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WaveTheory

100+ Head-Fier
Focal Clear MG - by WaveTheory
Pros: Macrodynamic impact; separation; comfort; build quality
Cons: Signature too mid-forward for this reviewer; some detail retrieval issues in the mid-range; stock cable is awful; amp-picky; arguably lacks a stand-out sonic feature in the $1300-1800 price range
INTRODUCTION

The Focal Clear MG was another generous loan from Mr. @sa11297 – thanks for keeping my efforts going! – and was fortuitously timed as I had it in-house at the same time as it’s big sibling the Stellia. I should add the caveat that I have unfortunately never spent any meaningful time with the original Clear. So, this review will not be a comparison to the OG Clear, rather a report on the Clear MG as I see it on its own merits. Let’s do it…

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TL;DR

The Clear MG is a good headphone that does several things well but doesn’t deliver any singular feature that stands out at the price point. It has a mid-forward signature that will likely be too much for some listeners (including this reviewer!) and that has an adverse effect on timbre through the mid-range. However, if that doesn’t bother you, it’s also a headphone that doesn’t do much of anything else wrong, either. Thus, it falls into a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none type of territory, that when combined with its comfort, can be an attractive option for someone looking for a solid, well-rounded headphone that can be worn all day.

KNOW YOUR REVIEWER

My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.

FEATURES & BUILD

The Clear MG is an open-back, around-the-ear, dynamic-driver headphone. The driver is made of magnesium (hence the name “MG”, I believe) and is cone shaped. This shape stands in contrast to other Focal models that feature their M-shaped dome. The MSRP is 1490 USD.

With the build it’s getting to be a bit of a broken record statement at this point, the Clear MG is a Focal headphone. Ergo, it’s made well. It’s rugged. It’s handsome. It’s comfortable. It’s clamp force strikes an excellent balance of keeping it on the head without sliding around yet still not being so tight that it becomes uncomfortable. The cabling is dual-entry with a 3.5mm jack recessed into each cup. Those jack recesses are rather large in diameter so that just about any aftermarket cable can be used. And that’s good because there’s another broken record statement at this point: Focal stock cables are horrid. Honestly, if you’re buying the Clear MG, just get yourself a nice cable upon placing the order and don’t even bother taking the stock cables out of the box.

A unique feature of the Clear MG in the Focal line is that there are two models. There’s a consumer edition and a professional edition. The headphones themselves only differ in color and are tuned the same. They only differ by the included cables, I believe. The consumer model (which my review unit is) is a chestnut brown with brown earpads:

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The “Pro” model is black with red earpads:


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Since the tuning is the same and the stock cables are butt, it’s basically just down to which color scheme you prefer for this headphone.

The MG’s different driver than other Focal models leads to a slightly higher impedance than most of their models. The MG is rated at 55Ω but with a still-efficient sensitivity of 104 dB/mW. That still makes it very friendly for DAPs, mobile amps, and other lower-powered amps. I found that it needed about one hour higher potentiometer position on my Violectric HPA-V281 than its sibling models the Stellia and the Radiance for volume matching. But, that still keeps it firmly in easy-to-drive territory.

SOUND

Test Gear

I ran the Clear MG directly from my Chord Hugo 2 transportable DAC/amp and on my main desktop chain comprised of a Windows 10 PC running Audirvana 3.5, a Singxer SU-2 digital-to-digital converter and USB interface, a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2 DAC, and a Violectric HPA-V281 headphone amp. Late in the review process a RAAL Requisite HSA-1b amp arrived for evaluation and I got a couple listening sessions in with the MG on that amp as well using the same DDC and DAC from my desktop chain. Also, for kicks, I used the SE output on the same Berkeley DAC and used the Cayin HA-1AMK2 tube amp and the Schiit Asgard 3 to see what would happen.

It’s a Focal Headphone!

Unsurprisingly, every audio equipment company ends up adopting a house sound. They typically have a common designer or design team that has opinions about how things should sound and they tweak and tune until desired traits are reached. I was able to do a Focal headphone shootout recently where I spoke about some of the features of the Focal house sound. If you missed that video, here’s a recap: Focal favors a mid-forward tuning that gives the mid-range frequencies more audible presence than the bass or treble. Even so, there is still excellent extension in both directions with a fair amount of air up top and quite excellent bass extension. Focal headphones are all very dynamic and punchy. They have effortless and huge dynamic range and they come with lots of slam. They will hit you. Their bass often has a tactile quality to it. The soundstaging on Focals is neither large nor small but creates more of a wrap-around effect than a speaker-like out-in-front staging. I describe it as being on the Maestro’s stand of a symphony rather than back in the audience of the concert hall. My experience with the 4 Focal models I’ve heard, including the MG, makes these traits pretty clear – with the notable tuning exception of the Radiance being warmer and bassier in its frequency response. Within each of these traits, there is some variation. Let’s dive into the MG’s unique twists on each of these things.

Sound Signature – Frequency Response

The MG is certainly mid-forward. Most of its mid-forwardness, at least to my ear, is in the 1KHz-ish range (which makes it not a good match for my ears – see the Know Your Reviewer section above). However, there is also a sense of warmth that other Focals (save Radiance – which has it in spades) lack. So, there is a bit extra presence in the upper bass/lower-mids that brings in that warmth, but it’s not as forward or as prominent as the mid-range. Outside of those traits the classic Focal extension – both high and low – is definitely present as there is a fair amount of air without being sibilant or piercing and some deep bass without any bloat or bleed into the mids.

That mid-range forwardness is probably the biggest detriment to the sound. Now, I’ve declared my 1KHz sensitivity and general disdain for shouty vocals and honky/hollow instruments sounds, but this headphone tickles that to level that few do. My guess is that many will not experience what I am about to describe to the same extent that I do, but there is a fair amount of criticism floating around out there about the MG’s mids, which leads me to believe there is something going on here – or something not going on, whatever the case may be. The timbre is all off through the mids. Vocals get shouty and when there are multi-part harmonies it can be very difficult to separate the vocals from each other. How many singers are there in Eagles Seven Bridges Road? The MG did not answer that question for me. Similarly, instruments can become overpowering, honky, or hollow quite quickly, and it’s not always big and bombastic brass crescendos that do it. The opening of A Spoonful Weighs a Ton by The Flaming Lips has some flutes or clarinets or…oboe?...in the left channel that the MG turned into a blaring mess to my ear. They’re not recorded particularly aggressively either. The Poet and Pendulum by Nightwish features an epic section from about 7:00 to 9:00 with a full metal band, backing orchestra, and a dueling electric-guitar and violin solo. MG did a pretty good job holding all that together save for separating that guitar and violin from each other.

More than one fellow audiophile has complained to me that they wish the MG had more vocal presence as sometimes vocals weren’t as featured as they would like. I don’t think the problem is a lack of mid-range presence. I think one of the problems is the mids are too present which often ends up with vocal and instrument sounds getting muddled together a bit too much.

Macrodynamics

It’s a Focal. It punches hard and has dynamic range in spades. I like the physicality here, as I generally like the physicality of Focal’s lineup. The Clear MG certainly delivers on this aspect. This is a trait that you either like or you don’t. Let’s move on.

Staging

The technical ability of the MG’s spatial presentation seems price appropriate to me. The Focal warp-around, “bubble around the head” presentation is here. The soundstage size is neither remarkably big nor small, just is. The imaging and separation are pretty good too. With well recorded symphonies and orchestras it’s fairly easy to place instruments where they are, and just as importantly, where they aren’t. I’ve heard better near the $1500 price point, but I’ve also heard worse. More on this in the comparison section to come.

Detail Retrieval

For the most part the detail retrieval is also strong and price appropriate. On the concert recording of John Williams in Vienna, things like chair creaks, music pages being turned, and the clicks of bows as they’re being set down can all be heard all over the soundfield. Now, I realize that chair creaks and page shuffles are not part of the music, but the ability to resolve those things serves as a good proxy for being able to resolve the subtleties that are in the music. Those sounds also contribute to a “you are there” kind of feeling while listening. I think that the mid-range issue mentioned above is also a detail-retrieval issue, however. There might be a small dip in resolution capability in the same range as the prominent mid-range which makes distinguishing voices and instruments from each other all the more difficult.

AMP PAIRINGS

Of the Focals I have experience with (Stellia, Radiance, Elegia, Clear MG), the MG seems to be the most amp picky. It changes its behavior more than the others moving from amp to amp. The Stellia, Radiance, and Elegia more or less maintain their overall behavior and either become more-or-less resolving with cleaner or quieter (or the opposite) sonic background as amps change. In other words, they remain a version of themselves. The MG seems to experience some frequency response changes, however. It can vary a fair degree in the amount of bass and rumble, and that mid-range forwardness, while always there, can also vary in presence. The Hugo 2 is not a particularly powerful amp in the low end, so the bass is a bit lighter on the MG on that one, which isn’t surprising, but that combo is also one of the worst offenders in the shout/honk region. Oddly enough the Asgard 3 was probably the second least shouty/honky/hollow, but also didn’t have quite the oomph in the low end. The V281 woke the bass up quite a bit, with lots of presence and slam, and was arguably the least shouty of any amp I tried. And yes, that means that the $4500 RAAL amp was shoutier, honkier, etc. with the MG. But, the RAAL amp also had even more bass quantity that the V281, more bass punch/slam, more overall detail, cleaner background, and more accurate spatial presentation. The Cayin HA-1AMK2 tube amp gave the most bass presence of any of the amps. In fact, the bass quantity from that amp was higher even than the Radiance on any of those amps, which is a big switch. The mids were still really shouty though and the overall presentation took on a wetter and oversmoothed character. That’s likely because of the higher output impedance on the 1AMK2 (even on its lowest output impedance setting). I enjoyed the MG the most on the V281 because to my ear it struck the best balance of fullness and power in the bass with the mids being the least aggressive (but still objectionably aggressive and shouty/honky/hollow too often).

COMPARISONS WITH OTHER HEADPHONES

I compared the Clear MG to the Radiance and Stellia, as I shared earlier. The punchline there is it was my least favorite of the three. The Stellia is also mid-forward, but a little higher in frequency than the MG is which gets it out of shout territory for me more often. The Stellia also holds itself together more effectively when it does get shouty. MG goes off the rails more, so to speak. The Radiance, to my ear, was technically equal to or superior to the MG in just about every sonic category save maybe just the slightest of edges to the MG in spatial separation. The MG can present space between sonic images just a little bit more clearly than Radiance – but I had to strain to hear that. Because the MG is open-back and the Radiance closed-back, and with Radiance being $200 cheaper, I would expect the MG to be comfortably superior in its spatial presentation and it’s…not. I don’t think that’s because the MG is bad. I think that has more to do with the Radiance being something special, actually.

Looking at the headphone market in the $1300ish-$1800ish range, I either own or have reviewed the Focal Radiance (comments above), the Fostex TH900 (which I added Lawton chambers to), ZMF Eikon, Audeze LCD-X (maybe that one’s a little less in price, but still close), and HiFiMan Arya and Edition X V2 (now discontinued). Looking at this group it strikes me that the MG is not the best at any one single sonic technicality. Nor is it the worst, except maybe the mid-range timbre. The LCD-X (pre-2021, anyway) and the MG will likely have quite a fight over who wants to be the shoutiest in the mid-range. In this group the Eikon has the most natural timbre until the music gets very busy, where it can struggle. But when it’s in its comfort zone, that timbre is phenomenal. The Arya has the next best timbre all the time, probably with its sibling the Edition X V2 behind it. The TH900 can best the MG in physicality, punching with even more authority in the deep subbass. The LCD-X can also challenge the MG in physicality with some bass boost. The Arya is the most resolving of this set, probably followed by its sibling, the TH900, and the MG. My TH900 with Lawton chambers is more resolving than the MG, but the stock TH900 likely isn’t quite to that level. The Arya also has the biggest soundstage and the most accurate imaging, separation, and layering within that soundstage. For soundstage, bigger doesn’t mean technically better, but those other aspects point to a clear superiority for the Arya in this price range – and it’s way ahead of the rest at that. The second-best headphone in this group would be the other HiFiMan, the Edition X V2. MG comes in middle-of-the-pack here, earning its place at the price point but not standing out amongst the crowd either.

All of these headphones have some sort of critical error of flaw in them too, which you’re either willing to live with or you’re not. The LCD-X has the shouty mids and, without EQ, a quickly rolled-off subbass and somewhat incoherent spatial presentation. With EQ, the bass comes back, shoutiness diminishes, and the spatial integrity improves, but then you’re stuck dealing with EQ, which can be either very expensive to use easily or a real pain in the…I think you get it. The Arya has a hot zone in the treble which comes across as very sharp and sibilant to many and gave me vertigo-like symptoms. It can also be a bit bass-lean. The Edition X V2 was discontinued awhile ago, which is a shame because it’s really good, and can hardly be found anymore, even on the used market. The TH900 series can be too v-shaped for many listeners and is also notorious for being too sharp and sibilant in the treble. The Eikon tends to freak out a little bit with complex music, losing it resolution chops and spatial integrity, and also doesn’t sound as good as many of the others when it’s playing music of genres where it doesn’t excel ie. it falls apart more than the others when it’s not comfortable as a general rule, being much more a specialist than the rest.

Put all this together and a use case starts to emerge for the Clear MG. If you can handle its mid-range presence, and many can, you get a headphone that’s very solid in all the technical areas and does a pretty good job with most genres of music most of the time. Call it a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none situation. There is a place for that if your taste is eclectic and you want to plug in one can while working for the day.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If it isn’t already apparent, the Clear MG isn’t for me. It’s too mid-forward too often for my ears and leads to too much shoutiness, honkiness, and hollowness in the sound, wrecking timbre and tonality through the mid-range for me. Even so, there were still multiple stretches in my time with it when I was able to enjoy the music; bob my head, tap my foot, sing along (poorly, haha). The magnitude of those mid-range difficulties might be somewhat unique to me as I seem to be 1KHz sensitive, but I don’t think they will entirely disappear for very many either. I don’t think the MG is quite the $1500 benchmark the original Clear was considered to be back when it ruled the roost, but it’s also good enough at enough things that it can earn a place by being somewhat of a generalist – provided that its mids are not too much for you. Detail retrieval is overall solid. The imaging and separation are also right where they should be for the price. The macrodynamic punch/slam is also plentiful and fun. They’re well built. They’re comfortable. And they look good. If you need a single headphone to cover a wide range of music genres for extended listens, need all-day comfort, and can handle the mid-forward presentation, the Clear MG is worth checking out.

Thanks for reading, all. Enjoy the music!

The review in video form:

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RayMets1
I actually own the Mg's and have them paired with the Topping A30 D30 Pro, and must say this pairing sounds great with the MG's. The D30 Pro having a more relaxed signature really tame the shoutiness.

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