Focal Clear

FcConstruct

New Head-Fier
Focal Clear vs. Elex
Pros: Low end physicality
Resolution
Dynamics
Solid tuning
Cons: Upper mids edginess and vocal sibilance
Price/performance (vs. the Elex) and accessory cost

Introduction​

A little while ago, I posted my review of the Focal Elex thinking it wouldn't be a while until I had a chance to review another Focal headphone. Well lo and behold, the folks over at headphones.com reached out to me and asked if I'd like to review the Focal Clear after seeing a conversation I had with a friend on Discord asking if I'd compare the Elex to the Clear. Obviously, I wasn't going to say no. So here is my take on the Focal Clear vs. the Focal Elex. Do read my Focal Elex review before this one! I'm going to assume you have for this review. I also did a video version of this review on Youtube! Though the content is mostly the same, I take a more conversational style in the video that changes the dynamics of the presentation so check that one out too for a fuller picture!



Housekeeping​

Before I start though, there's a few housekeeping items I need to point out regarding the Clear. First, it costs $1,500 vs. the $700 Elex. That said, I'm fairly certain you could probably buy it closer to the $1,000 mark if you find a sweet deal or go the used route. Speaking of deals, most of you are probably already aware of this but the Clear is sold through Focal's dealers while the Elex can only be obtained from (Mass)Drop. I'll get to the implications of this in the conclusion but it is a distinction to keep in mind. As for the build, the Elex uses the same pads as the Clear but the same drivers as the Elear. Those concerned over the quality control over the Elex's drivers may feel more at ease with the Clear as I haven't seen reports of its failure. Of course, this is a much more complicated topic with a lot of misinformation floating out there so I won't discuss it any further.
I also want to point out the existence of the Focal Clear Pro which ALSO costs $1,500. Despite the pro moniker, there is no sound difference. The only difference is the red/black aesthetics and an extra set of pads with the Clear Pro vs. the two extra sets of cables you get in the Clear. The main cable also changes from a cloth-like fabric to a more traditional rubbery coiled cable on the Clear Pro. To be honest, I don't see why you wouldn't get a Clear Pro since those extra pads are a $200 added value.
Finally, in the time that I've written this review, it looks like the Focal Clear Pro Mg has been released at... $1,500. No word on the non-Pro version. I don't know what's going on with the Focal Clear lineup but if I were a betting man, I'd say the Mg version is meant to replace the standard Clear. This review will be focused on the regular version vs. the Elex but watch out for those Mg reviews!
Finally finally, I'd like to thank headphones.com for sending me a loaner unit of the Focal Clear to review. All they ask is that I mention their name here. As always, this review will consist of my honest thoughts.
Phew that was a lot. Let's get started.

What's in the Box​

The Focal Clear's box is a minimalist black box with a slideout design. Inside is a carrying case containing the Clear along with a 3.5 mm and a 1/4 in adapter. There's also a box that opens up like a book containing two more cables. One is a 1/4 in cable and the other is an XLR cable. They have the same lengths. Finally, there's a user manual.
The cables are the same as the cable on the Focal Elex, except with a lighter gray. It is similarly awful. The fabric sheathing introduces a ton of cable noise. There's an insane amount of cable memory and constantly kinks in the shape it was shipped in. Please get a new cable for yourself if you pick up a Clear.
As for the build itself, it's built exactly like the Elex except for a light gray color instead of all black. I did notice that the pads and headband had a more substantial feel compared to my worn-in 2-year old Elex that gave in at a fairly light touch. But otherwise, they're the same. They're hefty but comfortable for 2-3 hours before I need a break to relax my neck. I get a really nice seal with these headphones so no complaints there.


Sound​

The Clear and the Elex sound surprisingly similar in a lot of ways yet have subtle differences that give life to each individual headphone. The main difference really comes down to tuning. Though they're tuned very closely to each other, the Elex draws my attention to the top half of the frequency response while the Clear focuses my thoughts on the lower mids and bass. Where the Elex emphasizes the primary melodies of a track, the Clear reminds me not to forget about the subtleties in the background.

Bass​

The bass and lower mids of the Clear sound like they have about a 1-2 dB bump over the Elex. This elevation isn't focused around say the subbass or midbass, but rather it's an overall perception of meatiness in the low end of the Clear compared to the leaner Elex. Where the Elex's bass is tighter and lighter, the Clear's feel weightier and nuanced. The Clear's better bass resolution, rumble, and refinement is lightly reminiscent of the Utopia. This improved bass quality and elevation is what makes me consider the Clear to be more low end focused compared to the Elex. It's as if the Clear is comfortable spending time exploring the intricacies of the notes in the bass and lower mids; I'm able to more easily pickup on the trailing backend character of notes that may get passed over when the Elex slams and moves on. An simple example is the kick drum: on the Elex, I mostly hear the defined attack of the beater head. On the Clear, the body of the kick blends seamlessly in to fill and round out each note with an added layer of character. The same could be said for the toms and even the guitars, though to a lesser extent.
In some ways, the bass of the Clear sounds like what I tried to EQ the Elex to. Though I tried to increase subbass quantity for a larger impact, I wasn't pleased with my EQ as I found the Elex needed to remain lean to get the most out of its clean slam. By adjusting the bass, that cleanness would be marred ever-so-slightly, enough that I felt the tradeoff wasn't worth it. Though the Clear doesn't solve that issue, the sense of physicality and weightiness of low notes was the missing piece of the puzzle I didn't have in my EQ attempts. While the Clear didn't manage to achieve my dream of a clean, thunderous subbass slam like I was trying for on the Elex, I was met with a more mature solution. For those considering the Clear vs. the Elex, this is where I'd say the Clear has its most definite edge over the Elex unless you're a diehard fan of a lean tuning.

Mids​

Continuing the story from the bass, the lower mids of the Clear are warmer and more coherent than the Elex. What stands out about the Clear is its coherency and nuance in that transition region between the bass and the lower mids. I find a lot of headphones and IEMs struggle getting sound across in this critical region but the Clear has no trouble at all. To be fair, the Elex doesn't have an issue in this area either. It handles it easily. But its leanness does mask some of the challenges that are often presented here.
For how good the lower mids are, it's the upper mids of the Clear that fall short. There's a bit of edginess to the upper mids that make it slightly sibilant on certain vocals. The sharp Sss sound is especially pronounced on wispy female vocals or when a sharp breath is taken. As mentioned in my Elex review, the Elex seems to always toe the line when it comes to vocal sibilance; it gets right to the threshold without ever crossing it. A similar sort of effect happens with the Clear where I can sense it stretches right up to that threshold... anddd steps over it occasionally. While the lower mids of the Clear does smooth out the sound of the mids as a whole, it isn't enough to soften the edginess of the upper mids. As such, I think the Elex does have a better tonal balance for vocals. That said, I do want to emphasize how subtle this difference in the upper mids can be between the Clear and Elex, especially depending on the vocalist. For some singers, I had to A/B test the tracks to check if it wasn't just the recording.
I find that instrument tone is slightly better on the Clear as it isn't as affected by the upper mids edginess nearly as much as vocals are. The lower mids warmth and coherency of the Clear works beautifully if you're looking for something like the emotional sounds of a moody electric guitar. The Clear's rendition of these stringed instruments really shine in quieted segments. But if you primarily enjoy high-paced rock or metal tracks, the Elex's lean mids may be advantageous. As mentioned at the start, I find the Elex is very good at bringing forth the main melodies of a recording and part of that reason is its ability to sound effortlessly clean in the mids.



Treble​

The treble of the Clear and Elex is pretty interesting. Neither is truly brighter than the other, though sometimes that upper mids edginess does make its way into the lower treble of the Clear. The Elex's treble is pervasively forward; I continuously hear the crisp sound of the hats and cymbals in tracks where they have any level of prominence. The Clear's treble are more mellow, with the warmth from the lower mids balancing the overall tone. Because it's less crisp than the Elex and has a lengthened decay, the Clear's treble oftentimes sounds just a bit more natural to me where the Elex can sometimes feel a little exaggerated. It adds a sense of musicality and emotion that leads to melancholic enjoyability. I find that the Clear is also more forgiving of poor recordings as it doesn't amplify the metallic sound of badly recorded cymbals nearly as much as the Elex does. In terms of airiness, neither headphone really has much top end air or sparkle.

Presentation​

From a staging perspective, they're extremely close. For soundstage, I'd say the Elex takes a small edge here, maybe about 5% larger at most. Imaging wise, I want to say the Clear pulls ahead though part of that perception may be because the Clear sounds just a bit more coherent than the Elex.
On a resolution level, the Clear has better resolution, mostly in the bass and lower mids where it's more nuanced. Though it is hard to tell if its simply because there's more quantity. Regardless, the low end of the Clear is more satisfying and it's where the Clear pulls ahead of the Elex. It has the ability to make subtleties in the background pop just a bit more. When I'm listening to a familiar track, background instruments and melodies are more noticeable. Especially those that play in the lower frequencies such a deep snare roll. The Clear manages to paint a clear, nuanced picture of those notes. When I listen for the same thing on the Elex, I can hear it but it's less noticeable and the overall "image" in my head is fuzzier.
Instrument separation and layering is better on the Clear as well. The overall presentation is just a little more mature on the Clear and elevates its sound compared to the Elex. I'd say that, to some extent, the sheer dynamism of the Elex, its slam and lean tuning, causes it gloss over some of the finer details that the Clear lays out. I do think the Elex is the more dynamic headphone by a small margin and sounds a bit cleaner as a whole thanks to its tuning.

Should You Buy It?​

Yes, if you want something a little thicker than the Elex and have deep enough pockets for it. Let me be the first to say that the Clear will NOT beat the value the Elex brings to the table. For all the compare and contrast I've given in this review, both headphones honestly sound quite similar to each other. Diminishing returns and the like; the truth is when headphones are this good, differences are often partially exaggerated (unintentionally) just to be able to illustrate them. At $700, the Elex is pretty much the best value Hi-Fi headphone you can currently get IMHO. The HD600 is nice but the Focal Elex and Clear are truly in a different league from it.
At $1,500, the Clear is more than double the price of the Elex. So what does it bring to the table? Ultimately, it really comes down to that layer of musicality in the low end. Its coherency and nuance brings this tactile physicality to the lower mids and bass that cannot be said of the Elex. Combined with better instrument tone and a more mellow treble, the Clear has an overall more mature sound than the aggressively slammy Elex. But its greatest flaw is the slight upper mids edginess and sibilance on vocals. For those who are extremely sensitive to vocal sibilance no matter how small or infrequent, that may be enough to prefer the Elex. Otherwise, I think the warmer, bassier signature of the Clear should appeal to more people.
Going back to the question of worth: one of the bigger justifications for paying the huge premium is quality control and dealer support. In my Elex review, I touched briefly on the potential concerns over the Elex's driver failure. The Clears do not have this issue (or at least, nowhere near the same extent). Furthermore, with the Clear you get 3 years of warranty from Focal instead of 1 year from Drop with the Elex. Obviously, how good this warranty will be would partially depend on how good your dealer is but in general, aftermarket support from dedicated audio dealers like headphones.com or similar companies should be better than Drop. While I don't think it's worth more than double the price of the Elex, it is something to consider.
And make no mistake, not every new Clear sells at $1,500. If you message a dealer and ask nicely, they may give you a sweet little deal on them. Or if you're lucky and there's an open box Clear in stock, you might get a pretty good discount on that too. Or even a used set since the 3-year warranty transfers. All that to say, I wouldn't be surprised if you could find a Clear for around $1,000 or less with a little bit of luck, making the value proposition much better.
To conclude then, I suppose I should tell you which I prefer. It's actually a pretty simple decision. Since I own an Elex, I'll stick with it for now. If you follow my reviews, you'll know that I like a lean tuning and forward treble so the Elex is right in my wheelhouse. But if I owned neither and assuming the price difference wasn't an issue, I'd probably get the Clear. While I will absolutely miss the superior vocal balance and lean cleanness of the Elex, the physicality and coherency in the low end of the Clear is quite hard to beat.

Written by Fc-Construct
Last edited:
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tarikuz
Still happy with elegia but curious about the sound of open back focal sound!
descloud
descloud
Looks like we both share similar findings to the Clear's treble region. They can get peaky depending on how a track is mastered. It doesn't seem to bother most, but it was enough for me to eventually let them go. They're overall great sounding though, but it looks like Focal changed up the tuning a bit in the MG series.

Nicely written review overall!

@tarikuz the Elegia in stock form does not sound like the Clear. I've had the Clear previously and currently own the Elegia. If you EQ the Elegia, you can get a similar sound to the Clear, but the two aren't alike in stock tonality from my experience.
FcConstruct
FcConstruct
@descloud Yup the treble on the Clear has a bit more edginess at times than the Elex like the upper mids but I do find it generally more mellow instead of in-your-face like the Elex was.

descloud

100+ Head-Fier
Focal Clear - Does it live up to it's model name?
Pros: + Well-balanced tonality
+ Detail retrieval
+ Timbre of vocals and instruments are akin to a good speaker setup
+ Relatively comfortable headband and ear pads for long listening
+ Build feels premium
+ Accessories it came with matches the commanding MSRP
Cons: - Peaks in 6kHz and 9kHz can be harsh for treble sensitive ones
- Head stage width is about average
- Depending on your previous headphone, it is heavy
- Headband + Ear pad longevity for the silver/gray scheme
- EAR PAD REPLACEMENT COSTS
- Cable feels well built, but is highly stiff and inflexible
Being in this hobby and sub for a while, I feel it's time to also share my own findings after having gone through quite a number of headphones myself. I haven't been able to audition multiple kilobuck headphones like others here, but I'll give my thoughts as one who's relatively satisfied with the marketplace under the $1000 price range.

Of course, a review is less meaningful without some comparison. That being said, this is my review of the Focal Clear and a direct comparison with my current best sounding can being the Hifiman HE-500 - which is discontinued, but can be found in the used market every now and then.

On top of that, I will describe my reference points when describing each section, so others could get a good idea of where I'm coming from and can formulate their own thoughts.

For those not wanting to see my rant, you can read the summary below:

*** TL;DR: The Focal Clear is excellent sounding, well-balanced and engaging to listen to. It has little faults and overall tuning is in a word, 'clear'. If you're sensitive to other headphones that have a 6kHz and 9kHz spike, this may be a deal-breaker for you - and I would not recommend them. I would say that the Clear's tuning and technicalities are very close to the Hifiman HE-500 overall - with a few differences noted in the comparison section. These are great for modern genres as the sonic qualities are attention grabbing. ***

Audio chain used:
  • Tidal Hi-Fi/Flac files => PC => JDS Element
  • Tidal Hi-Fi/Flac files => PC => iFi Micro iDSD BL
Genres I usually listen to recently: Alt Rock, Classic and Ballad Rock, EDM, English and Asian Pop, some hip-hop/rap, some acoustic, and OSTs

Approximate average listening volume levels: ~ 60dB - 75dB


=== NON-SOUND section ===
  • Accessories it came with are excellent as it should be (3 cables+case for the regular scheme, 2 cables + spare pads for the Pro version)
  • Cable quality feels premium, but at the same time, irritating due to how stiff and inflexible it is. You have to forcefully bend it in ways to accommodate you position your amp relative to yourself
  • Overall comfort is great. The clamp force is just right for me along with the weight being not too heavy, although not very light either. They won't "disappear" on your head as some would describe it
    • If you're like me who's used to wearing a HE-500 or Alpha Dogs hours on end, this is a good transition
    • If on the other-hand you're used to lighter ones like the Aeons or HD6X0 series, this is heavier than those and can take some getting used to
  • I personally like the grey/silver color, although there appears to be more people preferring a darker color for them (there's the Clear Pro for that)
  • Overall feel of the build quality is excellent, but I hate that there is a slight creaking sound when flexing the headphone on hand. That's one of the main negatives of the build quality for me. It's a non-issue when wearing it though
  • Also concerned about the longevity of the headband and earpad given their color shade. Earpad replacement prices are ridiculous, but the headband issue can be addressed with a headband cover as seen in my photo
  • I think I have about average sized ears in dimensions, so the ear pad size and thickness gives enough room for my ears to move around without discomfort


=== SOUND section ===

For reference of the frequency graph I'm referring to, please see Crinacle's measurements here: https://crinacle.com/graphs/headphones/focal-clear/

**Note: I would have used Tyll's measurements, but Innnerfidelity has since been removed and redirected to Stereophile. Crinacle's measurements seem to still be reflective of how I hear the Clear and relatively close to Tyll's measurements.

Overall Signature: well-balanced, timbre is excellent with a hint of warmth, a touch of lush mids, and just the right amount of treble frequencies for me

Bass: excellent impact, dynamics and extension, with a tight sub-bass slam. For my preference, it could use a touch more sub-bass impact and this I think comes with a more linear bass response, similar to how some planar headphones are tuned from the likes of Hifiman and Audeze for example. It's also a more subdued impact/slam if you're coming from the Fostex TH-X00 (Mahogany in my case). Despite the lesser impact from the TH-X00, I still find it enjoyable and 'just right', whereas for me the TH-X00 can get fatiguing after a while.

So far in my experience with the Clear and TH-X00, how I perceive the bass slam is like a rounded ball shape hitting you. So the bass is a rounded ball hitting you alongside vocals and instruments playing. For my planar headphones on the other hand (e.g. HE-500, HE-400i, Sine), bass is shaped like a layer of flooring relative to the mix, and the rest of the mid-range is sitting on top of the bass floor. I feel this is due to the driver type, and not sure if others noticed this difference for their own dynamic and planar set.

Mids: well-balanced. Vocals and instruments have a correct pitch and is leaning towards the lusher side in texture. I can't really find a fault in it until you move to the treble region. Female and male vocals are about on par in terms of presence in the mix. The mids are not forward, but rather in-line with the bass and treble tonality to my ears.

Treble: great extension and tonal balance. I think that peak from 8kHz - 10kHz gives the overall tuning more engaging, and airy presentation for lack of better term. I don't hear any sibilance on my normal listening levels, nor hear any metallic sheen quality for certain vocal sections or instruments mastered.

However, on higher listening levels, the consonant range and some snare drums/cymbals can come across as sharp or have an edgy quality. The rise in this region along with the 6kHz peak may be what's causing the edginess in consonants and some instruments. This is what I suspect where people are describing the sound as being 'metallic'. One thing I noticed is that the 8k - 10k peak is also present in the HE-500, which would make sense that some would describe them as 'unnatural' with the slight edginess quality in the treble.

For me, it's only ever so slightly edgy and not bothersome to the timbre of vocals and instruments.

Detail Retrieval: Excellent in my books, but I can't say if it's among the best at its retail price range. The Headphone show made a good comparison with this, the Arya and the LCD-X, so that's a good reference. I think I agree somewhat to Resolve's description that detail is somewhat "put in your face" than having a proportioned space from where it's coming from. I mean this in that some details just jump out on some recordings that I didn't normally pay attention to. When I heard it on the Clear and switched to my other headphones (say HE-500), I now notice those details on those cans too, albeit not as pronounced. Dynamics may play a part in this aspect. On that note, dynamics (variation in loudness and quietness of sounds in a mix) are also excellent, which makes the Clears an engaging listen.

Imaging and Head stage (sound stage): How I approach head stage is like this, any headphone that has a total sound width that to my perception reaches my shoulder, I would rate as average. With that being said, the Focal Clear is about average in head stage to me.

Imaging is also good, but there's not a lot of depth or layering to the stage from my experience. This may seem weird for majority of people, but to my perception, the center image does not sound as cohesive as the other headphones I have. Some vocals in the center doesn't fill the left-center or right-center as proportionally as the HE-500 for example. Those spaces sometimes feel like a blank space, and I feel it's the dynamics of the headphones at play here. Some notes may decay faster, or some signals are actually lower in volume that renders some narrow spots in the center image as being blank. This is difficult to describe as it seems most people do not notice this on their units, and retaliate with their Clear having the "best imaging and holographic presentation" compared to their other headphones. I don't take this as an offense as their ears are trained differently from mine. Using Crossfeed does alleviate this cohesiveness issue for me though.

I have done tests with audio channel testers online, and my Clear seems to pass those. I guess for some busy tracks, it becomes an apparent issue for me. Until I can test another Clear, I will write this isolated issue as possibly a unit variance, my reference hearing sensitivity being different from others, or my perception bias playing with my auditory system.

One more thing, correct head stage and imaging is not really well represented on any headphones without the use of proper DSP IMO. Lastly, I don't particularly consider the head stage and imaging as a significant aspect in considering a headphone - because my recent listening sessions don't require such expansive head stage and precise imaging.

I think Tyll sums up my main gripes about this headphone's overall sound quality pretty well:

"bass could be a bit more texturally resolving... The treble has just the slightest edge to it. I keep wanting to think the Clear is a bit bright, but it's not, there's just a hint of edge to it."


=== Comparison ===

  • Clear vs Hifiman HE-500:

Against HE-500 (headband has HD650 pads + stock grills removed + Audeze Velour pads), here are my comparisons:
  • HE-500 is a bit more warmer sounding
  • HE-500 has more sub-bass impact, but is more bloomy in quality (could be slower decay, but not certain)
  • HE-500 has wider head stage and sub-sequentially, slightly better imaging
  • HE-500 has that known "liquid mids" and is a bit faster in pace
  • HE-500 has the more realistic vocals and instrument timbre
  • HE-500 has a touch less edgy quality between the two with grills removed
  • HE-500 allegedly sounds better when used with speaker amps (can neither confirm nor deny this)
  • Focal Clear is more balanced in bass, mids and treble
  • Focal Clear has a touch better detail retrieval and is more dynamic
  • Focal Clear has a tighter bass slam
  • Focal Clear is more engaging to me because it's the lesser warm sounding between the two along with its bass quality mentioned above
  • Focal Clear is more accurate to how I would hear different speaker setups (car audio, home theater setup, bluetooth speaker)
  • Focal Clear is way more comfortable for longer listening sessions
  • Focal Clear has better packaging and accessories included

Overall, the two are more alike than they are different in audio presentation. Their technicalities and tuning are so close to each other that I think it comes down to very few key differences as listed above. Upon first receiving the Clear, I couldn't clearly distinguish the small nuances, other than the HE-500 being warmer sounding and I've been splitting hairs since then.

For those who want to capture a very close tuning of a discontinued legend, I think the Focal Clear is among the closest available right now, albeit at a high price tag. You should to note that the HE-500 was sold at $899 retail almost a decade ago, so if you were to factor inflating prices, they are about in the same kilobuck price bracket in today's market pricing. I think this is a testament to the exceptional drivers Hifiman made for that particular lineup (HE-6 included) that are still competent in today's offerings. If only their overall build quality matched their overall sound quality.

  • Clear vs Sennheiser HD650:

That being said, are these an upgrade to the HD650 (which I've had for a short period early this year)? In some ways, they could be. The reasoning for that is because I consider the HE-500 the better HD650, so with my points above about the Clear and HE-500 comparison, the HD650 could be a possible upgrade.

For me, the Clear is not really a direct upgrade to them, but leaning towards a slightly different tuning, with hints of similarities with the HD650. It's not as warm sounding, nor as thick in the mid-range presentation. The mid-range isn't as smooth in transition quality as the HD650 either. The Clear also has a better treble tonal balance than the HD650, whereas the HD650 is smoothed over - lending itself to sound "veiled" or "muffled" if you make a back-to-back comparison. Take that as you will.




=== Conclusion and Recommendation ===

Would I recommend the Focal Clear at retail price? I'm not sure I would, and my reasons for that are the following:
  • the sound signature may not be to your liking and there's a lot of competition in that price range with different tonalities and timbre qualities
  • for those who are sensitive to the treble frequencies in the 6kHz and the spike around 9k, this may be a deal breaker for you as this comes off as edgy or 'metallic' as others would describe it
It is still best to get a demo of them with other cans in the kilobuck range to see if this is a signature that you'd enjoy.

If you were thinking of purchasing them at the used market of <$1k, I think they're worth considering, especially if you're coming from the Hifiman sound (i.e. 400i, 4XX) or maybe from another brighter sounding headphone and would like an upgrade. There's also the Ananda and the Arya as their lineup direct upgrade, but I think the Focal Clear is worth demoing against those two. The headphone show gives you a comparison between the Arya and the Clear so I suggest taking that video comparison as a good guide.

Complaints aside about the center imaging that very few notice, these are still a daily headphone for me as it is an engaging listen for most of the modern tracks I listen to. I would consider them a benchmark for comparison for any kilobuck headphones I will obtain/audition moving forward. So in terms of pure sound quality, I would recommend them if you're looking for a well-balanced tonality with vocals and instruments timbre being speaker-like in pitch and quality.

Overall product rating (build quality + packaging + accessories): 4.5 / 5
Overall sound quality rating: 4.0 / 5

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions.
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Flisker
Flisker
I'd just like to add, that indeed this headphone is bright and peaky on solid state amps, I would not recommend it to anyone on that setup, but.... if you use it with something like Feliks Audio Elise w/ upgraded tubes, which I've heard is amp they also pair it with on shows, well then you get very very different headphone. Headphone that is just incredible, and it's very hard to find some major flaws.

Compared to HD650, it's superior in kinda all aspects in my opinion (being huge, huge fan of HD650, own them for over 10 years and would never sell them). Even HD650 paired with max upgraded WA2 just can't deal with Clears on upgraded Elise, soundstage is better, bass is in different world completely, so is the treble and mids... mids are at least as excellent as on HD650 if not little better. (pretty hard to beat HD650 on mids...)

ps: Enjoyed your review.

Sayed2020

Member of the Trade: Zellous Audio
Pros: Stunning sound, included accessories
Cons: Non-removable headband, slight clamping pressure
Hello all.

My Clear has been burned in for 200 hours and were used balanced via 4 pin XLR.


My audio connective trail and set-up:

16 and 24 bit WAV uncompressed and lossless files,

optical TosLink cable,

Teac UD-503,

Nordost Brahma power cable,

Siltech 770i Classic Anniversary Pure Silver Gold XLR cables,

Violectric HPA V181 headphone amplifier,

Nordost Brahma power cable.


I reviewed the great Utopia, the Elear and the Elegia. So here is my take on the Clear (just the Stellia left I guess).

I have expressed my views on the previously mentioned Focal cans but these do differ so here it goes.

These cans clamp a little too much for my ideal preference but it is an improvement from the Elear. I can wear the Clear for much longer but I definitely notice they are on my head, irrespective of how long they are there. I find the ATH-R70X, Nighthawk, HD 800 and GS2000E cans far more lighter and more comfortable. Those cans clamp less too but at least you can head bob with the Clear : )

My ears fit inside the ear cups fine, not touching the internal housing but I’m aware those who have larger ears may have some issues here as they are not as cavernous as others (Edition X, HD 800, Ananda).

The colour scheme here of silver and grey is pretty different and distinctive but there are some issues here. Disappointingly the grey perforated parts (inner headband and ear pads) darken with usage, the headband is also not replaceable. I hope Focal change that going forward. I do love the fact that Focal allow ear pad and cable swapping so easily, top marks there.

I think these cans look quite nice but I really dislike the paint job on the outer part of the plastic ear cups, it’s chrome like and looks cheap.

The weight of these cans are okay, definitely not very light (ATH-R70X) but not too heavy either (LCD-X). The Clear weighs 450g, I find it is distributed well. But I’m aware some users have said they feel a pressure/hot spot on the top of their heads, not me though. Hopefully Focal look to lighten their next cans, going for about 350g.

I love the fact that the Clear comes with a case and 3 cables, an excellent set of included accessories. Nice one Focal, they listened and improved. A very high quality case, the cables are a massive improvement on the ones included with the Elear and Utopia (too long and heavy for me). Rival manufacturers take note please.

So overall some improvement here but I feel more can be done, keep going Focal.


Sound.


This is a very balanced sounding headphone, it sounds pretty even across the frequencies. A little skewed towards the highs, a little bright. Not HD 800 bright though, the highs are very detailed and resolving. The tonality is very good, it’s pretty neutral.

Just like the other Focal cans I reviewed, the sound stage is not massive. It is not large, there are many other cans that have a bigger sound stage. It is pretty wide though with very good imaging and separation. It’s more intimate, which is a good and a bad thing. Depends on the music track you’re listening to, remember not all songs sound good with a large or an exaggerated sound stage (HD 800).

The mids lack a little meat, they’re not raw or visceral (unlike the pre-fazor LCD-3). Very clear and defined though. Same goes for vocals, a little smaller sounding and further back than I would prefer (still very enjoyable though). I even prefer vocals on my circumaural Sine DX.

Listening to Broken Record by Katy B, I can hear some sibilance on the Clear unfortunately. The S’s can sound distracting but it’s infrequent.

The bass is so good on these cans, very clean and deep. Very good impact and slam, you can hear the subtle rumbles. Superb.

You can feel the vibrations of chords being hit and struck, you can feel the reverberations. It’s quite something. These drivers move air very fast, it’s quite tricky to explain.

These are pretty special headphones, I would rate them as one of the most enjoyable I’ve heard.

Difficult to fault, so balanced sonically. I know that is very difficult to achieve, I’ve heard and owned quite a lot of headphones over the years.

Elear comparison.
I find the Clear more comfortable, has better mids and highs. It is more neutral and balanced sounding and is even easier to drive and power. The Elear is darker sounding, with warmer and fuller lows. The Clear seems even faster and is definitely cleaner sounding.

Utopia comparison.
I prefer the Utopia, it is even more detailed and resolving. The Utopia offer such incredible insight into music, quite special. The presentation may be a little more forward than the Clear. I believe the Clear is more closer sounding to the Utopia than the Elear, an in between can but a superb choice. The Utopia’s are very expensive after all, the Clear is priced more reasonably and competitively.

I just about prefer the magnificent LCD-3 pre-fazor (but it is discontinued). The sound stage, mids, imaging and vocals are more to my liking. The LCD-3 is more expensive, physically larger and more heavy though.
The Clear is a different type of can, a lot more detailed and have better highs while still being very enjoyable to listen to. The Clear is also more lighter and has faster transients, it’s more responsive and definitely not dark sounding. The LCD-3's bass maybe extends deeper but the Clear's lows are more visceral.

Quite a few audiophiles have called these cans endgame, especially under £1500. I definitely understand that and can relate to it, I feel the Clear is more complete sounding and versatile than the HD 800 S. It has more life and energy than the first gen T1 and PM-1 too, with more enjoyable bass and better speed.

It’s a tight call against the Ananda for me though, the Clear being the more dynamic and punchy sounding can but the Ananda is also pretty neutral but has an excellent sound stage and is even more comfortable and lighter. The Ananda is more airy and spacious, has larger bass but the Clear has better low impact and slam and is more intimate sounding. The Clear just edges it for mids and vocals but the Ananda costs a lot less, hmmm…

The Clear is Focal's "difficult third album" (being their 3rd open back can) but I believe they have done an excellent job here, massive credit to them. It is such an enjoyable and musical headphone, did I mention it does not need a lot of power and drive to sound good? I really love that about it too, yes it does sound better with high quality DACs and amps (that does not always mean more expensive gear or equipment, trial and error all the way).

I rate the Clear as a world class headphone, it is not perfect (but what is?) but it does have very few flaws that I believe are not deal breakers.

Audition them if you get a chance, highly recommended from me.

Happy listening all : )

ostewart

Reviewer at Sound Perfection Reviews
Pros: Clear sound, well balanced, great build
Cons: heavy and not well padded headband
Firstly I would like to thank Napthine Porter for this loan pair of Clears for review, they have been used for well over 100hrs before reviewing.

*disclaimer: This sample was provided on loan for the purpose of writing a review, no incentive was given to write a favourable review. All opinions expressed are my own subjective findings.

Gear Used: PC > Yulong DAART Aquila > Clear
PC > JDS Labs OL DAC > Burson Audio V6 Classic



Tech Specs:
  • Type: Circum-aural open-back headphones
  • Impedance: 55 Ohms
  • Sensitivity: 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
  • THD: 0,25% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
  • Frequency response: 5Hz-28kHz
  • Loudspeaker: 1.6" (40mm) Aluminum/Magnesium, 'M'-shape dome
  • Weight: 0.99lb / 450g
  • Cables provided:
  • 3m balanced cable (XLR 4-pin)
  • 3m unbalanced cable (1/4" TRS jack)
  • 1.2m unbalanced cable (1/8" TRS jack)
  • 1/8" jack to 1/4" stereo jack adapter
  • MSRP £1399.00
Packaging, Build Quality and Accessories:
The Clear come in a thick black box with the word Clear printed on the front and back, there is not a huge amount on info on the box itself but those who are buying these surely know what they are getting. The box opens up in two parts, you have the carry case and a separate box which holds the accessories. The overall unboxing is a very pleasant experience, and the materials used are definitely premium.

The build of the Clear is excellent, the headband is coated in leather and perforated microfibre fabric, the sliders are metal as is the mesh on the cups. They are made mostly out of metal in fact, with perforated microfibre earpads and 3.5mm detachable cables. The cables themselves are sheathed in fabric and feel very robust, the only issue being is that they are a little stiff and retain the shape of where they have been coiled in the packaging. I'm sure over time they will straighten out though. I have no issues with the build quality of the Clear, everything is expertly put together and impeccably finished. It's a shame the headband padding looks difficult to replace though, as I know in a few years it'll wear out.



Accessory wise the Clear come with plenty, you get an excellent hard carry case that is the perfect size for general carrying. Also in the box you will find 3 cables, single ended 1.2m with a 3.5mm jack (and screw on adaptor), 3m with a 6.3mm jack and a 3m with a 4-pin XLR connector. I am really happy they have decided to include a balanced cable in the box as so many of us have balanced sources now. Overall Focal have included a lot more than most companies, so this really stands out as an excellent set of accessories.

Comfort:
The Clear are not the lightest of headphones but I would not call them heavy. The earpads and angled drivers means there is a lot of space for your ears in the cups, and the clamping force is perfect for my slightly narrow head. Unfortunately I am one of those people who is sensitive to pressure on the top of my head, and the Clear to me become a little uncomfortable after an hour or so. The padding on the headband is not bad, but it could be a little more padded in my opinion, along with the headband being a little wider. The Clear do not heat up much after long listening due to their open nature and perforated pads. Most people will not have any issues with the comfort of the Clear, to me the headband could be slightly improved.



Sound:
Split into the usual categories with a conclusion at the end.

Lows: The Clear paint a clear picture of what you are listening to, so do not expect exaggerated bass, but what you do get is an incredibly accurate and deep low end response. They do not jump out at you, but can still punch hard when called for; what is most impressive is the sub-bass is never left behind. You can hear the rumble without having to boost the volume. If there was anything they could do a little better it is backing up kicks with a little more air to make them sound a bit more realistic, as they can come across a little flat sounding sometimes. The lows are incredibly dynamic, almost coming out of nowhere when called for, but never becoming the centre of attention. The separation and layering down low is expertly handled, and they never become congested even during the most complex sections, tight, punchy, controlled and with excellent extension is how I would sum up the low end.

Mids: The midrange just like the lows has excellent clarity and definition, they don't suffer from any bloat from the low end. They are not cold and clinical, they are faithful to the recording and will throw up any flaws; however this does not mean that less than ideal recordings are intolerable. Sibilance is handled well without adding any additional brightness, but it will be there if it's in the recording; the midrange is spacious and pinpoint accurate, you can tell exactly where the artist is within the soundstage. Acoustic guitars have the right amount of body, yet electric guitars have incredible crunch and power too. The midrange is simply superb on these.

Highs: Never becoming too hot the highs are extremely well placed when it comes to quantity. The Clear do not have the widest of soundstages, preferring a more intimate and dynamic presentation so there is not a huge sense of space but the highs are still very accurately placed within the stage. Presence up top is very good, they have the right amount of impact and sparkle without becoming overbearing. if you like live music you will know that cymbals are not toned down and they are always present and this is like what the Clear presents, they are not toned down to please the treble sensitive, yet they are not boosted to give a false sense of clarity.

The soundstage of the Clears is not very wide, but they make up for it in layering and pinpoint accurate imaging. The separation is really impressive, they never sound congested even through the most complex of mixes.



Conclusion: The Clear are simply clear, they give a fairly honest and natural portrayal of what you are listening to. They have enough weight down low to prevent them from sounding thin, but at the same time they are dynamic and can punch with authority when needed. The midrange is honest and detailed, and the treble is detailed and extended without being harsh. There is nothing on the Clears that downright sounds wrong, there are minor things that they could do better (a little bit more texture in the bass, and slightly more natural highs), but as a whole package the Clear do a lot very well and lend their hand to all genres.

Sound Perfection Rating: 9/10 (slightly heavy, but the sound quality is excellent)
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adlevision

New Head-Fier
Pros: All-rounder with good detail, very good bass, fantastic tonality, thoroughly satisfying soundstage, and stellar accessories
Cons: Aside from tonality, each of its strengths exist in even greater measure individually elsewhere. Comfort is very acceptable but not on paar with many others
Why can't buying premium headphones always be this painless? Out of the box, onto la cabeza, hit play: yep, these are the ones. No worrying about whether the bass will drop and the treble grow less congested after break-in, because the Focal Clear sounds very obviously natural from the start. No pondering different amping options, because it sounds great out of anything. No stewing over whether or not it'll grow on me or if I'll send them back. These are staying. It's almost anticlimactic, because, less than five minutes after opening the carton, there's nothing to do but listen to music.

As for sound, I can't do anything but agree with other reviewers, essentially, so I'll keep that short. But I wanted to offer some impressions I haven't seen put forward yet about, of all things, the packaging and build.

I have here the HD800, still within the return window, and my long-time mainstays, the HD600, which gave me the same instant "perfect sonic fit" sensation out of the box many years ago as the Focal Clears just did. The HD800s, by contrast, I can't listen to without EQ. With that EQ applied (after about 5 hours of experimenting with it), I matched the tonality of the HD600s and my Dynaudio speakers, but gave it a little extra sparkle; and, on those terms, I prefer the HD800s over anything. They're streets ahead of the Clears in terms of detail, instrument separation, and even clarity. Again, all this being fully appreciable by me only after proper amping and EQ is applied to the Senns. I also haven't yet tried balanced cables for either.
But I've never owned a pair of headphones that relied on EQ where I didn't eventually want to move on rather than keep fiddling with the software! I don't want to be restricted in what I plug them into and don't want to constantly have to remember to turn the EQ on/off as I switch between headphones and speakers. If I were choosing one pair, it'd be the Clear, hands down. No reason to ever look back, or in fact to turn one's head toward any other pair.

As for the HD600s, it's truly remarkable how similar the Clears are in tone to the reference cans introduced 20 years ago. The Clears are just "more." Where the 600s are in-the-head, the Clears present a broad stage that promotes listener attention to instrument separation and stereo imaging. I think the constant comparisons to the 800's soundstage are overblown: there's some difference, but it's really not memorable outside the artificial context of AB comparisons and in no way affects musical enjoyment. The image expansion over the 600s, though, is night and day. More space, more attack, more detail, and a hella lot more full but well-defined bass that's never bloaty or bleedy. The 600s went into their box ten minutes after I donned the Clears: they've been completely superceded at their own game. Selling them will be like getting rid of a child. I know, because I had to sell my children to buy the Clears and HD800s.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but not enough has been said about the Focal Clear packaging. Inside the shipping box was what I thought was the product box. Opening that revealed thin styrofoam corner blocks protecting the case, itself wrapped in the sort of anti-static foam liner common to electronics. Except, opening that doesn't reveal the case, but the actual product box! Inside that box were the curvacious carrying case, resting on another foam block, and the nicest cardboard box for cables I've ever seen. It has magnetic flaps. It's a paper display box, basically.

What I in fact want to highlight, after all that, is a retro vibe to the Clears, at least IMO. The carrying case feels like carbon fiber or reenforced cloth. It could have been a tool case from the early 70s or a bowling ball bag. I mean that affectionately.

Meanwhile, the headphones themselves are, for all their elegance, really unassuming. Picking them up tells you these are worth $1k and are a finely-made instrument. The headband and smallish ear cups remind me strikingly of a pair of Coss over-ears I had 25 years ago--or, really, what those phones pretended to be. Classy but minimalist. The grills covering the drivers very much resemble steel soup strainers, but we'll move on. The domed aluminum screens inside the ear cups look just like the mouth piece on an old analog telephone (but not plastic) or like headphones I remember from the 1970s. Finally, the trend in nylon audio cables takes us back to cloth wiring from the 1930s! And, while we're on the topic, the 3.5mm included cable I've been using is microphonic as heck above the Y-split and kinks like no cord I've ever put up with before. I can't wait for humans to invent PVC so we can stop using cloth-insulated wiring!
Everything here is traditional in its separate influences, but it comes together in a thoroughly modern product. I find it more satisfying than either the uber-modern plastic Sennheiser designs or the Audeze LCD industrial Franken-helmet aesthetic--the Sonic Helmet of Destiny.

However, I'll say that the Clears are the least comfortable headphones I've owned since... ever, actually, going back to my Sennheiser HD414s. Clamping is apparent and the pads are adequate but aren't nearly as plush as the LCD-Xs which, though far heavier, feel luxurious on my head. Again, the Clears feel simple compared to the LCDs or HD800s. They're absolutely fine, but comfort is on a paar with Grado SR80 or SR225i, rather than the other premium units mentioned.

For someone like me who is NOT a hobbyist but just a research-obsessed consumer who wants to "buy-and-hold," the Focal Clears are the best no-nonsense, non-picky, all-rounder choice I can imagine. I'm for the moment keeping the HD800, too, plugged into my main system, but these are the phones I look forward to going to bed with at night.
Wait, that last bit didn't sound quite like I meant...Or, on second thought, I'll leave it at that.


Equipment tried with:
DAC - TEAC UD-501
Headamp - TEAC HA-501
Portables - TEAC HA-P5 (BB 1795 DAC), IPhone SE (internal Sirrus Logic DAC), LG V30 (internal Saber DAC), IFI ICan Micro, IFI IDSD Nano
volly
volly
loved your review, refreshing read and straight to the point!
I
Ipek
Thanks for the review
davehg
davehg
Wonderful review, you should write for the online mags. I had nearly identical impressions, except for the comfort which I found to be better than the LCD or HD650. Not familiar with the TEac gear but I’ve yet to find a system where the Clear hasn’t performed well, unlike the HD and LCD that were more finicky. My vote is to ditch the HD800 and spend the money to either buy your kids back at a discount or upgrade your amp.

vrln

1000+ Head-Fier
Pros: Fantastic bass for an open headphone, best tonal balance I've ever heard, lack of any major SQ drawbacks, great all rounder suited for any genre, industry leading build quality, fast/good transient performance, grabs your attention/emotionally engaging, good clarity with a dynamic and punchy sound, highly realistic vocals, doesn't get confused with complex music, very easy to drive, surprisingly comfortable for the weight, deep well breathing earpads work well with glasses
Cons: Heavy weight, lacks the final bit of resolution (and speed) some other high end headphones have, small soundstage for an open headphone, ergonomic and aesthetic design is not for everyone, bass may slightly intrude into the midrange (depends on source), largely non-modular design, high replacement part costs, non-transferable warranty, creaking headband, expensive (but very competitive in its price range and beyond)
Disclaimer: I bought the Focal Clears from the local distributor after auditioning them several times with my own music. My first impression was that these were the first headphone I've heard that was as good or better than my previous favorite the Sennheiser HD 800 S. Comparisons will be primarily against the HD 800 S and the HD 600 series that I am very familiar with. Also sorry for the poor photo quality (taken with a smartphone).

Introduction:

Focal may be new to enthusiast level headphones, but they have a long history in the high end speaker market. They also famously merged with the British Naim in 2011 to create one of Europe's largest hi-fi companies. As such they possess significant research and development grunt, so when they turned their eyes on the high end headphone market in 2016 a lot of hobbyists were naturally quite intrigued. There was a lot of hype for the Utopia and Elear back when they were released, but for me both were actually big disappointments. I haven't owned either one, but I did audition them and quickly noticed they just weren't my cup of tea at all. The Elear was otherwise interesting, but the dip in the upper midrange made all vocals sound "off". I suspect it was done to make it sound more forgiving with a lot of contemporary music, but it was just a very odd voicing decision as the midrange is the area to which our ears are the most sensitive to. The Utopia on the other hand didn't really fit my head shape well and the extra weight didn't help either. There just wasn't enough clamp and the headphone would easily start sliding off if I moved my head too much. Not sure if I had a good seal either. I wasn't a big fan of the sound: while technically extremely detailed and fast, it didn't have enough bass for my taste and most importantly there was a fairly severe treble spike that I found annoying with a lot of music. There never was a chance I would buy one though, simply due to the extremely high 4000 euro price. I'd still easily pick the Sennheiser HD 800 S over the Utopia. It's on the same level technically (resolution and clarity) in most regards, loses in some (speed and dynamics in particular) and wins in others (soundstage and imaging). Most importantly it's also less than half the price. It has a brighter/thinner sound, but the treble is less harsh/spiky despite being more emphasized.

What initially got me interested in the Clears were early forum comments that while it was technically inferior to the Utopia it no longer had the Elear upper midrange dip or the Utopia treble spike (both deal breakers for me). Then the InnerFidelity review came out and convinced me to go and audition these despite being disappointed in their predecessors. I didn't really expect anything, but to my complete surprise what I found was my new favorite headphone. Why? Read on.

At 55 ohms and a high sensitivity rating the Clears are exceptionally easy to drive and can reach nice volume levels even from mobile sources like phones and tablets. Just make sure you pair them with a low output impedance source as otherwise the frequency response in the bass range is going to be altered due to the impedance/phase characteristics. A high output impedance is also going to result in a poor damping factor which means poor bass control. These do of course benefit from high quality source electronics, but they are nowhere near as demanding of them as the Sennheiser 300 ohm headphones for example. This is both a good and a bad thing: you won't have to spend a lot to have these sound awesome, but on the other hand they won't scale as much with top of the line sources either.

Presentation:

The Clear ships in very minimalistic black packaging. There's the Focal and Clear logos, a brief "Open-back reference headphones" statement and the technical specifications on the side. Everything is also stated in French, which nicely highlight the fact that these are produced at their local factory similarly to what Sennheiser does with their high end products.

IMG_0275.jpg IMG_0262.jpg

The packaging doesn't draw much attention to itself and has a very understated look. Inside you'll find another black box for the included cables and the carrying case with the headphones inside. The included accessories are very generous. There's a standard 6.3mm and a balanced 4-pin XLR cable plus a short 3.5mm cable for portable use. The cables are a bit stiff, but they are well built and fairly light too. That being said they definitely look and feel like "use at home" items. It's a huge upgrade compared to the original heavy and probably too long cable included with the Utopia though. The only minus I can see is that the 3.5mm cable is made from the same material and it's just not very good for actual portable usage: a thinner, more flexible and lighter cable would have been more optimal.

The included carrying case is another highlight: it feels high quality, fits the headphones perfectly and looks very stylish too. From a value point of view I'd say the included accessories are something that would be quite expensive if bought separately, but on the other hand personally I would have preferred to have the choice if I want to buy them or not. Packing them in does help in creating the impression of a high end product though, so from a marketing point of view it makes good sense to include them. Unfortunately you will have to remove the cables for the headphones to fit in the case, but since they use a standard 3.5mm connectors they are easy and quick to swap around. The standard connectors should help these become a popular target for third party cables.

Build quality, design and ergonomics:

The first thing that strikes you is the build quality. They follow the example set by their predecessors the Elear and Utopia: simply superb and in my experience on a completely different level than high end Audeze or HIFIMAN headphones for example. I would say they are on the same level as Sennheiser HD 800 series, but with a very different design philosophy. There's not a hint of a DIY look anywhere and all of the materials exude high quality. Everything feels very solid, there are no sharp edges anywhere and there's tremendous attention to detail right down to the Focal logo on the cups. The memory foam microfiber pads feel nice and breath very well too. They also work fine glasses.

The Clears with their silver color theme have a quite unique look since most of the time high end headphones tend to favor darker color themes. For a long time I thought I'd prefer if they were black, but I've kind of gotten used to them now. They certainly give look different than most other headphones which is always good for marketing. The cables also match the color scheme which is a added nice touch.

IMG_0268.jpg IMG_0276.jpg

It is however important to emphasize that the Clears are not a very modular design. Time will tell if this proves to be an issue or not. Sure you can change the pads, but the headband doesn't seem to be user replaceable at all. The HD 800 (and 600) series in comparison are completely modular. Almost all parts are user replaceable and Sennheiser's spare part prices aren't usually that high either. What happens if/when the padded Clear headband gets too dirty/old and needs to be replaced? Who knows. Maybe Focal will start selling a headband replacement service via their dealers or something similar. We also don´t know how long the earpads will last in daily use. The price for new ones seems to be around 200 euros so they are very expensive to replace.

These aren't light or small headphones either. At 450 grams these are among the heaviest dynamic driver headphones ever made. For example the Sennheiser flagship weighs just 330 grams. But what actually causes this? In the beginning I thought it´s because they use a lot of aluminium, but those parts are actually quite thin and besides it´s a very lightweight metal anyway. The headband looks heavy, but if you pick the Clears up and move them around you´ll quickly notice where most of weight is coming from: the earcups and their internal driver assemblies.

IMG_0267.jpgIMG_0280.jpg

As you can see it's a very open design. The outside grills are quite thin and there´s a double protection system: first against force/touching via a sturdy metal grill and after that a fine mesh to protect the drivers against small debris/hair. It's a very thought out design as there is no way to accidentally break the drivers by pushing them in and it should be safe for pet households too. Time will tell if the fine mesh is enough to stop debris/hairs from getting in, but I'm pretty sure Focal has tested it extensively.

The unique M-shape dome has a very distinctive look. The drivers are also angled. This isn't what a typical headphone driver looks like. It seems like the driver with its suspension system has quite a lot in common with speaker driver designs. Focal going for a custom driver is no surprise though as they have been manufacturing their own speaker drivers for a very long time already. The diaphragm material is quite unusual too: most headphones use plastic, but here you'll find a magnesium/aluminium alloy.

When you first listen to these headphones you'll quickly notice what I consider to be their main technical innovation: the bass goes very deep for an open design and sounds exceptionally clean, fast and has a great sense of impact. My guess is that this new driver likely moves far more air through high excursion than typical designs do: this kind bass response would otherwise be extremely difficult to achieve in an open design where the air pressure can always escape the enclosure.

Nothing comes without a cost though: looking at the Focal driver picture you can see that it's a pretty large assembly including a hefty magnet. Their frame also looks like it's made of stainless steel for added rigidity. Most of the weight is likely simply due to these two. Using different materials for the enclosure/headband probably wouldn't have (at least) dramatically reduced its weight. The heavy weight is just the price you have to pay for the sonic performance. Would these have been better headphones if they were lighter though? Absolutely and I hope Focal manages to bring the weight down in the inevitable successors and trickle down models. As with all heavy headphones the comfort factor is then of paramount importance. Did they get it right?

IMG_0277.jpgIMG_0260.jpg

When I first got my Clears I actually initially attached two HD 650 headband paddings to the headband. I was so used to the fantastic design philosophy Sennheiser uses with their headbands: there's usually no weight directly on top of your head as that's where hotspots tend to form. Needless to say I was very sceptical as the Clears do the exact opposite: they place most of their weight directly on top of your head. The thing is that it actually works this time due to some ingenious engineering. First of all note how the headband actually gets wider in the middle. The headband shape is also much less curved downwards than usual. These two features together ensures that the top of the head hotspot area is actually significantly larger than on most headbands and the rigid structure helps to spread the weight equally. In other words they basically took a design that is usually something that's not a very good idea and made it work. This coupled with a good amount of clamp ensures that I don't really get any hotspots with these on, which is something I found very surprising as I to be honest expected the complete opposite to happen. That being said these won't disappear on your head though: they just weigh too much for that to happen, but they are remarkably comfortable for their weight. Your mileage may vary though: it all depends on your head shape. As usual always audition before buying.

IMG_0272.jpg IMG_0271.jpg

Another key to the good ergonomics is also in the headband design. At first glance using a lot of aluminium sounds like a horrible choice for engineering a comfortable headphone. Just try riding an aluminium bike compared to more flexible steel one for example. Look closer however and you'll be surprised at how much the cups move/swivel. The headband also flexes in several directions. All this is done with an elaborate suspension mechanism inside the headband. To me it looks and sounds like there are lot of springs involved. The downside is that there is some mechanical creaking/clicking sounds when you swivel the cups, but never when you are actually wearing the headphones. I´ll be keeping a close eye on this though to see if it ever gets any worse. Another minus is that this design probably makes the headband replacements very expensive.

What can I say... Focal have done their homework. This isn't a quick "let's just throw something on the market, our brand name will sell it" cash grab. It's obvious they have invested significant R&D resources into doing this well. In other words they are in this to seriously challenge Sennheiser and others in the long game. Good times to be in this hobby!

Sound quality:

I've now used the Clears for around a month and these have basically replaced my previous favorite HD 800 S as my daily go to headphone. This is already becoming a cliche to say, but these headphones opened my eyes towards placing more value on tonal balance. During my ~decade of following this hobby I had become so used to high end headphones being worse in this regard than the legendary HD 600/650 that I basically started taking these flaws for granted. The most important thing to say about the Clears is that are in my experience the first high end headphone that doesn't suffer from this. The tonal balance is simply the best I've ever heard. They just sound ”right” with no major dips or spikes anywhere in the frequency response. This in combination with the low distortion makes them headphones you can easily turn the volume up with without them almost ever sounding fatiguing or harsh. What they don't do however is making you want to turn up the volume all the time, which is actually a really good thing. It my experience that only happens with headphones with severe tonality issues like the Elear with its upper midrange dip or headphones that roll off the treble too much (= you easily keep increasing the volume to get the vocals or treble to sound right, but they never will). I wouldn't be surprised to see these end up being very popular for pro audio purposes too (and actually Focal did just launch the Clear Professionals; different paint job/accessories, but same sound).

Let's start with the bass. Overall to my ears it has the best bass performance in an open dynamic headphone so far. The measurements on various sites look wonderful and it doesn't disappoint subjectively either. While the bass lacks the absolute extension of the high end planars, it goes very deep and does not roll off much in the sub bass range like most open dynamics do. Slam is great for an open can too. The bass is high in resolution and very clean, although it is not the cleanest or most defined bass I've ever heard in an open headphone. That award still goes to the HD 800 series, but the Clears are not far away either. Is it more enjoyable however than the bass on the HD 800 series? Due to the much better extension and quantity the answer is absolutely and that's what counts. The HD 800 sounds lean and thin in comparison while the Clears sound neutral. The bass is also miles beyond the in comparison muddy mess the HD 600 series outputs.

The bass to midrange transition is well done, but there is some very slight bass bleeding into the midrange. I would not pair these with electronics that emphasize bass through adding harmonic distortion for example. This issue is mitigated by using more neutral sources. Personally I feel the bass quantity is just about optimal as it is enough to make a lot of contemporary genres like electronica sound good without sacrificing more traditional audiophile genres like jazz/classical/vocals.

When it comes to the midrange the first thing I noticed was the fantastic sense of realism and the lack of any hint of sibilance. Vocals often sound so real I've been rediscovering a lot of my favorite vocalists lately. The mids are also more neutral compared to the somewhat recessed mids on the HD 800 series. I'm not sure if it's the more neutral presentation, but here to my ears the Clears also surpass the HD 800 series in midrange clarity and resolution. These headphones get the most important part of the frequency response just right. The measurements do show a small dip in the upper midrange though, but I could not have picked that up if I didn't know about it.

While the bass and midrange forms a coherent whole, the highs can sometimes sound a bit disconnected from the rest. This is probably a deliberate tuning choice to enhance the soundstage. It's actually a bit similar (yet not as drastic) to what Earsonics did with the SM64 IEM. I find this effect quite enjoyable on many records, but sometimes it doesn't work that well. It's a very small issue, but something to keep in mind. I rarely notice it as it doesn't bother me much. That being said the highs, while tonally more balanced compared to the rest of the spectrum than in the HD 800 series, are less smooth than on the HD 800 S. This isn't apparent on all songs, but sometimes you notice it. For example the Clears while generally being less "hey look at this click in this record!" than the HD 800 series, on some songs they can actually highlight this kind of stuff more, especially in some pop music. For example on Taylor Swift's Blank Space there's an odd percussion or distortion effect that sounds downright nasty on the Clears. You can still hear it well on the HD 800 series, but it seems more annoying on the Focals. That being said these are still a much better choice for contemporary music due to the more balanced tonality (vs. HD 800 series treble emphasis with a lack of bass extension). I'd also say that the highs have a higher level of resolution on the HD 800 series and it's not just due to the fact of how emphasized they are. The HD 600 and HD 650 are both smoother in the highs as well so if you are very treble sensitive this may bother you. For me however the treble here is still a very smooth listening experience, on a completely different level than the Beyerdynamic T1 mk2 for example.

When it comes to the soundstage that is quite intimate for an open headphone. I would characterize it as listening to music in a somewhat narrow tunnel while sitting closer to the musicians (vs. back row in a concert on HD 800 series). This is both a good and a bad thing and ultimately there's no right or wrong here. This is the more traditional headphone presentation. Both approaches are enjoyable though and have their own strengths and weaknesses. I find the Clears presentation more emotionally engaging in general, but I do like the speaker like sensation the HD 800 series pulls off too. Imaging within the fairly small soundstage is really sharp though and there is also a good amount of air between the instruments. You quickly get accustomed to the presentation style and after a while you don't really notice it much anymore. Instrument separation is fantastic, much better than on the HD 600 series although still not quite as good as on the HD 800 series.

There's a slight softness/politeness to the presentation, but I'm not quite sure if this is just the sound of neutrality or some intentionally added smoothness. It's nowhere near the level of an HD 650, but it is something that isn't there on the Utopia or HD 800 series for example. The Clears simply do not have that ultimate last bit of resolution/resolving capability, but on the other hand this can also be a very good thing if you´re listening to a lot of less than perfectly mastered mainstream records. I sure am. Almost anything usually sounds at least quite good out of the Clears (vs. try listening to mastering "classics" such as Red Hot Chili Pepper's Californication on the Utopia/HD 800 series).

Last but not least, the Clears just like all of the high end Focal headphones sound exceptionally fast, punchy and dynamic. The energetic and forward presentation more or less grabs your attention and holds it. It doesn't do this as much as the Utopia, but the same style is still there. Sure there is a hint of added smoothness this time, but I would never call these "easy listening" headphones like especially the HD 650 are. They also handle high volumes well without ever sounding strained or grainy, nor do they get confused when a lot of stuff is happening at the same time. These features are what makes them so addictive, but on the other hand I think due to this and the heavy weight a lot of people may want to complement these with a different can for background listening. My current solution is to listen to these on very low volumes when trying to concentrate on something else, but I do often miss my HD 650 for this purpose. Maybe I'll buy them again someday.

Conclusion:

All in all I'd say these are the best HD 600 series upgrade in the industry right now. It's a bit odd that they eventually came from Focal, but since the "Super HD 600/650" is something a lot of enthusiasts have been waiting for (including me) I'm just super happy that these were finally made. I've been an almost lifelong Sennheiser fan and have mostly used their headphones, but now for the first time my main go to cans are something else. I haven't used my HD 800 S much since I got these, which probably tells just as much as this review. They will most likely be sold on in the near future, possibly to help fund a very likely HD 820 purchase as I'm in need of a closed headphone.

The Clears aren't technically superior overall to the HD 800 S (except in bass extension/quantity, speed, macrodynamics and mids resolution), but they are definitely more enjoyable to me due to the fantastic tonal balance and their lack of any major SQ drawbacks. They are simply a superb all rounder suitable for any genre: clear, balanced, dynamic and always draws you into the music.

Looking back the Clears are in my opinion exactly what the Elear should have been, but it would have been too much for a company new to high end headphones to achieve with their first try. These are still very expensive headphones, but the performance and build quality does fit their price. You are getting a lot in return. I'd easily take the Clears with a 250 euro all in one DAC/amp over any speaker setup even remotely in the same price range. Personally I would have preferred these to sell for 1250 euros and keep the the case/extra cables optional, but even at the 1500 euro price these can be considered good value when you look at the prices top of the line flagship headphones tend to sell for these days. The Clears now leave both the Elear and Utopia in a weird position. At 1000 euros the Elear is just way too expensive now considering how much better the Clears are. The Utopia on the other hand while technically superior in certain aspects, can (also) be argued as having a significantly worse tuning and being too expensive considering how close they are in sonic performance. I'm almost certain its successor will take notes from the Clear, but for now it suffers greatly from being launched back in 2016.

As for downsides there are several, but most of them have nothing to do with sound quality. The biggest minus is the heavy weight and while the ergonomic design works for my head shape, I would guess that it is probably less universal than the one on both the HD 600 and HD 800 series. Other potential issues are the high prices for replacement pads and the non-modular headband design which may end up being very expensive to replace someday. I've also read that the warranty is non-transferable, so buying these off the used market is a big risk as no one really knows how well the drivers will last (vs. there have been reports of Utopia drivers failing and the Elear drivers hitting mechanical clipping on high volumes). Many enthusiasts would also have preferred these to have a higher impedance to make them match better with traditional high power amps, but on the other hand this makes them much less demanding of source electronics. You certainly get the most for your money when buying actual headphones, plus "upgrading" source electronics can easily lead to a vicious and very expensive cycle of never ending sidegrades (it did for me at least). With these you won't have to worry that much about your source. That being said these are of course revealing enough to highlight better electronics, it's just that you get to 90% or so of what these can do for quite cheap.

Sound quality wise the only major nitpick I have is that these lack the final 5% or so of resolution headphones like the HD 800 S and the Utopia can pull off, but at least without EQ I still find these far more enjoyable than either of those. These are my new favorite headphones out of everything I've heard so far. Props to Focal for their contribution in pushing the high end headphone industry forward. It's going to be interesting to see how Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic and others are going to reply to the Focal high end lineup as they inevitably sooner or later will have to.
zpierce
zpierce
Ditto on the previous praises, really appreciate the detail and effort! I'm not in a place where I have much in the way of options for auditioning gear so I have to read a ton of reviews and take a leap of faith knowing that I can always sell on the used market. This was very helpful, I'm definitely going to give these a try!
jaxtrauma
jaxtrauma
You won't regret it, zp
jaxtrauma
jaxtrauma
Thanks bud, I love me some Clear :wink:

jtinto

100+ Head-Fier
With the ever escalating prices of new high-end headphones, Focal introduced the Clear priced between their Elear and Utopia with top-notch build quality and included accessories.
I am very pleased with these on portable amps and dedicated balanced separates. They compare very favourably with my HD800. Not quite as quick or resolving, but not as dry and analytical. They have a smaller soundstage, nor quite as airy. The HD800 being a bit more suited to acoustic and classical and the Clear more of a rocker.
They have a slightly raised bottom end, yet are neutral throughout the rest of the audio spectrum. They are very easy to wear and fun to listen to for hours.

Aornic

Member of the Trade: Acorn Audio
Pros: A more even-sounding headphone than its siblings, non-fatiguing, easily driven at 55 ohms, comfortable, comes with three cables and a carrying case
Cons: May not be impactful enough for some, a tad lean in the bass, slightly treble veiled compared to the Utopia

Thanks to SCV Distribution for lending me this unit to review


I previously owned the Focal Elear and now have a Utopia as a daily driver and reference headphone. Seeing the Clear’s announcement on Head-fi a few months ago, I was interested in what this very familiar and yet different headphone brought to the table at a price point between the two existing models.

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Specifications

Circum-aural open-back headphones

Impedance 55 Ohms

Sensitivity 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz

THD 0,25% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL

Frequency response 5Hz-28kHz

Loudspeaker 1.6" (40mm) Aluminum/Magnesium 'M'-shape dome

Weight 0.99lb / 450g

Cables provided

3m balanced cable (XLR 4-pin)

3m unbalanced cable (1/4" TRS jack)

1.2m unbalanced cable (1/8" TRS jack)

1/8" jack to 1/4" stereo jack adapter

Hard-shell carrying case 9.8"x9.4"x4.7" (250x240x120mm)

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Build Quality, Comfort & Features

First things first, the Clear’s frame looks exactly like the Focal Elear - except grey instead of black. They even weigh the exact same amount at around 450 grams. The differences are in the internals, as while using the same M-shaped dome aluminium-magnesium drivers of the Elear - Focal has made some changes to the voice coil to control driver breakup. The Clear is also 55 ohms, while the Utopia and Elear are 80 ohms. The pads are a huge difference from the Elear. These are micro-suede, perforated pads and definitely give me a more open feeling than the Elear’s did back in the day.

Furthering the differences in the Clear as a product, it comes with a hard-shell carrying case alongside three cables. Two of these are 3 metres long, with one terminated in a ¼ inch and the other in balanced 4-pin XLR. The final cable is obviously meant for portable devices, 1.2 metres in length and terminated in a 3.5mm jack - with a converter to ¼ inch also included. As a guy who bought both the Utopia and Elear, I can’t help but feel a little jealous of Clear owners for getting all these features - as the prior line only got a single very long and very thick cable. The feeling of the Clear’s cables is also quite different, as even the 3 metre ones feel light and the makeup is flat and covered in a zigzagging zebra pattern.

As with the others in the line, I found the comfort to be quite stellar. What I found interesting is that it felt considerably lighter than the Utopia, despite the weight difference being a little more than 40 grams. Not only that, but the build seems to have been tightened up a bit - this doesn’t creak or squeak at all when you handle it. It also locks on to my ears and I can headbang with them on if necessary - they simply don’t budge. I wouldn’t dare doing that with the Utopia, which can shift in place at times.

I can appreciate the look of the Clear aesthetically, although I’m definitely biased towards the Utopia’s showroom piece design. I do feel that some detractors might single out its identical nature to the Elear as a negative - but I don’t have a problem with that. The micro-suede pads are comfortable on the ears and apparently serve a purpose in shaping what these do versus the Focal’s 2016 line sound-wise.


Sound

For the purpose of being thorough, I ran the Clear at moderate-high volume for over 100 hours to burn them in. These are my impressions after this.

I must give a little context to my sound impressions here. When I first heard the Elear and Utopia at the London Can Jam 2016, I was really taken aback by how dynamic and hard-hitting they were. The attack on both might have singlehandedly reshaped what I wanted in a headphone, taking me from preferring laid back cans to something with a bit more kick. My first impression of the Clear was that it didn’t seem to have that abrupt attack and power to it, which confused me a little at first. This clued me in to the fact that this was no mere Elear side grade with a pad change, but something that stands apart from its brothers.

The Clear is the most laid back of the three and the most even sounding across the frequencies. Focal has done away with the mid-bass heft that was the standard on the Elear, and have replaced it with a smoother transition between the bass and the midrange. The bass itself isn’t especially elevated but maintains a good amount of body to it – but is definitely still a bit lean. Keeping with what I said earlier, it doesn’t hit as hard as the Elear or Utopia, doesn’t extend quite so far and has a slight softness to it that reminds me of the Fazor Audeze LCD-2.

The soundstage width of the Clear is in the same realm as the Elear and Utopia - all three headphones are intimate in staging width. While not quite having the awe inspiring staging depth of the Utopia, I’d say that the Clear’s presentation is really quite good regardless with instrument separation being a highlight. I really found this to be the case when I listened to the layers upon layers of guitar work in Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction album, for example.

The lower midrange isn’t as thick as the Elear, but it retains good body to synergise with male vocals and the lower strings on acoustic guitars. The midrange itself I found to be definitely a bit on the lusher side than the Utopia, which I can definitely see as being more appealing to those who aren’t quite into the idea of an especially dry and analytical headphone. That being said, it isn’t near the Audeze LCD-4 level in this regard and is still in the realm of not being a flavour can. I found listening to rock music especially enticing on the Clear, and I’m not quite sure why. I do find the presentation of distorted electric guitars on it to be a little less realistic than on the Elear and Utopia – but it’s not bothersome. Guitar distortion on the Elear had this rawness that resembled the sound of a live amp, while the Clear instead handles a better blend of all the instruments in an overall mix.

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The upper midrange sounds less dipped than the Elear, although it isn’t emphasized like on some other headphones. I have to admit, the Elear felt like it fell off a cliff in this region and this was a deal-breaker to. This means that female vocals are considerably less distant sounding on the Clear than on the Elear. This also gives the overall sound a more even feeling in going into the treble, which is well extended but not as emphasized as the Utopia. The treble of the Clear is probably the most laid back aspect of it, in my opinion. I know at least one person who prefers the headphone to the Utopia for this reason, and his favourite headphone is the Audeze LCD-4 - for reference’s sake. It’s not rolled, far from it - but there is a slight veil to it when compared to the analytical, revealing and unforgiving Focal Utopia. I was hard-pressed to find a moment where the treble would become bothersome to me, when listening to well-recorded music. Cymbals popped out as they should, always a useful instrument to listen to when evaluating this region, and there was a sense of openness to the sound that felt unencumbered by any dips or limits set about by manipulation of the highs. The biggest difference I felt between it and other headphones that might be considered an easy-listening experience with controlled treble is that it didn’t sound like a compromise was being made unless you really compared it side by side to a truly open and far-extending headphone like the Focal Utopia.

Personally, my own preferences line up with the Utopia - but I don’t hold this against the Clear because it’s doing something different here and appealing to a different audience than myself. What is that audience exactly? I’d say people who want to upgrade from the Sennheiser HD650 but found the Elear’s upper midrange dip and overall presentation to be a deal-breaker. The same people might find the Sennheiser HD800 too wide in soundstage and too bright. This is purely speculation on my part, but I do think that the Clear caters to this market quite well. Is it a Utopia killer, like I’ve seen some people mention online? Not at all as the Utopia’s technicalities are superior, but I definitely see the Clear’s tonality appealing to others.

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Comparison to Focal Elear

Once my daily driver, the Focal Elear holds a special place in my heart for what it introduced me to back in the fall of 2016. I admit that I reviewed it thinking it would be a widely appreciated headphone, and I really couldn’t see it being anything but. It wasn’t until I joined the online community a few months afterwards that I was exposed to various complaints people had regarding it. That was an eye-opening experience as well, and it taught me to try and visualize a product’s appeal to different preferences of which I am familiar. Also, I kept seeing the Elear being touted upon its unveiling as being a super Sennheiser HD650 - which I can say now is simply not the case. At the risk of sounding like a moron, I’d say the Clear is closer to being that than the Elear by a considerable margin.

So where does that leave the Elear today? Simply put, it’s a very punchy and somewhat mid-bassy headphone with decent technicalities in terms of detail retrieval and whatnot. Where it falls apart for many is with its shoutiness and upper-midrange dip. Female vocals sound somewhat raspy and distant on it – something that has body and presence on the Clear. Less emphasis on the mid-bass opens up the Clear to a bit to be compatible with more genres of music – although it may seem downright lean in this region by comparison. Regardless, I certainly would pick this over the Elear for jazz, classical and classic rock. The pacing of the Clear is also slightly more relaxed, with frantic metal recordings having their edge taken off slightly compared to the Elear. Simply put, the Elear is a thunderous experience while the Clear turns that down a bit to bring forth more synergy in places where that take no prisoners presentation isn’t required. That isn’t to say that the Clear is boring compared to the Elear, but the differences are there and I feel it’s entirely on purpose.

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Comparison to the Focal Utopia

The Focal flagship is also thunderous, but has a level of resolution that I haven’t heard in other dynamic driver headphones to date - except maybe the Audio-Technica ATH-ADX5000. The upper midrange of the Utopia is more forward than the Clear as well, making stringed instruments have more body and texture. Texture is the name of the game overall to be honest, with it not losing this aspect across the frequencies - making it the most resolving and high-resolution dynamic-driver headphone I’ve heard to date. It’s also very fast in both attack and decay, and actually has a stronger presentation in the bass region than the Clear as well in control and body.

One advantage that the Clear does have over the Utopia is its ability to not sound shrill at times, as the Utopia is quite unforgiving of subpar production. Take a compressed pop metal song like In the End by Linkin Park - the Nu-Metal guitars and Chester’s vocals in the chorus sound harsh on the Utopia while the Clear keeps them under the wraps a bit.

Any other advantages will depend on the listener to be honest. I know for a fact that the Utopia’s commanding presentation can be fatiguing to some because it constantly demands your attention. The Clear doesn’t do that; it’s very engaging but it doesn’t cross that line. Even the Elear crosses that line, by comparison.

The vast difference of the price makes sense to me as the Clear’s technicalities are closer to the Elear than the Focal flagship. Its imaging, while stellar, doesn’t enter the Utopia’s realm of intense accuracy. Comparing the two, I needed time to adjust because switching the Clear from the Utopia gave me the sense of the music being slightly veiled while switching from the Clear to the Utopia gave me the sense that I needed to get used to the hard hitting crashing down of each snare hit, among other things, that the Utopia presented in its exposing manner.

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Amping

The Clear is really easily driven. At 55 ohms, I was able to power this with the Hiby R6 digital audio player easily, along with my phone. It does scale however, and I was able to pick out familiar differences while tube rolling on my Dragon Inspire IHA-1 tube amplifier. That being said, I wouldn’t say it was as revealing as the Utopia at this. I also ran it out of my Audio-GD NFB-28 amp section and that’s just overkill with its high output.

People running OTL tube amplifiers should beware however, such low impedance will be problematic with high output impedance sources.

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Conclusion

I do quite like the Focal Clear while realizing that it isn’t a headphone targeting me. As I mentioned before, the speed and accuracy of the Utopia is an experience I find exhilarating and kind of near-necessary now in my daily listening - and the Clear doesn’t quite do that.

What it does do, however, is pulled off really well – once you figure out its purpose and its audience. When put alongside its siblings - its more laid back and even approach is worth commendation for identifying and catering to a new market. I can even see this being more of an all-rounder, to some, than the Utopia - particularly to those who would find the flagship overwhelming and kind of fatiguing after a while.

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I
Ipek
I appreciate the high quality photography. Thanks!
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