Focal Elegia Review

French hi-fi manufacturing powerhouse Focal has been focused on delivering powerful, transparent drivers for both their two-channel loudspeaker designs and their highly-competitive headphones for many years.

They took the headphone world by storm in 2016 with the release of their flagship beryllium-driver equipped Utopia, which despite its $4,000 USD price tag won the hearts and minds of the hi-fi press and consumers alike for its speed, tonal/timbral balance, comfort and build quality.

Move ahead to late 2018 and Focal decided to eschew the Utopia’s open-back design for its entry-level home listening model and instead opt for a closed-back one with 40mm “M”-shaped magnesium and aluminum dome, 5Hz~23kHz full-range drivers. The patent-pending circumaural dynamic transducer features a smart-phone friendly 105dB sensitivity and 35-Ohm impedance making it easy to drive because of the closed-back construction. You won’t be bothering fellow passengers on the Metro if your cranking Björk on your way to work, something the similarly-priced, open-back Focal Elear cannot claim.

Remember as well that open-back driver designs exert as much force backward into their surroundings as they do forward to your ears, which creates an entirely different subset of issues for engineers to have to deal with compared to closed back designs where the focus is more on dealing with the driver’s rear-wave pressuring back into the ear enclosure.

To help deal with this phenomenon Focal has included two vents around the ear cups to deal with compression, help control and balance the midbass/bass interaction and boost driver frequency response. The drivers themselves are also placed on an angle sympathetic to the front of the chassis region in an attempt to recreate a more loudspeaker-sounding experience. This results in a wider sound stage recreation than many other designs, but doesn’t subtract from the deep-3D image presentation that the ‘phones are capable of IMO.

At 430 grams, the Elegia cannot claim ‘lightest’ reference over-ear status, but during extended listening sessions I found them to not incur any pressure-point pain thanks to the design of the aluminum yokes which provided a comfortable, snug-fit via the well-padded slide-n-click adjustable headband, ditto for the 20mm memory foam microfibre ear pads which created an excellent seal – even if I was wearing my glasses I still felt that they were moulding around the frames well enough for decent, albeit not critical listening sessions.

The Elegia ships with a 1.2m silver and black striped asymmetric cable with 3.5mm TRS jack and 1/4-inch adaptor, which in everyday use I found to be short for my preference while listening at home and seated in my lounge chair, but if I was out-and-about using my iPhone 7 or the Astell & Kern SR15 (A&norma) as a source and had either tucked into my peacoat or trouser pocket, then the length was just right. I will say that the cord is a tad stiff and my personal tastes would lean towards something softer and more flexible – YMMV. An excellent semi-hard shell case is included for transport or storage.

Associated Equipment

For the home listening part of this review I used the AudioQuest Niagara 5000 Low-Z Power Noise Dissipation System with Hurricane Ultra-Linear AC cable feeding clean power to two sources: an Aurender N10 music server and a MacBook Air running Roon. Both fed into a Naim DAC-V1. An AudioQuest Coffee USB cable was used between the N10/Air and V1. Portable listening was conducted through my Apple iPhone 7 with Lightning adaptor and the A&K SR15 (&norma) digital audio player (DAP). Control and playback software on the N10 was Aurender’s proprietary Conductor application which I ran off my iPad Mini 2, ditto for Roon. I used a mix of FLAC, WAV, MP3, DSD and MQA files for listening (MQA initial unfold only through Roon and the Aurender MQA Core Decoding upgrade).

Sound and listening

Let me start off by saying that the Elegia’s sound is not treble-sizzled or all about bottom-end thump and I do not associate their sound as being compressed or ‘cupped’ in their presentation which some closed-back designs can seem when compared to their open-back brethren. This is a refined, balanced and neutral sound that I would say leans more towards reference. But don’t let that sentence make you think the Elegia is dispassionate or cold, it is not. It is emotionally involving while still maintaining its composure.

I started my listening with the Elegia using my iPhone 7 and its supplied Lightning adaptor listening to TIDAL Hi-fi files. Here the Focal’s easy-to-drive 35-Ohm impedance allowed the smart phone to drive them without issue. Violinist Daniel Hope playing “Adagio for Violin and Orchestra in E Major K.061 – Cadenza” with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra on Journey To Mozart was getting the most of what I was familiar with out of the Apple product: decent, but hardly stygian bottom end, adequate if slightly compressed midrange and a bit of a hot tilt to the top-end, albeit tempered by the Focal’s excellent timbral reproduction. The Gorillaz “Double Bass” off their self-titled album left the bottom end wanting even more and despite the Elegia’s best efforts the track lacked real tonal color: about what I’ve come to expect from Apple’s DAC-in-a-dongle working in conjunction with its Apple/Cirrus Logic 338S00105 Audio Codec.

Switching over to the A&K SR15 and its Quad-core CPU, Cirrus Logic Dual-DAC CS43198 and MasterHIFI chipsets the difference between the iPhone and the SR15’s DAC/amp and processing power was immediately laid bare. Bass weight and impact, dynamic response, transient speed, midrange detail, upper frequency extension, decay off notes, spatial separation of instruments – all of these improved by an order of magnitude. Hope’s playing on “Adagio for Violin…” suddenly seemed to come to life with timbral and tonal color through the Elegia where before things lacked similar punch and just as importantly – real depth to the sound stage, shedding it’s 3D compression that was nascent on the iPhone. High-res PCM or DSD (DSD to PCM conversion on-the-fly) files I listened to through the &norma added further to the little DAP’s impact, showing off the Focal’s transparency to source and its ability to easily translate differences in DAC, file type or codec-processing capabilities.

Moving over to the MacBook Air using Roon through the Naim DAC-V1 which is packed with a 40-bit SHARC DSP chipset, single-ended Class-A head amp and 24/384 synchronous USB input, the Elegia took the change-up in stride and gave me even more of what I was hearing through the SR15 with further perceived dynamic range at frequency extremes (coming across as deeper, more fleshed-out bass and more air around instruments and vocals reaching into the upper registers). Through the Naim the Elegia further cemented its ability to deliver emotional playback without a hint of digital artifice: something that became increasingly noticeable as I climbed the price/performance ladder during this review and the headphones delivered exactly what they were being fed from each distinct source. Where the SR15 had a slightly brighter treble-region presentation and leaner, more forward spatial imaging, the V1 added midrange pop and heft. As I said in my initial preview of the Elegia when comparing the SR15 and V1: “… two very different sources, circuit topologies, usage factors and price ranges all contributing to two very different types of presentation, but a nod to the ultimate transparency and resolution Focal has achieved with the Elegia.”

Swapping the Aurender N10 into the mix, the Focal again was able to translate the differences in playback a dedicated music server offers over a laptop: blacker background, a removal of a slight digital haze that I hadn’t even noticed previously and more ‘breathing room’ for lack of a better metaphor to the increase in perceived resolution and air to and around recordings. Listening to Cat Power ethereally croon the lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on her Covers Record allows the Elegia to hit its stride and allow every subtle detail and nuance to her string and fret work on the haunting twang of her guitar to come through without a hint of grain. The 3D placement of Power and the guitar body is clearly delineated from one another and every chord change and strum is rendered with clarity and weight. Timber and tone are exquisite through the V1/Elegia combo and all the recording studio’s spatial cues of size seem to put Power in a about a 20x20-foot space as the notes decay and fall away into the deep black background of the session. The Elegia’s ability to deliver the vocal presence region directly behind my eyes with such startling humanity imbued to Power’s voice drew me in for repeated listening of this album again and again. The same was true for The Chemical Brothers cut “Galvanize” off their 2005 album Push The Button. The track features a mash-up of electronic effects, synth-riffs, keyboard work, vocal inflections and a rolling bassline that plumbed the depths of those lowest Hz. Speed and attack on transients had neck-snapping momentum and 3D placement of vocals amid the myriad instruments, stereo panning and gated-mic’ing used on this cut had me instantly head bobbing without shame as I revelled in the slam and detail of both macro and micro dynamics.

Conclusion Whether it was classical, jazz, simple acoustic arrangements or EDM the Focal Elegia transitioned seamlessly from genre to genre and source to source showing off its ability to master whatever translational duties I pressed it into service for. This to me, is the hallmark of a reference-level headphone and at $900 USD, while certainly not cheap, I’m deeply impressed at the level of muscular musicality and delicacy to presentation that the Elegia was capable of. If you’re a fan of other closed-back designs like the Audeze LCD2 Closed-Back or MrSpeakers AEON Flow Closed then the Elegia should be something you check out. In my estimation it falls in the middle between the two as it presents more punch than the Flow Closed, is slightly less warm than the LCD2 but also less forward in its sound staging and beats the LCD2 for transient speed while keeping pace with the AEON Closed in that regard.

Measurements

Measurements are being handled by my UK editorial colleague Keith Howard – for this headphone review and upcoming headphone reviews – they will be added as soon as they are made available.

Specifications

  • Type: Circum-aural closed back headphones
  • Impedance: 35 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL / 1 mW @ 1 kHz
  • THD: 0.1 % @ 1 kHz / 100 dB SPL
  • Frequency response: 5 Hz-23 kHz
  • Speaker driver: 1.57" (40 mm) 'M'-shape Aluminium/ Magnesium dome
  • Weight: 15.4 oz (430 g)
  • Cable provided: 3.94 feet (1.2 m) asymmetric cable (0.14" - 3.5 mm TRS jack). 0.14" (3.5 mm) to 0.25" (6.35 mm) stereo jack adapter.
  • Hard-shell carry case provided: 10" x 9" x 5" (250 x 240 x 120 mm)
  • Price: $900 USD

COMPANY INFO
Focal JMlab
108 Rue de l'Avenir, 42350 La Talaudière, France
+33 4 77 43 57 00

COMMENTS
MFHRaptor's picture

Hello Mr. Arnott. I am delighted to read your take on a the closed-back iteration of the Elex.

I can't tell you how delighted I was when I heard your voice on your brief intermission on InnerFidelity's podcast, and I see you're still not even remotely drawn to the idea of making videos for the already popular InnerFidelity YouTube channel. Video Journalism has become very accessible in today's world, and would always make for a great exposure to your collective efforts behind our beloved website.

Give it a thought, please. The photography that you provide is excellent. Have you thought how great it would look if it was to become 'Video photography'?

Jazz Casual's picture

Focal released both its TOTL Utopia headphone and the "entry-level" (so-called) open-back Elear model in 2016. The release of the Elegia follows those two models and the open-back Clear as the first closed-back model in the series. I suspect that by introducing the Elegia, Focal has identified and responded to a gap in the market rather than eschewing the open-back design that has been so successful for the company. Focal markets the Elegia for both mobile and home use.

Simply Nobody's picture

Probably the Chord Hugo2 can drive the Elegia well :-) ........

CatDaddy's picture

I think you meant ounces not lbs.

Rafe Arnott's picture
I got those specs off Focal's website and didn't even notice that, thanks for the catch. I'll let Focal know they need to edit their website.
CatDaddy's picture

I suppose they have no need to learn or use Imperial units

Simply Nobody's picture

If it was pounds, they would sound more "weighty" :-) ..........

jaredjcrandall84's picture

Hello Rafe,

Thanks for your assessment of audio gear. I was wondering if you have any intent to update the "wall of fame" based upon the number of released and up-and-coming headphones.

Thanks

Rafe Arnott's picture
WoF will not be continued, but an "Editor's Choice" reference page will be forthcoming.

Cheers

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