Review written by @Resolve
Review unit provided by Focal for evaluation
Focal have come out swinging at the start of 2021 with a brand new closed-back headphone at $990 that's meant to replace the now discontinued Elegia. Named the Celestee, Focal have taken naming inspiration from the celestial night sky, with a dark navy blue aesthetic and rose gold trim to match.
The Celestee also comes on the heels of their other recent closed-back release near the end of 2020, the $1290 Radiance. The Radiance was a collaboration between Focal and Bently, and many have been wondering whether the Celestee is just the Radiance without the Bently aesthetics. I've had the opportunity to evaluate this headphone for the past two weeks, and I can confidently say that this is not just the same headphone without the Bently logo, even though there are some similarities.
The question is, after having listened to it now for some time, how does the Celestee sound? Let's find out in this review.
But first, I should note that it was my great pleasure to host a live stream where Focal officially unveiled the brand new Celestee to the world. You can watch the recording of that livestream here, where we dive into the Celestee's development, tuning choices, materials, aesthetics and more.
- Type - Circum-aural closed-back headphones
- Impedance - 35 Ohms
- Sensitivity - 105dB SPL / 1 mW @ 1 kHz
- THD - 0,1 % @ 1 kHz / 100 dB SPL
- Frequency response - 5Hz – 23kHz
- Speaker driver - 15/8" (40mm) Aluminium/Magnesium ‘M’-shaped dome
- Weight - 0.95lb (430g)
- Cables supplied - 1 x 4 ft. (1.2m) OFC 24 AWG cable with 1/8" (3.5mm) unbalanced TRS Jack connector - 1 x Jack adapter, 1/8" (3.5mm) point socket 1/4" (6.35mm) point plug
- Carrying case provided - 97/8x91/2x43/4" (250x240x120mm)
- iFi iDSD Micro Black Label
- iBasso DX160
- iBasso DX220
- Matrix X Sabre Pro -> Cayin IHA-6
- Matrix X Sabre Pro -> SPL Phonitor X
- Matrix X Sabre Pro - > Cayin HA-1A MK2
- Matrix X Sabre Pro - > Ampsandsound Kenzie OG
Build, Design, Comfort & Isolation
Just like with the rest of Focal’s headphone lineup, the Celestee’s design is impeccable. First, when it comes to aesthetics, the Celestee absolutely nails the kind of look that I enjoy. It has the sleek, classy and refined style of the higher end Focal Stellia. But unlike the Stellia’s more attention-grabbing color scheme of Cognac and Mocha, the Celestee goes for a more understated and professional navy blue with gold accents.
When it comes to the materials, there’s a lot of leather on this headphone. I often worry about that because leather can take on a shape of its own, but Focal has stated that the leather material on this headphone has a kind of treatment to it to help with longevity - time will tell on that one, but I’m encouraged by that consideration.
For comfort, the Celestee is very similar to the Elegia. Coming in at just over 400g, it’s not the lightest headphone, but I find that the weight never bothered me with the Elegia or Stellia, and it certainly doesn’t bother me on the Celestee over long listening sessions. Just like with Focal’s other headphones, the Celestee uses a spring-loaded mechanism for ensuring the cups conform to the side of the head, and as we’ll see later, this poses a number of challenges for actually measuring the headphone’s frequency response. But, it works for comfort.
My only complaint is that compared to the Focal Radiance and Stellia, the Celestee’s clamp is a bit too tight for my larger than average head. I do get used to it as the pads conform to the sides of my head, but my wish would be for just the tiniest reduction in clamp force.
Still, the extra clamp does add some benefit to sound isolation. Simply put, the Celestee is the most isolating of all of Focal’s headphones as a result. No, it’s not noise cancelling, but this is a closed-back headphone that will work great for the office or other environments where you either don’t want to disturb your neighbor, or you don’t want your neighbor disturbing your listening.
Just like the Elegia, the Focal Celestee uses an aluminum magnesium moving coil (dynamic) transducer, and just like Focal’s other closed-back headphones, the Celestee makes use of a unique way of breaking up resonant frequencies on the back of the cup. Typically in closed-back headphones there’s some kind of damping, and Focal’s solution to this has been to line the inside of the cup with an array of pyramid shaped pieces, not unlike what you might see in a well-treated room.
Additionally, the Celestee goes back to the standard porting system through the flame logo that was used in the Stellia and Elegia (the air has to go somewhere), which is different from the rear side porting system of the Radiance. Speaking with Megane Montabonel, Product Manager at Focal, she explained that this only makes a minor difference, and the main reason for the change in the Radiance was to accommodate the Bently collaboration design ideas.
Lastly, the pads for the Celestee are new, and unlike the pads for Focal’s other headphones. In fact, looking at the inside of the pads reveals a hybrid layer that covers roughly half of the inner ring. In short, the pad design got a lot more complex, but this can (and likely does) also have an effect on the perceived technical performance of the headphone.
The Focal Celestee is a step up in detail retrieval over the Elegia, and perceptively also a step up over the Radiance to my ear. Now, this could in large part be due to the tuning changes - if not also due to the pad change (this can have an effect) - But I hear the Celestee as having a more forward presentation, and consequently a more detailed one.
In particular, it doesn’t sound overdamped for microdynamics and microdetail, which is often a worry for closed-back headphones. So the trailing ends of tones come through clearly, and small gradations of volume aren’t overshadowed by dominant tones. Texture, instrument separation, and overall image clarity are also excellent on the Celestee, with one caveat, and it’s that there’s a kind of analytic presentation to bass tones. You hear all the details, but it doesn’t quite have the full richness and ‘roundness’ of the Clear. This could be evaluated in terms of the headphone’s ‘timbre’ as well, but I do find this to have an effect on the way bass detail comes across as well.
As mentioned, microdynamics on the Celestee are good for a closed-back, even though I do remember the Clear doing a better job of this - of course that’s an open-back, so maybe it’s not surprising. When it comes to macrodynamics and sense of punch and physicality, however, the Celestee is just as lively and engaging as the rest of Focal’s aluminum magnesium driver lineup. This is a very punchy and engaging sounding headphone, vastly outperforming similarly priced closed-back planar magnetic headphones like the DCA Aeon 2 Closed in this regard.
Moreover, in spite of the satisfying slam, the Celestee also sounds tight and well-controlled even during busy passages with complex layerings. This is something that dynamic driver headphones typically don’t do as well as when compared with planars, but the Celestee doesn’t seem to have any issues there.
Soundstage & Imaging
For soundstage, this is the Celestee’s biggest weakness. It’s not the most spacious nor spread out sounding headphone. This is somewhat unsurprising for a closed-back headphone, but even the other closed-back headphones in Focal's lineup do a better job here. Part of this could also be due to the slightly extra clamp force, and then it doesn’t have the upper midrange dip of the Elegia that can sometimes ‘fake’ an extra sense of soundstage.
Still, image placement and distribution is excellent. It’s not quite as surgical as the higher end Stellia, but it has an even distribution across the stage and pans are gradual from left to right, without any immediate switchovers - a common problem for headphones that don’t image well. Moreover there aren’t any particularly noticeable gaps for front left and front right. It’s just that the whole presentation is more towards me, so it sounds almost as if I’m on the stage with the musicians all around me. Thankfully the Celestee does also have a decent presentation for depth and image layering.
One last thing to note is that the Celestee unfortunately borrows its timbre from the Elegia, meaning that it doesn’t have the most ‘natural’ sounding material or transducer related timbre. If you’re wondering how to listen for this quality (or even what timbre is), you have to train yourself to stop listening to specific parts of the music (layers, instrument lines, vocals and so on), and instead listen to the way the headphone presents sounds. It can take some getting used to.
In any case, if you compare this type of sound to that of something like a ZMF Auteur, you’ll get what I mean. Now, personally it’s not enough to distract me from any of the music, but the slightly more analytic or ‘reference’ style sound isn’t going to satisfy any of the ‘timbreheads’ out there. Thankfully, for frequency response related timbre, there are no major issues whatsoever.
Frequency Response & Tonal Balance
The following is how the Focal Celestee measures on the GRAS 43AG standardized measurement rig relative to the over-ear Harman target curve (2018). These are raw measurements, meaning it should not look like a flat line across. This instead shows the raw measurement relative to the target that would otherwise be normalized in compensated measurements.
For the Focal Celestee, I’ve used Harman 2018, which includes a bass shelf that’s more significant than what I normally use (Harman combined). I’m switching it up for this review because I find it interesting to see the distance between the mid-bass and lower mids with this headphone, and the 2018 Harman target provides a good reference point for closed-back headphones that aim to do this. But, just to be clear, for my preferences, the 2018 Harman target includes a bass shelf that is a few dB too high. So take that for what you will. Learn more about the Harman Target here.
How do you read this? The dotted black line is the target (how we might want it to measure), and the colored line is how the headphone in question measures. Effectively, this shows how significantly the headphone’s frequency response deviates from the target.
A Note About Focal Celestee Measurements
The Focal Celestee has been one of the most challenging headphones to measure. In fact, all of Focal’s closed-back headphones are somewhat like this. The reason they’re so challenging to measure is due to both pad compression and the spring-loaded cups creating unique contours for how the headphone sits on the side of the head. If you think about it, the side of a human head isn’t perfectly flat, nor is it a hard surface. Unfortunately while the GRAS 43AG-7 is an industry standard rig (the most widely used one at that), and we can be confident in the accuracy of these measurements up to a point, it doesn’t perfectly mimic the side of a human head - and this may be a requirement to get a perfectly accurate result for these closed-back Focal headphones specifically.
Because of this, the Focal closed-back headphones show significant variation in both the bass and treble for their frequency response, depending on clamp pressure for pad compression and positional variation. So for the person with a larger head, the Celestee may clamp harder, resulting in more pad compression than for the person with a smaller head, and this could lead to a different perceived result. Add to that the variable of spring-loaded cups that create a unique coupling for each person that wears them (resulting in varying pad compression for top and bottom depending on the listener) and you have a recipe for some strange and non-representative results showing up.
When conducting a series of different seatings and pad compression tests (I have hundreds now at this point with these headphones), the question becomes, which results do you include? And which results do you discard?
Given that all I currently have to test on is the GRAS 43AG-7 system, and not a B&K 5128 or other head-and-torso simulator, I’ve had to think a bit creatively on how to solve this problem. At first I decided to use in-ear mics to see where the bass level is for my head specifically, and then adjust the coupling on the rig to match the same clamp pressure/positioning. While this does provide a more realistic result, it’s been pointed out to me that this isn’t necessarily any better because perhaps the unique coupling with my head is more of an outlier than what shows up on the rig (thanks to Jude from Head-fi for this advice).
So instead what I’ve done is pulled the average of the most common results. You’ll notice that the grey lines in the background show some variation, but even this isn’t as extreme as it would have been if I had included everything. Moreover, I normally take an average of four (optimal) seatings, but because of the unique nature of these headphones, I’ve included a larger number and just based the average on what emerged from the most common results (something like a cluster analysis).
The bottom line so far is that because of the high degree of variation that exists with these headphones from pad compression, positioning, and the spring-loaded cup design, it’s impossible to say for certain what the experience will be like for each person. But, at the very least there are a number of common features that do persist regardless of coupling variation, and so at minimum the common trend is represented by the measurements shown above.
The most interesting thing about the Focal Celestee in my opinion is that while it doesn’t perfectly match or adhere to the Harman target, it has many similar features. In particular, the 200-300hz dip loosely correlates with Harman’s lower midrange contour. This ensures that the bass - though elevated - doesn’t bleed into the mids in any significant way.
So let’s start with the bass, and for anyone who thought the Focal Elegia was a bit bass light (in favor of the lower mids), the Celestee will be a welcome improvement. The bass is well-extended and slightly elevated all the way down into the sub-bass - something we should expect from a closed-back. What’s perhaps more of an acquired taste is the mid-bass emphasis around 100-150hz. This is generally where the bulk of ‘bass tone’ lies, and while it is slightly emphasized here, it’s also not enough to where it’s overbearing or intrusive. Bass tones, while prominent, are still tight and well-controlled, and have a satisfying sense of impact and tension to them.
Still, it would have been better if the bass boost happened slightly lower down below 100hz, more focused towards the sub-bass. So when doing my personal EQ for this headphone, I make that adjustment, and it slams in such a satisfying way when you do this.
Now comes the interesting part: the 200-300hz upper bass and lower midrange dip. When it comes to open-back headphones, my preference is to have that section filled in a bit more, even more so than what the Harman contour asks for. This is because without that filled in, there’s a risk that the lower mids can sound a bit lean and sterile. But regardless, when it comes to closed-back headphones, for whatever reason the idea of a contoured upper bass and lower midrange seems to work a bit better.
And indeed, it’s there to some extent in the Harman target as well. In some ways, this is also why the Harman target requires the kind of bass shelf it asks for, because without it, you wouldn’t get any sense of body and weight to anything, leaving nothing but a lean response. At the moment it’s not clear what the reason is for this distinction - and yes, we can get into questions about whether this is to avoid resonances or other behavior that may show up in CSD plots, debate false nulls, or talk about various other qualities not immediately available in frequency response that could be responsible. When it comes to the value of these additional metrics, there are good arguments on either side, and regardless which side of the fence you’re on when it comes to these issues, there can be some agreement that these issues are as of yet less well understood than the value of a headphone’s frequency response.
So, maybe this behavior is some deviation from strictly ‘minimum phase device’ rules for headphones - the main reason why some have doubts about the value of something like time domain information in general - or maybe something else entirely is responsible. But digressions aside, the overall effect in the Focal Celestee is that the lower midrange dip following the slight mid-bass boost provides an emphasis to clarity for the rest of the tuning without sounding lean and sterile at all. Moreover, even when EQing the headphone in Roon, I prefer it with the contoured upper bass and lower mids.
For the rest of the mids, there’s a slight forwardness around 1khz - not unlike the Focal Clear in some ways - but it’s balanced out by an appropriately elevated ear gain region up to 3khz. The balance is pushed ever so slightly in favor of mid and upper midrange tone, but I have to say that for the genres that I really enjoy, like acoustic, jazz and classical - music with instruments - this tuning works extremely well. Piano tones and acoustic guitar tones come across with a slightly forward presence and richness of tones, but it’s all well balanced with the resonant harmonics in the treble, never sounding compressed or congested.
Now, while the upper mids and lower treble looks a bit uneven, it has to be said that this is fairly normal for Focal’s headphones. They all tend to have a more ragged looking response here. In general, despite some unevenness, the Celestee’s treble presentation is quite agreeable. It’s perhaps not as smooth and natural sounding as the Sennheiser HD6XX, but I still find it non-fatiguing and easy to listen to. This may also be perceptively related to the extra detail and macro capabilities achieved by the aluminum magnesium driver.
Interestingly, I find that the Celestee actually has a smoother treble response than that of the Clear, and while the Clear is an excellent headphone, when put under the microscope, it could occasionally have a somewhat ‘gritty’ sounding mid-treble (often depending on the source). On the Celestee, I don’t hear any of that. Instead, it could be described as pleasantly relaxed where it needs to be, but still with enough energy to balance out the slightly forward mid to upper midrange tonal focus. It’s essential for headphones to have this kind of balance in order to accurately represent the relationship between fundamental tones and resonant harmonics, and the Clestee is able to do that very well.
Lastly, for anyone confused about what’s going on at 9khz, rest assured that this dip is supposed to be there. I’ve mentioned it before, but this is where there is some effect of the physical ear (concha), and so we might say there’s a null there that in reality doesn’t actually sound like that. I think the main issue here is that the target is a highly averaged or smoothed curve, while any headphone in question is a much more fine-grained or specific response. But, in short, the 9khz dip is a desirable feature, and if it weren’t there, you’d hear this strange ‘shimmering’ effect permeating through the mix.
Does the Celestee have a good tuning? I think the answer to that question is that yes it does, even though it doesn’t perfectly match the Harman target. There are a number of similarities to it, and I think we can safely say that this is one of Focal’s best tuned closed-back headphones, and one of the better closed-back headphone tunings I’ve come across. In particular I’m struck by how effective that upper bass and lower mid contour is. Maybe there is something to this that many opponents of the Harman target are missing - at least when it comes to closed-back headphones.
The Audeze LCD-XC is a closed-back planar magnetic headphone that weighs considerably more, at around 750g, and so this makes using the LCD-XC for longer periods of time a bit more difficult. Still, the LCD-XC does have better technical performance, with sharper detail retrieval and instrument separation. The downside is that the LCD-XC is also a bit too crazy in the treble for my taste. So I use it with a bit of EQ to downshelf the treble a bit to make it more manageable. I also add a bass shelf around 120hz because… well it can handle it and it’s fun.
For those wanting the absolute best performance out of a closed-back headphone, regardless of weight, an EQ’d LCD-XC is still the way to go. But for a more usable headphone for long periods of time - a more convenient headphone perhaps - the Celestee makes a strong case.
The Aeon 2 Closed also has very competitive detail capabilities, and it’s also very comfortable with good isolation (not to mention portable). The Celestee is closer to a ‘reference’ kind of sound, while the Aeon 2 Closed is more of a bass and treble sparkle kind of sound. My one complaint with the Aeon 2 Close is that it sounds noticeably overdamped for macrodynamics - likely to help with the tuning. So there’s no sense of life or engaging punch and physicality like there is on the Celestee - even though the bass is elevated on the Aeon 2 as well. My pick between the two would be the Celestee
Getting into comparisons with Focal headphones, the Radiance is the warmer, somewhat bassier headphone. For anyone still questioning whether the Celestee is just the Radiance without the Bently logo, the biggest difference in the sound is that the Radiance has a bass shelf that's about 3dB higher. I should note that this Radiance I have here right now is a bit more relaxed in the lower treble as well, but I've seen measurements of other units that are a bit more filled in and even in the lower treble. So... think like a turbo AKG K371
In addition, the Radiance is also the more comfortable of the two - with softer pads and slightly less clamp force. I personally prefer the sound of the Celestee, because for my genres it works extremely well, even though for long listening sessions the Radiance may be more desirable for its comfort. Also, if you love Bently, that’s something to think about, since it is a collaboration with Bently. Personally, it makes no difference to me.
Focal Elegia (Discontinued)
In some ways the Elegia is the opposite of the Celestee in terms of its tuning. It’s a much more lower-mid forward presentation, which some found caused the bass to sound a bit lean as a result. I can see that since, while the bass is well extended into the sub-bass, it doesn’t have the bass shelf many enjoy, myself included. It’s an interesting comparison because I find that the Celestee’s tuning is very similar to what I EQ’d the Elegia to, by filling in the upper mids and adding a contour to the lower mids. Because of this, I consider the Celestee a straightforward upgrade over the Elegia, and a worthy successor in the lineup.
Now, if you’re wondering, can you just take the Celestee pads and put them on the Elegia, the answer is… sort of. You won’t get the Celestee’s tuning, but you may get one that you enjoy more than that of the Elegia’s default sound.
Here is how the Elegia measures with the Celestee pads on it:
While in my opinion the pronounced mid-bass bump around 100hz without the sub-bass definition isn’t particularly desirable, the rest of the tonality change likely is more agreeable. In this case, all you’d have to do is add a wide Q value bass boost around 40-50hz and it would sound pretty close. And again, I say pretty close because for the upper mids and treble it’s not quite the same. The upper treble also sees some roll-off (although the 711 standard rigs like this one are less accurate above 10khz).
So the bottom line for this is that no, you won’t quite get the Celestee tuning by throwing its pads on the Elegia, but it may still be worth doing to get a different type of sound.
The Stellia is Focal’s Beryllium driver closed-back headphone, and while it’s not quite on the level of the Utopia for technical performance, the Stellia is still well-regarded as one of the very best closed-back headphones you can get… period. Here’s where it gets interesting. While the detail and technical performance is clearly better on the Stellia, I actually also prefer the Celestee’s tuning over that of the Stellia - at least compared to the Stellia I tried. While there are many similarities between the two, I found the Stellia to have a slightly more pronounced bass bump.
Still, if given a choice between the two I’d take the Stellia (and not just because it’s more expensive). It’s both more technically impressive, and more comfortable with slightly less clamp force.
The Sennheiser HD820 is worth noting as a comparison because it also dips in the lower mids after a noticeable bass bump below 200hz. Now, in my opinion the HD820 is an example of this idea taken much too far. Essentially you have an enormous amount of bass at 200hz and below, with a massive cut at 300hz. The idea makes a certain amount of sense in theory, but the Celestee is far and away the better tuning, with a much more well-refined execution of this idea. So, while the HD820 is detailed, and has a good sense of stage, its tuning is so strange that I’d happily choose the Celestee over it - at least if I couldn’t EQ. I think there may be some promise with the HD820 after fixing some of the bass and lower midrange issues.
So again, we see similar ideas, but different ways of executing them. Where it’s massively overdone in the HD820, it’s much more tastefully and carefully done in the Celestee.
With the release of the Celestee, Focal have successfully improved upon their previous sub-$1000 closed-back headphone, the Elegia. Not only that, they’ve managed to produce one of the better closed-backs in this price range period. Now, while there may be some things to nitpick, like the more forward and analytic presentation, the mid-bass bump, or the slight clamp pressure for big headed listeners like me, I have to say that the Celestee is one of the easiest closed-back headphones for me to recommend. This will do especially well for anyone looking for the ideal office headphone, or any other use case where isolation, convenience of use, and portability are necessary.
Therefore, it is my pleasure to absolutely recommend the Focal Celestee. It’s currently the closed-back dynamic driver headphone I’d buy under $1000. Now, a small caveat to that is that I haven’t heard every closed-back headphone under $1000. But of the ones I have heard, right now, the Celestee would be my pick.
Watch the video review here:
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