Massdrop x Focal Elex Review & Measurements
Dec 15, 2017 at 3:58 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 2,030

NOTE: If you can't see the embedded video above, please CLICK HERE to see the video.​

Today, Massdrop is announcing their latest major headphone collaboration, the Massdrop x Focal Elex, a new sibling to Focal's flagship family of headphones (the Elear, Clear, and Utopia). We review and discuss the new Massdrop x Focal Elex, comparing it not just to Focal's other flagship models, but also to the Sennheiser HD650 (HD6XX), including frequency response and THD measurements.

Massdrop x Focal Elex Review & Measurements - Head-Fi TV - produced by Brian Murphy and Jude Mansilla

The measurements in the video were made using:
Last edited:
Dec 15, 2017 at 3:58 PM Post #2 of 2,030
Following are the measurements from the video (and a few others that weren't in it). These are the first measurements we have posted that were made using the new GRAS High Resolution Ear Simulators that we installed in our GRAS 45CA Headphone Test Fixture (with the new anthropometric pinnae for the 45CA).

The new GRAS High Resolution Ear Simulators were designed to provide more stable and easier to interpret results, particularly above 10 kHz. As I've said before, meaningful headphone measurements above 8 kHz or 10 kHz have been a major pain point for decades. In a recent conversation on Facebook, one audio measurement professional went so far as to say, "People have been publishing frequency response curves for decades without mentioning that the data above 10 kHz is meaningless." While I wouldn't necessarily go quite that far in my sentiment about all headphone measurements, I have generally considered all headphone frequency response measurements above 10 kHz as questionable -- that is, taken with huge grains of salt.

I'm hoping over time, we'll be able to get more meaningful measurements (to at least 20 kHz) and we hope the new GRAS High Resolution Ear Simulator will be a helpful step in that direction. While it meets the IEC 60318-4 tolerance from 100 Hz to 10 kHz, the new simulator also has a tolerance of ±2.2 dB from 10 kHz to 20 kHz.

Related links:
The measurements we posted a couple of years ago for the Elear / Utopia launch (and the subsequent pad-swap measurements) were made using the GRAS 45CA with standard pinnae and GRAS RA0045 (standard 60318-4 ear simulators). The Clear / Elear / Utopia measurements we posted for the Clear launch were made using the GRAS 45BB-12 KEMAR (which is a KEMAR measurement manikin with GRAS's low-noise ear simulators and anthropometric pinnae). We will not likely return to the 45CA with the standard 60318-4 simulators, though we still have them. We will continue to measure with the 45CA with the High Resolution Ear Simulators and the GRAS 45BB-12. The GRAS 43BB low-noise ear simulators in the 45BB-12 have a very low noise floor (below 10.5 dB(A)), and so can measure sound levels below the threshold of human hearing -- this opens up possibilities for other interesting types of measurements (like measuring and characterizing the self-noise of active headphones and other systems).

The measurements below were made using:

The three measurements (below) show the frequency response and THD of the Massdrop x Focal Elex compared to the Focal Elear and Utopia. The first one is the frequency response comparison uncompensated (no diffuse-field correction applied), and the second one has diffuse-field correction applied (see note below). For both of these graphs, the measurements were normalized at 5.75 kHz for a clearer comparison. The third graph is a THD comparison of these three headphones (Elex, Elear, and Utopia).

NOTE: We're currently using diffuse-field correction based on the KEMAR diffuse-field frequency response measurements (that we use with the GRAS 45BB-12 KEMAR). We may revisit this in the future for the GRAS 45CA with RA0401.

Clicking on any of the measurements below will show a larger version.




The three measurements (below) show the frequency response and THD of the Massdrop x Focal Elex compared to the Sennheiser HD650. The first one is the frequency response (diffuse-field correction applied), as measured. The second one is the same frequency response comparison, but normalized at 2.05 khz for a clearer comparison. The third measurement is a THD comparison between these two headphones (Elex and HD650).




The three measurements (below) show the frequency response and THD of the Massdrop x Focal Elex compared to the Focal Clear. The first one is the frequency response comparison uncompensated (no diffuse-field correction applied), and the second one has diffuse-field correction applied. Unlike the frequency response measurements above that go from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, the ones below were extended down to 10 Hz to highlight the difference in sub-bass response between the Elex and the Clear. The third measurement is a THD comparison of these two headphones (Elex and Clear).



Last edited:
Dec 15, 2017 at 4:00 PM Post #3 of 2,030

Will from Massdrop contacted me and asked if I’d like to be part of the launch of the Elex. His pitch was that with feedback from the Massdrop community, the Elear was good, but the bass was a bit strong, the earpads and headband could get a bit uncomfortable, and the cable was unwieldy.

To that end, they’ve taken the ear pads, headband and cable from the Clear, which makes them very comfortable to wear. I’m the kind of person who will decide to buy a bag or a jacket, be unable to decide on the colour, and just go with black. For the Elex, Massdrop have done something similar to my thinking, and made the whole headphone a Sony-esque matte black, including using a darker version of the cable from the Clear.

Two cables are included, one with a 6.3mm plug and one with 4-pin XLR, allowing an easy match-up with the variety of desktop amps Massdrop and others make. They are long cables, but given the headphone-end termination uses 3.5mm jacks, it will be readily easy to get, say, a shorter cable with a 3.5mm, 4.4mm or 2.5mm termination, either one for other headphones, or custom made.


My first impression of the Elex was of a “baby” Utopia. I could simply say that they are a less resolving pair of Utopias and be done. Going through my recent playlists, I hear the same things, just the micro, and ultra-micro detail is missing compared to the Utopias. However what’s left is punchy and enjoyable and more open-sounding.

Their tonality comes across as a bit light of neutral overall, but a significant amount of this may be more a factor of the precision of their presentation and quality of their bass.

For example, if you found the Elear a bit muffled and bass-strong and want more air and punch, then these may be just what you are after. Out of the Hugo 2, every part of the music seems to jump out — vocals emote strongly, guitars pluck and twang and bass notes punch fast with detail. The soundstage seems wider, with sounds on good stereo recordings seeming to come from way outside the headphones.

The treble is very present — not overdone, but clean and clear enough even when modern, brighter music comes on. It doesn’t become irritating, at least at my moderate listening levels, as can easily happen with cheaper headphones.

The subtle sounds on high-quality recordings don’t have the finesse I get from the Utopias on my system. While I can hear instrument notes decay and echo, those sounds disappear faster and are more “one note” than from the Utopias, which reveal layer upon layer of detail. Despite that, once or twice I ended up looking up from my computer thinking I’d heard a sound from elsewhere in the house when it was a sound coming from within the studio on the recording.

The bass, despite being a bit on the light side on some tracks, is where the Elex totally nails things. There is an absolutely delicious precision with excellent amount of detail for headphones in this price range. This allowed me to enjoy listening with the Elex, even though I have better headphones on hand.

I tried the Elex out of a variety of gear I have hear and they drove readily easily and consistently out of everything. Switching from, say, a Chord Mojo to my main rig, I could make out an increase in clarity, suggesting to me that at the $799 price Massdrop are asking, they are going to give other headphones in this price range a very serious challenge.

The only negatives I can find are that the treble, at least to my ears, can come across as a tiny bit metallic (irony not intended) and the very low bass doesn’t come out with quite the strength that would be ideal (see music impressions). In all other areas, the Elex makes the music I listen to highly enjoyable.

I reckon these are excellent “entry level high-end” headphones that can give one a taste of what the hobby is all about, without demanding a huge outlay in equipment.


Standard bass test tracks:

Angel - Massive Attack

The bass was so punchy that I had to check I hadn’t left the speakers on when listening. It doesn’t have the quantity of deep thump that would make the best match with this kind of track, but then because it is totally the opposite of “boomy” it makes the track quite an experience to listen to anyway.

Hey Lion - Sofi Tukker

The (mid-)bass is likewise very punchy from this dance track, and deliciously precise while all the other parts of the track remain distinctly clear.

When I Get My Hands on You - The New Basement Tapes

The deep rumble of the low bass notes is distinctly rolled off. On good planars you can really feel those very low notes but not with the Elex.

Other tracks:

Rickover’s Dream - Michael Hedges

This is where I compared the detail in note decay. Guitar plucks are beautiful and precise, and this is where you enjoy the emotion of the playing the Elex delivers and are careful NOT to compare to anything better, because this recording has a whole world inside of it.

Gentle Storm - Elbow

If there’s a track that was made for the Elex, then this is it. The song itself focusses around the vocals, with a mix of light percussion and piano backing them — no heavy-sounding instruments, Guy Garvey’s vocals reaching right out to you as the other instruments tap and thunk away, each clearly delineated.

Massdrop-x-Focal-Elex-D75_8145-Edit_.jpg Massdrop-x-Focal-Elex-D75_8148_.jpg Massdrop-x-Focal-Elex-D75_8151_.jpg Massdrop-x-Focal-Elex-D75_8163-Edit_.jpg Massdrop-x-Focal-Elex-D75_8165-Edit_.jpg
Last edited:
Dec 15, 2017 at 4:04 PM Post #4 of 2,030
AI7B0583 copy banner new.jpg

First things first - I really dig Focal speakers. Or perhaps I should clarify by saying I enjoy many of their designs, if not quite all of them. I've owned various models over the years from the Electra, Cobalt, Aria, Chorus, and Utopia lines. Some of these were branded as Focal, others JM Labs, but the company strictly goes by Focal nowadays.

The ones I enjoyed most had exceptional detail and clarity, precise imaging, and very tight, articulate bass. The ones that didn't work so well for my preferences (and room) tended to go too far in that direction, sounding overly analytical while lacking in warmth and tonal density. No doubt about it though - Focal knows how a thing or two about building speakers, even if some of them didn't quite work out for me.

Focal entered the headphone market a few years back with their Spirit series, and later worked their way up to the Elear, Utopia, and Clear headphones. My experience with their headphones somewhat echos my history with their speakers.... I can certainly see the skill involved, even if I don't always enjoy the end product.

Astute readers might have noticed my lack of comments about the Utopia and Elear. Despite both models being released well over a year ago, I have yet to mention them anywhere in my reviews at InnerFidelity, Digital Audio Review, or HeadFi. That's no accident. Despite doing many things right - particularly build quality and comfort, but also in terms of sonics - both models have various traits which I dislike. These add up to enough of a problem where I don't quite enjoy them, nor do I recommend them at their regular prices.

Which leads me to the new Massdrop x Focal Elex - a headphone which I can very easily recommend. It's pretty much textbook Massdrop at this point: take an existing headphone, tweak it for the better, and sell it for less than the original. This formula has resulted in modern classics such as the AKG K7XX and Fostex TH-X00, two headphones which every enthusiast should own at some point. And we can't forget the Sennheiser HD6XX which maintains the same (excellent) performance as the HD650 while dropping the price substantially. Massdrop pairs with Focal this time around for their new Elex - and I think it's another classic in the making.

AI7B0606 copy small.jpg

The Elex starts with the Focal Elear and sprinkles in certain aspects from their new Clear design. Specifically, we get the drivers from an Elear, pads from the Clear, housing elements from both models, and cables from the Clear, all with a blacked out "stealth" theme. The result is a headphone which, for my tastes, transcends the performance of both "donor" models. All for $799 - significantly less than the MSRP of Elear ($999) and Clear ($1499).

I really wanted to like the Elear. Many people enjoy it, and initially I thought it had tons of potential. But after much listening, I just can't quite get over the issues I hear. My complaints focus on two specific areas.

First, the bass, which is just too prominent and overbearing. It's fun for a few songs but over time becomes tiresome (with most music). To be clear (no pun intended), I enjoy the quality of the presentation just fine... it's the quantity I take issue with. If it was squarely confined to the low-bass region, I'd probably be less bothered by it, but Elear also makes too much midbass for my liking.

Next - and this is one I have a harder time nailing down precisely - is what sounds to me like a suckout in the upper midrange region, followed by a spike further up in the highs. The resulting sound is just a bit... weird. It's not so noticeable at times, but when I do hear it... it really takes away from the experience. Thus the Elear, which initially seemed like a potential upgrade to the classic HD650, becomes a sort of "also-ran" as far as I'm concerned. Interesting, yes, but not really to my taste. Which is a shame as I feel Focal did a great many things right in the Elear design.

Now for the good news - the Massdrop x Focal Elex pretty much fixes my issues with Elear. It's a phenomenal headphone. It's not perfect, but to my ears it comes closer to perfection than the Clear does - despite Clear costing roughly double. I think Focal tried to make the Clear a mixture of the uber-dynamic Elear and the ridiculously fast/detailed Utopia. It's an interesting result but not really the direction I would have wanted, and the price is also a bit too high in my opinion. Meanwhile the Elex aims to be an improved Elear for a great price, which is a design choice I can really get behind.

AI7B0651 copy.jpg
First off, the bass. While remaining very dynamic and beautifully textured, it's been toned down just enough to keep it from being obnoxious. I'm talking a reduction of roughly 2 or 3 dB, which means bass still hits plenty hard but doesn't color the overall experience so much. Also midbass is better behaved this time around - no more issues with intruding into the midrange.

The highs, if still not quite perfect, are more even than the Elear. That troublesome dip seems to be gone, and the spike is (mostly) under control. This makes for exceptional imaging and superb resolution. Seriously, I can't think of anything else in the sub-$1k price range that comes close to the Elex in that regard. The HD800 initially seems more detailed, but that's the result of its brightness and somewhat lean sound. If I really listen, I hear similar levels of detail and resolution from the Elex, presented in a more natural way. HD800 still wins in technicalities, as does Utopia, but the differences are surprisingly small. This is impressive not only for the price, but for the fact that Elex doesn't really set out to be a stereotypical "detail monster" as so many headphones do.

Is the treble perfect? Not quite. It still feels a little rough in context of the best available performance (Stax, for example). But overall I'm happy with what has been accomplished here. The Clear sounds a bit more insightful, but does so at the cost of balance. And it feels lacking in dynamics, which is definitely not a problem with the Elex. I also find Clear a tad bright - perhaps that would be the Utopia emulation showing? Meanwhile Elex is just wonderfully balanced, with a presentation I'll call "neutral yet exciting" for lack of a better term.

This is the best new headphone I've heard in quite some time. I've acquired a few expensive headphones recently, including Sony's "interesting" Z1R, the MrSpeakers Ether C, and several custom IEMs. I find myself reaching for the Elex over all of those in most cases, with the possible exception of 64 Audio's ambitious A18 model - but that's an apples to oranges comparison if ever there was one. As far as full-size headphones go, the Elex is shaping up to be one of my all time favorites. While I initially saw Elear as a possible HD650 upgrade/evolution which didn't quite pan out, the Elex actually does just that - but for the HD600 instead. It's just a superb headphone that I can't recommend highly enough.

Let me cover a few other aspects while I'm at it. I had zero problems with comfort when it came to the Elear. Yet Elex is even better. The perforated Clear pads used by the Elex are wonderful. Super comfy even for several-hour-long listening sessions, and very open feeling. This is still a really large headphone so I can see folks with tiny heads being somewhat overwhelmed by it.... but for most, it should be exceedingly comfortable. There's practically zero isolation while wearing these - so keep that in mind.

The Elex doesn't need a lot of power to do it justice. Based on size and lack of isolation, I'd never consider it a portable design, but it does pair very well with quality players like the Fiio X5 3rd gen or Astell&Kern Kann. It even sounds respectable out of Apple and Samsung Galaxy devices. At home, Massdrop's own Grace Design m9XX is a particularly good match, as is their SDAC and Cavalli CTH combo (depending on tube choice).

I'd stay away from anything overly bright, as it might accentuate the slight roughness in the treble range. I'd also avoid devices with higher output impedance - I tried a tube amp with 32 ohm output impedance, and solid state amp at 10 ohm, and they both sounded wonky to me. 1 ohm or thereabouts is really the goal in this case.

To wrap this up: Massdrop is known for their value releases. Elex has a price tag quite a bit higher than classics like HD6XX and K7XX. But that doesn't mean it isn't a good value. Relative to many new releases with four-digit price tags, the Elex is affordable, and the sound is what I'd call competitive in that class at the very least - and often times superior. If you're looking for a great headphone for $200 or less, Massdrop regularly has several options for you. For those looking to spend more in exchange for extreme performance, the Elex is just the thing.
Last edited:
Dec 15, 2017 at 4:18 PM Post #6 of 2,030
I was waiting for something good, like a Massdrop LCD-X or something, I guess this is something good.
Time to do some overtime.
Dec 15, 2017 at 4:37 PM Post #9 of 2,030
Out of interest, what problem do you have with weight? Too heavy for long listening periods?
Last edited:
Dec 15, 2017 at 4:41 PM Post #11 of 2,030
Out of interest, what problem do you have with weight? Too heavy for long listening periods?

Anything over 400 needs to go back to the design table IMO. I hate it when someone says but the weight is well Laws of gravity still apply.
Dec 15, 2017 at 4:52 PM Post #13 of 2,030
Out of interest, what problem do you have with weight? Too heavy for long listening periods?

Neck muscles? hahahahaha are you man? I haven’t seen or heard much from you lately
The Source AV TSAVJason Stay updated on The Source AV at their sponsor profile on Head-Fi.

Users who are viewing this thread