Focal Stellia ($2990): Is this the closed-back version of the Utopia?
*A version of this will be posted on eCoustics
Between Will and myself, we have reviewed pretty much all of the models Focal has produced. Will stated, “the Utopia walked out carrying the bag against the other top tier headphones,” which I think means he liked it and the Utopia performed admirably (review here
). Those are high words indeed for a model pushing the envelope of $5000. We both appreciated the Liric as a top tier closed-back headphone, but at that price, it faced stiff competition. We liked it, but others performed as well, or nearly so.
The Stellia came out about 2020, to very good accolades. Marketed not necessarily as a closed-back version of the Utopia, but rather Focal’s vision of what a top tier closed-back SHOULD
sound like. Especially if you are going to pony up $3k. Also labeled with the following, “very high-end circum-aural headphones…for home and on-the-go use,”
the Stellia hopes to be your only headphone. Not that I would dare take this out in public, unless it was to someone’s home. Striving for a wider soundstage than closed-backs are known for, along with detail that would make a world class chef blush, the goals were obvious: make the world’s best sounding closed-back headphone. If you have looked recently at Focal’s speaker lineup, you know that they not only sound good, but look gorgeous as well. The Stellia, easily falls into that category.
Luckily, I have another of what both Will and I think is a top tier closed-back on hand in the superb Kennerton Rögnir. This was a comparison I was giddily looking forward to...
Focal began making headphones in 2012, with the first Utopia coming along in 2016. Sprinkled in between were models such as the Elear (my introduction to them, and I bought a pair, here
), the Clear and Elegia. All decent to quite good models. The Stellia came about as a result of these headphones. With the desire to make a top tier closed-back, naturally Focal raised their game (but the design stays mostly the same thankfully) with the Stellia.
Sharing the same 40mm M-shaped dome, pure Beryllium driver as the Utopia, the Stellia is already set for the top end. The gorgeous looks also carry over, with the mocha & cognac colors along with full-grain leather and combinations of plastic, aluminum & stainless steel, the look is simply sumptuous.
Type Circum-aural closed-back headphones
Impedance 35 Ohms
Sensitivity 106dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
THD 0.1% @ 1kHz / 100 dB SPL
Frequency response 5Hz–40kHz
Loudspeaker 1.6" (40mm) pure Beryllium "M" shape dome
Weight 0.96lb (435g)
• 1 x 4ft OFC 24 AWG cable with 1/8" (3.5mm) TRS Jack connector
• 1 x 10ft OFC 24 AWG cable with 4-pin XLR connector
• 1 x Jack adapter,
1/8" (3.5mm) female – 1/4" (6.35mm) male
Carrying case provided 9.8"x9.4"x4.7" (250x240x120mm)
The opening presentation from Focal is always tops and this goes beyond that. Think of taking possession of your Lamborghini, but right from the factory, instead of a mere dealer. This is the best unboxing of anything I have reviewed. Ever.
The box itself is large and rectangular, colored in a mocha faux leather. Imprinted with the words “Stellia” & “Focal” on the front, you find branches of Focal production on the back. Small half-moon cutouts on the short sides act as the lift area, which requires some force to counter the vacuum effect along with the tightness due to being lined in dark mocha suede.
Inside the front has an oblong cutout showcasing the Focal logo on the semi-hard case along with the woven mixed cognac/mocha coloration. I know I keep mentioning the colors, but this combination is the best I have witnessed on a Focal headphone. Classy, without being garish. Superb. I also find the reason for the additional heft to the box, from what I am used to: the back 1/4ish from top to bottom contains another
leather case, which houses the cables. A whole presentation box for the cables. Seriously. Inside you find a hard foam insert where one of the cables is mounted for viewing, while the other half hosts a leather pouch, which carries the paperwork. Included is the owner’s manual, warranty card, informational pamphlet and an excellent small Focal brochure explaining the marque. You also get a “congratulations” card to top it off. Under the pouch is the second cable. Yes, Focal includes a second cable. You can use either the 4-pin XLR cable or a 6.35mm (1/4”) jacked cable for use. The 6.35mm cable jack also unscrews to provide the user with the typical 3.5mm (1/8”).
The semi-hard case is gorgeous, and functional at the same time. With a serious zipper in silver, you know the case means business. I do wonder what a soft bronzish color would have looked like, with patina of course. Inside the case, you find a form fitting area for the headphone itself, and two stretchy straps in center opening (one on top, one on bottom), which can be used for each cable. The headphones cannot be stored with the cable on. The larger open port is for the XLR (bottom), while the top is used for the “regular” cable. Focal has always had their cases together, and the Stellia continues that fine tradition.
Inside the semi-hard case is what we came for, the headphones, themselves.
A graceful mix of aluminum, stainless steel and leather make the Stellia look highly elegant. Some have mentioned that the color combination is too showy, but I tend to think the opposite. I think the combination looks understated and sophisticated, worthy of the price range. From the cognac-colored aluminum yoke to the mocha leather inserts used to “close” the circular cup backing off, the color palette & mix is exquisite. For those familiar with Focal, the shape remains the same, and I find it quite good, while fitting to my head as well. The black perforated leather on the bottom provides cushioning and air flow relief, while the mocha leather headband feels soft and luxurious. This is two-fold: good looks, and a firm grip are had with the choice. And the last thing anyone would want is to drop these gems.
As mentioned, the mocha leather on the inside of the cups acts to close the increasing diameter holes of the skeleton stainless steel cup, which helps to control resonation, allow the Focal tuning to reflect according to their tuning and provide the closed-back aspect desired. There is also plastic under the leather, which does the hard job.
Precise clicks on the stanchion (yoke top) affords nine spots for proper fit. I usually do six on most headphones, and that is no different here. There is some rotational spring to the stanchion, which is normal. This affords some movement, further accommodating fit. The cups also have springs, which aid in clamping pressure, which I found to be on the tighter side, but good. Since the ear pads are leather, the whole unit could get warm after long sessions, but I found no bother.
The whole ear pad pops off, held by five pop spots, so changing the pads can be done easily enough. The two-tone color scheme carries over here as well, adding to the look. Those pads, while slightly thin to me, provide some of the finest coddling and fit on my head of any headphone I have tried. Some are too thick and cushy. The Stellia pads are just right with excellent feel and give. The drivers can be seen under a protective screen, and orient themselves slightly forward of mid ear fore & aft. They are also angled slightly toward the back to accommodate this slight shift forward. Fit is quite nice on my head as a result of all the technology involved in the build.
The two provided cables gave me mixed reactions. I used the 10-foot (yes, 10 feet) XLR cable for the majority of the time through either my Geshelli Labs E2/J2 combo or my iFi Pro iCAN/iDSD combination. Both have an XLR jack, and I wanted the full balanced sound option. I even used this cable on my newly acquired Sony MDR-Z7 with good results. The only faults I have with this wonderfully flat-braided cable are the microphonics of it (above the Y-splitter); the tangling of it, which quite often wrapped onto itself; and the length. Another reviewer posited that this was due to the bends and shape in which the cable is stored, and I agree. 10-feet is very long, but this would be a good cable for sitting on your couch or at your office. I would simply be careful getting up. The other cable worked just fine, and had slightly less microphonics to it, and tangling. Plus, having the interchangeable jack helps across multiple sources. I do find that one on the short side, and it is definitely meant for portability.
The cables are really quite good, but correcting those niggling attributes would make them just about perfect.
The build of the Stellia is as expected, at or near the top of the tier. The mix of plastic, leather, aluminum, and stainless steel makes for a luxurious product; which provides the user with excellent ergonomics and quality feel. I had a small amount of creaking on the cups, but that was only with concerted pressure; something a user would most likely not do while wearing.
Driver technology as mentioned is the 40mm M-shaped Beryllium dome, similar to Focal’s other effort in the Utopia. The reasoning is that this dome shape helps to control any unwanted resonation produced from the driver/sound combination, before hitting your ears. It works, and keeps a tight control on the production of the sound signature.
The Stellia has a newly redesigned driver, modeled off the Utopia as mentioned. The 40mm size Beryllium M-shaped diaphragm of the original (Utopia) have been retained but the suspension has been tweaked with a voice-coil upgrade as well. The new voice-coil is a 30% copper and 70% aluminum hybrid for improved performance while retaining low weight. According to Focal, it’s actually a touch heavier than the original and the weight was offset with the introduction of carbon fiber to keep the overall weight roughly equal.
The Stellia is slightly more sensitive than the Utopia (106dB’s to 104 dB’s), and with an impedance of 35 ohms vs 80ohms is easier to drive.
Coming off the highlights of Will’s new Utopia (Newtopia) review, we had high hopes for the Stellia. Those hopes were met and exceeded. The Stellia provides details as good as any closed-back I have heard; including my personal Kennerton Rögnir. A closed-back headphone is not supposed to have this much clarity and detail to it. But the Stellia does.
Spatial awareness it seems is always compromised by having a closed-back. But whatever magic Focal has done here has worked. While not on par with the best open-backs with regard to soundstage, the Stellia is admirable and I never felt myself wishing for more. Especially knowing it was closed. There is a reason that this cost right at $3k, and it becomes evident very early in the listening that most of that went into the tuning and presentation mentioned above.
Clarity and detail are one thing, but when the rest does not match that you can be left with a thinner signatured headphone. And yes, some design their headphones that way for a purpose. The Stellia exhibit a full sound that does not become bloated or overly abundant when called upon. Bass reaches well into the sub-bass region, with a taut control to it as opposed to overall depth of reach. That is all right, and I kicked the Bass Boost up on my iFi Pro iCAN/iDSD duo to accommodate my taste in the lower region. The Stellia handled the added input with aplomb. That tautness also carries a note of slightly slower decay that attack, which aids in a fullness to it that helps “hide” the lack of deep reach.
Mids come across as sumptuous without becoming drippy or slow. Speed is just right and the saxophone of Sonny Clark comes to the front without becoming garish or showy on “Cool Struttin’.” There is also a depth to the mids, which aid in that full sound, but the detail with which this comes across is quite frankly, astounding. On the warmer side as well, the richness pervades my senses, but without that ballooning lack of character.
Cymbal hits come across as articulate and accurate. No digital sense here, only realism. Trumpet notes provide a nice Segway into the top end, which hits with authority, but not overwhelming. A sense of smoothness lends itself to the transition between the mids and treble, as exonerated “L-O-V-E” by Nat King Coles. His vocal melancholy is so powerful that the exuding of character lends perfectly as he moves up the scale. His reach makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Adele’s raspy voice sounds wonderful on “Oh My God,” which leads me into “Hello” of course to gauge that upper vocal range of a simply fantastic female voice. While not extending as others, the fullness with which she projects her song here makes for a brilliant listen, and ties off the sound signature of the Stellia perfectly.
Some headphones posit themselves for specific genre. The Stellia does not. As witnessed, it carries across male & female vocals as easily as jazz and pop in Taylor Swift’s superb song, “Question...?” This song also allows for the rumble of the song to come through as well. Again, while not reaching too high in the vocal range, the way her voice comes across is simply lavish.
I would be remiss if I did not compare the Stellia to the Rögnir for they fall into the same category and are both closed-back. Kennerton is much less known that Focal in the headphone world it seems, but they carry a devout, almost rabid base of fans. Will and I concur, rating the Rögnir as one of the absolute best closed-backs we have heard. It is a much more polarizing headphone though than the Stellia. Many do not like it (based upon graphs...) but you really cannot deny its appeal, what with the use of 2000 year old Bog Oak (https://www.antiquesage.com/bog-oak-rarest-wood-world/
) the look is stunning. It also has 80mm planar driver technology, so the sound is a bit different.
The Rögnir has a bit “less full” sound to it, with more of a push into the upper mids than the Stellia. Still with a smooth character, the sound is quite good. Bass also reaches a bit deeper than the Stellia, but with slightly less control to it. As a result, there is a slight bleed into the lower mids from that characteristic. But, to me this is part of the character of the Rögnir, a melding of the sound into a nearly seamless smooth character, except for the upper mid push. Typically, planar driver bass reaches well in depth, and with good control. My feeling here is that the Kennerton was made to present an overall smoothness to it, with a bit of vibrant character where needed, the vocal region. And it works. Going back to “L-O-V-E,” I get a better sense of depth to the soundstage that was slightly missing in the Stellia. Even with that upper vocal push, the sound is so, so good to me. I did find myself reaching to turn the volume down on the Rögnir, something I did not do on the Stellia.
As Focal’s second to top model and top closed-back model, the Stellia comes with high hopes. And after listening for the past six weeks along with reading numerous other reviews, we can all agree that Focal has hit the mark as a flagship headphone should. Superb construction, superb sound, and impeccable presentation in the unit and accessories. Some will state they could go without the luxurious presentation, but that to me is part of the flagship’s role, much like a Rolex doesn’t come in a box like a Timex. You pay for that expectation of excellence, and the Stellia meets those expectations with sophistication, class and luxury. And, sound to back it up.
The Stellia provides the listener with a smoothness one does not often get with this level of clarity and detail in song. Combining all of those traits in one headphone is a laudable goal, and one that Focal has met beyond expectations. So much so, that it could very well replace my Rögnir. I finish this listening to “Don’t You Forget About Me,” from Simple Minds and the seminal song from “Breakfast Club.” I certainly will not forget about the Stellia.