic timeline was when they first entered the headphone market with the Spirit One in 2012. Focal is a long time high-end speaker manufacturer, so they're no doubt well familiar with the difficulties and time needed to produce world class equipment—and make no mistake, they do produce world class speakers.

From the initial crinkled diaphragm problems with the Spirit One; to the darn good sounding Spirit Professional; to the fairly 'meh' sounding Listen; and then the shockingly good Utopia and Elear—though not without some issues—it seems to me in hindsight that Focal has not only been on a mission to add headphones to their offering, but has also been conscientiously and consciously on a journey to make the world's best headphone.

At every step along the way, despite me being a bit of a hard ass in my criticisms, Focal has responded in humility and professionalism. At every turn I sensed them knuckling down not only to fix problems but to make novel strides forwarding the state of the art in headphone manufacture. And now, having the Focal Clear in hand, I sense they've reached their goal. For the first time I'm not annoyed at the price of a $1000+ headphones. You'll get your money's worth with the Focal Clear.

Focal Clear ($1499)
The Focal Clear is an over-ear, open acoustic, dynamic driver headphone. While I have a penchant for stealth black audio gear, I find the light gray/metallic silver of the Clear an immensely appealing design.

The headband outer cover is medium gray leather; the earpads and headband pad are perforated Alcantara-like microfiber; yokes are a sandblasted aluminum; outer capsule covers are stainless steel mesh; cables are black and white striped cotton covered—the Clear is a harmonious symphony of premium materials at play in the light, teasing you for attention. As I glance over at the black of the Elear and Utopia, I begin to question my preference for the dark side. This is a beautiful headphone!

Like its siblings, the Clear is a wonderfully comfortable headphone. Earpads are perforated micro-fiber over memory foam and have generous 50mm X 60mm openings; due to the angled driver and baffle plate depth is also quite roomy.

Forward and back rotation of the ear cups is effected by an unusual pivot of the yokes within the headband, which is limited, but ample. Up and down tilt rotates around the yoke arms and is spring loaded with just the right tension to ensure the bottom of the earpads seal as well and have the same pressure as the top.

Pads are removable with a sharp tug. Serial number is under the right side pad laser engraved into the baffle plate. Replacement pads are available through your dealer.

One of the biggest differences between the Clear and its siblings is the accessorization...which is absolutely terrific! The Clear comes with a beautiful fabric covered, hard-side clamshell case with zipper closure and leather strap carry handle. Cables must be removed for the Clear to fit in the case, but a molded central compartment is available to store a cable or two. Its gently curving and form fitting shape and finish makes it the nicest headphone case I've ever seen. Stunning.

A full complement of cables is also included. One short cable (1.2 meter) terminated in a 3.5mm plug and two three meter cables, one terminated in a 1/4" TRS plug and the other terminated in a 4-pin XLR for balanced use, are provided in a dandy dense foam cut out storage case. Cables are 24AWG OFC copper and are covered in a woven cotton outer sheath. Both the Elear and Utopia comes with very long and heavy cables; the new Clear cables are a welcome change. I will note they do tend to keep their kinks from being stored and are a bit stiff, but they're a significant improvement over the previous cable sets.

All cables are terminated at the earpieces with a 3.5mm mono-plug that has a mechanical mating recess so as to prevent undue strain on the connections. Focal calls it a locking mechanical connection, but it seems more like a detented mating to me.

Driver and Acoustics
Focal_Elear_Photo_Driver

Focal claims two important differences between the the Clear and Elear: the perforated microfiber earpads, and the copper voice coil. The driver uses an aluminum-magnesium alloy M-dome diaphragm with surround similar to the Elear but has a formerless copper voice coil as opposed to the copper-clad aluminum conductor of the Elear. The voice coil impedance is also lower than the 85 Ohms of other two Focals at around 60 Ohms. The very large and narrow 350 Ohm primary driver resonance at 55Hz may cause these cans to take on a marked bass boost on high output impedance amplifiers. Here's some measurements:

Focal_Clear_Graph_BottleheadClear

Clear raw response with Simaudio Moon NEO 430HA (purple) and Bottlehead Crack (orange) with about 120 Ohm output impedance.

After a little listen I decided this was a pretty poor match, delivering a wooly and indistinct sounding bass. Truth is, all three Focal cans have too low an impedance and large primary driver resonance to be successfully used with high output impedance tube amps...the Clear is particularly troublesome in this way however.

My measurements didn't show a marked increase in openness to the acoustic environment around you (though my measurement system seems to wander around a bit in its isolation measurements lately), but in wearing and comparing the Clear to Elear (and Utopia) I do think I hear it as slightly more open to external sounds.

Dan Clark (of MrSpeakers) and I had a chat about this recently and we both agreed that for some unknown (to us) reason, having less isolation from external sounds does somehow translate to perceived improvements to a headphones perceived openness.

Right, let's get to the serious listening.

COMPANY INFO
FOCAL NORTH AMERICA
9641-82 Ave
EDMONTON, AB T6C 0Z9
1 780 439 39 01
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
glabetrotter's picture

Hi Tyll!

At first I would like to congratulate the review and wish you Merry Christmas!
I want ask you what u think about Focal Listen? I know that u like other models headphones Focal. In my opinion Focal Listen are really good headphones and are better than e.g. OPPO PM3 or cheaper Beyerdynamic DT150. Uff, this is revolution in portable sound and not only, because we can use Listen in home. They are easily to drive, sounds good... very good at this price... But still it's only my opinion. Can u talk me what u think about this model?

Best regards,
James

Iliketrains's picture

Tyll said the focal listen is fairly "meh". Nothing special

Lawk's picture

I quite like the listen from an in-store demo. Certainly natural sounding.

Beagle's picture

Great headphone for the money..

zobel's picture

...Too small again for me though. I need at least a 40 mm X 70 mm opening.
I'm glad for for having my AKG K7XX, and Senn HD 600, and HD 380 Pro. I am not deprived at all. Nothing too wrong with the Amperior either.
I just wish everyone's fit could be addressed in these designs somehow.
AND I wish everyone here a Happy Christmas and Merry new Year!

Liopleus's picture

Hi Tyll,

Could you let me know if I can get similar sound by putting the Clear pads on the Elear, or is it better to simply upgrade to the Clear?

Thanks in advance!

jodet's picture

I've been a serious can guy for over a decade, Stax, Sennheiser, etc. I cannot get over how much I enjoy these Clears. They are so well balanced and the fit and quality is off the charts. They're an end game headphone for sure.

Serious's picture

Honestly the target looks more like a DF tuning with a bass bump and treble shelf than your new target. It does have less 2-3kHz than DF though.

Here's a quick and dirty overlay between the Clear and your graph with the ID, DF and new targets:
https://i.imgur.com/bGwsQLf.jpg

And here's the same thing, but with the Harman target (different HATS, though). Harman target is similar to DF, but with a speaker target FR added:
https://i.imgur.com/DDMtoy1.jpg

Idk, but the midrange curve looks pretty similar to the DF tuning of Stax phones. At least on paper this looks like nothing new.

tony's picture

Color match to hair is obvious, who does color better than the French ?

Focal is ranging Color in their Loudspeakers too.

Arn't Aesthetics & ergonomics 'part and parcel' to "Luxury" ?

You're right, they're gorgeous and people will probably want to try them out, just based on appearances.

Even those Cables have that black/white repeating contrast that I see in the Five Star French Hotels like "The Mark" in NY,NY !

Geez, this stuff just keeps getting better.

21st Century Tony in Michigan

ps. Steve Guttenberg's YouTube is a "must", he's outdoing Herb Reichert & Paul McGowan at in-sighting.

Merkurio's picture

Seems you're really enjoying them, aren't you Tyll?

Maybe isn't fair play due the price difference, but it would be great if you made a quick comparison between these and the LCD-2C.

As much as I really like what Audeze did for the price, I'm now tempted with the Clears... But the bass response, highs spikes taming and soundstage size are my main concerns, the LCD-2C simply nails it in those regards!

drm870's picture

I ask because while it's nice knowing you can finally "unreservedly recommend" a $1000+ headphone, $1500 is still going to be a stretch for me. At $800, though, the Elex would be a good step up. I've never paid more than $400 or so for a headphone (the Oppo PM-3, and I bought the Sennheiser HD 650 for a hundred or so off at the time of purchase), so that would still be a step up to be sure -- although I guess the MrSpeakers Aeon would be the competition at that price point. Anyway, appreciate all you do!

Martin.'s picture

This comment might as well come from me. I have the Oppo Pm-3, Senneheiser 6xx incoming, and am looking for the next step. Was considering this, the Elex, the LCD-2C or one of them AEons.

donlin's picture

Excellent review and spot on in all regards. This one is special.

crazywipe2's picture

Good to know there is a > kilobucks headphone without major flaws that earns the ticket without reservations!
I like them visually, but I don't like the light grey color scheme. Honestly it's too cold. Do you know if they will come out with a more appealing black version in the near future?
Thanks!

visitbe's picture

Tyll, I appreciate your efforts in creating this and other reviews. I can only imagine how much work is involved.
If I were to eat ramen for months and save up for this headphone and an amp, what amp do you recommend pairing this headphone with?

jk6661's picture

Forgive the probably noob-ish question, but why isn't the Clear a good match for high output impedance tube amps? And what constitutes "high" output impedance? I ask because I have a tube am, and I'm considering this headphone.

jherbert's picture

"...After a little listen I decided this was a pretty poor match, delivering a wooly and indistinct sounding bass. Truth is, all three Focal cans have too low an impedance and large primary driver resonance to be successfully used with high output impedance tube amps...the Clear is particularly troublesome in this way however..."

mariscosyketchup's picture

I agree 100% with you, the Clears are something special.
However, a few nitpicks:
- I would like more room on the earpads, something like 70x50 mm instead of 60x50mm.
- A tad less midbass (to prevent the slight bleed into the mids), and a bit smoother treble, to get a more "even, liquid" sound.
- A bigger soundstage, the Clears (and also Elear and Utopia) have a small soundstage to my tastes.

That would make them just perfect for me.

zobel's picture

What you said.

sszorin's picture

Focal made a big error by using 40mm driver in their headphones. 50mm should be a minimum for top end headphones, 50mm driver balances frequency bands better than 40mm one. Focal Clear's driver bleeds bass into middle frequencies - that means 'Clear' are not transparent headphones. They have an upper mids roll-off in the critical frequencies 1000Hz - 3000Hz, which affects overtones. I predict the new Audio-Technica ADX5000, with its 58mm driver will push Focal Clear aside.

Malik's picture

Audio-Technica? No thank you ;)) LOL

sszorin's picture

Focal ? LOL

Malik's picture

If you happen to find this headphones let me know please! I still havent found! I want Clear to have bigger earpads, smoother treble, bigger soundstage and deeper bass!

IgorC's picture

I wonder whether Tyll can add numerical rating to his reviews. I think that will be even more representative and useful for people.

Something like, bass is 4.5, highs are 4.0, comfort is fantastic (5.0) etc...

Thank You.

Ranstedt's picture

Tyll,

which of these cans would you recommend for an audio professional that needs a reference pair of cans to mix / master on? Which of these cans expose flaws better in a piece of music?

The reason I'm comparing to the Aeon Closed is because in the Aeon Closed review you said "With a sound straight down the middle, both audio enthusiasts and professionals will find themselves pleased as punch with this high-value audio transducer. Tonal balance and transient response are extraordinary; imaging is very good for a sealed headphone; only some roughness and slight dynamic compression belie the fact that this is a sealed headphone and isn't going to deliver the finess, smoothness, and liquidity of some open headphones."

Thanks.

Phoniac's picture

Audeze LCD MX4.

南开米饭's picture

why just pull off the Stax 009? it stays there too long

GNagus's picture

Before you rip headphones off the wall, keep in mind that some headphones such as the HD800S play nice with a variety of amps.

MLSensai's picture

Hi Tyll,

I appreciate your reviews. Based on your impression of the Elear I bought this can in March but missing a little bit clarity. Now I am very excited about your opinion of the Clear. I also owned and own Sennheiser HD6XX(S) and in my opinion the Elear is suoerior to them already. So on Head-Fi I found measurements comparing the Clear with all these and now the Massdrop Elex has been measured and compared with the Clear.

The Elex and Clear seem to be twins in their freqzency responses. The Elex with a little bit more energy above 10k and the Clear with a few dB more bass under 40Hz (should not be a big deal).

Ok, to shorten this...
Will you compare both directly, the Elex and the Clear?

Here is the link to the measurements
https://www.head-fi.org/threads/massdrop-x-focal-elex-review-measurement...

Best regards
Mark

Malik's picture

Try your Elears with Clear's pads bro! Or with Utopia's pads. They are easily switchable so dont think its a big issue for your dealer or shop. Man... you will get the clarity added believe me!

南开米饭's picture

really been pulled off

Beagle's picture

Still seeing a significant trough in the 6-8kHz region

Iliketrains's picture

tru dat

mtmercer's picture

Hi Tyll!

Great review as usual. I would be interested in your thoughts on the Sonarworks Reference 4 Systemwide calibration of the Focal Elear and how that compares to the stock Focal Clear. I have the Elear and the stock frequency response is not ideal IMO. Reference 4 Systemwide improves that greatly IMO. As the Clear is very neutral, I wonder how much technical or musicality improvements there are over the Elear once the frequency response issues are resolved (assuming Sonarworks in fact does that for the Elear. You would know more than me). Thanks!

Malik's picture

You know what? I have been having beyerdynamics mmx300 gaming headphones (needed microphone with headphones) for 2 years and Focal Clear that u got a few days ago. I immediately felt the lack of midrange and bass which made me really upset! A few hours ago i put on mmx300 while gaming and after the game i put on my music and.... WOW! Here is my bass and my midrange... 300 dollar headphone just gives way more pleasure to listen with! Yes it may not have the clarity of Clear, less soundstage and less dynamics in a way blablabla... But hey, why the f... do i need Clear if i cant listen to music with appropriate bass that im supposed to listen by the musician who made music itself?! Jesus, im so confused! MMX300 is a closed headphone and man... let it be closed if the nature of closed headphones provides with such a deep tight bass comparing to more clear and detailed sound of an open headphone! For Jazz and Classic maybe great but for Electronic, Ambient, Psychill, Pop, Rap... any music that bass is involved.. stay away guys! Only closed headphones!

Malik's picture

I'm using this headphones for 3 days and here what you guys should know!
Its true its so sharp and detailed. The highs are so super sharp... and Clear lacks bass. Its like you turn off bass and push the highs to the limit. After 1 hour you really can get tired cause its so fatiguing. 99% of people want to listen comfortably and long, not monitoring all the things going on. No open headphones have bass. They all lack it. For classical music, vocals, jazz its super but for music where u have bass... u dont have it. I dont need 2-3 headphones im not a sound freak. All focals lack bass. $4.000 utopia lacks bass too. Get closed headphones. The best ive heard was Fostex th900 mk2.

emlong's picture

I ran a returnable set of Clears on my Oppo HA-1 dac/amp for 2 days and though impressed with the dynamics I was not impressed with the narrowness of sound stage, nor the way these felt on my head. I purchased them as a companion to my old HD800's, so the setting for me acoustically was biased towards very wide and deep sound stage. I listen to all sorts of music, but the binaural beat meditation music I dwell on at times (J.S. Epperson is a favorite composer) is shortchanged by the Clears. I knew the sound stage would be narrower, but it is just too narrow to get the full effect of all the acoustic mind bending and galactic space that the best meditation music does.
The real deal killer for was that these cans just felt annoying on the head and jaw. I found that almost immediately after donning them my jaw and neck would start to tighten up. The ear cups are too small and the foam pads too thin - the result is that the pads press into the tissue enough to be very annoying. I was distractedly tense from this the moment I put them on. It wasn't a matter of this being a problem with the long listening sessions. I began to suspect as well that these pressures were actually deforming my ear canal enough to affect listening. It was not an effect of caliper pressure though – it was just a combination of weight and cup size. The 800's are sublimely forgiving in this area, so having that old workhorse there to remind me of that just made me all the more irritated with the Clears.

I was impressed with how the Clears handled vocals. Diana Krall "Live in Paris" showed me a little more detail than the HD800's, but every time the audience applauded it sounded like a tin can full of pebbles, and there just wasn't the sense of the performance taking place in a "hall" which the 800's do so well.
Greg Brown's "One More Goodnight Kiss" album on the Clears again had more forward and delineated vocals than the 800's, and the instruments were somewhat snappier and better delineated, but here again that Greg brown romantic space with a tad of acoustic reflection always present making you feel his cosmic cowboyness was just not there with the Clears.
I am not the kind of buyer who likes to return things. Returning the admittedly pretty and elegant looking Clears was like saying sayonara to a beautiful woman with halitosis. I want to like you honey, but I can’t put up with you day in day out.

I ran a returnable set of Clears on my Oppo HA-1 dac/amp for 2 days and though impressed with the dynamics I was not impressed with the narrowness of sound stage, nor the way these felt on my head. I purchased them as a companion to my old HD800's, so the setting for me acoustically was biased towards very wide and deep sound stage. I listen to all sorts of music, but the mostly FLAC binaural beat meditation music I dwell on at times (J.S. Epperson is a favorite composer) is shortchanged by the Clears. I knew the sound stage would be narrower, but it is just too narrow to get the full effect of all the acoustic mind bending and galactic space that the best meditation music does.
The real deal killer for was that these cans just felt annoying on the head and jaw. I found that almost immediately after donning them my jaw and neck would start to tighten up. The ear cups are too small and the foam pads too thin - the result is that the pads press into the tissue enough to be very annoying. I was distractedly tense from this the moment I put them on. It wasn't a matter of this being a problem with the long listening sessions. I began to suspect as well that these pressures were actually deforming my ear canal enough to affect listening. It was not an effect of caliper pressure though – it was just a combination of weight and cup size. The 800's are sublimely forgiving in this area, so having that old workhorse there to remind me of that just made me all the more irritated with the Clears.

I was impressed with how the Clears handled vocals. Diana Krall "Live in Paris" showed me a little more detail than the HD800's, but every time the audience applauded it sounded like a tin can full of pebbles, and there just wasn't the sense of the performance taking place in a "hall" which the 800's do so well.
Greg Brown's "One More Goodnight Kiss" album on the Clears again had more forward and delineated vocals than the 800's, and the instruments were somewhat snappier and better delineated, but here again that Greg Brown romantic space with a tad of acoustic reflection always present making you feel his cosmic hitchiking was just not there with the Clears.
I am not the kind of buyer who likes to return things. Returning the admittedly pretty and elegant looking Clears was like saying sayonara to a beautiful woman with halitosis. I want to like you honey, but I can’t put up with you until that business with the breath gets resolved.

Focal strikes me as a company with very honorable intentions but without the venerable headphone knowledge base that outfits like Sennheiser has. Focal is getting a lot of it right, but not yet enough right for me anyway.

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