Hello all. In the interest of making the information more accessible, I'm reporting my review here. This originally appeared at HeadFi. I'll skip my pics as there are already many good ones on the main product page.
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.
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.
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.