Focal Stellia Review Page 2

Enough of that, let’s take a listen.

The Stellia’s definitely have a similarity to the Focal ‘house sound’ probably most similarly to the Elegia and Clear from a frequency-response perspective, though smoother than the Elegia, while the level of resolution and textural resolution is closer to the Utopia. Detail itself is not quite at Utopia levels, but I had moments with very good DACs where I felt the Stellia was giving me a little bit of that spooky ‘inner depth’ and space around individual instruments that is the hallmark of some of the best personal-audio transducers I have heard. There is depth and space around instruments that I haven’t experienced in any other closed back before that is really wonderful. Separation is quite good, much like the Utopia and Elear, but unlike those headphones I don’t feel things are detached, in fact there is a cohesiveness and smoothness to entire frequency range that reminds me of the HD600 and HD650, where the transitions between frequency ranges are particularly finely-tuned and free of resonances or extra energy.

Frequency response-wise this is a headphone with shelved-up bass, a slight low-mid dip, a narrow peak at 3khz, and a relatively smooth treble response above that. I’m seeing more of this ‘variation on Harman curve’ in high-end headphones and it’s working well here in my opinion. The treble displays very few peaks on sine sweeps, piano riffs and other tinkly sounds that move throughout the treble range. There was a small one around 4khz, and more aggressively at 10khz and occasionally it felt like peaks were a bit narrow in Q and sticking out, but again, when complimented with the right amplifier and a great DAC, I’m still hearing smooth and phenomenal inner detail. The problem likely measures worse than it sounds, and I feel like the damping scheme on the headphone feels fantastically optimized. This is probably up there as the most transparent closed back I’ve heard.

There is also a tiny hint of graininess or hash to the upper midrange and lower treble that reared its head at times with very sparse acoustic arrangements. It wasn’t enough to ruin my listening experience, but it presented itself as a very slight thickness or smearing of details just below the presence region. I suspect it’s one of the tradeoffs of this headphone being a closed back, and in general it was really minor and only noticeable on some tracks that had single instruments in very dry acoustic environments. Most of the time I didn’t even notice it on these tracks, because the Stellia doesn’t isolate all that much. Speaking of which, while they didn’t seem to let too much sound out, they certainly didn’t keep a lot of it out either. I felt the Elegia was a little better in that regard and most of the recent Bluetooth headphones I’ve reviewed had significantly better passive isolation than the Stellia. The position of the yolks simply doesn’t allow for a tight enough clamp – at least on my head – to make them seal super tight. They kind of cradle your face rather than pressing into the sides of your head – which I might add got more comfortable the more I wore it. I don’t see this as a particular issue however, because I don’t really see the Stellia as being a headphone that I would take on the go much, hence less concern regarding isolation. The Stelia is a bit large and expensive and although the impedance and efficiency is specified as 35ohms/106dB@1khz@1mW I found they were a bit picky about amplification.

This brings me to the next point about the Stellia, which is the level of refinement in the sound. I didn’t have fantastic results with most tube amps, they seemed to highlight the respective weakness of each other, with a variety of both budget and uber high-end tube amps highlighting that slight upper-midrange grain on the Stellia and adding too much midbass thickness, almost like a higher resolution HD650, while the Stellia’s clarity and sensitivity seemed to bring out the noise floor. I suspect there’s some unusual impedance interactions going on here. On solid-state amps the Stellia showed its true colors though, with stunning clarity, well controlled subbass and a slightly more forward presentation in the upper mids. I preferred a popular $99 solid state amp to a $600 tube hybrid or a megabuck tube amp on this headphone. My initial listens on the Stellia were a bit disappointing because of this amp mismatch, and my first listens on solid state were a revelation. “Oh, That’s what it’s supposed to sound like…” As always your experience may vary, but I had vastly superior results with solid state amps.

So clarity and definition are excellent, even on less expensive solid state gear. These are still slightly forward headphones and they have that Focal signature where the transients seem to really pop, especially in the treble. In the Elear for example I found this quality overwhelming, and generally I don’t like headphones that are too aggressive in the transients – it quickly goes from ‘wow, these are dynamic’ to incredibly fatiguing. The Stellia are right on the edge for me, with crystal-clear transients and snap, but pulled back from the razor sharpness of the open back Focal’s. I suspect this was the cost of going closed-back and losing some of that incredible detail, but for me the tradeoff is more to my taste, and harsher pop recordings are much more tolerable with the Stellia than with the Utopia or Elear.

Soundstage-wise this headphone has good width, but the depth and focus is what really catches my ears. With the right amp these things can sound huge, but not like planars where the scale is in height and width. Rather, the Stellia ramps up dynamic contrast and depth when the music increases in energy. Pushing the volume control, the headphones seem to respond by increasing the layers of depth they pick apart, rather than just throwing more information in my face. Most headphones reach a point with volume where they dynamically collapse and simply fall into a wall of noise. With the Stellia that point was louder than I could stand to listen, and the result was that my preferred low listening levels and higher listening levels all sounded tremendously engaging. There’s not too many headphones that do both well, but this is one of the few that does.

Overall I find this a phenomenal listen, there’s a level of refinement to that the tuning that makes the Stellia more than the sum of its parts. This was a feeling I never quite got with the Utopia and Elear, which always sounded like a package of incredible elements that never quite came together for me personally. My only real quibble is that the single-ended cable is a quite short and that slight hotness at 4khz and 10khz, but with careful amp and DAC pairing this can be easily mitigated. I wouldn’t buy these if I needed a closed back headphone at this price… I would buy them just because I like them that much. Surveying the landscape of other closed back headphones, the Aeon and LCD2C don’t offer quite the same levels of refinement, clarity and detail these do, and the HD820 has never particularly excited me. I always got a bit caught up over the price of the Utopia’s, but I don’t feel those same reservations about these headphones. No reviewer can tell you if a product is worth your hard-earned cash, everyone has different means and needs. However I do feel that these are a phenomenal headphone and I have none of the reservations with these that I had with the Utopia, in fact I find I have less reservations about these than I have with most high-end gear in general. If you’re a well-heeled headphone junkie, take a listen if you can. Focal has done something stellar here.

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COMMENTS
Dorkmaniam's picture

Seems like an excellent review. Why not add them to the wall of fame?

Rafe Arnott's picture
Wall of Fame retired with Tyll.
Simply Nobody's picture

Should work well with the new Focal Archie DAC/headphone amp :-) ..........

Simply Nobody's picture

My spelling mistake ....... It is Arche ....... Arche in French means Ark :-) ...........

Hilton's picture

I couldnt agree more with your assessment. These are hands down the best "musical" closed backs Ive ever heard. I auditioned them against the Elegia "too sharp" and LCD2 Closed "too sibilant" Sony 7zm2 "too hollow and distant" (trying too hard for soundstage) Sony Z1R "too bloated" Fostex 910mk2 "what were they thinking V/sharp/sibilant worst headphone ever" Senn HD820 "wake me up when it's over" (amazing soundstage, but that's not what I wear cans for, that's what a good 2 channel system is for) And.... Fostex TH610 that had 85% to 90% of the composure, control and sound signature of the Stellia @ 1 tenth the price. Needless to say I picked up the 610's waiting for more reasonable pricing on Stellia's which are way above anything else (closed back) I've heard.

Grover Neville's picture

I have not heard the TH610, after taking a look at some measurements, I may have to check these out, thanks for mentioning them!

With regards to the Stellia I really can't agree more. They're quite pricey, but one of the first headphones at this price that I though 'yeah, they DO sound that good.' These are pretty much the headphone that, for me, proved Dr. Olive from Harman is on to something with his headphone curve.

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