FOCAL CLEAR - REVIEW

  • TONAL BALANCE / NEUTRALITY 90%
  • PERFORMANCE FOR THE PRICE 88%
  • SOUND FIDELITY 87%
  • MUSICALITY 90%
  • BUILD QUALITY 93%
  •       ERGONOMICS/COMFORT 91%

PROS

  • Close to neutral
  • Good control and bass response
  • Good transient response with delineated notes in good focus
  • Premium made product
  • Balanced cable, Portable cable, and 1/4 inch cable included. 

CONS

  • Soundstage is on the small side

MSRP: $1499

INTRO

Special thanks to TSAV (weblink) for sending me this unit for review. For many products they usually are one of my main go-to’s. They have most of the new stuff right away and excellent customer service. 

Focal makes compelling products that have become a standard. They do charge a hefty premium but back up their asking prices with show room design quality and deluxe hand-to-product correlation. You pick either the Elear, Clear, or Utopia up and it feels superior to other similarly priced products. Sure ZMF’s have bold wood cups, Audeze’s products are polished and lacquered up, and Sennheiser’s HD800 is ergonomically flawless, but the Focal’s inspire awe just a little bit better than the aforementioned. They also have put out a unique kind of speaker like sound that while I won’t say is better than the rest, is a lot different; and so they have carved out their own lane. Let’s see how the new Clear fits in with all of that. 

 SPECS/FEATURES

Focal product page

SPECS

  • Type Circum-aural open-back headphones
  • Impedance 55 Ohms
  • Sensitivity 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz THD 0,25% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
  • Frequency response 5Hz-28kHz
  • Loudspeaker 1.6″ (40mm) Aluminum/Magnesium ‘M’-shape dome Weight 0.99lb / 450g
  • Cables provided 3m balanced cable (XLR 4-pin) 3m unbalanced cable (1/4″ TRS jack) 1.2m unbalanced cable (1/8″ TRS jack) 1/8″ jack to 1/4″ stereo jack adapter
  • Hard-shell carrying case provided 9.8″x9.4″x4.7″ (250x240x120mm)

BUILD/DESIGN

DESIGN 

As opposed to the other two in Focal’s high end line up, the Clear is 55ohm instead of 80ohms and the same sensitivity which will make it a little easier to drive. The ear pads are a very soft 20mm memory foam ear cushion that is covered with a perforated microfibre fabric. The Clear [patent pending] is supposed to represent a new evolution of Focal’s fully open back designs with their ‘M’ shaped Aluminum/Magnesium dynamic dome drivers. Without breaking the mold, Focal kept nearly identical housing with the same yolk and cup mechanisms made of solid aluminum. I personally like the design and think that if it was successful before then there is really no need to change much at all.

What is a little more appreciated this time around though is how they designed the cables. They are still very stiff unfortunately and I would have liked to see focal design something even more light weight and flexible, but this is a step in the right direction. The zebra striped cable sleeving is a nice touch but what is most welcomed is the fact that they included 3 cables; a balanced XLR cable, a 1/4inch stereo jack, and a 3.5mm plug. The increase in price based on accessories alone may seem worth it to some. 

 

ERGONOMICS/COMFORT 

There is an improvement in the pads that I find more comfortable than before. Also there is no creaking with the Clear headphones when moving them. Otherwise, the ergonomics are identical to the Elear and very similar to the Utopia yet lighter than the latter. Some may want for more flexibility in the risers but I have no problems whatsoever with them in terms of being able to find a comfortable fit. Focal does claim that the headphones disappear or “completely forget Clear are even there” well that is not so as I can name a few headphones that weigh less and are more comfortable all around. While I hardly forget they are there, I find them more than tolerable for long listening sessions. 

SOUND

  •         BASS EXTENSION 92%
  • BASS BALANCE (ACCURACY) 96%
  • LOWER MIDRANGE BALANCE 92%
  • MIDRANGE PROPER BALANCE 90%
  • UPPER MIDRANGE BALANCE 90%
  • TREBLE BALANCE 96%
  • TREBLE EXTENSION 90%
  •         BASS CONTROL 95%
  • TONE DENSITY (TIMBRE, BODY ASIDE FROM FREQUENCY BALANCE) 90%
  • MACRO DYNAMICS (SOFTS TO LOUDS) 93%
  • DYNAMIC RANGE 90%
  • MICRO DYNAMICS (SMALL GRADATIONS OF VOLUME) 92%
  • SOUND STAGE WIDTH 73%
  • SOUND STAGE DEPTH 73%
  • BLACKNESS OF BACKGROUND 92%

*please note that in the above bar counters I use the word balance instead of presence which is a percentage of how unbiased, accurate, and neutral that aspect is from my subjective point of view. Yours may differ. Lastly, these bars and percentages are really just to give an idea of how I perceive the headphone. They are not absolute, nor what I would even call accurate, and really just provide a visual reference of the aspects described below.

TIMBRE 

The Clear has a very similar timbre to the Elear in that it is not a full and round, heavy-bodied timbre with wet decay. It is focused and relatively solid without crossing the border into a wispy and elusive delivery. It is direct with abrupt attacks, slightly quick decay, and a minor lack of fullness or heaviness and saturation. Nonetheless, the Clear makes acoustic guitar plucks pop with good density and snap. Comparing it to other headphones makes it sound like it has a leaner quality to it from the quicker decay whereby sustains seems just a smidgen unrealistic. Otherwise it is decently tangible instead of papery and diffuse.

MACRO DYNAMICS 

Still potent and hard hitting like the Elear and Utopia. However, I get the feeling that these are a little less so. Not only does the bass being lower than the Elear affect my perception, but also do the upper mids and treble being more subdued than the Utopia. I don’t want to be quoted here without having them all three together but I place bets on the Clear being a little less dynamic than both of them. My memory is fresher with the Utopia and I recall that headphone being more than marginally better at revealing large dynamic swings.

MICRO DYNAMICS

Decent to very good. Not nearly as nuanced as the HD800 and its price being similar makes it a fair comparison but a direct comparison makes the two sound like different tiers of headphones, the HD800 being on another plane. Still and so, the Clear is above average at revealing contrasts amongst subtleties. 

SOUNDSTAGE 

The soundstage of the Focal open back line up will not be one of it’s strong points. If you were expecting this headphone to break the mold then I am sorry to disappoint you as this is one of its weaknesses. The soundstage isn’t bothersome to me for the most part because the images are so well separated and dynamic. This gives the images easy placement in a fairly intelligible sound space. It is just that that space is rather small.; smaller than the Utopia I presume with a distinct lack of depth. This may sound like sacrilege but we are talking almost HD650 small here when mentioning sheer size and vastness. However, the images are smaller with superior definition which make it sound more precise and accurate.

OPENNESS 

Definitely fully open back here. Placing my hands around the cups totally changes the sound. The Clear is open and airy.

TRANSIENTS 

There is such an recoil to the way the transients behave that make each attack flick at your eardrums with a touch and go delivery that is very enjoyable. The leading edges have precision and animation without sounding overly aggressive. The decay as mentioned in the timbre section is pretty fast to my ears. The Clear will excel at fast and busy songs above most other headphones I can think of for sure. 

CLARITY

The Clear has a name that had ought to deliver clarity or else it would be an embarrassment. Luckily it is fairly Clear. We are talking almost as much inner transparency as the HD800. The HD800 is going to sound clearer because of the treble and exceptional resolution. Compared to other similarly priced headphones, the Clear comes out on top most usually, the exceptions being Focal’s own Utopia and the Sennheiser HD800.

TONALITY 

The tonality of the Clear is very well balanced to my ears. I previously said the Auteur was the one of the  most balanced headphones over 1K I have heard and the Clear challenges that. It has neutral bass (considering I feel the Utopia is bass shy and the Elear is just barely boosted) a full midrange, and decent treble presence. 

 

BASS 

The bass on the Clear is as to be expected, focused, punchy, and controlled. **I think that it sometimes needs some coaching to get it to slam and rumble. It’ can be stubborn in that regards. The thing about it though is that is much better integrated into the music than the Utopia bass to me. The Utopia bass was its weak point (yes still better quality than most) and it is one of the strengths of the Clear.  The bass on the Clear is snappy and provides very good foundation with a quantity that I would call reference in level. However, I can actually get the 650 to rumble harder on my set up. The bass is just ever so slightly humped in the mid bass; naturally so it provides good, responsive kicks. The upper bass is about as linear as it gets when transitioning into the lower midrange. Texture on the bass is only decent though. I heard how some of the gritty textures of the bass on some of my songs were not as buzzy or raw as I remember them. Compared to the Auteur it has just a little more texture but much less slam and rumble; yet a similar amount of presence.

**Update 12-21-2017: The bass of the Clear did prove to be able to rumble and slam very well after all. It could have been the day and my desires there while editing this section of the review. After my three way shoot out of the the Auteur, PMx2, and the Clear, the Clear came out on top in almost all areas. The Clear bass is not stubborn and the 650 only rumbles harder when using it with the 300ohm tap on my Mogwai Special Edition which can even make a stock HD800 wake up. 

MIDRANGE

I think that besides the Clears tendency to sound a little nasally at times, the midrange is very good. The lower to middle midrange is very even and sounds full. The upper midrange is better than the Elear but less forward than the Utopia. The Clear never sounds too shouty to my ears which is a good thing. At the same time I hear females voices with good clarity and enough projection in the presence region to really enjoy them. There is a modest dullness to the sound that seems a little flat right after or in the upper mids that trim just a little of the vibrance from music there but this is just a minor gripe. The midrange doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot of the 650 in balance because it sounds just a little less lush in the middle mids. But beating the 650 at midrange balance (talking frequency response only) seems like a task not even its own brand can do and the Clear sounds much less muddy than the 650. Otherwise the Clear has a very well balanced midrange and after more and more time with it, all of my quibbles went away. 

TREBLE

I am usually sensitive to treble. Even the Auteur can be a bit much for me at 6khz. For some reason the peak in the Clear is barely noticeable to me. I can tell it is there but this Clear is not nearly as peaky as the Elear and it is also less bright than the Utopia. I have yet to experience any fatigue from the Clear. It is just enough to keep things crisp without sounding dull and dark. The extension in the upper treble may be all there but it feels just a little smooth to me in the last octaves compared to the Utopia. It sounds open acoustically, just not as open tonally as the Utopia. Please do not read to deep into that though because it is borderline there.  The treble is definitely controlled and solid. In busy passages with lots of cymbals crashing and guitars riffing, the Clear is able to keep everything from sounding splashy. I have seen a lot of headphones fall apart or turn to ‘mushhh’; this goes for some planars, and dynamics but the Clear is special. The treble could stand to sound more effortless and fluent on some songs but what it does do right, it does really well. I have to say this is one of my favorite deliveries of treble I have heard. I like purity of the Utopia and its top-notch clarity better but the amount of treble on the Clear is where it is at for me as I feel it is just enough to satisfy without causing fatigue. It is close to spot on in presence.  

 

CONCLUSION

%

I think the Clear is a really good headphone and am thankful I got to audition one to provide my analysis of it. It does so much right that am so close to giving it a Redphile award. I would like for its soundstage to be better fleshed out, more bass slam (unusual appetite there) and it to be a little more resolving of reverb trails. The human voice doesn’t sound bad at all on the Clear and is rather enjoyable, just not exceptional as two others priced similarly have given me goosebumps. Now, do I recommend it? Yes indeed. It all depends on your point of reference and what aspects of sound you prioritize. I think it is very worthy of an audition and even a blind buy. Considering its myriad of strengths, better accessories like the oxygen free cables, stunning looks, and good balance, I think this is what some were waiting for. Should Utopia owners be looking at the Clear? Maybe if you want to have different flavors or need a less demanding listening experience. The Utopia is a better headphone technically but it is not as balanced. While I think the Utopia is overpriced [even as the best dynamic headphone I have heard] I  believe the Clear price at 1500 is just about right. It is going to have a lot of fans.

Update 12-21-2017: More and more listening to the clear and putting it through my test tracks over and over made it evident that the Clear is a stand out headphone. It may not have the last 2% of clarity that the Utopia does and its soundstage may be a little small but it is a very complete sounding headphone that I very much enjoyed. I think it needs to be Redphiled.  

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