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Pros: One of the best sounding closed-backs on the market; resolution; macrodynamic punch/slam; imaging & separation; build quality; comfort; isolation
Cons: a bit too much energy in upper-mids/lower treble, timbre suffers as a result; stock cables are typical Focal cable garbage; carrying case is a bit big to just stick in most backpacks/suitcases for traveling
The Focal Stellia – a closed-back, dynamic-driver, over-the-ear, $3000US headphone – is the latest headphone loan to come across my desk. Thanks, @sa11297 for the loan! I’ve given it a good listen, and it’s time to dive in.
The Stellia is one of the best sounding closed-back headphones on the market with excellent resolution, impressive spatial presentation for closed-back, fantastic macrodynamics and physicality, and well-textured bass in a well-built, easy-to-drive, comfortable package. Its carrying case might be a bit too big for some travel situations and its biggest sonic drawback is that it can be a bit too forward in the upper-mids, breaking timbre and leading to some shout/honk. Even so, it brings a lot to the table and finds a nice niche for itself in its portion of the headphone market.
KNOW YOUR REVIEWER
My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.
FEATURES & BUILD
The Stellia has the look of Focal. They all share the same chassis and mostly change in the color and quality of materials. All of the normal Focal stuff is here – the slightly wider-than-average relaxed size, the vertically-swiveling cups on spring-loaded hinges, and the geometric pattern on the back of the ear cups. The Stellia comes in a very unique and attractive cognac color.
The drivers in the Stellia are dynamic “M-shaped” domes, a uniquely Focal feature, and made of pure beryllium. They’re easy to drive with a rated impedance of 35Ω and sensitivity of 106dB/mW. Indeed, I had no trouble driving them with the E02 module on my Cayin N6ii DAP. The ability to drive the Stellia with mobile devices is clearly one of Focal’s goals, as they mention portability a number of times on their Stellia webpage (https://www.focal.com/us/headphones/for-home/stellia#documentation). I have a few quibbles with this, however. The Stellia’s frame and chassis are not at all collapsible, and the carrying case they ship with, while luxurious, is not particularly travel friendly. Both the headphone and the case take up some room in a bag or suitcase. The Stellia stays on the head quite well, though, so if you’re heading to coffee shop there’s very little risk they will slip off. They also isolate very well. They’re not noise-cancelling, but they do a solid job of blocking out external noise and also don’t leak a ton. This isolation bit is a trait that has trickled down into Focal’s cheaper closed-back models (Elegia, Radiance, Celestee) as they all isolate well.
The Stellia, like all of Focal’s line, uses a detachable dual-entry cable system with the very common 3.5mm jack size in each cup. The jacks are recessed into the cup some but the diameter of the recess is bigger than most other headphones that have these recesses, and will accommodate many of the larger plugs that are often found on aftermarket cables. That’s important as Focal’s stock cables have become a bit of a joke, and deservedly so. They are stiff, cumbersome, and not particularly nice to use. Stellia suffers from that same problem.
I split my listening time with Stellia mostly between two systems. The first is my desktop system with a Singxer SU-2 DDC connected via USB to a Windows 10 desktop PC, a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha S2 DAC, and a Violectric HPA-V281 headphone amp. I also used the Stellia in my transportable rig with a Cayin N6ii DAP used as a digital transport and connected to a Chord Hugo 2 DAC/amp via Cayin’s USB-C-to-coaxial digital interconnect cable. I mentioned testing the Stellia directly from the E02 module output of the N6ii. That was mostly checking to make sure the Stellia are easy to drive with a mobile amp like that. They are. I didn’t do much listening beyond that on that device.
The overall sound signature is mid-forward. There is a slight forwardness in the upper mid-range that stands out from what is otherwise very close to perceptually neutral. There is very good bass and treble extension. Both the bass and treble sound appropriate present without being forward or calling attention to themselves either through being too much or too little. The overall presentation is also very dynamic, being lively and snappy in the mids and treble and very punchy and physical in the bass. That’s also a Focal trait. The Stellia is now the fourth Focal headphone I’ve gotten on my head and they have all had very punchy macrodynamics and high physicality.
The bass is tight, tuneful, and extended. It’s not elevated with respect to the rest of the frequency spectrum but it digs deep and hits hard. It’s also well textured, with the slight wavers of the waves on the string being resolved in addition to rich, accurate tone. The Stellia gave me a “wow, that’s cool” moment when listening to Dvorak’s 9th Symphony with my Hugo 2. I could hear the resinousness – that ‘zizzy’ sound of bows being dragged across strings – on the string basses, which no other headphone has really pointed out to me before, at least not that I’ve noticed. Stellia also resolves the upper harmonics and overtones of bass guitars very well. Bass players like Flea, John Entwistle, and Geddy Lee, who are all vigorous players known for being violent with the strings, sound wonderful on Stellia with those aggressive plucks and strums leading to rich and realistic overtones, and sometimes fret buzz, in the midbass. Those little sounds go surprisingly far in the direction of reproducing a realistic, believable listening experience.
The upper treble is also airy and extended but rarely ever harsh or sibilant. It’s one of those somewhat cliché cases where the Stellia is only sibilant if the recording is sibilant. It doesn’t add much in on its own. There was another wow moment when listening to The Who’s Who Are You album where Keith Moon was riding a crash cymbal and it sounded startingly realistic.
The midrange is biggest area where the Stellia’s performance gets a bit dicey. There is a forwardness to the upper midrange that can make female vocals and some higher-pitched male vocals (hello, Geddy Lee again) sound shouty and some horns, strings, pianos, and guitar sounds sound hollow or honky. There’s still lots of detail and resolution in the mids, but this forwardness causes the overall sound to get a bit wonky. The extent to which this happens does vary some with signal chain. I thought the effect was less on my Alpha S2 + V281 than with the Hugo 2, but it was noticeable and timbre-breaking on each chain. That’s unfortunate because outside of that range the timbre on the Stellia is fantastic, but that range is critically important to the overall presentation of most music so it’s difficult to say the Stellia is a headphone with a natural timbre.
I’ve mentioned the Stellia’s resolution capabilities a bit already with the bass texture. Room reverbs, echoes, the sounds of fingers rubbing across strings, are all there. What I like about its detail retrieval is that it’s not forward or aggressive. Some headphones announce how resolving they are by assaulting the listener with constant, non-stop, in-their-face detail. The Stellia is more subdued in that regard by producing the subtle details, well, subtly. There isn’t much of consequence missing, but it’s not forced either. In fact, it took me some time to realize just how resolving the Stellia is as it took quite awhile to see what it was doing better than its siblings the Clear MG and the Radiance. But, rest assured, in time its resolution chops were audible. I’ll leave a more thorough comparison with the MG and Radiance to another post.
It bears repeating that a key feature of the presentation for the Stellia is its physicality. It’s a Focal trait but the Stellia brings it with authority. There is lots of punch, hard-hitting attacks, and plenty of dynamic range. I never found the punch to be over the top, but I like the physicality, particularly in the bass, as it draws me into most of the music I listen to. However, some listeners will likely object and find it distracting.
Here the closed-back nature of the Stellia is a bit limiting. You should not expect an expansive soundstage. The Stellia is more on the intimate side. It’s not claustrophobic at all, and not as intimate as the Sennheiser HD6?? series, but nor is it big. The Focal “bubble around the head” staging is also present, sometimes feeling like it’s placing you in the band rather than in the audience. I’ve described this elsewhere as like being at a symphony performance and the Stellia placing you on the Maestro’s stand rather than in the 3rd or 4th row of the auditorium. This trait is neither good nor bad, just different than other approaches where the music is more out in front. Within that staging though there can be some very good imaging and separation. The live recording of Eagles’ Seven Bridges Road was really fun because it sounded like I was in the crowd and could make out several individual cheers and claps all around me. Cool. That said, the spatial presentation lags behind other headphones I’ve heard around $3000. But, that’s most likely due to all of those being open back and the Stellia being closed. What the Stellia is able to accomplish with the spatial presentation while being closed is genuinely impressive, though.
COMPARISONS WITH OTHER HEADPHONES
Comparing the Stellia with similar products is very difficult because there simply are not very many similar products. The most closely priced closed-back is probably the ZMF Verite Closed, and unfortunately I’ve not heard that one. Dan Clark Audio just realized the Stealth. I’ve not heard that yet either but it’s also $1000 more than Stellia. Putting Lawton chambers on a Fostex TH-900 can run upward of $2200-ish. I have a TH-900 with Lawton Purpleheart chambers on it. The TH-900 Lawton is definitely more v-shaped in its signature than Stellia, having more bass and treble presence. It also punches like and has similar dynamic qualities to the Stellia. The TH-900 Lawton is not as resolving as Stellia though and can be sharp and sibilant in the treble about as often as the Stellia is shouty or honky in the mid-range. Another key difference is the Stellia isolates much better, holding sound both in and out more effectively, and also fitting on the head more securely. These traits make Stellia more mobile friendly.
I had the opportunity to compare the Stellia directly against its sibling models the Radiance and Clear MG. I’ll have a more thorough report on that in the near future. For now, suffice it to say that the Stellia is easily the most resolving of the three and presents the most realistic spatial presentation of the three. Where it can stumble a bit in comparison is in the timbre as Stellia’s upper-mid presence is just too-forward. Radiance easily has the more natural, realistic timbre through that range and the Clear MG is right there with Stellia, and may even be a bit more natural in timbre on some signal chains. But again, I’ll have a more complete report of this comparison soon.
There is a lot to like about Focal Stellia. It puts excellent resolution, punchy and fun dynamics, excellent isolation, and world-class build quality in an easy-to-drive and comfortable package. For a closed-back headphone its spatial presentation is also impressive. Its resolution is also well-presented by being present enough to be noticed but also relaxed enough to not become distracting. The one aspect of sonic performance where it gets iffy is in timbre, and that is due to the upper-midrange and lower treble region being a bit too forward. Shoutiness, honk, and hollowness are frequent results. Still, some like that sound and even for me, who is someone who perceives shoutiness and honk quite quickly, I rarely found it a deal-breaker. If you’re in the market for a high-end headphone that can be driven by your portable device, put the Stellia on your short list for audition.
Thanks for reading, all. Enjoy the music!