Enter the Next Generation: Focal Elear Headphone

I'm disoriented.

For some time now, there has been a drive in the headphone world to escalate the price of high-end headphones. Wood display cases, leather headbands, esoteric cable conductors, and numerous other characteristics shout out, "I'm glorious! Empty your wallet before my greatness!"

Unfortunately, while the sound quality has improved relative to their less-expensive brethren, high-end headphones to date have not delivered any where near the improvements in sound quality that their price tag promises. This has been happening for about 5 years now, and I've gotten reluctantly comfortable with the condition. And then the Focal Elear comes along...and rocks my world.

THIS is what a $1000 headphone should be. Unapologetically masculine styling...and sexy; confidently strutting exquisite materials and build-quality; and delivering sound of a quality I've not heard before on headphones. It walked in my office, swept all the headphones off my desk in one grand gesture, and said, "Here I am. Deal with it."

I don't think I have yet. I'm not confident I've got a firm grasp of what I'm hearing...and frankly, I'm not sure I will have for a while. I'm disoriented, but you need to know about these headphones. I'll give it my best shot, but I can't wait until the Focal Elear gets out in the wild and we start hearing feedback from the community. I'm certain it will be very well received...I'm just not certain of how it will be heard by everyone. This is BIG!

Focal Elear ($999)
The Focal Elear is a full-sized, around-the-ear, open-acoustic headphone. The styling is absolutely terrific; a very masculine look in black and gray. As much a sculpture as headphone, fit and finish dissolve into a confident whole. "I am headphone, hear me."

The black leather headband terminates at either end with a black anodized aluminum fittings emblazoned with the Focal's name. The microfiber covered memory foam headband pad is plush and does a good job of distributing the weight of this moderately heavy headphone (450gr w/o cable) over a good portion of the top of my head.

The adjustable yolks are formed anodized aluminum. Headband size adjustment is quick and easy to achieve fit, detents hold position securely. Ear cup rotation is accomplished by the headband arms actually rotating within the headband receiver. The system permits about 20 degree of relatively easy rotation. I haven't seen a mechanism like this before; it seems to work very well indeed, and seems to be an elegant solution to reduce complexity but retain function.

Ear capsules are covered with a fine metal mesh in a graceful domed shape. Due to the angled driver, the driver cover fitting is somewhat forward of center of the capsule. This metal ring has "Elear" written on it at the top, and "Fabrique en France" and "Aluminium-Magnesium" on the bottom segments between the three attachement screws. The center of the driver cover fitting is an even finer metal mesh, and has a Focal logo attached in the center.

Ear pads are Microfiber covered memory foam with ample 64mm X 56mm openings. Ear pads are attached to the ear capsule with sturdy plastic tabs, and can be removed and replace with a simple tug and push.

The very long (13 feet) cable is in a "Y" configuration, connecting to each earpiece with a mono 3.5mm plug. The player end is a Neutrik 1/4" TRS plug. Focal claims this is a very low impedance (<90 mOhm) OFC cable; its twin-lead design and shielding is claimed to deliver very low crosstalk. This cable should be very easy for capable enthusiasts to modify for balanced operation with either 4-pin or two 3-pin XLR configurations.

Also included is a magnetic closure storage case.

The Elear was very comfortable for long listening sessions. It's slightly on the heavy side, but the fit is simply outstanding and I had no sense of excess bulk on my head. The only comfort/ergonomic problem I had was the weight and stiffness of the cable, which is significant. Once you're settled in for the listen it's not a problem, but you definitely feel it dragging and swinging about when you're moving around. On the other hand, it's nice to have that quality, long cable when your listening chair is a bit distant from your rig or you're moving around the office.

In terms of styling, build-quality, and comfort, the Elear kills it. This is a sweet piece of gear!

Acoustics and Driver
Focal_Elear_Photo_Driver

Focal is famous for their speakers and drivers—that doesn't necessarily mean they know diddly-squat when it comes to headphones, though. I was a bit skeptical when I head about these coming out, but after having a good hard look at the Elear all I can say is, "Man, somebody knows a hell of a lot about headphones over there." From my laymans, but fairly experienced, eyes, the Elear is one of the most beautiful acoustic designs I've seen. I'd put it right up there with the Sennheiser HD 800 S.

At the heart of the Elear is a driver unlike any I've seen before. The overall configuration is driven by the shape of the dome itself. Made from an aluminum/magnesium alloy, the dome is extremely light and stiff. Unlike normal plastic film headphone diaphragms, the bulk of the surface area is taken up by the dome. This is important for a number of reasons:

  • There is less opportunity for for trapped air resonances around the edge of the dome, outside the voice coil.
  • The wide diameter of the voice coil allows for a large opening behind the dome to release sound from the back of the driver with less opportunity for resonances and poor tuning.
  • Focal claims the large, stiff dome shape propagates the sound wave front more naturally towards the ear.

Attached to the rear at its annular crease, the dome is driven by an unusual voice coil. Most voice coils are built by wrapping the wire around plastic tube called a former which is then attached to the driver diaphragm. The Elear voice coil is built by wrapping the wire and adhesives around a form, but the form is removed before the voice coil is attached to the dome. This makes for an extremely light voice coil, and therefor a more responsive driver.

The dome is attached to the frame with a surround that acts as a suspension allowing the dome to move back and forth freely. The surround is an astonishing 80 microns thin and permits the dome to move relatively long distances without impediment keeping distortion low even at high volumes.

Focal_Elear_Photo_Baffle

Focal Elear baffle plate.

The entire driver assembly is mounted to the rear of the angled portion of the baffle plate, and the dome is position slightly forward, aiming back at the ear. There is a metal grill covering the driver; when I scrape it with my finger tips I hear just a little sound that may be characteristic of this element. I often tap on various parts of headphones with my fingernails to see if I hear sounds. I would say the Elear is far better than most in this regard; it sounds fairly similar wherever I tap...which is a good thing. (You might be surprised at how many times headphone bits made odd noises if you haven't tried this yourself.)

Around the driver in the baffle plate is a large array of vent openings covered in a very fine open mesh. This leaves a fairly large opening for sound to escape the ear cup, travel through the mesh and into the ear capsule, and exit the ear capsule through the outer metal screen making this a very acoustically open headphone. The sound from the back of the driver exits through the central screen of the outer ear capsule; the two acoustic signals never meet until outside the headphones. Very cool.

Physical Summary
All-in-all, the Elear is exactly what I would expect to see in a $1000 headphone...it's just shockingly satisfying to actually see it. This is an absolutely gorgeous headphone, extremely well designed and built. If the sound is as good as its build, this thing is a knock-out.

Let's have a listen...

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

COMMENTS
TMRaven's picture

Would love to hear Bob Katz's impressions of these.

ScaryFatKidGT's picture

Same

eric65's picture

Hello Tyll,

Thank you for this review of Focal ELear.

From your description, the Alter Ego of Elear is called Kennerton Vali; another open dynamic headphones of similar price ($ 990); I advise you to listen it !

About Utopia, more qualitative (than Elear), I'll see the Odin as a serious competitor to him ; also listen to ...

Eric

24grant24's picture

it is weird how conspicuously absent both AKG and Beyerdynamic have been at the leading edge of audio, they seem largely content to rest on their laurels with a few minor launches that don't shake anything up

ScaryFatKidGT's picture

Idk Beyer has the T1

MattTCG's picture

Maybe there is no such thing, but...did you find this fatiguing at all after extended use? Say about an hour or more.

Shardnax's picture

Will you be comparing Utopia to the SR-007/9?

On a side note: Should I feel a little bad about my 800S purchase now that these are out? Or is all the talk of super HD600 the more apt comparison?

Magoo's picture

Stax,

How long have you had your 800S? What Amp/DAC do you use? Did you use a different cable other than stock?

I love my 800S and I made a 20 foot cable to get to MLP....after about 150 hours I really enjoy mine and can listen for long periods with ease!

Cheers,
Larry

Shardnax's picture

Around a month and ten days. Using a soundcard as my DAC/amp at the moment until I can afford to upgrade to standalone external gear. I plan on using the stock cable as long as I have them unless it gets damaged.

I like my HD800S, don't get me wrong. I'm mostly just hoping Tyll might comment further on comparisons between these two cans.

Magoo's picture

I'm glad you like your 800S. Mine a couple months old. I drive with my MAC Mini's asyncronus files to my Oppo HA-1 DAC/Amp which I think is a great combo....The stock cables were too short to get to MLP so I made a 20 footer from some great cable.

Do you believe that your 800S sounds different after break-in? I guess it's something that Tyll is skeptical of...

Thanks,
Larry

Shardnax's picture

I haven't noticed any particular difference in the sound. I do believe that response can vary after extended use, for better or worse. Nothing is perfect after all.

Pedalhead's picture

One of the things I love about my HE1000s is that I can (and do) listen to them all day long without wanting to rip my ears off at the end of it. This is probably in part because they lack that punch and dynamism and the Elear seems to have based on your review, Tyll. With that in mind, any thoughts on how the Elgar fares in terms of listener fatigue? Cheers.

Magoo's picture

Tyll,

Pardon my ignorance, but is the Angled Driver a compliment to Sennheiser?

Thanks,
Larry

Phoniac's picture

Or to Ultrasone? Or to ...fill in what you like...Senn did not invent that.

Magoo's picture

Thanks for cluing me in....I just did not know....;-)

Magoo's picture

Tyll,

What music did what for you to call the 800 S Crispy??? A negative description I guess from you...

Thanks,
Larry

Headphone4life's picture

I would have loved a comparison to the Nighthawk as they are both very unique hp's. Looks like I might just have to spend $1000 on a hp for the first time ever, though I might wait for some used ones so I can still say I haven't paid a G for a hp (I'm weird like that).

mithrandir39's picture

is definitely a different beast. having listened to both recently, the Elear is higher resolution in term of rendering details, and has a touch less bass, cleaner treble, and absolutely smokes it in the midrange. I've always thought the nighthawk had a hollow-sounding midrange. I would just say the Elear is in a different class altogether.

Headphone4life's picture

I get what your saying about the mid-range because it can sound a little distant or hollow at times but for me I love the hp and it sounds quite balanced most of the time (well the bass isn't as inline as the mids and high but I don't mind that at all). If I've been listening to my HD700 for awhile then go back to the Nighthawk it sounds really dark at first but after 10 or 15 mins my minds adjusted and I'm back in love with them, it just has something I can't explain that no other hp I have, had or heard does. The Elear really does sound like a hp I'd like to get so I'm sure I will in the next few months.

tony's picture

Phew,

Tyll's prose (headphone's leading consumer Authority) placing these Focals on the Wall of Fame, has to be a great Triumph for the designers in France!

I wonder if our domestic loudspeaker people ( Wilson or any others ) will now be drawn into the (much) larger world of high-performance headphones?, I suspect not because Sennheiser and Focal manufacture their own unique drivers.

I also ponder if our Tyll has been impacted by his experience working with the Harmon/JBL M2 System, that "Big Sound" he refers to.

I worked with and sold Big Sound Systems in the 1980s and know the feelings they impart on listeners, the qualities that make them dominant contributors to household harmony/dis-harmonies.

Effortless dynamics might be charasmatic in a headphone, I'll certainly be exploring these things ( will they supplant my loved Sennheisers? )

I cannot remember a review of any product or service that so convincingly described something, without using any of the Cliche superlatives, I suppose Tyll doesn't need to, his impression carries it.

Efficiency wise, these Focals "should" be able to play to 115db levels with the little Chord Mojo's 38milliwatts! Is a powerful Amp needed?, I think not.

Big Sound on a Park-Bench has become a reality!

Congratulations to Focal,

Tony in Michigan

crossfeeder's picture

Many thanks for this wonderful review, as well as for the whole website and your work!

Quoting the review "The only place I could find to really put my finger on some sort of problem is a narrow peak in response at 10kHz that makes things a bit zingy. I found it using pink noise..."

A very interesting hint, to my mind, but how exactly did you do this, i.e. how do you proceed with "applying" pink noise to a pair of headphones?
Simply playing the noise (i.e. the whole frequency band) or sweeping through the frequencies with a narrow bell filter or so, by means of an EQ?

Thanks a lot...

Jazz Casual's picture

That description reminds me of my response to the Fostex TH900. I'm excited about the Elear and the opportunity to hear it can't come soon enough.

m8o's picture

Tyll or Anyone that has tried it on ... how is the fit on a physically large head?

Love the sound of my Focal spirit one. But physically verges on impossible to wear, and an over stressed broken headband. Hope to hear confirmation Focal took larger heads into account with this.

Dr.Phil's picture

Tyll you didn't mention, are this easy to drive by any amp ? Can it run directly form the computer for example?

yotsuffy's picture

Hi!
Has anyone tried the Hifiman HE-560 and the Elear? If so, what would be the differences between them?
:)

EvenR's picture

I'd especially like to know this, since i just bought a pair of HD800S and i'm wondering what sort of gear you found the Elear better on.

Profbratsch's picture

Is it possible that, since Focal conceived these headphones as a "super-nearfield" version of their full-sized speakers, a longer than average time might be needed to break in the drivers?

BTW that terminology does not come from me-I believe that was used during the interview with Jude and the developer of the Elear.

ab_ba's picture

It is comments like this: "the LCD-X; I think it may be a better headphone than I think it is." that make Tyll the audio reviewer I trust the most.

Ranstedt's picture

I always wanted to try the Focal Spirit Pro for studio use but a few things held me back. Quality control issues (in the beginning), comfort issues, and the cans being closed. Regardless, I should have tried them out for myself. I know, it's not too late for that.

Then, after lots of research, and HD800 comparisons, I came very close to buying a pair of Ether's. I'm sure I would have enjoyed them. However, I took a step back because I really wasn't ready to spend that much on cans. Btw, I like that the Elear has a little more low end compared to the Ether since that was a small concern of mine when considering the Ether.

So, these new Elear headphones seem pretty amazing for the price tag.

Are the dynamics at all exaggerated? Or is it giving you an accurate representation? Regarding neutrality, how is it compared to the Ether / Hd800? And what about soundstage?

Thanks,

Randolph

dripf's picture

Just buy a Stax Lambda system from PJ. There should be a big banner warning people to just buy Stax or perhaps a HD 600/650 unless you really know what you are doing. The most poverty mode model is superior to all dynamic products. Look at the 207 measurements and compare to kilobuck models.

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