- Jun 20, 2001
(Above) Focal Bathys
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a fan of Focal's approach to headphone driver engineering, and I've explained (and even shown) why in our Focal Utopia videos. So when Focal told me they had developed hi-fi-quality Bluetooth ANC (active noise canceling) headphones -- with drivers using the exact same solid aluminum/magnesium M-shaped domes used in their Focal Elegia, Celestee, and Radiance drivers -- my hope for the new Focal Bathys overshadowed my skepticism.
Why skepticism? Because the Bluetooth headphone and earphone arena is increasingly teeming with products made by technology juggernauts. And make no mistake about it: Multibillion-dollar technology giants like Apple, Google, Bose, and Samsung come loaded for bear in these product segments -- and these are categories where deep pockets and technological knowhow definitely come in handy.
For example, Apple's AirPods Max over-ear headphones are quite possibly the most technology-packed headphones available today. For me, the AirPods Max's ace in the hole is its ambient pass-through function -- among the most difficult things a headphone of this type is asked to do, and which very few do exceedingly well. How good is Apple's pass-through? It's so good, you often forget you're wearing headphones while carrying on conversations with those around you, effortlessly locating where voices and sound come from, as if there's nothing on your head. Then there's the AirPods Max's head-tracking Atmos-capable spatial audio function, which is another impressive tech feather in its cap. And the AirPods Max is also one of the top noise-cancelers.
(Above) Apple AirPods Max
Of all the Bluetooth ANC over-ears I've used, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (Bose NC700) has the best outgoing voice quality, in terms of speech intelligibility and clarity. Some days I'm on the phone all day long, and the NC700 would be my choice if outgoing voice quality in an over-ear Bluetooth headphone was my primary requirement. My high standard for outgoing voice quality, regardless of form factor, is Sennheiser's PRESENCE Bluetooth earpiece, which, though nearly ten years old, is simply a wonder of three-mic beamforming -- I've literally used a PRESENCE every day since its release in 2013.
(Above, left to right) Bose NC700 and Sennheiser PRESENCE
When it comes to active noise canceling in an over-ear, the new Sony WH-1000XM5 is the new king, to my ears unseating the Apple AirPods Max and Sony WH-1000XM4 as the top noise canceler. Nothing else I've used makes the din of airplane noise (or any noise) vanish to the extent the Sony WH-1000XM5 does. While we haven't yet been able to get the XM5 to Head Acoustics' US lab to objectively test it against the Apple and its own Sony predecessor (which we will do at some point), I have little doubt the XM5 will objectively prove itself best when it comes to ANC.
(Above) Sony WH-1000XM5
While this might so far seem like a summary of the current top entrants in the Bluetooth ANC over-ear category -- as opposed to a first-impressions post about the new Focal Bathys -- I feel it's absolutely necessary to properly frame the technology-dominated world Focal is diving into with the Bathys. Unlike Sennheiser's approach with their new MOMENTUM 4 of going head-on at these tech-giant over-ears (the MOMENTUM 4 doing a very good job of it, by the way) Focal took the approach that I think was the wisest for them, and one that immediately sets them apart. Focal's focus was hi-fi. It seems Focal wanted musicality and musical fidelity as the Bathys' primary charge. The loudspeaker-cum-headphone wizards from Saint-Étienne, France played to their strengths, and it starts with that driver.
Again, the Focal Bathys uses the same solid aluminum/magnesium M-shaped dome used in their Focal Elegia, Celestee, and Radiance driver. Of course, for the very specialized nature of a headphone like the Bathys, this meant designing a specialized, more compact motor for that 40mm dome. And the result is, to my ears, exactly what Focal was gunning for, which is an audiophile-quality music experience from a Bluetooth ANC over-ear headphone.
(Above) Focal Bathys Driver, with the alumimum/magnesium M-shaped dome
Of course, Focal also understood that the Bathys needed to have features like ambient pass-through, good outgoing voice quality, and effective active noise cancellation, and the Bathys has all of those things. It won't unseat the top performers in any of those specific functions, but, in early use, it performs solidly in all of them. In terms of ambient pass-through, the Bathys has good directionality, and reasonably natural timbre, albeit with a bit more self-noise than the leaders in this mode. As of today, everything is a distant second to Apple's best when it comes to ambient pass-through. But, still, the Bathys' ambient pass-through is actually quite good, and sounds competitive with the other non-Apple over-ears to me.
In terms of outgoing voice quality, one of my acid tests is simply making phone calls with people I talk to regularly, my conversational companions being used to the clarity and natural timbre of the Sennheiser PRESENCE. When I'm testing the outgoing voice quality of new headphones, it's not unusual for the person on the other side to ask if I can switch back to my normal earpiece (the PRESENCE). If they don't ask for that, it's a very good sign. I've had many phone conversations so far with the Focal Bathys, and it has survived that gauntlet well. When I have pointed it out and asked how the Bathys is doing, the response has so far been positive -- they noticed the difference, but it was good enough to carry on, even for long conversations. Is the Bathys the new outgoing voice quality standard? No. But will it perform capably in this function? Yes, so far very much so.
When it comes to active noise cancellation, an airplane is the best test. Alternatively, accurately simulating the sound of flying in an airplane in three dimensions the way Head Acoustics does in their lab is the next best thing (which we'll be talking more about down the road). I've flown with the Focal Bathys on only one trip so far, and haven't yet lab-tested its ANC. That said, the Bathys' noise canceling is very effective. On the one trip I've flown with the Bathys, it canceled enough of the racket to show off its fidelity with music. It also very effectively cancels my office noise, especially the fan noise from our computers and audio analyzers, the air conditioning, etc. In addition to "Transparent" (pass-through) mode, the Bathys offers both "Soft" (medium) and "Silent" (strong) noise canceling modes, which I've found nice choices to have for different settings.
In this category, a headphone needs to do all these things. The Bathys does, and does them well. But where it excels -- the Bathys' ace up its sleeve -- is its driver, and the sound quality with music that flows from it. Digital signal processing (DSP) can get you a very long way nowadays, but having a fantastic driver at the end of all of that is also critically important. And it's thanks to Focal's driver that the Bathys is the wireless over-ear I'm most likely to grab when listening to music wirelessly is what I most want from a headphone. When it comes to resolution and detail, the Focal Bathys is the Bluetooth headphone that sounds most to me like a wired hi-fi headphone. And I feel like Focal depended less on DSP for resolution and counted more on its driver's physics to deliver that.
The Focal Bathys has a companion app on both iOS and Android called "Focal & Naim" that allows you to control its noise cancellation mode, update its firmware, control its logo LEDs (I turn them off), and EQ the Bathys. As for EQ, I usually use the Bathys with its default EQ setting (the controls set to flat), but sometimes use EQ profiles I created called "Bass Down" and "Treble Up" to occasionally tailor the sound as needed.
The Focal Bathys' default signature has a rich low end, and while I occasionally joke that I'm an audiophile basshead, I'm not a fan of overblown bass, and want a defined, controlled low end. The Bathys hits within the range of where my bass preferences tend to be, but with the EQ flexibility in the app to shape it as I see fit. The Bathys' treble has nice sparkle, but, again, I do occasionally give it a presence boost, and a push up high for more air. I'm not shy about EQ'ing, and certainly recommend it.
(Above) Two of my EQ settings for the Bathys in the Focal & Naim companion app.
Focal says the Bathys has over 30 hours of battery life per charge in Blueooth Noise Cancelling mode, which I haven't specifically tested. Again, in addition to "Transparency" (pass-through), there are two different levels of ANC available. If you use it wired -- which still engages the electronics and DSP, as there is no fully passive mode that I'm aware of -- the Bathys provides 35 hours of battery life per charge. The Bathys also has a USB DAC mode that provides 42 hours of battery life per charge. It also has a fast-charging function that gives you five extra listening hours with just 15 minutes of charging.
Though I use the Focal Bathys wirelessly overwhelmingly most of the time, the USB DAC mode supports up to 24/192, and is a very nice option to have. I've used it in USB DAC mode from my Huawei Android phone and my Macs. In terms of Bluetooth, the Bathys uses Bluetooth 5.1 Multipoint, supporting SBC, AAC, aptX Adaptive, and aptX.
As for its physical design, the Focal Bathys follows the aesthetic of Focal's flagship wired headphones. It has magnesium on the yokes, as well as leather and aluminum on the headband. On my largish head, the Focal Bathys has been very comfortable, but the extenders are fully extended on my head. I also find the Bathys comfortable over my average-sized ears.
The Bathys comes with a very nice, compact zip-up carrying case, and includes a 4ft (1.2m) 3.5mm cable and a 4ft (1.2m) USB-C cable.
It'll be available this month, and will be priced at $799. While the Bathys' price definitely places it at the high end of premium Bluetooth headphones, my early experiences with the Bathys make me feel comfortable recommending it for those looking for wireless headphones especially intended for hi-fi music listening.
Of course, the Focal Bathys is no Focal Utopia, but, to me, it's the current Utopia of the wireless over-ear ANC headphones I've used. And since I'm obsessed with music more than any other content type, the Bathys is my current choice for primary Bluetooth over-ear headphone.