Written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
I normally don't recommend pad swapping for most headphones, with the exception of some cases like with ZMF headphones where the manufacturer has specifically developed different pads for different tuning flavors. I generally don't recommend pad swapping because in most cases the replacement pads will impact the frequency response, and this makes the headphone not sound like the engineer intended. But there are also a number of good reasons to do it, especially when the pad manufacturer has paid close attention to the effect of their pads on the headphone's frequency response. Dekoni has produced a number of pads for the open-back Focal headphones, namely the Elear, Clear and Utopia (they would work on the Elex as well). They've produced alternative pads for a number of other headphone brands as well, but for this article, I'll be focusing on the effects of Dekoni's Elite pad series for the Focal Clear specifically.
Let me begin by saying that the Focal Clear already has an excellent tonal balance overall, and in my opinion it's an easy to love headphone without any significant need to swap pads out to change the sound. But with that said, this is just one person's opinion, and you may have a different preference. Leaving comfort aside - because I already find the Clear's default pads to be quite comfortable, there are a number of additional reasons to consider doing this.
Why would you want to pad swap?
The first reason to pad swap on the Focal Clear specifically is if your default pads are damaged or worn out. Pads will generally deteriorate over time with use, and when this happens they should be replaced - however the official pads from Focal, while excellent, are also a bit expensive coming in at around $200. Because of this, it's worth considering what you lose/gain with alternative pads. Additionally, because the Clear's default pads are white, they can get a bit discolored over time and this makes them look a bit faded and not as aesthetically striking as they are out of the box.
The next reason to consider pad swapping is to potentially change the tonal balance, or change the flavor of the sound. Once again, I don't think this is necessary with the Focal Clear since its default tonality is already excellent. But I know there are some out there who prefer more bass, or a more relaxed upper midrange, maybe a warmer sound - and this is where pad rolling can make a difference to line up with those preferences.
Lastly, for those of us who like to get into tweaking things with EQ, pad swapping is still an interesting prospect because it may make the headphone easier to EQ. For the Focal Clear in particular, there's an occasional grittiness for certain elements in the treble, specifically a peak around 6khz and a peak around 8khz. This can cause consonant sounds to come across a bit aggressive at times and on certain recordings (this is such a minor nitpick but in my opinion this is the only weakness to the Focal Clear, it's just not as smooth in the treble as it could be). I personally fall into this last camp, and so for me I'm looking for ways of potentially making the Clear easier to EQ, without having to add narrow dips, and so my adjustments can be more gradual and more conservative.
What does each pad do?
In general they’re all fairly similar to the default Clear pads with some minor differences for each. There's also a common trend for a bit more bass energy as well, which while not necessary may be welcome to some who want a bit more body down low. This means that in general there's a bit more intimacy and warmth to the sound, but not at the expensive of overall clarity.
The following graphs show the differences for each pad on the Focal Clear. These were measured on the GRAS 43AG, all running off the SPL Phonitor X headphone amplifier, fed by a Topping D90 DAC. Here is the initial raw measurement of the Focal Clear with default pads. Keep in mind that for each measurement, the pads needed to be swapped, so there may also be some positional variation - but these are all averaged responses from multiple positions, just like in any normal measurement.
How do you read this? The dotted black line is the target (how we might want it to measure), and the green line is how the headphone in question measures. Effectively, this shows how significantly the headphone’s frequency response deviates from the target. Keep in mind that this target is a combination of Harman 2013 for the bass and 2018 for the mids and treble, and in both cases it's based on consumer preference research. You may have a different preference, but this reference curve sounds the best to my ear.
This pad has slightly more bass than the default pads, as well as upper midrange energy around 3-4khz but slightly less mids below that around 1-2khz. There's no 8khz peak, but there's occasionally still a bit of sharpness to the consonants due to 6khz emphasis. Overall this sounds reasonably balanced to me, but there is also a bit more 10khz energy that causes a slight 'shimmering' effect. One of the nuances to reading these graphs is that there should be a dip around 9-10khz for most headphones because this is where there's some interaction with one of the pieces of the ear. The fault here is more with the target, because it's more of a general curve than following specific peaks/dips that potentially should be there. In this case, it's not too bad but I still think it's worth reducing 10khz slightly.
EQ: reduce 6khz slightly, reduce 10khz with a very narrow filter (4 at least), and boost 1.5-2khz by a small amount.
Dekoni Perf Sheepskin
This pad has similar bass and mids. There's slightly less upper midrange energy around 3-4khz than the default pads with a bit of a scooped 2khz region. The lower treble is a bit more filled in around 6khz with a gradual peak similar to that of the hybrid pads. This is definitely more smooth than the default pads for this region though, since it's a more gradual rise to 6khz, and less of a narrow peak. There's also no 8khz peak either. I do feel that for both the Perf Sheepskin and the Hybrid pads, the recession at 8khz may be a bit much because you want to at least have enough energy there for the treble to sound lively. But it's definitely more relaxed in this region for both. This pad also has the slight 10khz shimmer.
EQ: reduce 10khz with a narrow filter, boost mid treble optional, slight boost to 2khz (2dB at most).
Dekoni Solid Sheepskin
This pad is similar to default except the 8khz peak is shifted to show up more strongly at 6khz. There's also a bit more energy at 1khz and slightly less upper midrange energy around 3khz. I find this to be reasonably balanced for the treble overall with the exception of the 6khz peak that has an effect on some lower end sibilant sounds. There's also a bit less noticeably treble 'shimmer', so this may be a good choice if you're okay with reducing 6khz with a narrow peak filter.
EQ: reduce 6khz with a narrow peak filter
Dekoni Velour Solid
This pad is far and away the most comfortable of the bunch, even more comfortable than the default pads, and that's saying something because the default pads are already quite cushiony and comfortable. Not only is the velour material soft and pleasing, the foam cushion aspect feels the most pliable.
For tonality, this pad sounds the most balanced in the upper mids and lower treble. It's a bit relaxed around 3-4khz but it's also a bit more filled in and even around 4-5khz, and there's no significant peak around 6khz. You can see there's a bit of a peak around 8khz, but it's so subdued that it's not particularly sibilant. I think this pad does the most to reduce the Clear's slight aggressiveness for certain consonant tones. The one downside for this pad is that it emphasizes the 'shimmer' character a bit around 11khz, so I still think it's one to EQ.
EQ: Reduce 10-11khz by 4-5dB with a narrow filter. Boost 2khz, 3khz with wide Q values optional - but not necessary for more modern genres.
My pick: Dekoni Velour Solid
While I find that each of these alternative pads are generally agreeable, there are two reasons why my pick is the Velour pads. The first is that out of all of them it's the most comfortable for long listening sessions. For this reason alone, it may be worth getting this pad and then just EQing the 11khz peak. The second reason for this pick is that I tend to find the upper mids and lower treble balance to be the most difficult section to EQ. It's never as simple as just matching your EQ to the target because there are certain interactions that the target doesn't account for - given that it's a general preference curve. Because of this, when a headphone gets the upper mid and lower treble balance right for me (this is where the most significant ear-related gain factors exist), it tends to get a certain amount of praise.
The Focal Clear with the Dekoni Velour Solid pads does manage to do that - for the most part. It's a bit more relaxed in this area, meaning it may be more agreeable for modern upbeat genres, and this lines up with what I'd hope for with a pad swap: a slight tuning alternative that is familiar yet different enough that it would appeal to someone looking to add a bit of a different flavor to the sound, while still retaining a certain amount of tonal balance overall.
The one downside with this pad choice is the 11khz peak that we can see on the graph. This is where I add my EQ adjustment of -4.5dB to -5dB peak filter with a narrow Q value of 5. You should do this at your discretion, some people enjoy that 'shimmer' quality that even the default pads have, but I do think it's better with EQ.
For those who don't want to EQ, I would actually recommend the Perf Sheepskin or Hybrid pads. They might not have as good of an upper midrange balance as the Velour pads, but they also don't have as significant of an 11khz peak. It's still there, maybe closer to 10khz, but it's not as much of a requirement to EQ.
EQ Profile: More critical adjustments
- Peak Filter - 8khz, -2dB (Q=4)
- Peak Filter - 11khz, -5dB (Q=5)
Optional filters: Gets it a bit closer to Harman, but not necessary.
- Low shelf filter - 75hz, +2.5dB
- Peak filter - 2khz, +2dB (Q = 1.41)
- Peak filter - 3khz, +1.4dB (Q= 1.6)
- High shelf filter - 6.5khz, +2dB
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, pad swaps have the potential to completely ruin a headphone's frequency response, and with all of the Dekoni options, this is thankfully not the case. I want to conclude by reminding readers that you do not have to pad swap on the Focal Clear, and it should come as no surprise that the default pads from Focal will likely still sound the best for many people. But for those who want an additional flavor to the sound, or need to replace their default pads, the Dekoni Elite pads are a solid, less expensive choice.
I find that while overall the tonal balance for these pads makes the Clear a bit warmer, a bit more relaxed in the upper mids, in some cases they smooth out some of the grittiness that can occasionally show up in the treble. They're not perfect, and for my purposes, I do still EQ this headphone with the alternate pads, but for anyone wanting to change the tuning or just replace the default pads due to wear or aesthetic damage, you can be confident that for the most part the Dekoni Elite pads sound just fine for the Clear.
-Andrew Park (@Resolve)
Watch the video review here: