Focal Clear

Rating:
4.83333/5,
  1. Aornic
    The Easy-going Focal
    Written by Aornic
    Published Dec 14, 2017
    4.5/5,
    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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  2. vrln
    Third Time's The Charm
    Written by vrln
    Published Mar 10, 2018
    5.0/5,
    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.
      zellous, mikewr, Janus99 and 13 others like this.
    1. DrSeven
      Thanks for the great review!
      DrSeven, May 17, 2018
  3. jtinto
    Mid-price = Best Value
    Written by jtinto
    Published Feb 15, 2018
    5.0/5,
    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.
      Hoegaardener70 and Gonzalez like this.