Massdrop x Focal Elex - Reviews
Focal Elex: The Super HD600
Pros: Dynamics dynamics dynamics
Superb bass response
Great tonality
Forward and clear treble
Cons: Quality Control
Introduction

A couple years ago, I had the chance to try out the Focal Utopia. From my short listening session, I immediately understood why they’re generally considered the world’s greatest headphone. But the four thousand dollar or so price tag was not for me. Enter the Focal Elex. At a much more reasonable asking price of $700 and bearing similar drivers to its siblings, the Elex has gained a reputation as a “baby Utopia” or a “super HD600”. I knew it was only a matter of time before I got my hands on one to hear it for myself. And though the hype train has mostly come and gone for this headphone, here are my thoughts on the Focal Elex with comparison to the venerable Sennheiser HD600.




What’s in the Box?

Inside the black box is the headphones themselves, nestled in foam. You’ll find a couple of booklets for product info and a promo brochure for Focal as a company. Other than that are two fabric-sleeved cables, one XLR and the other with a 6.5 mm jack (1/4" for you Americans). These cables are atrocious. It has an ungodly amount of cable memory and awkwardly kinks because of that. I’d highly recommend getting some better cables to replace this.


As for the Elex itself, the build quality is rather nice. It’s a handsome black and feels substantial. That said, I intrinsically handle my Elex a lot more gingerly than the HD600. Weight wise, it’s significantly heavier than my HD600. Yet despite my initial fears of it being too heavy for regular use, I found I could go a couple hours before needing to take the off and stretch a bit. Comfort was quite good. I actually prefer it to the HD600 except for the weight. The clamp force wasn’t too tight and the pads molds nicely onto my head, even on top of my glasses. The pads are surprisingly pliable and conform at the lightest touch. I get the sense that a seal has formed around my ears. It also doesn’t get a bit warm like the HD600 does. I don’t really feel a pressure point on the top of my head thanks to the thick headband.

Sound

To my ears, the Focal Elex is less the “baby Utopia” and more the “super HD600”. While Elex retains a lot of the dynamism found in the Utopia, the level of resolution and sheer nuance of the Utopia is on a category of its own. As such, I didn’t get the same sense of wonder from my first listen to the Elex that I was expecting from my memories of the Utopia. But shifting perspectives, it is an excellent upgrade to the HD600.


So what makes it a “super HD600”? Tuning wise, the Elex is a lean neutral with a bright touch. Its mids are similar to the HD600 but cuts down slightly on the lower mids. It introduces a treble forwardness that was absent on the HD600. On a technical level, resolution, layering, and staging take a confident step forward. The biggest advancement the Elex makes over the HD600 is its sense of dynamics and clarity. To use a tired analogy, listening to the Elex is like removing a veil off the HD600. And I don’t mean the so-called Sennheiser veil (that I don’t even believe in!). On the Elex, recordings feel immediately cleaner. Songs effortlessly adopt another layer of musicality and liveliness.




Bass:

For all it’s greatness, I think it’s no secret that the biggest weakness of the HD600 is its bass (well, maybe aside from its soundstage). It’s nowhere near bad but the lack of subbass and bluntness of its bass response had always left me wanting a little bit more. Well, the Elex easily resolves both of those complaints with a tradeoff in midbass presence.


The bass on the Elex is tight . The transient response is superb and lets the Elex easily slam. While it can’t compete with the Utopia, the Elex is by no means a slouch when it comes to dynamism and resolution. Even in busy passages, bass notes possess a great sense of definition and cut right through the mix. With the Elex, the subtle variations in how the drummer attacks the kick in each consecutive note comes to life. Grooving bass guitar lines are simply delicious as they flit in and out effortlessly. In comparison, the HD600 sounds downright flat and compressed next to the Elex. Simply put, the Elex’s bass response is high quality. That unidentifiable sense of longing I felt when listening to the HD600 is met here.


Quality aside, what about quantity? The Elex’s bass takes the reference route. Though it extends nicely down with plenty of presence in the subbass region, it isn’t particularly elevated. The same can be said for its midbass. This gives the Elex a rather lean appearance. It’s far from anemic but doesn’t sound huge. While the toms and kick are meaty, it doesn’t always fill the room so to speak. Personally, it’s a bit of a shame because for bass this high quality, I want to hear more. I find myself turning up the Elex just to soak in that goodness. I’ve tried to EQ it lightly but wasn’t satisfied with the results.

Mids:

To my ears, the mids of the Elex and HD600 are rather similar in tone but with a distinctly different presentation to each. Where the HD600 has a warmer, smoothed over sound, the Elex is leaner and more engaging. Vocals have superb placement without ever being too forward or recessed regardless of male or female. I find vocals also blend better into the mix with the Elex than on the HD600. Electric guitars have a cleaner grit to them while acoustic guitars sound sharper on plucked strings. As a whole, instruments feel more spaced out and open on the Elex than on the HD600. In a vacuum, I think I slightly prefer the tonality of the HD600 but the overall technical advancements on the Elex makes me lean heavily in its favor. Oftentimes, when it comes to rhetoric on the HD600, it inevitably circles around its excellent timbre that few other headphones can match. And undoubtedly, the HD600 sounds phenomenal. But I don’t think the Elex lags behind in anyway. Its equally pleasing to me as the HD600. Perhaps its presentation is less relaxed to compared to the HD600 but I have no complaints here.

Treble:

The Elex is noticeably brighter than the HD600 with a treble forwardness that brings out the brilliance of the upper harmonics. If you’re used to the relatively laid back treble of the HD600, the Elex may sound fatiguing for the first half hour or so. Hats and cymbals are crisp. Bell-like instruments and the upper notes of a xylophone have a delicate crystalline clarity to them. The Elex brings to life the treble of a lot of tracks that were previously smoothed over on the HD600. The tradeoff is a bit of a shorter decay that hides the last trailing ring of the crash. If you’re a regular reader of my reviews on AD, you’ll know I’m not treble shy. As such, the treble of the Elex falls closely in line with my preferences. I don’t hear any problematic spikes or dips that adversely colors the treble.


One complaint I’ve heard with the Elex’s treble timbre in comparison to the HD600 was it sounds metallic. Truth be told, I was a little apprehensive of this as well when I first bought it. But I don’t really hear it for the most part. I concede that in some poorly recorded tracks where the cymbals sound incoherent to start, the brightness of the Elex does add a metallic glint as it amplifies the already discordant sound. Otherwise, it’s not a concern at all. I’m very pleased with the treble of the Elex.

Presentation:

The soundstage of the Elex is less intimate than the HD600, but not by much. I’d say there’s about 20% more height, width, and depth. Where the HD600 constantly feels closed in, the Elex opens up just enough to curb that sensation. Imaging is noticeably better with nuanced placements in the soundstage thanks to how distinct each note is. I think the leanness of the Elex’s tuning contributes to how much more open it is compared to the HD600. Instruments really feel like they have a space to breathe and play in where on the HD600 it feels like they’re corralled into a narrow space. I find that this sense of space on the Elex adds a lot to my enjoyment.


Resolution is also a step up on the Elex, though it isn’t immediately noticeable when comparing side by side. Instrument separation and layering are significantly better, taking advantage of the openness the Elex provides. I touched on how dynamic the Elex is in the bass section, but it really is the cornerstone of this headphone. Tracks gain a layer of energy and liveliness that I never knew was missing. Comparing them side by side, it’s truly like a layer of compression was applied on the HD600 and removed on the Elex. It’s an impressive step up as the HD600 is hardly poor in dynamics itself. Words really don’t it justice; I find descriptions about dynamics fall flat without a chance to hear it yourself.




Should You Buy It?

Clearly, I love the Elex. For the first few months that I had it, I didn’t even bother to A/B it with the HD600 I had lying around. While it didn’t live up to the “baby Utopia” dream I had, it did fulfill the “super HD600” promise. It was only as I began writing this review and spent a few afternoons directly comparing them did I come to appreciate just how much better the Elex was. Pretty much everything about the sound of the Elex was a step up in the right direction from the HD600 I was used to. It’s a headphone that I’ve come to appreciate the more I listen to it. The Elex lines up closely with my preferences and I would be content if I were to declare this as my endgame.


If a headphone was nothing more than its sound, the Focal Elex would have my highest recommendation. For $700, it’s well worth every penny. Its value proposition is on the level of a $200 HD600. But there are a few external catches that make hold it back. For those familiar with the Elex story, there is a big elephant in the room: quality control. I won’t go too heavily into the details here as I don’t know all of it myself but suffice it to say that on some units, its drivers have a propensity to die. While it does have a two-year warranty when new, I’d hate to be on the receiving end of Drop’s customer service, especially as Focal seems to have taken a hands off approach to the Elex. To exacerbate the issue, getting new pads for the Elex down the road isn’t be very easy and Focal pads in general are painfully expensive.


At the end of the day, perhaps the Elex was too good to be true. I wish with all my heart that I could confidently recommend it but I can’t in good conscience. Instead, it gets a cautious recommendation. I’m sure that there are plenty of problem-free Elexes out there and failures are inevitable for any product. If you can stomach the low risk that comes with buying the Drop x Focal Elex, I can think of nothing else I would buy for the price. As we move into 2021, I can only hope the headphone space receives a new challenger, one that further refines on the Elex and brings a more customer friendly experience at an equally affordable price
dsrk
dsrk
Excellent and very honest review which is rare these days, thanks.
Pros: Dynamic
Bass response is fast, textured, and wonderful
Detailed and Layered
Mini Full-Range Speaker sound in a headphone
Build Quality is exceptional
Cons: Heavy
Treble can be harsh for EDM songs
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Focal is a French company with a long history of making high quality loudspeakers and studio monitors. In more recent years, they started developing and releasing headphones starting with their Spirit and Listen lines. More recently, they developed a new driver concept that mimics loudspeaker design – a super-near-field monitor driver – and used it on their flagship Utopia, Elear and Clear headphones. These stunning headphones drew instant praise for many reasons I’ll discuss about in my review.

The Elear is the entry-level headphone of this upper-tier series. They retail at $999 but can be found for about $799 now. The Clear, on the other hand, is the mid-tier at $1500. The Utopia is quite a stretch in price past these others at $4000.

Last year, Massdrop announced a collaboration with Focal and started collecting funds for the Focal Elex. This new model to this lineup essentially takes the Elear, removes it’s pads and puts the Clear pads on them, along with a fresh paint job, improved cables from the Clear, and reduces the price tag by a couple hundred dollars to the selling price of $699. Pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.

So how are they? Let’s take a look.

Packaging & Build

The Elex comes packaged in a large magnetic snap box, that opens up with a simple presentation. The headphones are surrounded by thick foam to protect it during shipment, with the two cables (balanced and unbalanced) in another slot in the foam. Pretty simple but effective.

The cables are wrapped in a paracord-like sheath and 6 feet long, as opposed to the really lengthy 10 feet ones that come with the Elear. I found the cords a little stiff, despite looking very attractive. I ended up leaving them in the box and using my own paracord-based braided cables with XLR termination.

The Elex, themselves, feature a darker appearance than the Clear and Elear. The logo is dark on dark so everything blends together giving it a clean finish. The build quality is phenomenal. Everything is well built and sturdy. The alcantara wrapped headband gives a plush feel to the crown of the head, while the metal band and cups feel ultra-premium.
One thing to note with these is that they will leak like crazy. The cups are nothing more than a metal mesh. The driver is fully exposed and completely visible and will leak sound out in all directions. This open-air driver design is all part of Focal’s intent of giving the user a Speaker-like experience.

The Focal Elex is a bit on the heavier side though. Weighing at 450 grams, the headphone is now the heaviest in my lineup of headphones, outweighing the Hifiman HE560 and Audeze Mobius. They are not in the ballpark of Audeze LCD series weight though, so that’s a blessing. You won’t get neck cramps quickly, but for some, the Elex and really, all of the headphones in this Focal lineup may give some neckaches. I found them more comfortable to wear than say the LCD-2 and the Monolith M1060 but the additional weight over my daily driver HE560 shows.

Sound

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The Focal Elex has all the characteristics I love about headphones. It has a neutral sound-signature that leans bright, providing additional detail and air, and retains a good deep bass that chooses quality over quantity. That’s not to say the Elex isn’t fun.

The bass on these can really hit you. It’s a dynamic driver that pushes the limits of a dynamic driver, with an excursion distance unlike any other headphone. The most impressive thing about it is that the decay is fast and this provides a surprisingly planar-like bass that has punch and dynamic detail. I really have nothing bad to say about this region.

The midrange is ever so slightly forward. This makes the Elex have a more intimate feel to it. Vocals typically sound fantastic, but with the upper-mids being on the brighter side of neutral, they can sometimes have a metal sheen to them, maybe a little more so than the HE560.

Speaking of the two, in my measured MiniDSP EARS responses, they look very similar, outside of the region between 1-3KHz. In this area, the HE560 becomes a little recessed, putting vocals slightly back, while the Elex moves them forward. The bass and the treble response are very similar besides that.

Focal Elex CSD.jpgElex - Left THD.jpgFocal Elex - Raw FR.jpg

Some music selections:

One of my favorite headphone test albums is listening to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memory. It’s one of those albums that have tracks that have great dynamics, some with absurd amounts of bass, and some that have great imaging and width. It has a little bit of everything to try out a new set of cans on.

The Elex destroys this album – especially on the last two tracks. Doin’ It Right is a song that has a vocal intro followed by a bass slam that can knock your socks off. When I heard it for the first time on the Elex, I thought I was listening to the full range towers in my living room. The bass slams, but the transient reponse is fast and you get the little textures that you may not hear in a typical dynamic that compensates with a mid-bass hump. This can sometimes muddy up vocals and the lower mid-range. Not a problem on the Elex.

Contact is the final song on the record which sounds like a typical Daft Punk song. It’s got a big build-up before synths and drums go nuts, all with a spacey theme to it. The little faint sounds in the background are clear and distinguishable and you can easily point to in space where they are coming from. Again, the drums slam with enthusiasm but are never out of control.

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Changing pace, another track I’ve been listening to a lot lately is Krysta Nick’s Miles Away. This is a folk/bluegrass song with some fiddles, some acoustic guitars, and some heavy bass notes thrown in during the bridge. But really, I’m focusing on her voice. She has a higher pitched voice, and on some headphones, with exaggerated treble, you may hear sibilance in her voice and harshness in each guitar pluck with this song. For me, the Elex handles this fine. There’s some very subtle over-pronunciations of the SSS sound (sibilance) but its very faint and doesn’t distract me like some other headphones may.

As the HE560 and the Elex share similar treble response, I imagine if you can handle one, you can handle both. I am a huge fan of the HE560, so the Elex is following suit.
For EDM, these can be awesome, or they can suck a lot. It’s a genre that likes to heavily emphasize bass and treble. But in many songs, they distort the heck out of both sides. So while the Elex handles bass with ease, songs where treble is already distorted or on the cusp, may sound extremely bright on the Elex. It’s just the nature of the beast really. This is a brighter than neutral headphone, and if you throw really bright tracks at it, it’s going to be harsh. I found this on several songs going through my EDM playlist.

I like shoegaze, and this headphone does this genre well. Again, the fast decay these drivers produce really helps make this genre excel. The fuzzy sounds, the walls of noise, all of that, they sound great – because the texturing of the sound is never lost. But of course, the downsides are that this headphone requires volume, in my opinion to excel.

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Sourcing/Amping:

I found the Elex with potential untapped at lower listening volumes. But this headphone with volume cranked up sounds phenomenal. And because of that, I always find myself listening to this headphone at volumes higher than I normally would on other headphones. This, along with the leakage, could cause problems for others around me.

Luckily, the Elex doesn’t seem to need a big amp to drive them. They are efficient. I did the majority of my listen with this headphone on the Topping DX7 balanced headphone amp/DAC, or the Millet Starving Student Hybrid Tube amp. Both have plenty of power, but I was able to power it to crazy levels using my Onkyo DP-S1 DAP, the Radsone ES100 bluetooth amp, and even my Essential phone with a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter.

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Overall:

The Elex, and really, any of the Focal line, is one of those headphones you really need to listen and experience. It does sound unlike any thing else. The dynamics have bass quality that can give planars a run for their money, and the upper end provides the needed detail and air that make this headphone a good all-arounder.

The biggest flaws I found with this headphone are that it does leak quite a bit, and can be uncomfortable to wear over a lengthy time due to it’s weight. It is distributed as well as I can imagine given it’s design, however a comfort strap may have helped.

It is a brighter headphone so songs that are emphasized in the upper region may sound harsh. This isn’t really an issue for me on most music I listen to, but for those who may enjoy EDM music, the more bass emphasized Elear may be better suited for the task.

In the end, I am pretty happy with my purchase. This is a luxury looking, feeling and sounding item and it really does come at a good price that Massdrop is offering it at.

Credits:
I’d like to thank redditor oxtoacart (pwjazz on Headphone Community) for selling me his set at a discounted price. I originally purchased a set from Blinq but it was faulty and I had to return it. He also happened to buy it from them during the same sale, but decided to keep another headphone instead. He graciously offered to sell it to me for the same discounted price on Blinq instead of me waiting for the next Massdrop drop to come out. Thanks!
Pros: Amazing dynamic sound
Very detailed
Nice bass
Good imaging and soundstage
Top construction quality
Cons: Weight: 450gr
Comfort is not at the same level as similarly priced headphones
Not good with poorly recorded tracks
Massdrop Focal Elex Review

Hello all!. This is my review of the Massdrop Focal Elex. English is not my mother language, so I ask you all my apologies if you find any typos or grammatical mistakes. I decided to post this review to provide a perspective about the Focal Elex from someone who mostly listen to classic and latin music.

Before getting into the review, I would like to set a few things clear about myself:

About me and my music preferences:

I’m a Colombian guy, I pursued the academic career and I work as a University Professor. I consider myself a music lover and 85% of my listening time is distributed between classic music and Latin genres and the remaining is pop/rock. I’m skewed towards warm headphones, I’m not sensible to treble issues and I’m not very fond headphones/iems with a V-Shape signature. I have two places where I do most of my listening: my private office at work and my home.

Disclaimer:

I bought my Elex from another head-fier and I have no affiliation with Focal or Massdrop.

Design and Comfort:

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The Elex is a beautiful headphone, with a solid construction comprised mostly of metal, leather, memory foam pads and premium materials. French designers are famous for their attention to details, and the Elex is not the exception. The headphone comes in a beautiful box, with a magnetic mechanism.

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Packaging includes two cloth cables, one with a 1/4 in plug and the other with a balanced connector. Manuals and documentation come in a envelop that resembles the Apple style. The Focal logo is present on the earcups and cables.

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This is a big headphone, as can be seen in the picture comparing it with the Sennheiser HD 700. The headband can accommodate big heads, as I tested by asking a colleague, who told me that it is the first headphone that fits him without too much clamp force. As many people in the forums have pointed, the Elex uses the Clear pads, which I found soft and of good quality. I tested them at 35°C and found no discomfort due to the temperature.

Despite the quality design and ample room of the headphone, I do need to say that comfort is the weak point of the Elex, not in absolute terms because they are a comfortable headphone, but when you compare it to similarly priced alternatives and even cheaper headphones. I have a Mr. Speaker AEON Flow, a Sennheiser HD 700 and a AKG K7XX and I found all of them more comfortable than the Elex. One thing I should note is that the Elex are a 1 pound headphone, and even though the weight is well distributed, gravity laws still apply and some people may find them a bit heavy for prolonged listening sessions.

Sound Impressions:

Dynamic and detailed. These are the two words that best describe the Elex sound. As I mentioned before, 85% of my music is classic and latin, so keep in mind that when reading the following comments:

Classic music listening impressions:

I had a very pleasant surprise with the Elex for classic music. Given its dynamism, the Elex somehow manages to convey the emotions of players, making you feel that you are listening to a live concert, instead of a recorded track. Furthermore, the Elex dynamics and detail leveIs are God-sent if you listen to live interpretation by artists like Ludovico Einaudi, Brooklyn Duo, Taylor Davis, Hauser; you can sense the amount of force they when they strike their piano, and the small nuances of the instruments strings. You can even listen their breath in some tracks.

I was also surprised by the Elex soundstage and imaging; at the beginning and I had issues trying to size it because the dynamism of the headphone was fooling my ears, but after my brain had its burn in, I found that it is of a very good size and fells very natural, although it is not as large as say, the AKG K7XX or the HD800. Imaging is really great in this headphone, as so is clarity as can be appreciated by in Ode to Joy (by Andre Rieu, the platin tenors, Mirusia Louwerse, Carla Mafflioleti and Carmen Monarcha).

Presently, the Elex is stealing lots of the classic listening time of the HD700 (modded) and the AKG K7XX. While the latter give an analytical presentation with nice soundstage and good imaging, the Elex gives a more live-like presentation. One of my colleagues, in addition to being an academic is a professional pianist and when she listened to Struggle for Pleasure by Wim Mertens, she pointed that it felt very alive and dynamic.

In this genre, I should mention that the Elex is very unforgiving of poorly recorded/arranged tracks; and I do mean it seriously, the HD700 and the K7XX are more tolerant of these tracks. I listened to a not so poor-quality track of Pie Jesu performed by Plácido Domingo and Jackie Evancho and I wanted to cry, Jackie’s voice felt almost lifeless and completely overshadowed by Placido’s. I have not noticed this before with neither of my headphones and when I found a better version, oh boy!

Latin music listening impressions:

This is a genre where some people may consider the Elex an endgame headphone (if such thing can really exist). Please, keep in mind that Latin genre include salsa, merengue, vallenato, bachata, reggaeton, bumbia, and many other subgenres. Instrument separation, detailing, clarity, dynamism and a nice impactful bass are the name of the game here.

The Elex manages to portray the nature of Latin music with its dynamism, with the bass hitting hard when needed and its soundstage and detailing reproducing all the instruments present in the music with a nice accuracy. As is known, the Elex and the Elear share drivers, but the Focal Clear pads used in the Elex where meant to decrease the bass of the Elear. This was in my opinion a very good decision, at least when Latin music is considered. In many songs, female and male voices sound very detailed in presence of the many instruments frequently found in this genre. Similarly, guitars, cymbals and accordions sound as if they were playing live.

The only downside that I can found is that when a track is poorly recorded, the treble can become a bit metallic (I’m not sure if that is the most accurate word), but as I stated above, I’m not sensitive to treble issues, so others may have a different experience.

Power requirements, amp pairings and headphone complementarity

The Elex is not a power-hungry headphone. It even sounds good connected to my iPhone. Nonetheless, it does scale very well with more power and better amps. I tested it using a Schiit Magni 3, a Schiit Vali 2, a Schiit Lyr 2 and a Cayin C5. I used low gain with all these amps at about 75% of their volume and they all have good synergy with the Elex. My personal preference for the Elex is the pairing with the tube amps, because they somehow enhance the dynamic nature of the Elex. I’d try to stay away from bright amps because of potential treble issues with poorly recorded tracks.

In terms of complementarity with other headphones, I’d say that the Elex and the Mr. Speaker AEON Flow Open are a great pair to complement each other. While the former is dynamic, detailed and with a nice soundstage; the latter is inviting, intimate and romantic. They can perfectly coexist in a headphone stable because each one excels in their unique representation of music.

About the clipping issue:

Several users have reported clipping issues with the Focal Elex and Focal themselves have provided an explanation to these reports. Apparently this occurs as a result of the driver design when volume is above a certain dB level, which according to members of the forums appears to not to be the same for all units. My sample did not exhibit any clipping at the volume levels that I listen.

Conclusion:

The Massdrop Focal Elex is a dynamic and detailed headphone that gives a vivid representation of music, capable of conveying the artists' emotions during the recording. Design and materials reflect good engineering judgement and an exquisite taste that finds its expression in an unapologetically black and grey headphone. Comfort, on the other hand is the Elex Achilles heel but only when it is compared to other headphones, I'm thus giving it a 4.5 stars rating. All things considered, at $699, Massdrop has made it again, giving audiophiles a dynamic and detailed headphone that in past times would have set a four-digit price. I must say that I absolutely recommend this headphone as a solid alternative in the sub-1k range.

Attachments

MalinYamato
MalinYamato
which Focal phone is this suppose to replicate?
S
sherm137
It's a mix between the Elear and Clear.
S
SoundInTheSea
I've used this headphone 2 yrs and I agree most of these reviews.
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