What a long, strange trip it’s been. Not referring to a Grateful Dead tour and the various mishaps referenced in “Truckin’”. Rather, I’m talking about the many twists and turns my impressions of these cans have gone through over the (long) time I’ve been evaluating them.
But let’s get some housekeeping out of the way first. Focal has been well known in the audio world for speakers, which are very well regarded, but their entry into the headphone jungle is relatively recent. They released the Spirit (in various flavors) about 4-5 years ago, and got good feedback on these, if not raves. Then last year they unleashed the Elears and the TOTL Utopia at the same time, and audiophiles started to salivate, gesticulate, hyperventilate, and pronounce that the search for the perfect cans had ended. Some details about the Elears, the subject of today’s sermon…
(from Focal’s website)
Elear are equipped with the first totally open-backed full-range speaker drivers with aluminium/magnesium ’M’-shaped domes inspired by our Utopia headphones for dynamic and exceptionally precise audio.
The high-end mechanical design of Elear headphones allows the listener to enjoy the best listening conditions and they fit absolutely all ear shapes and sizes.
Aluminium yoke, leather headband, microfibre ear cushions: all the materials used for Elear were chosen with care to optimise comfort while reducing the weight of the headphones.
- Headphones Made in France
- Open back circum-aural headphones dedicated to low noise environments
- Reference pair of headphones featuring full range loudspeakers made of a pure Beryllium “M” shape dome (patent pending)
- Mechanical design offering a full compatibility to any size and shaped head
- Balanced cable with channel separation for fast and easy custom-made solutions (bi-amp)
- Impedance 80 Ohms
- Sensitivity 104dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
- THD <0.3% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
- Frequency response 5Hz – 23kHz
- Loudspeaker: 137⁄64“ (40mm) Aluminum-Magnesium “M” shape dome
- Weight 0.99lb (450g)
- Connectors: 1 x 01/4“ (6.35mm) stereo Jack connector; 2 x 09⁄64“ (3.5mm) Jack
- Leather headband including length adjustment mechanism and ear cup rotation
- 025⁄32“ (20mm) thick memory foam cushion. Microfiber fabric cushion
- 13.1ft (4m) OFC shielded extremely low impedance (<90 mΩ) cable
They come packed in a very solid box, very nicely padded on the inside, with a magnetic lock (it took me a bit to solve opening it, but, then, I have to figure out which end of a hammer to hold), and enough foam padding on the inside to protect a nuclear warhead one wanted to transport (I understand North Korea is interested in the box). You get a cable and that’s it. The cable is thick, heavy and long; while the headphones are not meant to be “portable”, I sometimes did take them on dog walks, and the long, heavy cable is a major headache (of course, in the living room, with a long distance between the stereo and the couch, the long cable is much appreciated).
This is an tale of first impressions that don’t hold up over time. I listened quite a bit to these headphones when I first got them, and didn’t find them to my liking. They were in your face-images were right in front of you, not the bit of distance most headphones I like put between you and the musicians. The Elear also seemed to have less width and depth than what I was accustomed to, less “air” between instruments. It just seemed to have different priorities than most headphones I’d been used to. All that audiophile stuff just didn’t seem to concern it. I have extensive notes taken when I first got them (that I subsequently tossed). At this point I received the Illuminati LPS for the MicroZOTL2, which the manufacturer, Mojo Audio, recommended get a minimum of 200 hours break in, with headphones connected, playing music, so I figured, this is a dynamic headphone, break in should be a good thing (I had assumed the review sample I had was already used by other reviewers, and thus likely broken in, but hadn’t actually confirmed this). So, I hooked them up, let the computer play for about 10 days, and listened again, and WOW! What a difference a burn in makes! The characteristics I initially noted didn’t completely vanish, but a balance was found, to the point that I really could get into listening to them.
First thing I noted, they are fairly easy to drive. I’m able to get good results with my HTC10 (generally streaming the world’s best radio station, WFMU.ORG), or with my Pono single ended, and could enjoy a mobile listen (using a mini adaptor). No nasties noted this way, good presence to the music, making dog walk time enjoyable. As for comfort: I’m fairly sensitive on the top on my noggin, have a nice smooth dome, and most bands do bother it to some extent (the Sennheiser 650 is the most comfortable on for me in that regard). Having said that, these are fairly heavy, have a strong clamping force, and, while they have a nicely padded band, the weight on the top of my head does get uncomfortable after a short time.
OK, let’s talk about the sound (you’re here for recipes…?)
So, into JRiver I went (using my Regen, LH Labs 2G cable, LH Labs Geek Out Signature Edition line out into the MicroZOTL2 amp, powered by Mojo Audio’s Illuminati LPS). First track I went with, Blind Faith “Had to Cry Today” (Blind Faith, AIF 16/48 file). Stevie Windwood and Eric Clapton’s 70’s Super Group. Windwood’s slightly astringent voice is centered and full bodies, the Clapton and Windwood guitar lines bite and rock. Ginger Baker doesn’t get his entire due, though, cymbals being softer than I’d like, drum impact somewhat diminished as well.
Next up, The Brad Meldhau Trio playing “Since I Fell For You” (Blues and Ballads, 16/44 CD rip). Again I note the close up perspective, but Meldhau, who is an amazing pianist, is rich, rhythmic, percussive, inciteful. You don’t get as much of the room as I’m used to; you don’t get splashy cymbals or the edge of the bass. What you do get is a very real sounding piano, and a group improvisation that really comes across. The bass goes really deep and has a burnished wood tone, and one has to nod in agreement with Brad’s assertions.
It took me a while to figure out what I think is going on here…I think the Elears excel at 2 things in particular, both in the mids-tone color and capturing, maybe exaggerating the leading edge of notes in the mids. This leads to an exciting and involving presentation. They do have a strong bass response, and the over tonal color leans ever so slightly to THE DARK SIDE. If I want to listen for involvement, excitement, what is better than Power Pop? (Pop-Punk, or whatever you want to call it). Blink 182 are one of the prototypical (and progenitor) groups in this style, the song “The Rock Show” can make your neck sore from bopping. Sure enough, Tom Delong’s vocals are easy to make out, guitars, jangle and bristle with power chord energy. Bass goes down low; great for head banging. Cymbals are still recessed, though the pounding drums are well rendered. To confuse matters, vocals are a bit removed; it’s very slight (since burn in; it was more pronounced before), but they have a smidgeon less presence than, say, a guitar or snare drum. Yet, they have a fullness, the sense of a whole body behind them.
In the mood now for some female vocals, I pulled out (figuratively) Dianne Birch’s “Valentino” (from Bible Belt, rip to WAV from CD). Percussion jumps out, Birch’s voice is rich, ripe, and there’s a nice spread of instruments across the stage (but not much depth or space between instruments). Piano chords pounce, the background singers wrap her voice in velvet, and the whole affair boogies its butt off. The many percussion instruments at the high end, though, are there, but a bit recessed from the way I’m used to hearing them. Handclaps on Gregory Porter’s “Liquid Spirit” (Liquid Spirit, 24/96 FLAC download) seem real enough and close enough to hit you in the face, and the vocal is buttery, with rich the horns and the deep acoustic bass.
At this point I had technical difficulties with the MicroZOTL2 (a channel went out), so I switched to the Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon (v1). One of my favorites is Richard Thompson, so I clicked on “I Misunderstood” (classic lyric-“I thought she was saying ‘good luck’, she was saying ‘good bye’), (Rumor and Sigh AIF file 24/192). Richard was right there (crowding my personal space a bit, but, for him, I’ll allow it…), the drums pounding with an edge and power that amplifies the pathos of the song. Detail is there, but not as thrust at you, embedded in the soundstage (this is again the uniqueness of Elear’s presentation-while the presentation is close, some detail is there but needs to be searched out, other details, with lots of transient energy, knock you over). Soundstage is not a prominent part of the experience; most of the focus is on Thompson and the guitar/electric piano interactions, but the details are there, one has to listen in for them. Certain instruments, that have a percussive leading edge, like strummed guitar and drums being struck, get a slight emphasis, making for an involving, exciting presentation. Bass, while strong and going down to about 40 hz, doesn’t quite do the sharp leading edge thing that happens in the mids, making it very slightly soft at times.
I pulled out the Hifiman HE-560 (list price $899, but often available for considerably less). It is lighter, and a more comfortable fit (on my delicate noggin). It is less sensitive, needing a higher volume setting on the Liquid Carbon. At times it seems like the Anti-Elear. The stage is wider, deeper; instruments are a few rows back, not in your lap as on the Elear. The highs are more pronounced; a bit over-ripe, causing more cymbal crash to be heard, but that crash is harsher, more sibilant. Spaces between instruments are wider, details a bit easier to pick out. But, listening to Blind Faith, while Winwood’s voice is a few rows back, it has slightly less body to it; that is, it sounds less than a flesh and blood human spilling his guts. The guitars are again spaced more widely, more in a space, but not as tactile, muscular as they are on the Focal. “Girl at the Rock Show” on the Elear had more head-banging intensity, thicker textures, more pile driver impact; has me ready to body surf (just kidding, honey). The band sounds more like a band. The 560 gets more “right” on the audiophile checklist, and certainly kept me pogo-ing as well, but there’s a richness and rightness the Elear brings that the 560 doesn’t quite get to. The 560 gets the overall room, details, and finds it’s take on realism there. It’s like looking at pictures with different filters. “Valentino” has a lot of great percussion, which gets better heard from the 560, but again, the vocal and instrumental textures go to the Elear. Birch’s voice has a richness and warmth that surpasses the 560 -you can feel the air coming up through her throat. The Elear highlights the handclaps; higher percussion is not heard as clearly. The 560 opens the space, moves things back, and those highs are present indeed. You pays yer money…
Another headphone at Chez Doctorjazz is the FAD Pandora Hope VI (list price $699) which would be in that general ballpark of headphones (not TOTL, but expensive enough that most normal folks will think you’re insane for buying them). These are closer to the Focal than the Hifiman cans are; some of the same differences remain. On “The Rock Show” the FAD was slightly more distant in its presentation, with more air/room sound, and mo’ betta treble (without the edginess of the HE-560). The Focal, while less “audiophile”, has a more cohesive presentation, the power chords more punchy, the bass stronger, the band feels tight, the vocalist more fleshed out. The Brad Meldhau really shows the better treble presentation of the FAD, but the piano sound on the Focal has more “piano-osity”, bass more “bass-osity”, and the band more “band-osity”. Comfort would go to the Focal, but it’s close; the FAD has a slippery size adjustment on the headband, which is annoying (this is supposed to have been improved on more recent versions, newly renamed Sonorous VI).
This has been an interesting (and long) project for me. I had to adjust to the Elear’s idea of what music was supposed to sound like. It don’t cotton to nobody else’s ideas of what high end sound is supposed to be. It don’t take no guff. Soundstage? Presentation? Yeah, they’re OK, you can have some, but what’s really important? It’s the instruments, the rhythm, you fool! And, I’ve become a humble slave, I get it (though I would like a bit more of that audiophile candy as part of the presentation, and stronger highs, I know I have to obey). But, if you want to spend listening time deciding if the 3rd female singer in the chorus is clearly heard, or how many feet behind the band the rear wall is, these ain’t your cans. (I went to a few live shows recently; the one thing I never do is try to hear how wide, deep, or open the space between and around the musicians is). On the other hand, if rhythm, tonal quality, involvement in the music is what you’re after, and you’re ready to leave behind some audiophile baggage, these could be the ticket to some happy listening.