Focal has also been offering headphones for a few years – but only

Focal has also been offering headphones for a few years – but only
Focal has also been offering headphones for a few years
– but only now has the French company decided
to make everything themselves.
ave you ever wondered why headphones have become so expensive?
Yes, the demand for high-quality
models has been a contributing factor, but
there’s something else: top-quality headphones aren’t easy to make. Yes, some
brands can produce reasonable-sounding
models at low prices simply be virtue of
economies of scale, but going beyond that
into something truly special is just a bit
more complex than it first appears After
all, have you ever heard of someone trying to build their own headphones – as is
not uncommon practice with speakers or
even amplifiers?
French manufacturer Focal, whose
speakers thrill music lovers and recording
professionals worldwide, made its début
in headphones with relatively low-budget models optimized for portable use
and made in the Far East to Focal specifications, although the Spirit Professional
was a design unashamedly aimed the studio user.
For their second launch of headphones,
however, the developers became interested in showing what just they could do
in this field and – as with the company’s
speakers – giving the competition food for
thought by applying proprietary technology and unique solutions.
Completely open
The approach chosen for the Elear model
we have here was that of an "ultra-nearfield speaker", and just as speakers have to
deal with room acoustics, so headphones
have the problem of having to sound the
same for many differently shaped ears.
The Focal team says this sets very similar problems, especially when they’d
decided early on to go for a completely
open design in order to obstruct the music
as little as possible, and to ensure a vibrant
and natural sound.
After a short period of research they
realized that the ear cushions turned out
to be analogous to the room acoustics.
Here, too, the key was to find the right
mixture of diffusion and absorption by
choosing the right materials.
A lack of spatial reproduction is a frequent criticism of headphones, including from us – not just when it comes to
in-head localization – i.e. the feeling that
the entire sound is located in the top of the
head between the ears – but also regarding
the separation of instruments and voices.
For many headphones this seems to be an
inherent problem, caused by the minute
distance between driver and ear compare
to that between the two drivers.
That’s something even Focal can’t
circumvent, so the designers opted for
an arrangement placing the drivers as far
in front of the ear as possible, giving a
more “speaker-like” effect. This is a tricky
strategy, requiring finesse in execution: if
the distance to the ears becomes too great,
dynamics and neutrality can suffer – not
good when the specifications also called
for extremely low distortion and resonance of driver and ear-piece.
At this point it became clear that the
only solution was to design a driver from
scratch, and according to Focal the result
was to build a real "full-range speaker"
whose individual components were miniaturized or completely left out. After all,
not only size but also weight is a topic in
headphone construction, and here the
entire driver including its aluminum/
magnesium chassis weighs just 150 mg possibly a record - ensuring spontaneous,
rapid impulse-response.
Another advantage of in-house production is quality, a reason often cited by
Focal for its insistence on making its own
speaker drive-units rather than sub-contracting manufacture or buying them in
from a third party. Every driver it makes,
including these miniature headphone
units, is tested and recorded completely
with a Klippel measurement tool, allowing
The driver, chassis and “motor” together
weigh an incredibly light 150 mg.
The cables are interchangeable. You can
best recognize left/right by ensuring that the
chassis sits at the front.
A lot of effort for a tiny chassis – the
driver coil manages without a mount.
It’s easy to change the cable – and the
left and right inputs are clearly marked.
precise pair matching – something that’s
standard when making expensive speakers, but exceptional for headphones.
up the higher headphone price-class. Even
at low volumes, the Elear worked impressively with the MalValves reference headphone amp to deliver a full and powerful sound, carried by a well-structured,
detailed bass and with smooth integration
across the entire frequency range.
Orchestral music, such as Beethoven's
"Eroica" in a 1952 recording (!) under
Furtwängler, sounded timeless, fresh,
and not at all dusty. Whenever physical presence was important, it was there,
with clear spatial separation of individual instruments and instrument groups.
At higher volumes there was no trace
of thickening or droning – everything
remained smooth and undistorted, with
no sense of the treble being detached from
the rest of the sound, as can sometimes
happen with headphones.
The Elear headphones sound perfectly
integrated and unobtrusive, yet completely clean, and yet manage this without calling attention to all the good things
they’re doing, to the extent that it actually
took us a while to hear this with diverse
"audiophile voices" and their instrumental
But this is just one highlight of a design
that performs well beyond its price class:
it was also fantastic how relaxing it was
to simply follow the music over extended
periods, making listening to a whole CD
– such as Natalie Merchant's "The House
Carpenter’s Daughter" – a complete pleasure.
Compared to the Elear quite a few old
competitors sounded almost a bit anemic:
what we have here is physical presence
and fine resolution down to the smallest detail without ever becoming overly
mechanical – a rarely found marriage of
important musical attributes. Here it just
works, for example when listening to an
elegant, cleanly swinging bass foundation
– fantastic!
It also almost goes without saying that
the Elear confirmed its all-round ability
by mastering the arsenal of the Australian
rock classics by AC/DC, from "Ride On"
to "For Those About To Rock", and doing
so almost casually even at high volumes.
If you’re considering some high-class,
big-ticket headphones, you should definitely lend your ears to the Elear.
Michael Lang
Weight & comfort
At about 350 g, the Elear is no flyweight,
but the elaborate, very cleanly made and
cushioned headband unit, and the soft,
comfortable ear-cushions do a fine job
of disguising that weight. Meanwhile the
cable was chosen for function rather than
overt style: it’s a 3 m oxygen-free copper
design built to damp out microphonic
effects and mechanical noise, and easily be exchanged if required.
around € 1000, Weight: 330 g
Warranty: 2 years
Contact: Music Line
Phone: +33 477/435700
Sound and dynamics
Made for extended listening, both in terms of
sound and comfort. Very good workmanship,
a great measure of independent development
work, and very tight tolerances. First in class
and love at first sight!
So... plug it the Elear, put it
on, play the music and it
quickly becomes clear that
the French weren’t exaggerating when they spoke
of wanting to mix things
High sensitivity, low impedance, 3 m cable
and replaceable ear cushions; aluminum
headband with soft leather cushion; asymmetric driver mounting, German instructions
Sophisticated workmanship of casing and
headband, encapsulating, soft ear cushions,
and an aluminum/magnesium composite
diaphragm – Focal's Elear
91 %
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