When you venture into the world of high-end audio gear, you realize expenses quickly add up – and not just in the obvious ways. Sure, you’ll spend a lot of money on top-of-the-line headphones or speakers, but in order to achieve a real improvement, you’ll need to also invest in a powerful amplifier, DAC, and high quality files in order to really feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. Some people even spend thousands of dollars of cable. Point is, there are amazing headphones priced over $1,000 that sound like trash when simply connected to your smartphone out of the box.
The $1,500 Focal Clear are not one of those headphones. Focal has long been one of the biggest names in high end speakers, but its recently ventured into headphones and has been on a roll with its first few hi-fi offerings. The Clear are the first of the company’s headphones I’ve tried, but they immediately shot to the top tier of my favorite gear list.
“It's both terrifyingly interesting and interestingly terrifying”
According to VICE, TNW Conference is quite the event
This is in part because they’re probably the most accessible over-ear headphones in the price category I’ve used. It’s rare to find a pair of full-size headphones that sound this good – in the realm of stalwarts like the Sennheiser HD800 and Audeze LCD series – yet are able to deliver most of the goods from everyday, portable audio sources. Better yet, they do so while providing honest-to-goodness bass presence – something pretty rare in the high-end, open-back speakers – but more on this in a bit.
The Focal Clear certainly look the worth their price tag, with a solid metal construction that is at once sturdier and heavier than many competitors yet still comfortable enough to wear for hours on end. The cups are big enough to not place pressure on your earlobes, and the luxuriously soft perforated pads both help keep the headphones cool and improve sound quality.
Focal also includes a neat carrying case and a cables (3.5mm, 1/4,” and balanced) that should cover most people’s connectivity needs. There’s no microphone cable, but that’s not expected of headphones in this category.
I think they’re also some of the best looking headphones in the price range, if you ask me, although I prefer the black look on some of Focal’s other headphones.
So how do they sound? Well, Focal Clear is an appropriate name.
They are the kind of headphones that just seem to disappear and let the music present itself, while showing just a few quirks to make the music extra enjoyable. Most notable is that bass I mentioned before. Usually on open back headphones – especially ones meant for the hi-fi crowd, bass is tastefully restrained. Speed and accuracy tend to take precedence over bass impact, and sub-bass often rolls off quickly without high-end amplification.
The Clear seem to deliver it all. Impact feels more like what you’d expect out of closed back models, except it reduces distracting resonances thanks to the open frame. Sub-bass runs strong all the way down, making the headphones as suitable for listening to the earth-shaking organ in Bach’s Toccata and Fugue as it is for the rumbling synth that defines Killmonger’s theme in the Black Panther film score. They bring a certain fun and energy often lacking in this category.
The midrange is the heart of the Clear’s sound, and it’s transparent and textured. It’s prominent without being overbearing; male and female vocals have a realistic edge to them while string instruments have realistic timbre and texture.
So too the treble seems to strike a fine balance between detail and sharpness. It’s not uncommon for high end headphones to have grating treble in the name of providing detail, but that’s not the case with the Clears. The treble helps provide ample instrument separation and aids positional cues in busy tracks.They aren’t the most resolving headphones in this area – the HD800 series comes out on top – but few headphones I’ve tried can match Focal’s presentation here.
If there’s one real caveat I have about the sound is that the soundstage is fairly narrow for open-back headphones. They’ll blow most any closed-back cans out of the water in this area, but their sound is perhaps more like an intimate concert venue than the grand hall or arena you’ll get from other high-end headphones.
I have to return to how easy these headphones are to drive too. Of course, they sound better out of my amp, but I was pretty shocked to find they also sound fantastic from pretty much every source I plugged them into. At 55 Ohms, any modern phone will get ample volume out of them, and devices with a quality DAC like the LG V30 or G7 will get you 90 percent of the sound in a portable package.
With other headphones in this price range, I usually don’t even bother to try listening out of a smartphone or laptop. It’s nice to know I don’t need to spend another several hundred dollars just to get an amp that can decently drive them.
All this adds up to making the Focal Clear some of the very best hi-fi headphones around, and my favorite cans since I gave Sennheiser’s HD 820 a listen back at CES. They look good, are comfortable, sound remarkably transparent, and are shockingly easy to drive. I can easily see these being the headphone that finally stops an audiophile’s headphone buying itch – if only for a while.
My only hesitation is that Focal recently released the Elex in partnership with Massdrop, which offer virtually identical build (in a sleek black), close sound quality, and only cost $700-800. But even at $1,500, the Focal Clear are some of the most dynamic, transparent, and fun headphones I’ve heard at this level. If you’ve got the cash – and are the type of person who doesn’t think spending $1,500 on headphones is crazy – they earn my utmost recommendation.