Review: Focal Clear Open-Back Headphones

Focal Clear open-back over-ear headphones

Check out this video review of Focal Clear open-back, over-ear luxury headphones:

Focal is a French high-end speaker and headphone maker and the Clear ($1500) is its latest premium open-back, over-ear offering. And while it is judging a book by its cover, from the moment I opened the package of these luxurious cans, I knew I was in for a treat.

From the included hard case to the three cords Focal supplies, these are headphones that marry the refined performance you’d expect when spending $1500, with a fit and finish that speaks the fact these headphones are not mass-produced in a factory, they are crafted.

Features

Focal’s Clear headphones present a surprisingly amplifier-friendly load of 55 ohms and offer 104 dB sensitivity at 1mW. That means you can power them with a modern smartphone and get a surprisingly great audio experience out of it. Indeed, with my Galaxy Note 8 I did not have to “max out” the volume to achieve my ideal listening levels. Also, deviation between left and right channels is kept to less than +/-0.5 dB.

Nearly every aspect of a given pair of headphones’ performance is subject to individual taste. Whether it’s an on-ear or over-ear model,  and the design is open-back or closed-back, plus taking into consideration the varying tastes people have when it comes to things like bass response, there is simply no such thing as “best” in the world of headphones. Having said that, Focal’s Clear is (forgive the pun) clearly designed to offer a premium experience to fans of over-ear, open-back headphones that feature dynamic drivers.

One of the most considerate things about Focal’s clear is the inclusion of three headphone cables, all of which feature locking 3.5mm jacks. I love detachable cords but too often the connection is compromised. With Focal’s design, the robust cables attach easily and securely. The three cables are: A 9.8-foot cable with a balanced XLR4 connector, a 9.8-foot cable with and unbalanced 0.25″ stereo plug, and a 3.9-foot cable with and unbalanced 3.5mm stereo plug. A stylish hard case protects the kit when traveling.

The 40mm magnesium/aluminum drivers have an “M”-shaped dome, which Focal credits with delivering a wide frequency response using a dynamic driver. Focal recommends using an amplifier to get maximum performance out of a pair of Clear headphones. For this purpose, I used an iFi Nano iDSD Black Label Edition ($199) in conjunction with an iPad Pro 10.5″ streaming Tidal HiFi (lossless) audio tracks. Focal says the dome utilizes what it describes as a revolutionary copper voice coil; the company describes the benefits of the design as providing “remarkable” dynamics, with bass that remains controlled at high output levels. Moreover, Focal says these headphones provide “exemplary linearity in the high-end.”

Hands-On Impressions

As far as open-back dynamic headphones go, the Clear cans are really nice. The 0.99 (450 gram) weight is a bit on the high side, but the huge and comfy ear cushions and the well-padded headband mitigate that.

Despite the inclusion of a 3.5mm cord, you are not going to be doing much commuting with the Clears. Nor are you going to be using them at your local library because the open-back design leaks a lot of sound. But the payoff here is open-back spaciousness with bass response that is tight and extended, much like closed-back designs.

These headphone are rather euphonic, which is to say they complement music, rather than fighting with it, unlike what some highly revealing headphones are apt to do. I wish I did not hear the difference between $1500 headphones and the $200-500 models I have in my collection, but the higher performance of Focal’s offering is self-evident in track after track.

While playing sine waves is not analogous to what happens when playing music, it is a handly way for me to subjectively assess bass performance. Here’s the thing… a 40mm driver is actually a bit on the small side for open-back cans. And indeed, I found that there were significant limitations to the Focal Clear headphones once you ducked under 20 Hz. Namely, there is audible harmonic distortion. It’s far more reasonable to say these headphones deliver bass from (roughly) 15 Hz on up (with some audible distortion) and real excellence from 20 Hz on up, rather than to claim a bass response of 5 Hz, which is meaningless with headphones anyhow. Now, I can’t say I’ve heard open-back dynamic driver cans that do better (some planar-magnetic designs can for sure) but I have heard less expensive closed-back cans do better down deep. Anyhow, I think maybe now I’m the one nitpicking a well-rounded and sophisticated design.

I played some my toughest to reproduce test tracks on the Focal Clear cans. “Disc Wars” from the Tron Legacy soundtrack sounded great, with the London Symphony coming across as powerful and expansive. It was all good, except for a slight thinness where there should have been a subterranean foundation formed by Daft Punk’s electronic bass. Very few headphones I’ve ever heard can handle the track properly, and the same goes for tower speakers, but it’s worth noting that I have experienced headphones that did a better job with that aspect of the track’s reproduction down low. But like I said, once you get out of the very deepest bass regions, the rest of what the Focal Clear headphones offer is exemplary. For an open-back design, the bass on these is great indeed.

Focal is known for tremendous tweeters, and in the case of these headphones what you get is an incredibly detailed trouble response that—and this is a bit of a surprise to me—was not fatiguing in the slightest. I greatly enjoyed listening to my catalog of albums including artists like Bassnectar, Jon Kennedy, Sly & Robbie, Tosca, New Order, Schoolboy Q, The Beatles, Die Antwoord, The Orb, Brian Eno, and other acts with a track record of good production.

Conclusion

Focal’s Clear headphones are clearly competitive in the price category they inhabit. To my eyes and ears, the attention to detail is tremendous. But, because these are large open-back headphones the number of situations and places you can used them is limited. They may offer the option of portable listening, but it’s not a pragmatic proposition. On the other hand, the inclusion of two cables designed for home use is a clear indication of how Focal thinks the Clear will be used.

If you lean back and relax in a quiet room with your favorite tunes playing, you’ll experience the open soundstage, incredible clarity, and notable comfort of these luxury headphones. But please note, capabilities in the deep bass department might not satisfy persnickety infrasonic bass fiends. Normal humans will be happy.

Mind you, if you’re thinking of spending this kind of money on headphones, it behooves you to find an audio dealer where you can perform proper auditions. Ultimately, as long as you personally like what they offer, that’s what matters. There’s enough going for them that Focal Clear headphones earn an online-shashki Forum Recommended 2017 designation.


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