FOCAL Clear review - part 1
They named it well.
I was going to put up a review sooner, as I'm done going over my notes. However, I wasn't able to take the headphones off long enough to write one. Don't bother trying to write while listening to the Clear, it will demand your complete attention. Where to begin? I suppose I should start with my experience. I don't think I'll be able to write this review strictly focused on the Clear. I'd never experienced a balanced system before. I got the Clear about a month ago, and it was killing me wanting to know how it sounded balanced. FOCAL included a ten-foot balanced XLR Neutrik terminated cable, so I just had to get a balanced amp. It felt like FOCAL was saying "If you ain't balanced, you ain't schiit, mon ami ", cuz they're French (I didn't even know that FOCAL pronounces it like locale). I had a great experience with my little Schiit stack for a bit over a year, but it was time to get serious. Once I had the Jotunheim and balanced Modius DAC in my hands I found out how serious.
I ordered the Clear about 4 weeks ago from HeadAmp. Justin and co. did a great job for me. The very next day, I received a beautiful, brand-spanking-new Clear headphone via insured FedEx (driver got my signature, precluding delivery going amiss).
I'll just say that was a real treat. Did I mention the fact that overnight was included in this deal? And if there ever is a problem, I know HeadAmp has my back, with their return policy and personalized customer service.
I got the Jotunheim and Modius (from the mothership) last week, so I could hear the Clear balanced. I ordered on a Monday and they got here via FedEx that Friday.
I immediately reaped rewards with my loudspeakers, it was like I got new ones. I was eager to try the Clear but I couldn't pick my jaw up off the floor long enough. My speakers sounded better than I even hoped. I can definitely speak for the preamp outs! These guys really know their Schiit, duh. Amazing difference when you upgrade to a true audiophile quality balanced amp and dac.
For these tests I ended up wearing the Clear for about eleven hours in a caffeine-fueled rush of experiencing balanced audio for the first time. Proof enough of their comfort. I'd never worn hp that long before, but they simply disappeared. I can't give a higher compliment than that. It was a joy to live through, and I didn't want it to end. That was before I could even start comparing. I even took notes I was so impressed. I didn't go through my entire music library, but its fair to say it was an extensive sampling. Some albums I had to hear again in their entirety, I was so enchanted once again by music.
I started with the single ended 1/4" terminated cable, in order to properly compare to my other, single ended HPs, then I did an A/B test with the HD 6XX and the HE-4XX (I guess it was A/B/C). I was really surprised at how well the Sennheiser held up compared to the Clear. The HIFIMAN fell by the wayside early (a surprise for planars), sounded like maybe it was driver breakup. All I know is I started hearing distortion at even moderate SPL. The HD 6XX hung in until I tried them at a bit more power, then the Clear started to show why they sell so dearly. I was surprised by 'jump-scares' from the completely separated channels, music with which I was intimately familiar! I thought there was somebody else behind me, beside me, in the room with me. The transients were transient. The sound was so realistic, I really did have company in my garage. If the separation wasn't startling me, the overall tonal quality literally gave me goosebumps, like when I played 'Abbey Road' balanced. The harmonies were simply beautiful. Its not like I didn't know that, but the Clear is so resolving that 50+ year-old recordings sound brand new. With the Magni and Modi 3 stack and single ended HPs, I wasn't able to hear any of this at this level. I expect an improvement in sq when upgrading to a better amp, but the Jotunheim is fantastically rewarding.
Clear balanced, then it was game over for the Senns. High-end had crystal clarity. The Senn seemed 'veiled' a bit on the highs (I know, dead horse). Its really the mids where the Clear started showing it's stuff. Never heard vocals like this. The presence. The sq of the dynamics that must be heard to believe. The sound stage wasn't just wide, I think it was half in the neighbors yard! Seriously, it wasn't merely three-dimensional, it was truly holographic, all-encompassing. I can't believe what I've been missing, if you haven't gone balanced you need to try it, just to experience what its like to be in the studio when they're recording. Its Clear, alright.
Its the low end with the Clear that really got my attention, I put on the first track from 'Dark Side of the Moon' on TIDAL flac. 'Speak to me' started with the bass drum and low synth, I felt my entire head reverberating to the heartbeat-like thrum. I could literally feel the bass down to my toes, with headphones!! I seriously had never heard low end, this...low. The other hp just played it as bass notes, without attack and prolonged decay. Not even out loud with tower speakers had I heard notes this deep. Not even with the new Jot and Modius sending to the Audioengine HD6 powered monitors and Klipsch R100-SW subwoofer. I had to keep telling myself to calm down. I also had to keep reminding me that this is headphones we're talking about. Headphones! Several times I reached for the speaker volume, forgetting that its not them!! Fast, fat, smooth and deep? Check. Sub-sonics? Check. Cliche I know, but there were things in there I'd never heard, and I've heard 'Dark Side' a hell of a lot! My God, when 'Money' started I heard each and every ha' penny as they fell into the till. The Clear has the low end to end all low ends. Or high end. Never was the high end fatiguing in the slightest. It was like little tweeter fairies were bonking me on my ears with their little fairy wands. Crystalline cymbals. Even the little tinkle of bells, harp and triangles were clearly heard. There's that word again: clear. That's probably due to the upgraded voice coil in the Clear. The inverted dome driver with a pure copper formerless vc in the Clear is an upgrade (among others) from the Elear, which I haven't heard.
Don't get me wrong: they're no bass cannons, if you like that, but they damn sure reproduce whatever bass notes are there, just no BS extra fake oomph added in. I've read comparisons to the Utopia and the sound architecture of FOCAL is on display here, to reduce harmonic distortion in the fragile mid-range register, which is so very crucial for presenting the artist’s emotions, the Clear doesn't have the beryllium dome like the Utopia, but it is hyper-fast and resolving of the most minute details. The Clear owns the mid-range, its where it earns it's stripes, and that's where most of the music lives.
To be fair, I need to get balanced cables for the 6XX and the 4XX (right, just an excuse to get more gear), for a proper comparison. When I auditioned using single ended, the two others tried to keep up, but the 4XX went down first and the 6XX lasted longer but failing, in the end to keep up. Nice to know the more expensive one sounds better ;-) The Clear took everything I threw at it and said "Thank you sir, may I have another?". The Jotunheim balanced would not let me turn the Clear up past nine o'clock (on low gain!), that's a TWO, in other words. It was overpowering any louder than that. Won't be turning it up to 11 with this amp. Amazing separation, as expected with balanced, and there's so much more power that way that you have to be careful not to hurt your ears. Its a good thing that good amps sound good even at low volume.
The Clear is one of the finest-looking headphones on the planet (not just my opinion, but I agree). Leather over the headband and solid aluminum yokes and driver screens. All with French styling. Sweet ;-)
The cables are even better than Utopia or Elear. Lighter, fabric covered with a black & white hounds-tooth pattern. You get three cables with the Clear: a 1.2 meter with 3.5mm termination for portables, a three meter cable with 1/4" termination and a three meter balanced cable with that Neutrik XLR termination. Comes with the gorgeous FOCAL hard-shell form-fitting case, standard. Easier to drive than Utopia or Elear at 55 Ohms, but quite scalable and will definitely resolve even more with a good amplifier.
The comfort is almost unbelievable for a set of over-ears, due to their innovative cushioned and pivoting headband and gently springy ear capsule design which keeps equal force around the ear, no hot spots! The ear pads are microfibre and 20mm memory foam, the most plush I've ever felt. FOCAL designed these capsules deep, with angled-forward mounted drivers, they treat the space as their 'room', employing techniques pioneered in their (legendary) loudspeakers. The critics say the Clear gives you 95% of the Utopia sound quality, just as the Elear is said to bring 90-95% of the Clear's sq. FOCAL has said they want you to forget you're wearing hp and think you're listening to loudspeakers. To my ears, I can tell you they've succeeded admirably. Stated plainly, they have the most balanced tonality of any headphone I've ever heard. The sound is just...open, with nothing between you and your music. Reference, resolving, yet musical. When I say the sound is simply beautiful, its an understatement. If you'd hear them you'll know why they called it the Clear. That's my prejudiced and totally biased opinion anyway.
I'll try to write more about the comparisons and the music choices at a later time. Any mistakes are mine, any of the beauty described here belongs to FOCAL Clear and Schiit Audio, thanks.
I'm tired now, lol.
I really am a jazz fanatic but I wanted to start with something, um relatable. Will look into some more powerful recordings in part 2...