All these headphone designs are circumaural open back designs. They don’t seal you away from your environment, and people sitting near you can hear (faintly) audio coming from the headphones. The Focal Clear headphones were easy to drive, extremely comfortable to wear, and come with a variety of connections via high quality cables to let you plug into any source device.
I’ve heard a lot of headphones going way back to the original Koss designs and the classic Sennheiser 414 headphones I used when I worked in radio. I’ve listened to high end electrostatics, and have some excellent quality planar headphones which I use for listening at home. Focal has done something special with the Clears, putting them in the rarefied air of the best headphones I’ve experienced.
Focal Clear Headphones
- Excellent Build Quality with an aluminum yoke, a leather and perforated microfiber headband, 20mm memory foam ear cushion covered with a perforated microfiber fabric.
- Locking jack mechanism for the 3.55mm jack sockets
- Low impedance for matching to varying source devices
- Very comfortable to wear even in long listening sessions
- Included hard shell carry case
- Superb balanced sound with smooth highs and tight bass
Focal is not a new name to the hi-fi scene. They’ve built an enviable reputation designing speakers. In fact, I’ve had Focal Chorus speakers for many years in my home theater. Focal is headquartered in France, and they’ve been offering speakers for almost 40 years. It was a natural evolution for the company to be offering headphones, and their design tries to emulate the sound of their speakers in a more intimate environment, around your head. Besides their home speakers, the company has been active in designing monitor speakers for professional studio venues. Focal offers a variety of wireless headphones, as well as some in-ear designs. The Focal Clear, which is the subject of this review, is not an inexpensive product at $1500, but in my testing the Focal Clear is a best in class design in terms of sound and ergonomics.
Circumaural open-back headphones
104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
0,25% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
1.6″ (40mm) Aluminum/Magnesium ‘M’-shape dome
0.99lb / 450g
3m balanced cable (XLR 4-pin)
3m unbalanced cable (1/4″ TRS jack)
1.2m unbalanced cable (1/8″ TRS jack)
1/8″ jack to 1/4″ stereo jack adapter
Focal Clear review, 2018 headphones, Headphones Review 2018
Set up of the Focal Clears is easy, as are most headphones. The only difference is that Focal provides several interconnects to match your source equipment. I used the mini jack cable to connect to my portable music player, an Astell and Kern Kann, and I used the included 1/4 “ stereo jack to listen to my Denon receiver and my Emotiva XMC-1 Preamp. They connect to my music server and my Oppo 203 and 103 disc players for listening to SACD and CD discs. So set up is just a matter of removing the well packed headphones and cables, and choose the cables that match your equipment. There’s also a concise user manual but most people won’t need it.
When first putting the headsets on, I immediately noticed how comfortable they were. I did not feel I was being clamped into a vice.
I could hear sounds from the room I was in, but sounds were mostly attenuated. If a phone rang, I could hear it, as well as close by conversations. The jacks that plug into the headphones are clearly marked left and right, so no confusion there. You’d be surprised how many headphone manufacturers almost hide that information so you really have to search for it.
The cables themselves are a delight, and I’ve seen many headphone brands skimp on cables. Focal provides braided cotton wraps around 24 AWG copper cables. They are solid, but being less flexible than the more traditional rubber coverings, they can kink up a bit, but they are also easy to straighten out.
Headphones are among the most personal of purchases. Like speakers, they have their own sound, where most electronic components simply pass the signal along straight through to a transducer, be they speakers or headphones.
Headphones are also personal because you wear them. They must be comfortable, and give you a realistic (or in some case hyper-realistic) presentation. In my experience, open back headphones, like the Focal Clears can give you a less captive sound, letting the music extend beyond the confines of the driver enclosures. I consider that a marked advantage for headphone listening, letting the experience more closely approach listening to high quality speakers in a normal acoustical requirement. Headphones have an advantage because they don’t interact with your room, giving you a very intimate sound of the recording.
For most of my comparisons I listened to my HiFi Man HE560 Open Back Planar headphones. When I purchased them back in 2014 they were $899.00, but are frequently discounted now. They are excellent headphones, but not as easy to drive as the Focal. Volume on my digital audio player had to be increased quite a bit to do level matching with the Focal Clears.
The 560s still sound quite good, but comparing them to the newer Focal Clears there are differences. High frequencies seem a bit more extended, the bass reaches a little deeper, and fast transients, like a piano key being struck seems a bit more under control with the Focals. Percussion had a bit more snap. Both headphones seemed to provide an equal soundstage, spread from my left ear to my right. Depth of image, front to back was similar as well. The HiFi Man and the Focals were comfortable to wear, but I liked the smooth covering of the Focal ear cups better than the rougher foam on the HD-560s.
For other comparisons I listened to my travel phones, the Bose Quiet Comfort 3, and my old reliable Sennheiser HD600 phones. In comparison to all those headphones the Focal Clear was obviously superior in sound and comfort. The ear is very forgiving, and if I had spent a few hours only listening to the Sennheisers they would have sounded great, but when you make the change to the Focals and level match, the sound just opens up and the proverbial veils are lifted.
Like speakers, headphone preferences can come down to taste. I found the Focals quite neutral in their sonic presentation, and that’s what I want as a serious music listener. I tend to shy away from equipment that tries to ‘fiddle’ with the frequency spectrum to meet a particular listener preference. I felt with the Focal Clears, I was listening through the headphones to the original recordings. The best recording were magnificent, the lesser quality recordings were easy to hear and to fault.
I listened to a great variety of music selections on the Focal Clears, and my selections were guided by wanting to hear very high quality recordings that would test the dynamic range, frequency response, and overall quality of the Focals. In general, I listened to high resolution recordings, or CDs that were of known good quality.
A great listen for percussion, strings and deep bass. The track “Incident at Isla Nublar” had some excellent low-end, a chorus, various percussion instruments and lovely string sounds. Even when the music got complex, there was no breakup, even at high volumes, instruments were easy to follow, and the soundstage was very distinct. I listened to a hi-res download in 24 bit, 196 kHz.
A great standby for testing audio quality, although it is an old stereo recording from 1959. Rendered in 24 bit at 196 kHz, the sound is transparent and sounds almost like it was recorded yesterday. Davis’ trumpet has plenty of punch, and the saxophones of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley are detailed.
The bassist, Paul Chambers gives us some lovey low notes you can feel through the Focal Clears, and percussion is crisp and lively.
Modern music with a lot of percussion and organ will test any audio system. The Focal Clears aced these tracks, never sounding congested or strained. This recording was an SACD.
Listening to Pidgeon’s rendition of Spanish Harlem sounded great. The human voice is actually quite difficult to reproduce realistically, but this hi-res download recording, rendered by the Focal Clears, simply could not be faulted. There’s plenty of low bass to go with the vocals, and castanets and other percussion. Many headphones fail to make this music sound realistic.
Not cheap by any means, but the FOCAL CLEAR perform like much more expensive headphones. They are a tremendous value for the asking price.
- Audio quality
- Overall build quality
- Materials chosen for the ear surrounds (memory foam) and headband (microfiber and leather)
- Cable quality and variety
- High quality carrying case
- Cables that flex more
- Included set of replaceable ear cushions
I really could not find fault with the sound of the Focal Clears. Other headphones may excel in the deepest octaves of bass, or extend the high frequencies a slight bit, but the overall sound of the Focal Clear headphones is smooth without calling attention to any discontinuities. They are comfortable to listen to, with an excellent build quality that looks like the headphones will last forever. Their size does not make them a first candidate for travel headphones. These are a high quality speaker system for your ears, to listen to in a home environment playing excellent source material through high quality electronics.