Focal Clear Over Ear Open Headphones Page 2


Sound Quality
The Clear is, in a word, clear. It's got a lovely, warm bass; coherent and even mids; and responsive treble that's neither too bright or too muted. It's clearly right down the middle and, more importantly, very well balanced throughout. Some have said it splits the difference between the slightly too bright Utopia and slightly too muted Elear, but I see it a bit differently.

My impression—and this is just a little fantasy in my head—is that Focal knew they were trying to build the world's best headphone, and decided the way to go about it was to build a no-holds-barred version (the Utopia) and then build a headphone as close to it as they could that retailed under $1000 (the Elear). By doing so they would learn a bunch of stuff and then be able to enter the market with the $1500 headphone they really wanted to build.

The $3999 Utopia is a beautiful headphone and has some really nice characteristics (terrific resolve), but has some flaws as well (cables too fat; no carry case; and a razor sharp bite at 6kHz). The $999 Elear is likewise a very good headphone at its price (terrific punch; warm character), but it has its failings as well (big missing region between 4kHz and 8kHz).

I like to think Focal released these two cans into the wild in order to start getting a return on their R&D investment—nothing wrong with that, they are solid offerings relative to the market—but also to get feedback in order to fine tune their understanding of what the market really wants in a high-end headphone...and then produce a killer product at $1500.

Well, to my ears and eyes, they nailed it. The Focal Clear is a spectacular high-end, end game headphone in every way. For the first time in...well, 25 years or more...I find myself tempted to reach into my wallet and pay real money to be able to call a headphone my own...if I wasn't spending everything I have on my step van camper build.


Is it perfect? No, nothing is, but it's damned near. I think the bass could be a bit more texturally resolving, and the mild bass accentuation does go just a little into the mids. Midrange is lovely, but the Utopia edges it out with a more effortless liquidity. The treble has just the slightest edge to it. I keep wanting to think the Clear is a bit bright, but it's not, there's just a hint of edge to it. The Clear is also like its siblings in that it can be almost unsettlingly dynamic, which, to me, makes the image rather shallow due to being so potently snappy.

But that's all just nit-picking. Tonal balance is the best I've heard. Bass extension is a bit better than the other two Focals, and bass response overall (the combined balance of level emphasis, dynamic punch, and textural resolve) may be the best of any open, dynamic headphone I've heard. Midrange tonal balance is great. Vocals are 'you are there' spot on in the balance of fundamentals and overtones. Treble tonal balance is spot on and wonderfully resolving. Cymbals, strings, and trumpets sound fantastically true to nature.

One of my very short evaluation tracks is Tiger Okoshi's "Bootsman's Little House" from the Color of Soil album. His trumpet is dynamic and intense, and if the treble is not right it can drill holes in your eardrum or fall flat. Rendered on the Clears it was spectacular! Simultaneously meaty and bright, intensely snappy and organic. I was able to listen to this track snippet—the first few bars as he blasts his way into the track—much louder without wincing than any other headphone I've heard. Quite the accomplishment.

I'll reiterate, the overall character of the Clear is clarity. I've said before that once you get close to neutral deviations become character. The MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Open, for example, has a sort of muffled deviation from neutral that becomes a warm and inviting character quite quickly as ones mind adapts. I like people with character, and I'm fine with some headphones that have character.

And therein may be the one potentially problematic point for the Clear: It has little character, other than just being clear. Sometimes headphones that are close to neutral and without too much character sound boring, which can be a good thing in some ways. I don't think the Clear falls into this category; it's neutral without being boring. Still, some folks may not like this in the long run.

Me? I think it's great. The Focal Clear is pretty much exactly what I'm looking for in a reference headphone. Absolutely straight down the middle transparency. No attention grabbing characteristics, either good or bad, just well reproduced music in my noggin. Lovely.

The Focal Clear is what an enthusiast headphone should be: It's gorgeous; it's comfortable; its accessories are spectacular; and its sound is clear as a Montana winter sky. It's not bright, or dark, or liquid, or even—some odd way—neutral. It's just competently and confidently true to the music.

It doesn't have the tightest bass I've ever heard, nor the most liquid midrange, nor the smoothest treble resolve, but it is the best all around headphone I've ever heard. Weak points are a bit lacking in bass resolve and midrange liquidity; a very slight glare in the treble; and not much image depth. (Also, not a good match for high output impedance tube amps.) Strong points are fantastic overall balance; great dynamics; and terrific vocal and treble realism.

For the first time I can unreservedly recommend a $1000+ headphone. If you've cautiously made the headphone enthusiast approved treck from a Koss Porta Pro to the Sennheiser HD 600/650, and have found your carefully protected wallet stuck there without a sure fire step up, now you have it. Even if it's a financial stretch, the Focal Clear is worth the struggle for an end-game headphone. That's not a recommendation I make lightly.

Oh yeah, the Focal is hitting the Wall of Fame, and hitting it hard. I'm going to have to do some soul searching over the next week or so to figure out how many headphones it's going to knock off the wall, but there will be casualties.

Watch on YouTube

Focal home page and Clear product page. threads here, here, and here.
Head-Fi thread and reviews.

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glabetrotter's picture

Hi Tyll!

At first I would like to congratulate the review and wish you Merry Christmas!
I want ask you what u think about Focal Listen? I know that u like other models headphones Focal. In my opinion Focal Listen are really good headphones and are better than e.g. OPPO PM3 or cheaper Beyerdynamic DT150. Uff, this is revolution in portable sound and not only, because we can use Listen in home. They are easily to drive, sounds good... very good at this price... But still it's only my opinion. Can u talk me what u think about this model?

Best regards,

Iliketrains's picture

Tyll said the focal listen is fairly "meh". Nothing special

Lawk's picture

I quite like the listen from an in-store demo. Certainly natural sounding.

Beagle's picture

Great headphone for the money..

zobel's picture

...Too small again for me though. I need at least a 40 mm X 70 mm opening.
I'm glad for for having my AKG K7XX, and Senn HD 600, and HD 380 Pro. I am not deprived at all. Nothing too wrong with the Amperior either.
I just wish everyone's fit could be addressed in these designs somehow.
AND I wish everyone here a Happy Christmas and Merry new Year!

Liopleus's picture

Hi Tyll,

Could you let me know if I can get similar sound by putting the Clear pads on the Elear, or is it better to simply upgrade to the Clear?

Thanks in advance!

jodet's picture

I've been a serious can guy for over a decade, Stax, Sennheiser, etc. I cannot get over how much I enjoy these Clears. They are so well balanced and the fit and quality is off the charts. They're an end game headphone for sure.

Serious's picture

Honestly the target looks more like a DF tuning with a bass bump and treble shelf than your new target. It does have less 2-3kHz than DF though.

Here's a quick and dirty overlay between the Clear and your graph with the ID, DF and new targets:

And here's the same thing, but with the Harman target (different HATS, though). Harman target is similar to DF, but with a speaker target FR added:

Idk, but the midrange curve looks pretty similar to the DF tuning of Stax phones. At least on paper this looks like nothing new.

tony's picture

Color match to hair is obvious, who does color better than the French ?

Focal is ranging Color in their Loudspeakers too.

Arn't Aesthetics & ergonomics 'part and parcel' to "Luxury" ?

You're right, they're gorgeous and people will probably want to try them out, just based on appearances.

Even those Cables have that black/white repeating contrast that I see in the Five Star French Hotels like "The Mark" in NY,NY !

Geez, this stuff just keeps getting better.

21st Century Tony in Michigan

ps. Steve Guttenberg's YouTube is a "must", he's outdoing Herb Reichert & Paul McGowan at in-sighting.

Merkurio's picture

Seems you're really enjoying them, aren't you Tyll?

Maybe isn't fair play due the price difference, but it would be great if you made a quick comparison between these and the LCD-2C.

As much as I really like what Audeze did for the price, I'm now tempted with the Clears... But the bass response, highs spikes taming and soundstage size are my main concerns, the LCD-2C simply nails it in those regards!

drm870's picture

I ask because while it's nice knowing you can finally "unreservedly recommend" a $1000+ headphone, $1500 is still going to be a stretch for me. At $800, though, the Elex would be a good step up. I've never paid more than $400 or so for a headphone (the Oppo PM-3, and I bought the Sennheiser HD 650 for a hundred or so off at the time of purchase), so that would still be a step up to be sure -- although I guess the MrSpeakers Aeon would be the competition at that price point. Anyway, appreciate all you do!

Martin.'s picture

This comment might as well come from me. I have the Oppo Pm-3, Senneheiser 6xx incoming, and am looking for the next step. Was considering this, the Elex, the LCD-2C or one of them AEons.

donlin's picture

Excellent review and spot on in all regards. This one is special.

crazywipe2's picture

Good to know there is a > kilobucks headphone without major flaws that earns the ticket without reservations!
I like them visually, but I don't like the light grey color scheme. Honestly it's too cold. Do you know if they will come out with a more appealing black version in the near future?

visitbe's picture

Tyll, I appreciate your efforts in creating this and other reviews. I can only imagine how much work is involved.
If I were to eat ramen for months and save up for this headphone and an amp, what amp do you recommend pairing this headphone with?

jk6661's picture

Forgive the probably noob-ish question, but why isn't the Clear a good match for high output impedance tube amps? And what constitutes "high" output impedance? I ask because I have a tube am, and I'm considering this headphone.

jherbert's picture

"...After a little listen I decided this was a pretty poor match, delivering a wooly and indistinct sounding bass. Truth is, all three Focal cans have too low an impedance and large primary driver resonance to be successfully used with high output impedance tube amps...the Clear is particularly troublesome in this way however..."

mariscosyketchup's picture

I agree 100% with you, the Clears are something special.
However, a few nitpicks:
- I would like more room on the earpads, something like 70x50 mm instead of 60x50mm.
- A tad less midbass (to prevent the slight bleed into the mids), and a bit smoother treble, to get a more "even, liquid" sound.
- A bigger soundstage, the Clears (and also Elear and Utopia) have a small soundstage to my tastes.

That would make them just perfect for me.

zobel's picture

What you said.

sszorin's picture

Focal made a big error by using 40mm driver in their headphones. 50mm should be a minimum for top end headphones, 50mm driver balances frequency bands better than 40mm one. Focal Clear's driver bleeds bass into middle frequencies - that means 'Clear' are not transparent headphones. They have an upper mids roll-off in the critical frequencies 1000Hz - 3000Hz, which affects overtones. I predict the new Audio-Technica ADX5000, with its 58mm driver will push Focal Clear aside.

Malik's picture

Audio-Technica? No thank you ;)) LOL

sszorin's picture

Focal ? LOL

Malik's picture

If you happen to find this headphones let me know please! I still havent found! I want Clear to have bigger earpads, smoother treble, bigger soundstage and deeper bass!

IgorC's picture

I wonder whether Tyll can add numerical rating to his reviews. I think that will be even more representative and useful for people.

Something like, bass is 4.5, highs are 4.0, comfort is fantastic (5.0) etc...

Thank You.

Ranstedt's picture


which of these cans would you recommend for an audio professional that needs a reference pair of cans to mix / master on? Which of these cans expose flaws better in a piece of music?

The reason I'm comparing to the Aeon Closed is because in the Aeon Closed review you said "With a sound straight down the middle, both audio enthusiasts and professionals will find themselves pleased as punch with this high-value audio transducer. Tonal balance and transient response are extraordinary; imaging is very good for a sealed headphone; only some roughness and slight dynamic compression belie the fact that this is a sealed headphone and isn't going to deliver the finess, smoothness, and liquidity of some open headphones."


Phoniac's picture

Audeze LCD MX4.

kais's picture

Everyone's hearing and taste is different, so you have to evaluated by yourself.
The reviews can give you a good starting point for selection, not more.
Listen to a bigger selection of professionally recorded music of the type you are doing that you know sounding good on speakers in the outside world, and imagine if you would change the mix.
Then do some test mixes on them and check how they work on different speakers.
The headphones you feel the least need for changes in the mix for both cases are the ones that fit best.
Being an audio professional too, with a big studio, I choose the headphones that fitted best to my monitoring system, although I don't need to work much on headphones I ended up with a system in the $5000 range.
I do not use this system to enjoy music, just to work on it!

南开米饭's picture

why just pull off the Stax 009? it stays there too long

GNagus's picture

Before you rip headphones off the wall, keep in mind that some headphones such as the HD800S play nice with a variety of amps.

MLSensai's picture

Hi Tyll,

I appreciate your reviews. Based on your impression of the Elear I bought this can in March but missing a little bit clarity. Now I am very excited about your opinion of the Clear. I also owned and own Sennheiser HD6XX(S) and in my opinion the Elear is suoerior to them already. So on Head-Fi I found measurements comparing the Clear with all these and now the Massdrop Elex has been measured and compared with the Clear.

The Elex and Clear seem to be twins in their freqzency responses. The Elex with a little bit more energy above 10k and the Clear with a few dB more bass under 40Hz (should not be a big deal).

Ok, to shorten this...
Will you compare both directly, the Elex and the Clear?

Here is the link to the measurements

Best regards