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Focal Elear

Rating:
4.20833/5,
Tags:
  1. ngoshawk
    Sound with focus, the Elear is an absolute gem, worthy of a deep listen
    Written by ngoshawk
    Published Jan 22, 2017
    4.5/5,
    Pros - excellent sound qualities, wonderful build, comfortable, very good bass, an intimate sound stage provide for an overall excellent package
    Cons - Extremely long cable, which is quite thick. Open back lacks isolation
    I want to thank @Todd of TTVJ for this wonderful surprise, and opportunity to review the fine Elear. It was a wonderful 7+ days, which I thoroughly enjoyed; extended due to a weather delay. Best of luck to the people that follow.
     
     
    FOCAL ELEAR
     
    What a surprise! Forgot I was entered, and when another unit became available, Todd emailed me. Woohoo! Quickly I had to research what/where/how/$/etc to be up to speed....some tour reviewers used VERY expensive Amps with which to review...[​IMG]….My hope was that the ampsandsounds Kenzie would be in the house with the Elear when it arrived, and as luck had it; they came one day apart (Happy, I was!).
     
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    Quite the nice shape
     
     
    Reading those reviews, both formal and observational, a pattern developed rather quickly. There was a somewhat disconcerting repetition of comparisons to a particular headphone (actually two), which cost close to twice (and more than 2x) the price of the Elear. While I can understand the need and want to compare above and below level, after listening I believe the criticism leveled at the Elear against those particular headphones is quite unfair. That said, I have not listened to those in comparison. I was quite happy to judge the Elear as a stand-alone, along with the Kenzie.
     
    It is a shame that those of us in the audio world tend to move on rather quickly when the “newest, latest, greatest” comes out. Too often, the “flavor of the month” is given its dues initially, and then moved to the curb sometimes quite abruptly. One need only peruse the Head-Fi “for sale” threads for listings of those same items. I will not mention names/brands/product, but it is painfully clear that this is not only wrong, but also a disservice to what has and is produced. In another fine product, which I just finished reviewing, the Sponsor-thread has clearly dropped off of the front page, well into the 2nd-3rd pages, depending upon who has commented. I really think this is a travesty of justice. One item I learned from my just finished review, is that you CAN reach that plateau where you are happy, and do not need to quiver about the smallest of details or the smallest of errors, the smallest of “faults.” You can indeed be happy with whatever current “units” you have, and still admire other products, which you graciously receive for review. It is that “other unit,” which has allowed me this peace, this listening harmony. I am not ashamed to admit it, either. In fact, I just placed my order for that unit, knowing it will be with me for a LONG time, as a result of this conclusion. Some day, I hope to add the Elear to that equation, that list of what I have, which is just right. It is enough for me to be satisfied, the performance of the Elear and the IEM of which I speak. Enough for me to simply plug in and enjoy without the need to “move further up” the food chain we call portable audio equipment. I am in complete enjoyment and satisfaction with the Elear, and am quite lucky to have thoroughly enjoyed my week (extended by weather and a Holiday). It is not perfect, and I will point that out, but I will unabashedly admit I have not heard anything above this price-wise, but feel no need to after my time together. Couple this with the excellent ampsandsounds Kenzie in the house, and I have found a “system” with which I could easily sell my home system and be done. The synergy between them is so good; that I do not need to look further, there is no need.
     
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    Build:
     
    Absolutely top class, first-rate build is what I noticed from the opening of that really cool case to the time on my head. The quality of components used is of envy, as is the build. Soft colors of gray and black are matched with the silver highlights of accent rings on the ear cup, as well as trim just below the band. This is not a headphone, which shouts at you, but exudes an understated quality. One aspect, which drew my early criticism, is the silver aluminum adjustable bands, which go into the headband. My thought was that they appear and feel quite flimsy for such a purchase.  That was quickly allayed, when I realized how thick and wide the band was. I also realized that the “flimsiness” of the band going into the headband was by design to allow a certain movement on ones head for proper placement. The ear pads are also, non-concentric circles, much like the ear cup itself. Made of soft suede-like material, they are offset in their axis, again to orient the sound properly into our ears through good placing on our head; the front of the pad slightly overlaps the “sound room”. With orientation towards the front of the headphone there was no need for multi-dimensional movement of the cup, due to the suspension mentioned, and the band in-use “adjustment.” It is quite good, and quite heavy. That said I found my best fit was with a hat on, and I could happily wear the Elear for hours without much discomfort. As an eyeglass wearer, this is important. An undue pressure pinches the frames of my glasses onto my head. This did not happen, once I was able to adjust the Elear properly. A wonderful, non-portable case exudes quality and safety. This what a case should look like whenst one spends this kind of money. I will state upfront, as many other have that the cable is ridiculously long and heavy. I can understand why, due to various listening locale pleasures, but if the cable is unduly heavy, you can quite certainly feel it weigh upon the headphone. I was able to coil the bulk up and place it out of the way, but that would be a short-term solution. It is an extraordinary cable, but for me far too long and heavy.
     
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    Fit/Ergonomics:
     
    The Elear is extremely comfortable....build quality is excellent as mentioned. No flaws. I would prefer a freer mounting system, which would allow the ear cups to rotate for better fit (see above comments, which negate this, but kept for initial repose). But this is accommodated by the change in pad shape. For overall fit, I am more comfortable in long sessions wearing a hat. Without, the lower parts of the pads tend to pinch. Without my glasses, it is better, but if you rely upon wearing your glasses, it may be an issue.
     
     
    Initial listening:
     
     
    MacBook Pro+ampsandsounds Kenzie+Elear:
     
    Probably 75% of my time, at minimum was spent using this set up, because this was the set up I enjoyed the most. If I were to purcjase both test units, this would be why…to run with my Mac. It is a natural synergy, which I find as many excuses as possible to enjoy…many times over…
     
    One of my favorite male vocalists is Dave Matthews, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan (my all time favorite artist, God rest his soul). Matthews has a "soft-gravelly" quality, which compliments his music extremely well. Throw in a diverse group, and you have a diversity, which lacks in much of the music of today. It is almost like he is from another era. Gravedigger shows the passion with which his music was developed, coming from a slower start, building to a crescendo, and finishing with that sad, intimate, almost forlorn ending. You FEEL for those that died in the song, and the Kenzie portrayed this without protest. It was as if the reverence from the amp was a conscious decision, which complimented the veneration from the Elear. It's way of paying homage to those departed. What a respectful way it was. 
     
    Follow that with Grey Street, and you have come full circle. This journey is like an experience where you must be brought down to the depths then lifted out. There were times in which I would fail miserably during my two-day mtb races on the first day. I would have to dig deep on the second day to overcome this. With the help of my trusty Specialized Stumpjumper, more often than not I did. On a cold, wet snowy, did I say cold?, day in Lawrence, Kansas we rode the second day of the Kansas State Mountain Bike Championships. Moving steadily through the pack, this was the second muddiest race in which I had ever participated (Columbia, MO for the other). I am proud of my 7th place out of 65. And I was the only one to ride up a particularly muddy section...I attribute this to not only my skill (which wasn't much), but also to the ability to read the terrain and let the bike decide the route. Almost intuitively, the Stumpjumper guided me; much the way the Kenzie is showing the way for the Elear. Showing me the correct path to choose while allowing me the choice of music for the journey.
     
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    KIND of like what I rode up...
     
     
    Soundstage is narrower than I am used to with the Elear, but still quite satisfying. A song such as Dave Matthews’s version of Long Black Veil makes you understand that other than this being a semi-open headphone; this journey is for you and you alone. EmmiLou Harris' voice just simply adds to the magic, necessary for that journey.
     
    I do not have any experience beyond this, the Elear/Kenzie. After a glorious week together, I really have no need to move further up towards the summit. When you combine a "Summit-fi" amp with an entry into the "top-tier" headphone; and it synergizes such as these do, there is no need whatsoever to proceed further. Skyfall by Adele epitomizes this perfectly. A build of sound from her voice to the piano line, to the drums to the orchestra just finish the deal. I have no need to go any further. I will not call this my endgame, as that would be an insult to both. You reach a view on your journey, and it's just…right....You can certainly see further, and higher; but because you have traversed the path to get there; you have already seen what you need; experienced what you need. Concluded what you have is enough. Again, this is not a slight, a disservice as in you have settled. No, certainly not. But you have reached that inner bliss where all you have in front of you laid bare is enough. The view and journey have solidified themselves as all you need to be complete. THIS is what the Elear/Kenzie combos have provided me. I have no need beyond this. 
     
    Conversely on Dave Matthews excellent song Dodo, his vocal is the foundation on which the song relies. Bass and drum line are most definite support, but too far forward with the Elear. Luckily, Dave's voice can overcome that. His voice center stage, the bass/drum line at ether side extreme the combination fits well together, despite this not being the best combination through the Elear.
     
     
    One of my favorite test tracks was Anne-Sophie Mutter's Zigeunerweisen Op.20. The Elear/Kenzie combo was meant for this. It is as if all in the audience are collectively holding their breath throughout the whole song...The synergy of Elear and Classical music cannot be underestimated. This is a fine pairing. Details galore, instrumentation where it should be, as well as excellent separation, the Elear simply excels at the Classical genre, to me. The audience was breathless it seemed, and so was I at the listening.
     
    Following that mix, Mission Impossible by Lindsey Stirling and The Piano Guys, to me epitomizes all things good in the Elear (besides those already mentioned). Instrument separation is very strong, and imaging quite good. Playing the piano across the mid-left line, and slightly behind, the string instruments show a true strength in bringing the whole together. As the song progresses, the piano can clearly be heard moving slowly towards the center, and more forward. The string instruments then move to either side, enveloping the “bad-guy” piano. What ensues is just a really, really good mix of the tension in the scene. Each instrument playing to be heard, and mixing quite well. I really like this song through the Elear’s. And yes, that dip in mids can be heard, but the overall presentation covers this “deficiency” well. I don’t really count it as a deficiency, but an almost “relief” which allows the other strengths of the Elear to show…the upper bass and the lower trebles simply shine. Follow that with Thrift Shop by, Stirling and Tyler Ward and the wholeness of presentation shows. Excellent male vocals, plucking of strings, and the deep support bass line from the guitar in the background show through very well. Just a sound, which I really like.
     
     
     
     
    In the Elements-Orchestral version, there is just a holy buckets kind of sound. Simply an oh my goodness type of sound, which makes one truly marvel at what we can put together for our pleasure. This must be what the top sounds like. So deep, so spatial, so clear and vibrant, that my jaw slackens a bit, not in jealousy, but a wanting to jump wholeheartedly into the music, like no song has through the Elear/Kenzie up until now. And the other songs have been damn bloody good. I had to stop listening for the night after this song. Incredibly sensuous and surreal. I truly felt like I was in Transylvania. Hearing the beat of the cloth mallet on the chimes has never felt so real. I was INSIDE the head of the mallet. Every instrument so precisely placed, that I dare not breath, lest I disturb the smallest Ion in this sphere. This song truly defines a sense where intimate sound stage is desperately OK. Menacingly perfect. No sense of flaw is present, and you dare not disturb that aura. You dare not move. You do not want this sensation to end.
     
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    THIS is the site I had after opening, and of course hooking the cables up...

     

    iPhone 6+(+) ampsandsounds Kenzie + Elear
     
    Using my iPhone 6+ through the Elear/Kenzie, an almost deep foreboding sound was had. The kind of sound, which once you hear it, draws you into the darkness. Into that deep, deep cavern of unknown. An unknown you are hesitant to explore, but know you must. This is the true definition of "The Journey is the true meaning." I cannot see myself using this set up, unless I had a quality amp to run the Elear through, and at that point, it would be better to run a whole better set up. Not unpleasant, just not the best, and not what the Elear was meant to be heard through.
     
    Continuing with the 6+,  Stirling's Element leads the way back into the musical bliss from which I enjoyed the Elear. Overall it isn't the best sound but one, which you gladly take, knowing your smartphone will never sound this good again....Again, a very good sound, but one you will not use often.
     
    Fiio x3ii+ampsandsounds Kenzie+Elear:
     
    The Fiio x3ii gives the Elear a straight forward sound. Kind of analytical, which the Kenzie warms nicely. Almost a juxtaposition of sound smorgasbord...who wins? Well, I do right now! An interesting mix, which the Elear tries to meld into an elegant but slightly hollow sound presentation. It is not the Elear's fault, though. I blame the almost antiseptic flat sound of the Fiio here. I really, really like the sound from the Fiio, but here it is just hollow and odd with some of the songs. Then on others, just right. Still quite acceptable, but not the weeping, teary-eyed emotion which the MacBook combo can bring. Highs are better positioned and of a clearer nature, but at the cost of that lack of....fullness. Maybe it is the trueness with which the Elear lays the sound to my ears. No hiding behind a false presentation.
     
    Then a song such as Bailor (Sequiriya Cabal) comes on and dispels all of that hollow-nonsense. I'm very confused. Full, rich, detailed and deep, this song throws mud at me as if to say, “What do you expect? This is a good set up, too!” I cannot disagree, either. An honest sound that allows the strengths of the Elear not to be hidden. Shown full on, this particular song is at the front of what is good; detail, rich fairly-wide of sound, each instrument can be separated like you were running around the stage trying to get close to each instrument; then quickly like a mouse on to the other…aaahhh! Confusing, but in a good way.
     
    Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela combine so well on the Hands album, that the combination is a natural. The title track is just a play on the emotions. Bass guitar and Flamenco combine seamlessly to concoct a sound, which really brings the strengths out. Variety, solid bass, mids which compliment and hold together the two opposites while there is enough treble to satisfy ones needs. No bleeding of sound into the others territories. Each playing nicely, to combine into a sound, that puts you front and center. Intimate, almost sitting on stage next to each guitarist, this is a sound, which is very small venue-like. Quite good. No mouse activity here…
     
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    Headphone Comparisons, Fostex T40RP Mk3 vs Audioquest Nighthawk vs Elear:
     
    My assortment of IEM’s and Headphones is not that vast, and probably never will be. But I enjoy all that I have, using all as much as I can. That said, some unit’s fall by the side, rarely used. When I do revisit them, I am reminded why I purchased them in the first place.
    The Fostex T40RP MK3 would be like a teens hopped up Honda Civic. A great headphone for modding, and tailoring sound to an individuals taste, the closed-back T40’s sound quite good. Decent reach on both ends, but bass can get quite boomy, and “unruly,” like a show-off or the Fart Can exhaust, which was (unfortunately) quite popular for a time. To show its best, it really should be modified, especially the older Mk1 & Mk2. Best used (to me) for Rock & Roll, it isn’t that bas when used for other genre, but just like a Civic, it reaches its limit when asked to do too much complicated music.
     
    My newly acquired Audioquest Nighthawk would be like the fine touring machine, the VW R32. The ride, which excels in all conditions, thanks to the 4-Motion AWD allows the strengths to show, it’s excellent engine and engine note; along with one of the best interiors out there, belying WELL beyond the price range. Pretty darn fast (the car is, too) of sound, with excellent feedback; the NH doesn’t really do anything exceptionally well. It does sound VERY well, instead. As such, it does maintain that composure no matter the genre, or sound. An extremely competent headphone, which takes a different route to reach its sound spectrum; much the way the AWD R32 does. A headphone you would be extremely satisfied with (I am), but one when compared to the Elear leaves you wanting more. I will say, to me the bass is a bit better, and slightly deeper of reach than the Elear. Some have stated that the bass in the Elear sounds too “analytical,” a statement with which I would disagree. The bass is almost perfect for me. That said, I truly enjoy the bass on the NH.
     
    This leaves the Elear. I would call the Elear the Porsche 911 Turbo of headphones. While one would think that this could very well have been a Ferrari 488 GTB that would be too much flash. No, the Focal Elear is more understated. The Elear let’s the performance speak. It is not about flash, it is about SUBSTANCE. Not that the Ferrari does not have performance, it certainly does, but in a much flashier way than the 911 Turbo. Performance speaks. And it expresses volumes about the character and substance of the Elear. A quality I very much appreciate.
     
    On Stirling’s We Found Love, the female vocals are magical! Right where they need to be. The incorporation of native sounds as background is just right. Not overpowering, right where they need to be...bass provides a solid foundation on which the song carries without problem. A hint of bass being withheld, but I think it is so that the supporting drums and vocals can show their force...just fantastically represented by the Elear.
     
    In Hello, Adele’s signature song, the bass line is a little too far forward. I think it is the recording, but I am not sure…her voice, though. Stunning, through pretty much anything; magnificent through the Elear. This combo is made for female vocals and violin...I am in love.
     
    Someone Like You-Adele: I have goosebumps...just Adele and the piano. Royal Albert Hall; one of the most iconic venues on the planet cements this combination. Adele/Royal Albert Hall=Elear/Kenzie. For some reason I am brought to tears by this. I think it is the genuine love I have for my wife, and this combination of Adele/Royal, Elear/Kenzie makes such an impact upon the sound. I am the luckiest guy on the planet right now...
     
    Set Fire to the Rain: vocals and piano upfront again, drum/bass as foundation. Strings again, alight as the middle, which holds the bass line and Adele/piano together. This songs shows that the Elear/Kenzie allow the music to shine through. Not imposing a "false sense" of sound on the proceedings. There is nothing false about this. This is true music. 
     
    Revisiting Anne-Sophie Mutte’s Zigeunerweisen the classical violin orchestral masterpiece shows this is what the Kenzie and Elear were meant for...oh my God. The Elear/Kenzie combo was meant for this. It is as if all in the audience are collectively holding their breath throughout the whole song...while magical, it is a hint too laid back for me, until the song hits the 6:45 mark. Then the finale finishes what has brought me to my knees. I think it is simply preparing me...slowly bringing me back into the fray. Preparing me for the finish...gently. Then not a slap in the face, but a collective RUSH of air thrown at me to take my breath away. I have no choice but to gasp, hopefully silently as she plays when that moment arises. So pure is that moment, that I decide then and there, that I have reached what is my moment in sound. That moment when you decide this is it. I need look no further. Yes, as I state below, there are other fine headphones, but when you reach that moment where the bass drops from the orchestral movement, seamlessly with Ms. Mutter’s unbroken violin playing you just have to sit back and admire what the Elear brings. That full rich slightly warm sound, which can play at the soft music as well as it can the louder. This makes me very, very happy.
     
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    My review rig for the week...I am a very lucky man...
     
    The last song, which helped me define what I like in the Elear, was Bears, by Lyle Lovett. An excellent bass line is laid down, supported by the guitars in the mids followed by Lyle’s voice, which ties the two together. Crystal clear clarity, the sound provides you with enough space to separate all instruments but keeps that intimacy, which I find is one of the Elear’s strongest points. As @kman1211 stated, and I agree, “I’m not too picky about soundstage size, I care much more about imaging…” I wholeheartedly agree. If I can pick out exactly where Lyle’s microphone is compared to the National steel guitar and the electric mandolin, then I am satisfied. The instrument of our listening has transported me to the presentation itself. That is all I ask of my headphones...I get transported to the music. An avenue of delivery, which ends up being a good ride. The Elear is that instrument. That headphone, which takes me to that place of listening and does so without fuss. The Focal does so unencumbered by “what might be better” or “what has more depth,”…etc. It just does it.
     
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    The overall build is impressive, quite impressive
     
     
    I am very aware that there are many, many other quality headphones out there which are not only in the same price, but more expensive. One need only look at the TOTL Utopia, from Focal to understand. When I started reading the reviews in anticipation of my time with the Elear, I kept reading, over and over that this headphone was better in tight bass, this headphone was better in spatial presentation, this one had clearer treble, etc…it kept going. Once I put the Elear on though, all of those comments simply faded away with the music. The music, oh the music. Such a sound my ears have not heard except with my home system. And it made me smile. It made me happy. It made me cherish my music. I enjoy my music very much, and if the instrument of listening can make me smile and the sound quality better, by putting me inside; then it is an experience with which I cherish. I really don’t care if the HD800S sounds “better,” or the T2 has better mids or treble or whatever. It is the sound of the Elear, which pleases me as I listen. The Elear gives me that sense of musicality, that sense of oneness with the headphone. Yes, the others cost more, and I have not heard them, and they very well could be better; but as I stated in my Aria review, I have found it. There is no need to proceed further. This is all I need. Is this perfect? No, but the minor flaws can be lived with or changed. That cable is incredibly long (yes, for far listening purposes), and an open back headphone cannot be used in all situations (like when my better half, my wife is watching TV, and it bleeds through), but when the Elear is called upon, it will be there. It will fulfill the sound with warmish tonality, far reaching bass, mids, which while somewhat recessed are still quite good, and treble (which seemed to divide the Head-Fi community the most) that supports when needed, and takes front when called upon.
     
     
    I am very sad that this combination has left my house; far too soon, it has... But I smile knowing that the next people in line have such a tremendous treat in store. The Focal Elear has quickly transported itself onto my very, very short list of top headphones with which I would live happily for a long time. And that is all I could ask of the Focal.  I want to thank Todd from TTVJ for inclusion on the tour. It was a wonderful surprise, and I can unabashedly state that the Elear has been the best headphone I have ever listened to, or tested. Thanks again, Todd!

    1. nwavesailor
      Nice Focal review, thanks!
       
      I am also a big Dave Matthews fan and use many of his tracks to compare tubes.
      nwavesailor, Apr 12, 2017
  2. Aornic
    The best dynamic all-rounder in its price range
    Written by Aornic
    Published Oct 4, 2016
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Fast and engaging sound due to dynamics, pleasing and full bass, rich mids and comfortably extended treble that allows for a good slam, chunky sound
    Cons - On the heavy side, upper-mid dip makes some older recordings sound a bit veiled with a slight sense of darkness
    [​IMG]
     
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    Introduction:
     
    God, this hype.
     
    As primarily a headphones guy, I had never even heard of Focal before this summer. Shortly before attending the London Can Jam in August, the hype regarding the new Focal Utopia ($4000) and Elear ($1000) had reached a fever pitch – so much so that I put it high on my list of items to try out. Turns out that so did everybody else.
     
    Four seats at the venue were constantly occupied, the two at Focal’s booth and the two at Moon Audio’s booth – who also had a Utopia and Elear. In between the two, I had some time with both and walked away muttering that it seemed the hype was real – but I needed a quiet environment to be sure. I made the decision that day to pursue the Elear, as the Utopia was far out of my reach, and to dissect its sound reproduction for myself. After nearly two months, I am ready to publish my findings.
     
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    Specifications
     
    Type: Circum-aural open back headphones
     
    Impedance: 80 Ohms
     
    Sensitivity: 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
     
    THD: <0.3% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
     
    Frequency response: 5Hz - 23kHz
     
    Loudspeaker: 137⁄64“ (40mm) Aluminium-Magnesium "M" shape dome
     
    Weight: 0.99lb (450g)
     
    Cable length: 13.1ft (4m)
     
    Connectors: 1 x 01/4“ (6.35mm) stereo Jack connector 2 x 09⁄64“ (3.5mm) Jack
     
    Carrying case: 1253⁄64“x1015⁄64“x629⁄64“ (326x260x164mm) 
     
     
    Build Quality & Comfort
     
    I remember thinking at the London Can Jam that the Elear looked better aesthetically than the Utopia, preferring the former’s demure nature over the latter’s bombastic grill opening in the cups and spotted earpads. The Elear emits a premium aura from it in its black, grey and silver colour scheme. “Made in France” is printed boldly, in French of course, on both sides along with the name “Elear” and “Aluminium-Magnesium.”
     
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    The earpads are memory foam and not a struggle to wear or tame. It, along with the clamp, does not add pressure to the point of discomfort or pain – far from it in fact. I’m lounging around, writing this, with it having been on my head for hours now and I don’t feel fatigued at all. The only full-sized headphone in my possession that I can say that about is the lighter HD800 - making it an achievement of the Elear’s design that it can manage this with its heavier weight.
     
    Yes, the weight. This headphone weighs 450g and that is without the simultaneously incredible yet ridiculous cable that is provided in the box. This cable is 13ft/4m and shielded so thick you would think the answers to the meaning of life are hidden within. Make no mistake, I much prefer a good quality cable to an afterthought-cable with no effort put into it – but I’m fairly sure Focal was thinking primarily of people sitting on their couches whenever they wanted to take a break from a Focal speaker system with something more intimate.
     
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    That being said, the connectors on each side of the headphones are 3.5mm and, thus, so easily swappable - no proprietary connectors here folks.
     
    The weight of the headphones themselves do not bother me so much either, but keep in mind that I was recently promoted to captain in the great war against heavy headphones. I’ve fought the HE-500 and two Omnis and survived to find the Elear a comfortable wearing experience. All joking aside, the weight distribution on this headphone is such that allows for this. The cherry Omni was of a very similar weight, but the nature of the T50RP frame made it awkward to fit on my head comparatively – even with the ZMF pilot pad. I spent longer than I’d like to admit trying to make the HE-500 more comfortable, so an out-of-box comfortable listening experience is something I applaud.
     
    I spoke with Nicolas Debard at the London Can Jam in August and he told me that the Utopia and Elear were created with their in-house construction of an “M-shaped dome.” This was done in order to maintain the usage of electrodynamic drivers while offering an experience that is similar to speakers. There’s more to it than that, but I’ll let the man explain himself.
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Ultimately, these headphones just look so great as well as possess the advantages listed above. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but as I said earlier – I found the Elear to look more distinguished than the Utopia even. A quick browse through Focal’s website shows that they want to position themselves as a luxury brand, and stylish above all. This is further proven by the €100,000 gold-and-diamond studded Utopia being created recently for sale. That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t what I’m about at all. An average dude like me doesn’t subscribe to the marketing practice of being sold a lifestyle rather than a product - and I would find all that luxury-positioning pointless if the sound quality was average-at-best. Luckily, Focal backs up their image with ample substance.
     
    Sound
     
    The sound of the Elear is unlike any I’ve heard in headphones that I’ve owned in the past. If I had to pick one that is somewhat similar to it, it would be the ZMF Omni. However, the Elear has a dynamic quality to it that has been absent in all my previous headphones, with the Sennheiser HD800 coming closest.
     
    What I mean by this is that the Elear pushes music out to the listener in an almost startlingly, at first, quick manner. This is not a laid back headphone, like the Omni, and it takes no prisoners in its sound reproduction. It is fast, very fast – and more than likely to surprise you at first until you are used to it. I always notice how certain instruments sound best on certain headphones that I’ve reviewed in the past: the HD800 being especially great at strings and orchestral recordings, the Hifiman HE-500 being especially good at vocals and the Omni standing out for how it showcases acoustic guitars. The instrument that stands out the most on the Elear is the piano, particularly a grand piano. The attack on the key hits is immense and startling, and you can feel a piano riff in the chest if it is emphasized in a song’s production enough.
     
    The soundstage of the Elear is quite intimate, especially for an open headphone. Despite not owning them anymore, I would say it’s similar to the Sennheiser HD600 and Hifiman HE-400i in this regard. However, its dynamic nature provides for an interesting listening experience where an intimate soundstage can still feel rather full and detailed. This is because, once again, the Elear loves to take every instrument in a song and throw it at the listener – reemphasized. I found that, with most headphones, I would find that a certain instrument or vocal in the mix was most pronounced – with the rest of the mix falling behind to give that particular melody space to carry the song overall. This would make for an interesting experience with the HD800 sometimes, where a drum beat’s cymbal pattern would land squarely on the frequency chart of the headphones that emphasized treble – leading it to sound a great deal more pronounced than, I would imagine, even the personnel in the mixing room at the time of recording intended.
     
    I would classify those headphones as having a more linear presentation to them. A semi-useful analogy I can think is the idea that those headphones are an assembly line, producing a single unit at a time in a long conveyer belt. What the Elear does instead is reproduce sound in what seems like batches, with each second of listening presenting a number of sounds in equal measure. This is not to say that the Elear is turning around the mixing and mastering (particularly the chosen volume of different instruments) process and brickwalling each instrument to a point where there is no dynamic range in a song. Far from it, song dynamics are well presented – you just have to get used to how it’s done.
     
    This is because, ultimately, the Elear has a “chunky” sound. As mentioned before, the batche reproduction of sound makes it so one single instrument or melody does not take centre-stage nearly as much. Take the introduction to the Dark Side of the Moon album by Pink Floyd; a track known as Speak to Me. As the heartbeat referencing bass drum slowly gets louder, all the samples of clockwork, machinery and voices are spread on top as the song builds in suspense. If I had listened to that track with the Massdrop x Fostex TH-X00, the heartbeat sound would have been emphasized over all else. If I listen to it with the HD800, the machinery and voices are swirling around with a sharp and clear presentation – due to the HD800’s massive soundstage and imaging. I could continue with examples, but I’m sure you get the point. What the Elear does in this song is take every sample and bring it up close and personal to the listener in a manner that would be undoubtedly more strikingly noticeable than on many other headphones in this price range. Yes, this has something to do with the narrower soundstage on the Elear than the HD800 – but that doesn’t excuse just how much more noticeable each instrument is as the album carries on.
     
    The Elear has a rather “full” sound to it, and this fact has a lot to do with the bass extension and performance. While not overly bassy headphones by any means, certainly not on the level of the TH-X00, the Elear has a bit of a boost to its bass frequency in order to give it a kick in the low-end. I don’t find the bass wanting with most genres of music I throw at it, including electronic and dance-pop music. I was actually surprised that the sub-bass extension is quite similar to that of the ZMF Omni, which is a semi-closed headphone that is heavily dependent on a good seal to perform in this regard. This is one of the several characteristics of the headphone that would disqualify it from being called “neutral” or from being used in a recording studio for mixing music – with the trade-off being that it makes the chorus of The Hills by The Weeknd sound so full and present.
     
    The lower midrange of the Elear is quite a delight. It shares characteristics from the cherry iteration of the ZMF Omni, in that it can pleasingly reproduce acoustic guitars. Guitars and male vocals fall into this area and are presented supremely, with body and texture that are quite natural in their presentation. Like the Omni, and to a lesser extent the Meze 99 Classic, the Elear has an “earthy” quality to the lower-mids that champions the idea of perfect imperfection – contrasting with the HD800’s emphasis on accuracy and the sharply analytical reproduction of audio.
     
    The midrange itself is nowhere near as “liquid” as the HE-500, a quality that makes the Hifiman headphones shine with vocals. However, it has more detail to it than the Hifiman – not quite as much as the HD800 but a surprisingly intense amount regardless. A song like Patience by Guns N’ Roses, with its layering of acoustic guitars, brings out the strength of the dynamics, midrange tone and detail of the Elear. The song is chock full of guitar fills and licks that accompany the rhythm guitar, and the Elear’s fast and full midrange makes it certain that the arrival of such an event is presented realistically – with the picking and strumming ringing out clearly and standing apart from the rest of what is going on in the song. As Axl Rose’s voice croons over the instrumentation, I can’t help but be surprised by how each track is not overshadows by anything else.
     
    The chunky, batch-producing nature of the Elear is really quite impressive. That being said, the upper midrange feels a bit subdued, with female vocals having a slight dip in weight and body compared to male vocals. The dip also makes the Elear a little dark in presentation compared to the HE-500 and especially the HD800 – and not quite unlike the Sennheiser HD600 and HD650. Classic rock recordings with older recording methods, such as most tracks on Led Zeppelin’s first few albums, feel a tiny bit stifled because of this – with the songs feeling like they are hiding behind a soft wall of sorts. This is something that I noticed in the ZMF Omni as well, but the HD800 is the best headphone I have owned in terms of tackling this tricky area on the frequency chart – leading to such recordings ringing out clearly. However, it is further on in the frequency chart that the Elear redeems this fact.
     
    The treble of the Elear is never sibilant, to my ears, and I am quite grateful for that. Due to this, I can safely say that I can get an enjoyable listen with most genres of music. However, it is further up the graph that the treble returns with a vengeance – making the Elear the headphones with the most snap I have owned yet, that isn’t V-shaped. The snare drum on some headphones with a warmer tone, or slightly dark nature, leads to an unsatisfying “thud” sound on the snare. The Elear, to put it simply, does not. Be it an EDM snare, a rock song, a metal song, a pop song or even a futuristic blip-snare in a genre I have never even heard of – the Elear will make it sound right. This, coupled with the bass bump, makes the headphones slam in a very fun manner.
     
    The treble extension even gives instruments some air around them. Of course, this is nowhere near the capability of the HD800 – but the trade-off of that is that the Sennheiser headphones can get quite painful and strident at times. The upper-treble clarity on the Elear leads to all the aforementioned detail coming out in songs, such as the realistic twang of Slash’s lead guitar work in Patience.
     
    While the cherry ZMF Omni produced my favourite (and most realistic) sound of strummed acoustic guitars, it didn’t make single notes pop nearly as much as the Elear does. Cymbals sound accurate without demanding listener attention by drowning anything else out.
     
    The mixture of the aforementioned ingredients has made the Elear the most fun listening experience for me from any full-sized headphone that I have owned since I entered this hobby with the purchase of a Beyerdynamic DT990 600 ohm in 2012. Keep in mind that the Omni held this position before Focal released this beast of a headphone. That should tell you where my biases lie, with more musical listening experiences rather than neutrality or super-high resolution. However, the way the Elear presents sound makes it so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on an analytical experience either. There is a good amount of air around stringed instruments so I don’t have to always switch to the HD800 whenever I listen to orchestral/classical music – especially if I’m feeling lazy.
     
    I know that the Elear’s sonic characteristics may be a deal-breaker for some, especially the small soundstage and the fact that the imaging is nothing special. However, I would boldly claim that a majority of listeners would really enjoy the sound that this headphone outputs. It’s musical without losing shimmering detail because of any treble roll-off. It’s punchy and fast, with metal music sounding right at home with double-kick drums ringing out clearly in the mix. Most importantly, for this sound signature, it doesn’t lose breath up top – with the treble making it sound very resolving without reaching an area of sibilance.
     
    Amping
     
    For anyone reading who has gone through the pain of demo’ing various amps to find one that was a good match for their HD800, I understand entirely. I’ve listened through amps that made me feel like my ears were being stabbed with those headphones, but I’ve also encountered amps that made the experience come alive – taming the peaks without losing what the HD800 was created to be.
     
    The Elear isn’t like that. It sounds like itself when I use it with my Schiit Magni 2, Cavalli Liquid Carbon or even my portable VE RunAbout Plus. It is not hard to drive either, with its 80 ohms impedance being quite sensitive. While some headphones have a high ceiling, the Elear simply does not – letting you drive these quite easily and get the full-experience. I definitely appreciate that it can sound so similarly spectacular from my $99 Magni 2 and $599 (first-run) Liquid Carbon, with any differences being in house-sound mainly.
     
    Comparisons with the Sennheiser HD800, Hifiman HE-500 & ZMF Omni Cocobolo
     
    [​IMG]
     
    Comparison with the Focal Utopia
     
    I’m bound to be asked this. Make no mistake, I caught myself wondering if the Utopia was really worth being 4x the price of the Elear when I first tried them both out at the London Can Jam. Such thinking is pointless because we are all well-aware of the diminishing returns of the audio game.
     
    The short answer is that yes, the Utopia outperforms the Elear. It has detail that trumped the HD800 even, to my ears, without sounding harsh or treble-emphasized. It was, rather, a natural sounding and dynamically detailed listening experience that impressed me more than the Sennheiser Orpheus did. That being said, it is slightly towards the bright spectrum because of this – while the Elear is slightly warmer and bassier. The Elear provides a stellar amount of detail while retaining a fun sound signature that is compatible with most genres of music, and particularly being forgiving of most recordings of music. The Utopia is more on the analytical side of things.
     
    Conclusion
     
    Even if you are a lover of vast soundstages and hyper-precise imaging, I would recommend that you demo the Elear. Now that I’ve reached the conclusion, I’m trying to avoid using any clichés, but I’m failing at it because this headphone has made a lot of music come alive with far less discrimination than some of the others I’ve owned in the past. The HD800 is the only headphone in this price-range that I would say holds its own against the Elear on some fronts, (soundstage, imaging, detail) but most other headphones at this price range are going to struggle to match up – be they planar magnetic or dynamic.
     
    To a guy like me, who has minimal experience with the dynamic attack of an electrostatic, the Elear took some getting used to – in a good way. Having instruments, especially pianos, pop out in recordings was not something I had consistently experienced before during home listening. Listening to music is simply not a passive experience with this headphone, but rather an engaging one that can even distract you if you were foolish enough to hope for a background listening experience.
     
    It’s a little warm, has ample bass, a clean midrange that allows for impressive instrument separation in well-recorded, mixed and mastered music (modern production methods particularly) and has a comfortable treble extension that allows for the resolve and slam to happen. It’s easy to drive, has good weight distribution and is comfortable to wear – all while looking like a premium product.
     
    I had never heard of Focal before this summer, but they walked in and took the spot of my highest recommendation of full-sized headphones (under $1000) with such ease that I can see why they took four whole years on the R&D of this headphone and the Utopia.
     
    Ridiculous.
     
    2016-09-2816.04.37.jpg
     
    Comparisons

    Bass Quantity: TH-X00 > Classic 99 > ZMF Omni = Elear > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > HE400i > DT990 > K7XX > HE-500 > HD600 > HD800

    Mids: HE-500 > HD800 > HD600 = ZMF Omni = Elear > Classic 99 > HE400i > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > K7XX > TH-X00 > DT990

    Treble Quantity: DT990 > HD800 > HE400i > TH-X00 > Elear > K7XX > Classic 99 > HE-500 > HD600 > ZMF Omni > ZMF Vibro Mk. I

    Soundstage: HD800 > K7XX > DT990 > HE-500 > ZMF Omni = Elear = HD600 > HE400i > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > Classic 99 > TH-X00

    Comfort: DT990 > HD800 > K7XX > TH-X00 > Elear > HE400i > HD600 > ZMF Omni > Classic 99 > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > HE-500

    Aesthetics: Elear > HD800 > Classic 99 > TH-X00 > ZMF Omni > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > HE400i > DT990 > K7XX > HE-500 > HD600

    Lightness: HD800 > Classic 99 > K7XX > DT990 > TH-X00 > HD600 > HE400i > Elear > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > ZMF Omni > HE-500
    1. View previous replies...
    2. Imusicman
      Great Review. I've had mine for nearly a week now and enjoying them immensely. I am playing them out of my QP1R which sounds great.  My only niggle is the cable length and weight for portable use in and around the home. I am now looking for an alternative cable and a dedicated desk top head phone amp. Do you have any recommendations?
      Imusicman, Oct 24, 2016
    3. Aornic
      Aornic, Nov 13, 2016
    4. geoffalter11
      nice review.  I have them and love them.  Dynamic, punchy and incredibly musical.  Thanks for the review.
      geoffalter11, Feb 19, 2017