Review written by @Chrono
Review unit provided on loan by headphones.com
The Clear is an open-back dynamic headphone designed by Focal that retails for $1,499, and it utilizes Focal’s full-range speaker driver with an ‘M’-shape Aluminum/Magnesium dome. The Clear is made in France and is intended to be used as a high-end reference headphone that is also suitable for at-home listening.
Before we begin this review, I would like to take the opportunity to remind you that Headphones.com, in collaboration with Focal, is giving away a Focal Clear Headphone with a Focal Arche amp/DAC combo. You can enter the giveaway by filling the Google Form for the contest, Subscribing to The Headphone Show on YouTube, and following Headphones.com on Facebook or Instagram. The winner of the giveaway will be announced on The Headphone Show’s YouTube livestream with Focal on July 30th, 2020. Good Luck!
Sources and Music Used in Listening Tests
The Amplifier/DAC used in this review was the JDS Labs Element II connected via USB to my desktop computer. For the listening tests I used music from a wide variety of genres including Rock, Jazz, Classical, Acoustic, Hip-Hop, and latin. I played tracks from my own FLAC library as well as from Tidal streaming service (HiFi/Master Quality).
What’s in the Box?
The Clear includes a rather nice set of accessories. Included with the Clear is a Focal-branded, Hardshell carry case that, although not particularly small, should fit quite easily in most backpacks and suitcases. Also included are three cables of varying lengths with 3.5mm terminations on the headphone side. Two of the cables measure three meters in length, with one having a ¼” termination and the other ending in 4-pin balanced XLR. Lastly, the third cable measures 1.2m in length and terminates in 3.5mm, but includes a thread-on ¼” adapter.
Now, it is very rare for me to complain about cables, as it is not something that usually bothers me, or something I care about. However, I feel like in the Clear’s case, I have to mention that the included cables–despite looking very nice–are very uncomfortable to use and work with. They are extremely rigid and hold their form, occasionally weighing down the headphone.
For a flagship-class headphone, the Focal Clear is remarkably efficient. They clock in at an impedance of 55 ohms and a sensitivity of level 104dB/mw, and I had no issue driving them to good listening levels with my PC’s onboard audio or MacBook. I still preferred the way they sounded when powered by my ifi iDSD Micro Black label, but I think it was mostly due to me liking the sound of its Burr-Brown DAC chip. I do not think that an amp is required for the Clear, but I do recommend using one.
Build Quality and Comfort
The Clear’s build is both beautiful, and excellent in its construction. To me, it seems as though it is composed entirely out of metal and they feel extremely solid; none of the parts feel loose or malleable. I really struggle to find a flaw in the Clear’s build; they are very well put together, they are sturdy, and they still remain fairly lightweight at 450g.
For the most part, comfort was not an issue on the Focal Clear. Despite weighing nearly twice as much as an HD 660S, it really did not feel like it as I felt as though the headband and ear cups did an outstanding job of evenly distributing the weight. The ear pads themselves are very comfortable, as they are wrapped in a perforated, suede-like, microfiber fabric that was soft on the skin and stayed cool throughout long listening sessions.
Where comfort–for me, at least–went awry was that the cups have a spring-back soft mechanism that pulls the cup back, and I can feel them do that when I am wearing them, which is slightly irritating. I suppose that this system makes the headphones look nicer when off your head, but it also made it a little tricky figuring out how to wear them properly. Still, once I got the hang of how to fit these on, comfort was not an issue when using them in prolonged listening sessions.
The Focal Clear is a flagship-class headphone that delivers excellent technical performance and a tonality that is–minus some quirks in the treble–very good. For the most part, I will be comparing the Clear to the HiFiMan Ananda and Audeze LCD-2; however, I would also like to draw comparisons to the HD 660S as it kind of reminded me of that headphone, and wanted to discuss how it performed as an upgrade for those who, like me, really like Sennheiser’s HD 600-series.
The Clear has what is, to me, the most impressive bass I have heard on a dynamic headphone thus far. For extension, it performs really well as it extends in an almost completely linear fashion; it only rolled off a bit at around 30hz. The Clear’s reach into the sub-bass region gave it a very good sense of depth, and it vastly outperformed the HD 660S’ bass which comes across as a little shallow by comparison. Still, I felt as though the LCD-2 and Ananda’s extension was a little more impressive as it just had that last-level of extension that made them sound a little deeper and had more of that 10hz-20hz rumble when compared to the clear.
For resolution, I find the Clear to be very well controlled in the bass, and even though I still thought the LCD-2 was slightly more articulate, I found it to be more detailed than the Ananda. My only real criticism in the bass is that I feel like the overall bass level for the Clear is a little lean, and it also seems to lack a bit of warmth in the 100hz-150hz region; I do think that they benefit from an EQ upshelf or a bass boost if your amp/DAC has one available. Lastly I wanted to address the clipping issue that seems to cause some concern online for Focal headphones. Yes, I did hear the Focal Clear clip when reproducing really low frequencies. However, during my listening this only occurred when I engaged a EQ +3dB bass boost in combination with the iDSD Micro Black Label’s bass boost at uncomfortably high listening levels; so I really doubt that you will run into this issue in an average listening session.
The midrange on the Focal Clear was to me both very enjoyable and realistic sounding; it really only had two slight deviations from target. The least noticeable one was that it seemed to me as though there was a very slight dip at 4.5K, so vocals in particular sounded to me as though they needed just a little more energy in that presence region. For the second deviation I will also be discussing timbre, as Focal headphones are sort of infamous for having a slightly metallic timbre. From my experience listening to the Clear, I would say that that is somewhat true, and I did not feel as though the timbre was as natural or transparent when compared to something like an HD 600-series headphone. However, after playing around a bit with EQ it sounded to me as though that metallic timbre is in large part due to two different elevations in the Clear’s frequency response.
One of those elevations is in the treble region, and the other one is present in the midrange at around 1K. That elevation at 1K adds a slightly nasal and boxy tonality to the Clear’s timbre that, when combined with the other elevation I will discuss in the treble section, results in an accentuation of a slightly more metallic character for the sound. Overall, I still really like the mids on the Clear, and they really remind me of the midrange on Sennheiser headphones, which to me sounds very rich and realistic. I listen mainly to classic rock, and as a guitarist myself, electric guitars sound incredibly realistic on the Clear; they very accurately reproduce their growl, presence, and buzz. For resolution, the Clear’s midrange is astonishingly transparent and has an exceptional level of detail. It is mostly a marginal improvement over the LCD-2 in this regard, but compared to the other headphones I have listened to, it is significantly more resolving.
The treble region is where the Clear can get a little “interesting.” I personally would not particularly describe it as being bright, as even the Ananda is a bit brighter. However, unlike the Ananda, I find that the Clear’s highs are slightly uneven. Despite the treble only being set a decibel or two higher overall than on the HD 660S, it can become a little fatiguing as a result of two elevations in the highs. To me it sounded as though there was a peak at 6K that introduced a little bit of glare and sibilance in the lower treble. It was not a very large peak, but it was emphasized by the dip that preceded it between 4.5K-5.5K. The second elevation is the one I mentioned earlier when discussing timbre, and it is a rise at 10K. In my listening, the 10K peak added a slight sharpness and zing to my music. Also, because it was a fairly wide elevation, it sounded to me as though the harmonics between 8.5K and 12K had a little too much energy, which altered the balance between overtones and fundamentals in a way that made the timbre come across as slightly metallic.
The degree to which these peaks will affect your listening experience I think will come down to how sensitive you are to treble, and what music you listen to. As an example, I personally had no issues with the treble when listening to Jazz, classical, or mostly instrumental music; even on some rock albums like Abbey Road, I had no issues with the highs. However, on brighter records like the Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, the treble could become fatiguing. Still, I have to mention that this is nowhere near the level of fatiguing that a headphone with an exaggerated peak like the DT 1990 Pro is. Lastly, for resolution he Clear is–again–very impressive. So far, it has the most detailed highs I have heard in headphones; delivering a slightly cleaner image in the treble range than the LCD-2 and Ananda.
Soundstage, Imaging, and Layering
In terms of soundstage width, the Clear is not the most impressive as it is not much wider than an HD 600-series headphone. However, it has a soundstage presentation that feels very well-defined and accurate. The Clear has great imaging, and accurately determines the directionality and position of sound with no obvious gaps that break the soundscape. Moreover, the Clear had a remarkable ability to separate and distinguish the different layers and instruments of the music I listened to. The Ananda was very impressive in this regard, but I actually felt as though the clear did a better job at discerning the individual vocal and instrument lines in complex passages, and it did so without compromising the integrity of the music. I was listening to one of my favorite songs, “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and I was sincerely impressed by how well defined the electric guitars that harmonize in the main riff sounded.
The Focal Clear has the best, and punchiest dynamics that I have heard in a dynamic-driver headphone. While I still thought that the LCD-2 performed slightly better in this category, the Clear still has a great punch and slam quality to it. Bass notes hit with authority, and deliver a nice physical sense of impact. Keystrokes and strikes on instruments like the piano and xylophone have the right amount of tension behind them, and the Clear reproduces the sense of weight that they are played with. String instruments also sound outstanding, as they have a very realistic bloom and impact in their lower resonances whilst also delivering that top-end attack. This quality gives music played through the clear a very engaging and lively quality that I personally really enjoy.
With the Clear, I mostly applied subtle EQ modifiers that when engaged together made for some firm sonic changes, mainly at 1.2K and 10K. I was aiming at bringing the Clear closer to my personal target (which is fairly similar to the Harman Target Curve). In a way, I wanted to make a “supercharged” HD 660S out of the Clear as I already found it somewhat similar to the HD 600-series tonality, but with superior technical performance. If you would like to try out my EQ profile for the Focal Clear, you can input these settings in your equalization software of choice:
- Low Shelf at 115hz, +3dB Q of 0.7
- Peak at 1200hz, -3dB Q of 1.41
- Peak at 4500hz +1.5dB Q of 3
- Peak at 6000hz, -3dB Q of 4
- Peak at 10000hz, -6dB Q of 3
For me, there are a couple of different takeaways after listening to the Clear. The first thing (this is mostly a personal one) is that out of all the headphones I have listened to, with price as a non-factor, the Focal Clear is my personal choice at the time of making this review. I really appreciate what its technical performance is capable of reproducing, and I really enjoy its tonality after using EQ. However, I struggle to say whether or not I recommend it at its $1499 price point. At that price it competes closely with headphones that I have not yet had the chance to listen to and compare to, such as the highly-regarded HiFiMan Arya, the high-performance Audeze LCD-X, and even the artisan ZMF Auteur. Compared to the headphones I have listened to, I still think that with no EQ the Ananda has a more pleasant natural frequency response, and the Clear is only an incremental upgrade on the performance front when compared with the LCD-2.
Having said that, I do think that for those looking for a flagship-class upgrade from an HD 600-series headphone the Clear is your best option, as the other headphones around this price range and performance level are not really reminiscent of those Sennheiser headphones in the way that the Clear is; also worth mentioning that it utilizes a dynamic driver, so it does not have the planar-magnetic quality in timbre that some listeners do not enjoy. Overall, I find the Clear to be a fantastic headphone that delivers an impressive sonic experience delivered in a beautiful package; I just think that maybe it would be more competitive at around the $1,199 price point.
Watch the video review here:
Buy the Focal Clear on Headphone.com here, at the best price available.