Focal Elear Around-Ear Open-Back Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Dec 13, 2016.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube review:


    Sources: iPhone7+ with Oppo HA-2/AudioQuest DragonFly Black DAC/amps, various computers using the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2/Lehmann Traveller DAC/amps.

    Review notes: My first impressions of the sound of the Focal Elear are based on direct comparisons to other headphones - the Beyerdynamic T1 and T90, the AKG K812 and K712, the FAD Pandora VI and IV, various Sennheisers, and notes that I've accumulated from many prior reviews. I'll describe how I relate to the Elear (i.e. my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    The Focal Elear (Elear hereafter) is unique among the 150 headphones I've tested in an unexpected way: When comparing the sound to other headphones, I noticed that in switching back to the Elear, something seemed to drop out or be missing, almost as if a background noise disappeared completely. It was puzzling at first and then I realized - that's the "completely open" design that eliminates most reflections inside the earcups. Or at least I assume that, because it's striking when you hear it (or don't hear what you expect) for the first time. I can't say that this is all good, because that depends in part on the recordings - how the engineers intended them to sound, and whether the lack of higher frequency reinforcement in the earcups would make any particular recordings sound unlike how they're intended to sound. I can say that from the deep bass up through the lower treble at least, this is the cleanest sound I've ever heard.

    Supposedly the better planars have the best bass response, due I suppose to the large and evenly-driven driver surfaces. The Elear does not have quite as much of the weighty (but not bloated) impact of some planars I've heard, or for that matter, many dynamic headphones that are known for a strong, clean bass. Still, the deeper bass down to ~40 hz has great impact and is very clean, which will satisfy everyone except possibly a few EDM mavens or people who prefer the sound of modern (non-tracker) pipe organs, with their powerful pedal notes below 30 hz or so. I rate the Elear's bass a solid 'A', if not 'A-plus'. The mids are clean, clear, uncolored - nothing else to say there. Without getting into the somewhat ambiguous tech terms like 'layering', 'depth', 'speed', etc., the Elear should score as nearly ideal in those respects. It's when we get to the treble that things get complicated.

    Compared to the dozen headphones I have on hand plus the 150 others I've tested, the Elear is treble-shy. Note here that many new headphone designs are touted as having the "right" sound, due to various advanced technologies that provide lower distortion, fewer reflections, lower-mass drivers, more accurate timing at the widest range of frequencies, and the list goes on. The Elear is genuinely different as I noted above, but it doesn't get a pass on frequency response, which is fairly easy to determine with different sets of test tones (using other headphones to compare and verify) as well as music. Compared to the Sennheiser HD800, the Elear treble is about 6 db lower, depending on frequency. Some users may find that acceptable as is, which will depend on the user's treble sensitivity as well as the brightness variance in their recordings. My opinion is that the treble is several db below true neutral, based on the wide variety of recordings I have, as well as comparing to many other headphones.

    Another test for realism and tonal balance that I recommend for people to try is the walkabout test: Take your favorite headphone on a walk around town - to the local park where the sounds are wind through trees, birds chirping, dogs barking and people speaking, etc. Walk down a street that has a moderate amount of traffic, perhaps 3-4 cars per minute. Walk into a supermarket or other store where there are people speaking to each other. In each situation, listen to music for a couple of minutes, then remove the headphone and listen to the ambient sounds, particularly people talking. In most cases when I do that test, the ambient sounds are brighter and have more interesting details than what comes through my headphones. A friend of mine once joked that "Treble in the environment is over-rated." Since the Elear is open-back, there is no isolation and leakage is enough to prevent listening at audiophile volume levels when sitting next to others in an office or library.

    My estimate response curve for the Elear can be seen in the EQ graph linked above, or on my dalethorn website. Note that the EQ curve is the inverse of a response curve. One last comment on the sound: The Elear, even with the treble boosted as shown in the EQ graph, plays most of my "bad" tracks - those tracks that have irritating distortions of different types - better, with far less irritation than any of my other headphones. Why that is I don't know, unless it has to do with the "completely open" design noted above. Whatever the case, it makes the price seem very reasonable. Given the caveats I've noted above, for users who can accomodate the Elear's response, I highly, highly recommend it. For my critical listening, to a mix of classical, jazz, pop, EDM, and several other genres, the Elear trumps every other headphone I've had.

    The Elear is heavy, and the 4-metre detachable cable is also quite heavy. Thanks to excellent weight distribution, experienced headphone users will adapt to it pretty much instantly, and less-experienced users should adapt within a day or two. I have one other "heavy" headphone, and when using it I have to sit very still, since it feels like a bowl of jello on my head if I move around. The Elear on the other hand is very stable, so moving around is no problem as long as it doesn't involve sudden and dramatic movements. Wherever you sit, if the cable shifts around, it's heavy enough to pull on the headphone and disrupt the listening experience, so that has to be controlled. The storage box is huge and won't fit into anything resembling a suitcase or carry-on luggage, so if the Elear is going to be taken to hotels for listening away from home, the carry solution would be a smaller case, like the one that ships with the Beyer DT1770 Pro.

    The cable is terminated with a standard 6.35 mm plug, and the terminators going into each earcup are 3.5 mm mono plugs. The range of adjustment for the headband is excellent - a full inch on each side larger and smaller than where it fits my average-size head. In previous reviews I've included the following music samples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the Elear compares with each individual track.
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has amazing detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The Elear plays this extremely well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled perfectly by the Elear.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, and you can feel the subtle weight they carry with the Elear.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The Elear plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled perfectly by the Elear.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The Elear plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The Elear reproduces the space and detail very well.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the Elear renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The Elear plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sound is clearly identifiable.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The Elear reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The Elear plays this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have a taste of the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound that indicates a solid deep-bass response. Overall, the Elear plays this music extremely well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The Elear plays this track perfectly.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce very well with the Elear. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The Elear provides excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the Elear does those very well.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The Elear plays this with enough weight and detail that you can hear/feel some of the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor** who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2015, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the Elear is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    **Mantovani developed the "Cascading Strings" sonic effect circa 1950, a famous "Wall of Sound" effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector's own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is subtle with the Elear.

    Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the Elear renders this music as perfectly as I've heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The Elear reproduces the 'clop' portion of that sound pretty well.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The Elear conveys the drama in this music better than most headphones. The tympani also have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the Elear renders the tones and transients very well given a slight treble boost.

    Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The Elear's reproduction is excellent, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The Elear delivers the impacts with good weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.

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