To more established headphone companies like Sennheiser and AUDEZE, it must have felt like getting hit with a freight train. When French speaker manufacturer Focal made the decision to push deep into the headphone market, few would have predicted that they’d have this level of success. The Clear is their first real test of longevity: a headphone that aims to bridge the gap between the company’s high-end models. In this review, we break down the Clear’s sound, design, comfort and fit, packaging and accessories, specs and more. To see how it stacks up, see our list of the best high-end headphones.
Clarity and Detail
We’ll admit: when we first saw the Focal Clear, we were sceptical. A reskinned version of the Elear? For $500 more? To us, it seemed as if Focal were muddying the waters a little bit, succumbing to the iPhone malady of releasing incremental upgrades. And nothing would have torpedoed the Focal Clear headphones faster than having an identical sound signature to their younger brother - the identically-designed Elear. Focal absolutely had to pull out all the stops here, or the entire exercise would have been written off as nothing more than naked profiteering.
Across the entire spectrum, things feel refined and clear – more so than in their predecessor, which was already pretty good. There’s a level of detail that isn’t present in the cheaper (by about $500) Elears, and a certain class and clarity to the low end that we found refreshing. It was clear from the very start that these sounded like a different, newer pair of headphones, thanks no doubt to the tuning work that Focal’s engineers have put in. While we did occasionally wish that the mids were just a touch warmer and more forward, the clarity these presented was unmatched in this particular price range. The bites of electric guitars and the crisp hit of snare drums really came through, and the headphones showed off some superb dynamics. The low-end isn’t as weighty as other models, but it feels tight and controlled, with enough thump to satisfy most people. Certainly enough to satisfy us. We tested these on a variety of amplifiers, ranging from a $99 Schiit Fulla (full review here) to a $10,000 Goldmund Telos 2, and they always performed at the top of their game. Obviously, having decent amplification always helped, but even when we listened to them off simple smartphone, they performed well. Not with quite as much volume, to be sure, but still solid.
Focal Clear vs Elear vs Utopia
Good news: the Clear don’t just sound good, they sound distinctive. Like the Elear, the drivers are 40mm aluminum-magnesium, and are designed in an M shape. They are packaged with a copper voice coil, and together, these two elements work together to control the dynamics and the bass. We haven’t had a close look at the Clear’s drivers – although we have with the ones in the Utopia (full review here), which were heavy enough to kill if you threw one of them with the right amount of force – but what we can say is that they do one hell of a job with your audio.
Comparing these to the Elear, the audio specs don’t show a huge amount of difference. The Elear is 80Ω, while the Clear presents at 55Ω (Meaning it’s easier to drive, and requires slightly less power). The Clear also offers a slightly wider frequency range, peaking at 28kHz to the Elear’s 23kHz. Sensitivity is identical, at 104dB, although the Clear has slightly lower Total Harmonic Distortion (at 0.25%/1kHz to the Elear’s 0.3%/1kHz). The Elear already sounded spectacular. The Clear ups the ante, sharpening everything we liked about the sound while adding its own special flavour. And by the way, if everything we just wrote is complete gobbledygook, we’ve got a full explainer article that breaks down all the common headphone specs we’ve just mentioned, and more.
It must be said that if you already own the Elear, you’re not going to get an absolutely enormous upgrade by buying these, and while there are definitely differences, they do share the same sound signature – as you might expect. But having spent a few weeks listening to these, we’re satisfied that this is a significant enough upgrade to get it out of iPhone 5CXS+ territory. Similar they may be, but there are definite differences. Compared to models like the aforementioned Elear and the Sennheiser HD800s, these more than hold their own.
Housing and Build Quality
In design terms, these headphones are functionally identical to the Elear. They don’t just look sort of the same; outside of a different colour scheme, they look exactly the same. Admittedly, it’s a design that works incredibly well, and is distinctive enough to spot from a distance. These are open-back headphones, with a mesh grille on the outside of the housing, protecting the driver. The central element, with the company logo surrounded by a circle detailing not only the material the driver is constructed from (aluminum-magnesium, since you ask) but also that the headphones were Fabrique en France, feels as well-built and substantial as it did on the Elear.
The ear cups themselves are soft, squashy, and breathable, and also removable in case you need to access the serial number, or swap them out at a later date – a feature we always like to see. We’re seeing more of this, most lately in the excellent (and cheaper, at $499) Advanced Sound Alpha. Normally, we’d say you should go to Amazon, but in this case, go direct - it’s way, way, way, way cheaper. While it is slightly strange that the leather headband has the same padding underneath as the material on the cups, it still looks and feels very good indeed. Weirdly, the hinges are actually spring-loaded, meaning the cups drop back into a resting position after you push on them.
And really…that’s kind of it. The biggest difference here is the color; while the Elear came in black, the Clear comes in a tasteful shade of grey, with silver metallic accents. As with all Focal products, it feels well built and substantial, but we just can’t help thinking that the design is perhaps a little bit lazy. Yes, it works, and works well – and if we’re going to stick with an earlier metaphor, it’s not like the iPhone changed substantially between iterations. But if you’re going to make something look identical to its predecessor, and not even change the name beyond a single letter, it doesn’t really add to the illusion that you’ve put a lot of thought into it. While it is a little frustrating, it must be said that we don’t consider these points to detract from the overall package all that much. And this trick, of releasing a slightly more expensive reskinned version, is something that plenty other manufacturers have tried before – to highlight just one example, when Mr Speakers released the very good Ether Flow headphones to replace the original Ether, the design remained largely unchanged. So don’t read too much into it: this is still an exceptionally well-designed pair of headphones.
Newer Focal Headphone Models
Focal are nothing if not prolific. Since the release of the Clear, they have come out with multiple headphone models at a variety of prices. The two most stand out in our minds are the closed-back Elegia and Stellia. The former costs $899 – significantly less than the Clear – and is marketed as an alternative to the sub-$1,000 open-back Elear headphones. The latter is very much a high-end model that is second only to the groundbreaking Utopia: a closed-back, leather-wrapped, $2,999 monster but makes mincemeat of any song you put through it. In a really good way.
Honestly? It's a little difficult to say that either of these new models are better or worse than the Clear. They are just different. And if you take away one thing from this, it's that Focal put out a huge range of headphones, and the one you go for is very much dependent on the size of your wallet, and the way you like your music. Sorry – we know that probably isn't very helpful advice. But we've tested more headphones from Focal than just about any other company, and that's the way we feel.
Weight and Clamping Pressure
One of the things that really set the Utopia apart from the competition was just how comfortable it was to wear for long periods. Other high-end models, like the AUDEZE LCD-4, can be difficult to wear after a couple of hours, on account of the fact that eventually the muscles in your neck stop being able to hold them up. That’s not a problem that Focal has. As with almost all their other models, the Clear feels terrific to wear. It has an identical weight to the Elear (just under a pound), and the clamping pressure feels perfectly engineered – something to do, no doubt, with those spring-loaded hinges. We very happily wore these for hours at a time – the soft earcups never felt like they were going to cause us any discomfort, and the space in the middle is wide enough to accommodate all but the largest of ears. And despite our misgivings about the headband, it’s very comfortable to wear. These may be bulky over ear headphones, but when you’re wearing them, they certainly don’t feel like it.
It must be said: Focal definitely don’t skimp on the accessories. If anything, there’s an embarrassment of riches here. You get not one but three different detachable cables, all of which a sheath in a vaguely chequerboard black-and-white pattern, and all of which come with solid metal connectors. You get a 4” cable with a 3.5mm plug for smartphone use, a 10” cable with the standard 6.3mm plug, and you even get a 10” balanced cable with a 4-point XLR connector. All the cables come with nifty velcro straps built in, to help you hold things in place while not in use - and if you ever lose them, you can buy a replacement cable used for the Elear model, although you’ll pay through the nose for it. On the unit we tested, the cables were remarkably stiff, but Focal’s PR agency flagged this up before they sent us the headphones, and said that it would be rectified prior to release.
Box and Carry Case
The other main accessory is a terrific carry-case, with a hard, textured surface and a substantial zip running around it, as well as a useful carry handle. Inside, foam inserts hold the headphones in place, and there is a space for your chosen cable. It’s one of the better carry cases we’ve seen, and is easy-to-use, flipping open in a clamshell design. The packaging for the Clear is good, if unspectacular. It shies away from the standard black-box-with-foam-inserts as seen with the Elear and the Utopia, going for more of a flower-like design that opens out into multiple sections. We saw a similar setup with the PSB M4U-8 (full review here), and we rather liked it - it got the job done, without being overly flashy, or getting in the way.
What We Like
- The Clear delivers refined and classy sound that stands with the best high-end headphones available.
- Improves on the original formula of the Elear, while making just enough key differences in audio quality to matter.
- The Clear comes with substantial accessories, and one of the better carry-cases we’ve encountered.
What We Don’t
- The Clear’s design is too similar to the Elear - the basic housing is virtually unchanged.
- Since the Clear’s debut, Focal released the Elex, which is also almost identical to the Elear. It makes things confusing, and difficult to tell the headphones apart.
- These headphones may be a little too expensive for some - even with a discount, they’re around $1,300 at the time of writing.
|HiFiMAN HE1000 V2||$2,999||14.8oz||Planar||Unknown||35Ω||90dB|
The biggest question we have to answer when reviewing these is: are they worth the extra money when something like the Elear exists? Because, again, they are incredibly similar. They have virtually identical design, similar specs, and at the base of it, a similar sound signature. What they had to prove to us was that they represented enough of a leap forward to justify the extra five hundred bucks. We think they achieved that goal, but if you disagree, here are some viable alternatives.
If you like your headphones to have a little bit more of a human touch, if you prefer wood to metal, then give Zach Mehrbach's cans a go. His ZMF series, which at the time of writing is about to get a new open-back planar model, is stellar. When we first wrote this review, his lineup consisted of exclusively closed-back models, but that's changed. For $1,200, you can buy yourself a ZMF Aeolus, an exquisite pair of open headphones but more than compete with the $1,499 Clear. They have superlative balance and clarity, and while we think the Clear sound ever so slightly better, it's a very small margin.
It’s a consistent surprise just how well the HiFiMAN HE1000 V2 headphones have endured over the years. They’ve hung in there, easily competing with headphones twice their price. They are surprisingly light, and although they require a fair amount of power to drive properly, they will reward you with clear and elegant sound that takes full advantage of the open back design. For the record, we still prefer the Focal Utopia, but we would never say no to a listening session with these. They are higher quality than the Clear, and a good alternative if you have cash to burn.
The Sennheiser HD800 is really the classic option here. They’re the elder statesman of the headphone world, with a classic sound that many still claim has yet to be bettered. We disagree - they’re good, but advancements have been made since then, and they can sound just a touch thin now. All the same, they’re a classic for a reason, and while we think the Clear is slightly better these headphones will satisfy all but the most demanding listeners.
And you can, of course, go for the Focal Elear. We got into a lot more detail about how these headphones differ to the Clear in the review above, but we can say that as the price continues to drop, they will continue to be one of the best pairs of headphones currently available. We don’t think they are quite as good as things like the Eikon, but they still do a very solid job, especially for the money you pay. If you don't want to spend what you would for the Clear, these are well worth looking at, and remain an excellent pair of headphones.
But: when it comes down to it, we think the Focal Clear sound more refined and slightly more elegant than their younger sibling, with quantifiable evidence that work has been done to improve the overall experience. They offer a much wider range of accessories, all of which feel worth owning. These don’t just feel like a simple reskinning of a core concept; rather, they offer definite improvements, and they act as a very effective bridge between the sub—$1,000 Elear and the $3,995 Utopia. It must be said that if you own the former, you’ve got very little reason to buy these, but if you don’t, this could be a very classy entry into the high-end headphone world. If the Elear didn’t exist, these would be revolutionary. As it is, they are merely very, very good.