Review: Focal Clear Reference Headphones
Do these $2000 headphones really sound expensive?
I realise my opportunity to spend a few weeks of alone time with Focal’s two thousand dollar reference headphones is an experience shared by few. The rest of the AT office realised this too — one of our graphic designers insisted on taking the Clear home for a weekend. As financially inaccessible as they are, exorbitant headphones will always have a certain appeal, and it’s mostly based on curiosity: do expensive headphones really sound expensive?
Funnily enough, Clear isn’t the priciest in Focal’s luxury headphone line — that would be the Focal Utopia which goes for a cool $4k. Clear is next in line, though, so my expectations were rather high. The question is, what does that kind of money get you?
COMFORT & BUILD
In photos, the Focal Clear exudes an aura of understated class with a touch of futurism. It’s the same effect in person, times ten. It goes without saying that primo cans of this calibre possess the finest build quality. From the gently sprung earcups to the aluminium/magnesium alloy arms with delicate curves, every millimetre has been constructed with purpose and finesse. The memory foam earcups and headband feel like pure luxury and you soon forget you’re wearing headphones — even though they weigh nearly half a kilo. As for the grey leather, well, it’s a personal taste thing.
A selection of fabric-wrapped cables are presented in a separate box; a 3.5mm, 6.5mm and (weirdly) a balanced four-pin XLR (perhaps it’s a hi-fi thing). At the other end, the cables plug in underneath each ear cup with two balanced 3.5mm connectors.
CLEAR AS DAY
Living up to its name, the first time I played some familiar tunes through Clear I was struck by its real-ness and focus. It presents a good mix with almost a sense of authority by separating instruments with precision and pushing them forward in incredible detail. Minuscule bits of musical information I’d never noticed before suddenly became absurdly apparent.
With a low impedance of 55Ω, Clear will happily plug into a smartphone or laptop — it’s surprising how little power it needs to get loud. Naturally, it still benefits from a quality DAC. My Antelope interface lent the Clear a gutsier low end than my MacBook Pro or smartphone headphone output could manage.
Clear’s strong point is its low end which nails that balance of punch and clarity like no other headphone I’ve heard. Bass frequencies are very in-your-face, like a pair of high-quality closed-backs, yet with the accuracy and spaciousness that only open-backs can give. Surprisingly, the trebles come across rather differently. ‘Suppressed’ is a strong word but it’s the first descriptor that comes to mind. Don’t get me wrong, the Clear has enough detailed highs to deserve its price tag, it’s just not nearly as bright as most people would expect. I didn’t miss the shimmer all that much, but let’s just say if you’re mixing a tune on these cans you’d want to reference it on something else to ensure the highs aren’t overblown. The smooth midrange keeps vocals present while reining in any harshness in the 1-6kHz band.
Clear’s soundstage isn’t super wide — noticeably less than a pair of AKG open-backs — due to the orientation of the drivers which sit slightly forward and angled back into your ears, as opposed to perpendicularly, like most cans. This better simulates the positioning of a set of studio monitors placed in front of you, and the sonic result is a very lifelike spatial reproduction of music which you’ll especially notice on live albums. Feedback from non-audio nerd friends who tried Clear was the same: “It feels like the band is right in front of you!”
OPEN TO CRITICISM
Open-back headphones are not all created equal. Some spill sound like water from a clogged gutter, others manage to be more socially acceptable. The Clear is most definitely the first. Hold the earcups to the light and you’ll see there’s no more than a thin layer of perforated metal separating the 40mm drivers from the outside world. That means in an occupied room everyone near you will be able to hum the tune of the song you’re listening to. The opposite is also true. The headphones do little to block out external ambience and I found a voice or TV droning in the background can quickly become annoying, even while listening to music at a reasonable level. To keep everyone (and yourself) happy, the Focal Clear is best enjoyed alone in a secluded and quiet room. In your favourite armchair and comfy slippers.
At over two grand, the Focal Clear isn’t an everyday spend, and wouldn’t be my first choice for mix reference headphones. I imagine you’d end up with a pair of these if you either take hi-fi headphones very seriously or you’re properly cashed up. If that’s you, the Clear doesn’t fall short of a premium auditory experience that will present your music in a new light.
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