Focal Elear – unboxing and initial impressions

Introduction

The Focal Elear is a headphone that should need no introduction to anyone with anything more than a passing interest in over-ear headphones in the current market, making up one half of the French manufacturer’s recent assault on the high-end headphone market with its big brother the Utopia.

It is a headphone I have been curious about for a while, with the descriptions of a dark but dynamic sound and healthy bass and note weight very much sounding like an out-of-ear version of the Campfire Audio Vega, one of my favourite sound signatures of the last few years. I finally got a chance to audition these at CanJam London, and after an initial mishap with the amp stack the Elears were hooked up to (someone was listening to them before me at about 115dB, I kid you not – cranking the first track without checking the volume almost led to my brief and unremarkable career as a hobbyist reviewer being cut down in its prime), I got into my groove and got thoroughly lost in some wonderful sounding music.

Cue a few conversations at CanJam and afterwards with the very helpful Matt @ SCV Distribution (the UK distributor for Focal) and the exchange of some of my hard earned cash, and I now have in my possession a set of the Elear to go alongside my Audioquest Nighthawks as my “at home” cans. I will be putting together a full review once I have spent some serious time with them, but my initial impressions are below.

Initial thoughts on signature

The Elear have a very rich and dynamic sound, with a well extended bass and nice clarity throughout the mids and highs. The sound is meaty and thick, the bass definitely sitting north of neutral, with a good balance between mid bass and sub frequencies, with the mid just nudging ahead overall. The overall frequency is like a mild V shape for my ears, with the midrange not being recessed, but sitting slightly behind the bass and treble in terms of emphasis. Tuning sits a little on the darker side, with more emphasis on note weight rather than absolute extension and sparkle as you climb higher up the audio frequencies.

Soundstage is adequate but certainly not large for an open-backed headphone, sitting around the head rather than massively outside it. Within the confines of the staging, the sonic image presented is precise and nicely layered, feeling dense but not crowded, and adding to the physical “feel” of the notes being played. This physicality carries over into the dynamic contrast the headphone is capable of, with the Elear being able to convey light and shade and changes in tempo and energy on a track like nothing else I’ve heard since the Campfire Vega. These headphones practically fizz with energy, emphasising the attack of each note, the chug of each guitar line, the stomp and thud of each drum beat. These aren’t headphones for drifting off with, they are definitely more the sort of gear you will be rocking along to, no matter what mood you are in.

To be fair, this dynamism does occasionally take you by surprise, jolting some tracks into life as the tempo changes, and shocking the listener back to full attention. In the main, this is a good thing, but it definitely takes a little getting used to.

In terms of tonality, these sound quite solid and lifelike, with a thickness to the notes and overall substance to the sound that takes away some of the air from the performance space (they certainly can’t be described as airy), but leaves behind an almost palpable feeling of depth and dimension to the tracks being played. It’s an interesting tradeoff, but if you value solidity over soundstage, the Elear will definitely be for you.

Build quality

The Elear are a nicely made headphone, with a solid feel to the metal cups and a reasonable durable build. They aren’t quite the same level of sturdiness as something like the on-ear tanks that Beyerdynamic churn out, but they look like they will survive a bit of day to day use without falling to pieces (as long as you don’t sit on them). The sliding mechanism for the arms is nicely graduated, clicking in very small increments and feeling nice and solid. There is a little creak in the headband region, but nothing that I am personally worried about (yet).

Comfort

The Elear are not a light headphone at over 400g, but the weight is pretty evenly distributed and comfort and clamp levels so far have been fine. The pads are soft and have a decent amount of give, allowing the drivers to hover over your ears without any discomfort for reasonably extended listening (the maximum I have done so far is 3 hours). The headband is soft and well padded, and while it does touch the crown of my head, it hasn’t bothered me so far.

The cable

…is quite frankly the most ridiculous cable I’ve seen on a piece of home audio kit yet. It is remarkably thick, and probably better suited to mooring a small boat than attaching to the earcups of your favourite listening gear. It is metres and metres long, and has a very high quality build but also very high weight and lack of pliability, leading to it feeling like an anchor as you are moving around. Also, the lack of inclusion of a shorter cable or 3.5mm adaptor for more “portable” use is quite puzzling in this price bracket.

Genres of music

The Elear is a balanced enough beast to sound good with most of my music collection, but I find the best synergy so far with more up-tempo rock music, and some of my more emotive acoustic or orchestral tracks. The slam and punch the new M-cone drivers kick out really gets the adrenaline pumping when listening to a bit of Guns N’ Roses or Metallica, the riffs crunching away into your brain and getting your fist pumping the air. The sweep of an orchestra in full flow is also superbly represented by these cans, the sudden swells of sound crashing over the listener like they were there in the orchestra pit.

This leads to the one drawback of the Elear, which it shares with its sonic sibling the Vega: it is not an easy headphone to relax with. Despite having a rich and almost dark sound, this is not a relaxing, put-your-feet-up-and-have-a-cuppa type of listening experience. There is simply far too much dynamism and life in the sound to let the listener completely relax, and it is sometimes just too full on to really enjoy the subtler tones on display.

Overall thoughts

The Elear is definitely a polarising headphone, but in the main, I am finding it very impressive. It has a certain sense of anima and life that makes the majority of my music sound just that little bit better, and a top notch build and design to go along with it. I have found myself rolling along with the music on more than one occasion, goosebumps on my arms and five tracks in to an album I wasn’t planning to listen to – I will do my best to listen to these more critically when I come to write up my review, but the fact that they can evoke that sort of reaction in me tells me all I need to know about whether I like them or not. I’m sure more flaws will present themselves in the fullness of time, and these certainly aren’t the be all and end all in the current over-ear marketplace, but for my tuning and music preferences, the Elear are a musical, punchy and rich sounding over-ear that I am very much impressed with.

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