Focal Clear headphones

hfncommended.pngFocal’s latest luxo-headphone slots in between the Elear and Utopia models, in the hotly-contested ‘affordable high-end’ middle ground – we hear the sound of £1400

If I have learned anything about committing one’s thoughts to print, it is Never Make Predictions. They will invariably be wrong and will come back to haunt you. I am thus unwilling to hazard a guess as to the longevity of the boom in headphone sales and usage. As long as it continues, however, in the best ‘make hay while the sun shines’ manner, Focal is covering all its bases. The latest to join its high-end family is the £1399 Clear, between the dearer Utopia [HFN Feb ’17] and less costly Elear [HFN Apr ’17].

Focal's Openness
Focal’s Clear is a departure from my preferred cans. For the past 30-plus years, since I heard my first pair of Stax electrostatics, I have favoured planar types over dynamic drivers. Despite this bias, now served by Audeze LCD-Xs [HFN Sept ’14], I have a deep and abiding respect for a number of B&Ws, Beyers and AKGs, and the Clear’s less expensive predecessors. What keeps me wedded to planars is an openness and an out-of-the-head sensation that eludes other designs, whether sealed or open-back, and a sense of the treble’s transient speed.

Blessedly, the Clear emulated planars to a greater degree than I expected when it comes to openness, if not quite begging the need for forthcoming processors that promise unbridled openness – but I’ll get to the sound in a bit. More important is justifying the price when there are stunning headphones on the market for under £1000. What Focal is pursuing – like its Gallic cousins at Devialet – is something beyond mere audiophile acceptance.

Everything about the Clear suggests that someone at Focal has a subscription to one or more of the various guides that suggest how the affluent might spend their spare cash. So, the packaging is exemplary in the Apple manner (a trick Bowers & Wilkins discovered years ago), and Focal has gone the extra kilometre by providing a superlative, padded carry-case. It is form-fitted to withstand being crammed into hand luggage and has space for the three types of interconnect cables supplied, meeting all needs.

Focal generously equips the Clear with a 1.2m set for use with a portable device, with a ¼in jack convertible to a 3.5mm mini-jack, 3m with ¼in-only jack and 3m balanced cable. The cables attach with a separate L/R 3.5mm mono plug into the bottom of each cup, so take note if you wish to experiment with aftermarket cables.

Not For Street
This need to provide suitability for portable use baffles me, despite my seeing on every urban street, in every Tube journey, on any airplane, countless people travelling or walking or jogging with headphones that can only be described as ‘massive’. I have no problem with the Princess Leia look, but I do find cumbersome cans to be an irritant outside of the home or listening room. As far as my own usage goes, I have (as do most of us, I suppose) two basic headphone needs: serious listening in the home and convenience usage on the go. For the latter, criteria such as size, weight, noise-cancellation and other concerns trump sheer sound quality.

For some time now, I have used only the AKG N60NCs during train journeys and flights. But markets often force a one-size-fits-all qualifier rather than the far more sensible – but ultimately costlier – horses-for-courses approach. The latter costs more because most people would rather buy one pair of headphones that do everything, rather than two: one for in-house ‘serious’ listening and one for in-transit pleasure.

That said, I have yet to find any that can fill both sets of requirements, unless one follows the ear-buds path with its inescapable hygiene issues, the effects of added pressure on eardrums with tightly-fitted buds, the ease of losing them, and the sound leakage that makes it utter hell if you’re sitting next to some part-deaf millennial on a train, etc.

For me, the sheer bulk of the Clear precludes it from use in transit so I judged it solely by the criteria of an audiophile listening in the home. Dutifully, however, I also used them with both a Huawei 10 phone and Pioneer XDP-100R digital player to confirm that both could provide satisfactory levels, which they did. Still, I wonder who would leave home wearing £1400’s worth of light-grey, easily-scarred luxo-cans…

sqnote.jpgValve-Like Lushness
Close listening involved Musical Fidelity’s M1 SDAC [HFN Dec ’13], the golden skull-shaped Metaxas Marquis ‘Memento Mori’ [HFN Dec ’17] and Quad PA-One [HFN Feb ’15] headphone amplifiers. Such is the transparency of the Clear that the differences in these various feeds were easily discernible, the best match in terms of overall balance being the Marquis, though the Clear certainly exploited the added warmth of the Quad PA-One’s valves.

Supplied by: Focal-JMlab UK Ltd, Salisbury
0845 660 2680