Focal Elear: dynamism with a dash of French flair

Pros:  Incredible dynamics and punch, crisp and detailed sound, good balance through the frequencies, rock solid build and comfort, decent bass weight, highly engaging sound

Cons: Small soundstage for an open-back, dip in upper mids may not be to everyone’s taste, “always on” dynamics make this a little excitable for more mellow genres

Price: £769 ($799, moon-audio.com)

Website: https://www.focal.com/uk/headphones/home/elear

Focal Elear

 

Acknowledgement

Thanks to the always helpful Matt @ SCV Distribution (the UK distributor for Focal) for providing the opportunity to listen to and subsequently exchange of some of my hard earned cash for a pair of these wonderful cans.

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 quarter of the French manufacturer’s recent assault on the high-end headphone market with its big brother the Utopia and the intermediate Clear and Elex models.

It is a headphone I had 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 2017, 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.

Build quality and aesthetics

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), and don’t creak or groan as you move then around. 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 after six solid months of use.

The all-metal construction and padded leather of the headband evoke a feeling of quality craftsmanship, with soft memory-foam earpads and a fantastically good looking metal grille protecting the drivers. This is a headphone that looks like it should cost a lot of money. Every little cosmetic detail has been carefully attended to here, with the off-centre Focal “caps” on each dome being held in place with three tiny Torx screws, and quite proudly displaying the elegant “Fabrique en France” stamp alongside the other text. Things that are supposed to look shiny shine, and things that are supposed to be less gaudy are just that. Despite their size, these are a set of headphones that carry that French sense of style. It is difficult to look cool with two large speakers strapped to your head, but I’ll be damned if the Elears don’t put in a valiant effort.

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. I am comfortable with heavier headphones in general, being a fairly large chap, so these may be a little on the weighty size for extended use if you take a particularly small hat size, just to give fair warning.

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.
The cable is purportedly designed to have an ultra-low capacitance, and this may have a beneficial effect the sound, but in all honesty, the sheer weight of the cable makes this very difficult to experience unless you want to sit next to your amp and coil the cable on the floor, so it doesn’t pull the Elears off your head at the first opportunity. This is an issue they appear to have solved with the latest iterations of the M-Dome technology (Clear and the Massdrop collaboration Elex), so it is possible they will consider retrofitting the new built-for-humans size cable in future Elear versions, but at present, an aftermarket cable (cheap or expensive) is almost a necessity if portability is an issue for you. I am neither a cable believer or disbeliever, but just for the record have swapped out the cable for a relatively cheap (and far more usable) SPC alternative found on one of the main online retailers, and have not noticed any appreciable “dip” in sound quality from my usual sources – as always, your own mileage may vary.

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 carries a little 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 apart from the Campfire Vega and Cascade. 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 don’t sound congested, but 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.

 

 

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 are 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. This is a headphone designed to fully engage you in the music, dragging you kicking and screaming into the heart of the moshpit at every opportunity. While that works for most rock and dance/techno genres, there is the occasional Elvis or Sinatra track that disagrees with this approach. The music never sounds anything less than thoroughly enjoyable, but it keeps you too firmly anchored in the “now” to really let you close your eyes and drift away into the sound. This isn’t a failing as such, but just something to be aware of if your taste in music is more Enya than Slipknot.

Bass

The bass on the Elear is in keeping with the overall tuning of the headphones – punchy, forceful and dynamic, and carrying a physical substance to the sound without being overly thick. It is somewhat warm in tone, with decent speed for a dynamic driver, with a slight mid bass emphasis compared to the sub bass. Something like “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk sounds suitably nimble as the bassline wriggles around the foundation of the music, with a nice heft to the notes without losing texture. It does roll off a little in terms of presence as the notes keep dropping, just lacking a little body as the bass hits its lowest points.

Bass guitar has plenty of physical impact, with both drum impacts and 4-string guitar licks keeping a nice sense of dynamics as they drive the songs along. Loading up another bass-driven track, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” from the Elvis collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic, the bass feels liquid smooth and substantial, but doesn’t overpower the rest of the track, which it can do on more bass-emphasised cans.

In terms of texture, the Elear is more than capable of presenting the smallest drops of sonic gravel out of the music laid in front of it. “Bad Rain” by Slash sounds superb through these headphones, the rasping bass guitar strings almost audibly reverberating with each note, giving the track the correct sense of urgency and menace as the groove thunders along. The notes are nicely weighted, hitting just in front of the very solid planted bass drum impacts, and lending a very heavy “feel” to the sound. Switching to something a little smoother, “Drift Away” by Dobie Grey sounds suitably velvety and melts into the corners of the sound like liquid chocolate, the bass line staying just a little north of neutral without blurring into the midrange. There is still plenty of smoothness and a sense of liquidity to the presentation here, contrasting with the texture shown in the previous track, highlighting the ability of the Focal M-Dome drivers to cope with multiple styles of music.

Looking for a little more sub-bass, Hans Zimmer and his Dark Knight soundtrack are always a good start. The opening track “Why So Serious?” is a great test track for low rumble, kicking out some serious head shaking sounds at around the 3:25 mark. The Elear is adequate if not exceptional here, providing a bit of physical vibration, but erring more on the polite rather than emphasised side. To be fair, the sub bass is still firmly audible and fairly well extended (as you would expect from a driver rated down to 5Hz), but not quite as authoritative as the mid bass in quantity or texture. Firing up “Heaven” by Emile Sande, there is a bit more audible oomph to the ultra low end intro, but this still feels more restrained than rampant. The Elear ticks enough boxes here to keep most people satisfied, but this isn’t the headphone to keep the real sub-bass fanatics grinning.

Overall, the bass is punchy but not overblown, keeping taut and defined but still carrying plenty of presence. Card carrying bassheads won’t be going gaga over it woithout some serious EQ qork, but for everyone else, there should be plenty in terms of both quality and quantity to keep the feet tapping and the hands clapping.

Mids

The Elear midrange is a little divisive. In the main, the mids are fairly well balanced, sitting almost level with the bass in terms of presentation, giving a thickly detailed sound with plenty of snap. The Focals provide texture and dynamics aplenty, making short work of any remotely uptempo or rock-based tracks. There is also more crunch and pop than an early morning cereal advert, matching well with the relative thickness of the lower midrange to make electric guitars snarl and fizz in the inner ear like almost nothing else I own (step forward, Campfire Cascade). The divide comes (almost literally) at the transition between the lower and upper midrange, where the Elear seems to relax a little and lay back admiring its good work further down the frequency range. There is a more reserved feel to female vocals, which can lose a bit of presence in comparison with deeper or throatier male vocalists. Personally, I’m quite happy with the presentation, as I think it helps even out the more up front tendencies of the rest of the frequency ranges, but I know some people on the usual forums find this so-called “suck out” less than ideal.

As mentioned, male voices sound thick and full bodied. Putting on some Foy Vance, the distinctive sound of the Belfast crooner’s emotive vocals on “Coco” is dripping with life and substance. The gentle vibrato in the closing lines of the track almost whispers through the Elear’s speakers directly into the brain, giving a three dimensional and “real” feel to the presentation. “Upbeat Feelgood” off the same album is similarly dispatched, with a touch more gravel to go with the velvety smoothness, and another nicely dynamic sound.

Trying some Gregg Allman next, “Song For Adam” captures the phlegmatic vocal of Allman’s final recording superbly, allowing the listener to almost watch the aging singer form each word in their mind. Allman’s voice is smooth and pristine, the emotion and precision of his delivery being expertly reproduced by the twin M-Domes. The final verse is particularly haunting, as Allman’s voice cracks and trails off after being overcome with emotion – the rawness and hurt clearly palpable as the words choke up. The jangling acoustic guitars chime sweetly against the black background, hitting cleanly and reverberating off into silence between each lick. The Elear’s exemplary dynamics are on show again here, lending each guitar stroke its own physical weight. It’s a minor thing, but the Focal cans have an uncanny knack of emphasising certain downstrokes and going lighter on others, lending a sense of physicality to the sound being heard. Listening to the Elear, I’m reminded that dynamics aren’t always all about the big shifts between light and dark in a song, the small nuances carrying just as much impact on the listener when they are this well done.

Moving on to female vocals, Mavis Staples again sounds rich and velvety, but her distinctive voice doesn’t quite carry as much weight in the higher registers in comparison. This is far from recessed to me, but as mentioned, this does feel a little more relaxed in tone. This actually works very well for Staples’ “Livin’ On A High Note” album, the heavily layered gospel style choruses coming across beautifully smooth beneath Mavis’ iconic lead vocal. “Don’t Cry” from the album is a highlight, blending horns, guitar and a church choir into a bouncing soul number. The individual vocal lines in the chorus all come through cleanly, but are close enough in physical position to blend seamlessly together, the Elear’s relatively compact stage size packing the sound in tightly without feeling overly crowded.

Guitars and other stringed instruments sound crunchy and crisp through the Elear, carrying a sharp sense of definition to the edges of the notes. This is definitely a headphone that can handle rock music, both acoustic and electric guitars sounding superb, the cleanliness and almost angelic chime of a nylon Spanish guitar from someone like a Rodrigo (or Gabriela) contrasting with the more guttural crunch from the heavier crowds of Slash or Led Zeppelin.

Slapping some Brantley Gilbert into the playlist, the blend of country acoustic and distorted electric guitar that underpin most of his tracks sound just the right side of raucous, keeping an element of separation amidst the thick production to pull the different stands apart, giving the music a good sense of scale. “Saving Amy” from his Halfway To Heaven sounds sweeping and grand, by turns heartfelt ballad and big 90s style radio rocker and playing into the strengths of the Elear with a smoky vocal and controlled dynamics. The strings on this track sound rich and vibrant, not overpowering in the mix but still carrying the listener along with the swell and flow of the song. The presentation here feels quite spacious, but switching to “Everybody Knows She’s Mine” by Blackberry Smoke, the acoustic and electric guitar interplay is still beautiful separated (especially at the telltale 20 second mark in the track where the acoustic lick kicks in), but the staging of the sound feels a lot more dense and concentrated. The layers sit a lot closer together in the mix here, almost making the Elear feel like a closed back headphone. The Elear isn’t a headphone that will artificially create staging or size where there is none, sticking a fairly accurate representation of the original mastering on the listener’s plate every time.

This track also highlights the definition and detail on offer – while the Elear don’t give the impression of being an overtly detailed sounding can, there is micro detail and nuance in spades if you listen out for it, sitting just under the surface of the more immediate dynamic punch. Something like “The Whipporwill” from the same album (remember when bands released those?!) carries all the sounds of fingers scraping fretboard and creaking guitar frames that I can pull out of my Zeus-XR, filling out the edges of the landscape without getting in the way of the main groove. In my opinion, these headphones get unfairly tagged as not being the most resolving, but I think they certainly hold their own in this regard.

As mentioned, the midrange here may not be universally acclaimed, but it is definitely easy enough to adjust to, and carries more than enough detail and fizz for my personal preferences, just easing off the gas enough in the upper mids to not make the entire sonic experience overwhelming. It’s a tuning that may not suit everyone, but it certainly suits this headphone, so credit to the team at Focal for following their instincts to produce something that knits together beautifully.

Treble

The Elear is a capable treble performer, but I certainly wouldn’t describe them as a sparkly or overly hot sounding can. They put out decent definition, and extend in a reasonably linear fashion up past the upper limits of my (admittedly less than exemplary) hearing.

“Starlight” by Slash starts with its usual dissonant wail of a guitar lick, the Elear actually feeling quite sharp as the phrase hits its crescendo. It’s not quite bordering on screechiness, but there is definitely an edge to the notes. As Myles Kennedy’s falsetto kicks in, the song kicks up a notch – again, despite the singer trying his best to go supersonic with some notes, it never becomes scratchy or overblown on the Focal, staying within the bounds of smoothness. Cymbals feel solid and carry good weight, and the harmonics on the edges of the guitar phrases are all present and crisply defined.

Listening to “Go” by The Chemical Brothers, the cymbals sound crisp, not dominating the high end of the track but holding strong and clear as the upper end fills up. The decay is quite short, the Elear lacking the extended “splash” of some more treble-centric cans, preferring to clear the decks quickly between each note to keep the background as black and crisp as possible. The swirling synth runs in this song sound suitably diffuse, if a little less weighty than the music below them in the Hz pecking order.

Guitar harmonics feel crisp and edgy, again fading without too much ado but giving the sound an almost glittery edge when they are present. Synth noises swirl where needed, “Go” again showcasing the clean and sharp decay between each note. It is an approach that works for higher BPM electronica, allowing the sound to remain tightly defined rather than smearing across the top of the soundstage. Again, presence isn’t huge compared to the slightly thicker bass and midrange below, but it doesn’t feel lacking or noticeably rolled off. Listening to some more orchestral fare, “Kismet” by the fusion outfit Bond sounds suitably rich in the upper registers as the violin and strings sweep around some tightly packed electronic instrumentation. The song cleaves more closely towards clear and rich rather than airy and soaring, prioritising timbre and texture of the high notes over absolute crystalline crunch and airiness.

In a similar vein, “Palladio” by Escala has plenty of high violin runs and harpsichord, with the harpsichord meandering wistfully around the main meat of the track to highlight the phrases rather than dominating the upper end of the sound. Again, this feels beautifully rich and clear, emphasising the Elear’s capability with orchestral fare. It presents this style of music like you are sat in the full concert venue, not a small orchestra chamber, concentrating more on weight and tone of the high notes than emphasis on the highest treble.

Considering the dynamic impact this can is capable of with well mastered music, a little control and comparative restraint in the highs isn’t a bad thing, as otherwise a shrieking crescendo of ultrasonic music may well leave some serious puncture wounds in the brain of the listener. Detailing in the higher registers is well looked after here, the crispness of guitar scuffs and other similar room noises all being present in the background of the sound, sitting starkly against the black background.

In summary, the treble of the Elear is capable and suitably crispy without being overly hot or emphasised, presenting a clear if not soaring treble landscape which sits nicely in balance with the energetic lower ranges. This is a musical and engaging treble, and works very well within the specific confines of this can to deliver an enjoyable listening experience. It probably won’t blow away the Grado and Beyer fans, but for most other listeners, it’s a very nicely judged effort.

Power requirements and matchability

At 80 Ohms, the Elear isn’t one of the breed of over-ear flagships that requires an electricity substation to get the drivers moving. That being said, the M-Dome drivers are a little sponge-like when it comes to soaking up available power, so if you have a voltage and current heavy source to drive these with, they will reward you with even more (mooooarr!) dynamics and punch. For instance, they are perfectly capable of getting too loud off my Sony A36 (which in itself is a minor miracle), but the sound feels flatter than when running from my Echobox Explorer or desktop amp (the Questyle CMA400i).

The CMA400i is an absolutely stellar matchup for these cans, with bags of power and Questyle’s unusual current mode amplification wringing every last scrap of dynamism and life out of any sound you throw their way. It also takes Elear up to deafness inducing levels of sound pressure (as referred to earlier in my writeup!) without even a hint of distortion, so a bit of discretion is advised when adjusting the volume pot.

The other standout pairing out of my current source inventory is a little unexpected – the LG V30. The current flagship mobile device (from the big brands at least) in terms of audio output sports a Sabre ES9218P quad-DAC setup and 2Vrms output in high gain mode, along with specs that can hang with the current kings of the mid-fi DAP world. In use, the V30 is more than capable of wringing the neck of the Elear when the song requires it, and produces a beautiful blend of detail and raw power to keep these cans ticking along nicely. Why pair a mobile phone with an open-back set of cans primarily designed for stationary listening, you ask? While the CMA400i sounds just a little better across the board, the additional hassle of hooking up to my home rig and sitting still for a few hours is sometimes outweighed by being able to just pick up the Elears and slap on some tunes on my mobile device while I’m wandering about the house. As mentioned, the Elear get pleeenty loud enough off most sources, so standalone amping certainly isn’t a requirement for these cans unless you really want to unlock their inner potential.

Separation, soundstage and layering

As mentioned, the Elear throws a stage image that isn’t overly large for an open backed can, sticking to IEM sort of dimensions as it pushes a little outside your head in all directions. Staging is deep, however, and also carries a decent height to the presentation. To me, the Elear feels compact in overall dimensions but actually quite large in the sizing of the individual notes.

L/R separation is good, with hard panned guitars and sound effects hugging the periphery of the imagined sound space, not bleeding into the tightly defined centre image. The soundstage is almost spherical, with good instrument placement which allows the listener to locate spatial cues with relative ease.

Layering is good, if not the mind blowing due to the stage. Instruments stick close to each other due to the relative size of the stage and size of the notes being presented, but on a well mastered track then it’s never difficult to peel back the individual slices of sound to follow individual licks and runs in the overall soundscape.

Comparisons

Campfire Audio Cascade

The Cascade marks Campfire Audio’s entry into the over-ear headphone market, packing an all-metal construction, closed back (and portable) design and a 40mm beryllium dynamic driver. It is priced at $799, so comes in slightly cheaper than the Elear’s current list price, but is more or less equivalent to the current street price for the Focal cans.

Starting with sound, the Cascade has a bassier and slightly less dynamic sound than the Elear, with more body to the low end and a slightly less crisp feel to the presentation. It carries a little more physical impact down low, but can lack a little of the Elear’s class leading dynamic punch in the midrange with more frenetic tracks. That isn’t to say the Cascade is lacking, as it does sport a hugely dynamic sound itself, but just isn’t quite at the stellar level of the Elear in this specific regard.

Tonally, the Cascade are a warmer headphone than the Focal, with voices feeling slightly more forward in comparison to the Elear. The Elear has a slightly leaner tone, so carries a little more texture in the midrange, where the Campfires tends to sound a little smoother and more emotional in its delivery. Audible detail retrieval and resolution is similar between both, with the Cascade keeping pace with the Elear, despite the increased bass presence. The Elear feels the “crisper” of the two cans, but this is due to its relative lack of warmth and bass compared to the Cascade. In contrast, the Cascade feels the fuller and richer of the two, with a more enveloping sound. Guitars sound crisp and spiky on the Elear, and solid and meaty on the Cascade. Drums hit with visceral immediacy and then relax on the Elear, but hit you slower yet a lot heavier on the Cascade, and linger a little longer to see the damage done. The Cascade also sport four different sets of tuning dampers, which affect the relative tonality of the mids and bass, allowing you to fine tune the headphone a little closer to your specific preferences, which is a nice touch.

In terms of driving power, the Cascade requiring a little less juice from all of my sources except the LG V30 (which has its high gain output triggered by the 80 Ohm output of the Elear. Comfort wise, the Elear feel a little lighter and less “present” on the head than the more solidly built and sturdy feeling Cascades. The Cascade offers far superior noise isolation, being a closed back design, and has smaller earpads which hug the outer ear a lot closer than the Elear but feel a lot softer and plumper. The Cascade also leaks practically no noise into the surrounding environment, in comparison to the portable loudspeaker effect of the Elear.

Looking at presentation and loadout, the Cascade sports a less ostentatious but more practical package. There is a well designed version of the normal Campfire Audio carry case, built to accommodate the Cascade when folded in half (yes, they pack down to portable size by means of a hinge in the headband), in comparison to the far more regal but less practical presentation box of the Elear, which doesn’t come with a portable alternative.

The cabling is also more practical on the Cascade, with a 3.5mm cloth covered version of the famous ALO Audio SPC Litz cable included in a portable friendly length of 1.5m or thereabouts. In contrast, the Elear’s amp friendly 6.3mm connector and 3m length on their rubberised monstrosity of a cable fixes it firmly in the non-portable (and frankly unwieldy) category, and is a lot less ergonomic and user friendly to actually use without resorting to the aftermarket cable landscape.

Build quality on both headphones is high, but the Cascade edges it overall, with a more compact and sturdy feel to the construction. It is marginally heavier on the head, but the weight distribution is good and it feels more robust and solid than the Elear. It also has rotating earpads, so molds more completely to the shake if the head and ears when worn.

Overall, both headphones are heavy hitters in their price brackets, with the Elear costing about $200 more than the Cascade at current street prices. Neither is an outright winner, with the Elear having a crispness and dynamism to its sound that the Cascade can’t quite match. The Campfire model parries in response with a weightier bass, a warmer and more intimate sound (the word vinyl-esque keeps springing to mid) and a feel of physical substance to the notes that the Elear can’t outdo. If I had to pick just one, I’d probably go with the Cascade – it shares a similar stage size but adds a chunkier feel to the sound without losing detail (once you get used to the presentation), and is usable both as a portable can on things like the daily commute, and a sit at home listening pair, which the open backed Elear can’t do. I wouldn’t like to give up the Elear’s unique sense of dynamism, however, so it wouldn’t be a decision that came without a downside.

Mr Speakers AEON Closed

The AEON Closed is MrSpeakers’ recent award winning entry into the over ear mid-fi price bracket ($799), sporting a futuristic looking closed back design and a planar magnetic driver with their proprietary V-Planar and waveguide technologies. It is another example of headphone manufacturers trying something different with the overall construction and shape of the “standard” driver, so begs a closer comparison.

Sonically, the Aeon treads a different path to the Elear, presenting sound with a beautifully musical neutrality and lightness of touch compared to the more sculpted dynamism of the Elear’s soundscape. Bass is a bone of contention for some with the Aeon, with the V-Planar driver sticking strictly to neutral territory in both quantity and slam, and requiring some serious current to sound its best. It is a wonderfully textured and detailed affair, but feels very laid back and soft in comparison to the Elear, which sports more mid-bass and a far bigger sense of impact and physical punch. Extension actually feels better on the Aeon, despite the 5 Hz rating of the Elear, with true sub bass feeling a little stronger on the Mr Speakers model in comparison to the midbass. As you move up through therange, the Elear starts to comfortably win the arm wrestle, providing a more substantial foundation to the sound.

Mids on the Aeon are more balanced than the Elear, sharing a similar stage position but not relaxing quite so much as they extend up through the range. The Aeon and Elear share a similar level of detailing here, with the Aeon just pulling away when worn without the tuning pad inserts to my ears, although the differences aren’t large, and come with a tradeoff of a loss of some of the warmth to the sound and a sharper edge to the notes which can border on harshness with some poorly recorded tracks. The Aeon feels a little more lush and romantic in its presentation, compared to the more hard-edged and aggressive sound of the Elear, which lacks a little of the subtle warmth of the Aeon. Voices sound just a shade more rounded and three dimensional through the closed back can, with a slightly more natural timbre to my ears. The Elear parries with a more substantial feel to the sound in the lower midrange, bottom edges of the notes being bolstered by the larger mid-bass presence rising up from underneath.

Treble is similar on both, with the Aeon edging out the Elear in terms of absolute clarity and smoothness, but apart form that, not a huge amount to differentiate them. In terms of soundstage, both cans are fairly similar in stage size, the Aeon having a large stage for a closed back compared to the small (for an open back) staging of the Elear. There is a little more specificity to my ears with the instrument placement of the Aeon, putting sounds down with a little more definition overall in the stage. Separation is similar, with the Aeon sounding a little less thick through certain frequencies, so the notes appearing a little further apart.

One area where the Elear does forge ahead sound wise is dynamism and slam, with the ultra punchy delivery across the range sitting in stark contrast to the slightly warm and almost mellow accuracy of the Aeon. There is a sense of physicality imparted by the Elear that the Aeon just doesn’t replicate, and while this is actually preferable for certain genres of music, the Elear has a clear advantage in terms of engagement here. For IEM listeners, the difference between the two presentations is almost akin to the difference between balanced armature bass and dynamic driver bass – all-BA setups can replicate texture and volume with absolute clarity, but no matter how they are designed, just can’t match the physical impact of air moving into your eardrums that a good DD creates. The Aeon and Elear evoke that sort of difference in my mind, with the Aeon being textured but polite and the Elear punching far more air into the ear canal.

Looking at build and ergonomics, both headphones are beautifully constructed, sharing mainly metal frames and a comfy on-head experience. Like the dynamics section above, there is one easy winner when it comes to ergonomics, however – the Aeon. The ultra light nitinol headband and super-comfy suspension system on the hemispherical earcups gives the Aeon an almost feather-light wearing experience, floating on top of the head for hours on end with no sense of fatigue. The Elear feel finely machined, but just don’t hug the head in the same way, and are far less secure for moving around. The Aeon also comes with a superb (and superbly compact) hard carrying case, making them more transportable than the Elear’s gigantic foam filled presentation box.

Drivability: while the Aeon is the more portable of the two headphones (both in terms of wearing comfort and isolation), it requires far more power to drive well. It is capable of getting loud off most sources, but due to the low impedance / low sensitivity combination of its V-Planar driver, it requires a source that can push some serious current through it to sound its best, otherwise that otherwise lush and musical midrange starts to sound a little thin, and the bass tends to evaporate like new year’s resolutions in February. The Elear still scales admirably with better or more powerful sources, but doesn’t sound lacking when played through something a little less punchy.

Finally, in terms of isolation, the Aeon wins this hands down with its fully closed back design, blocking out far more of the environmental noise around you (as you would expect), and also leaking far less in to the immediate vicinity, allowing these to be used out and about (or in bed next to a sleeping partner) with more flexibility than the truly open backed experience of the Elear.

This is a closer run thing than the Cascade comparison above for my personal preferences, in that I can’t pick which presentation I prefer as they differ so much. The Aeon is the smooth, relaxing but detailed musical ride that soothes your ears with sonic beauty, and the Elear is the fizzing ball of sound that gives you music at its most raw and engaging. These are headphones designed for completely different experiences, so that should be considered before parting money with either, as neither presentation is perfect for all eventualities. That being said, there is a reason both sets of cans have won a sackful of respected industry awards each, so with these it’s more of a case of picking your preference then picking your poison, as neither would be anything less than a great choice.

Specifications

Specifications
Price $999 (MSRP)
Driver type 40mm Aluminium – Magnesium M-Dome dynamic driver
Frequency Response 5Hz – 23kHz
Weight 450g
Cable 3m ultra low impedance 6.3mm / 3.5mm cable
THD <0.3% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
Impedance 80Ω
Sensitivity 104 dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
Connectors 2 x 3.5mm

 

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 – 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. Their pedal-to-the-metal dynamism and relaxed upper midrange both need a bit of adjusting to, and these certainly aren’t the be all and end all in the current over-ear marketplace if you are looking for one can to rule all genres. For me, given my tuning and music preferences, the Elear are a musical, punchy and rich sounding over-ear that I am very much impressed with, and hold a specific place in my headphone inventory for those times when I want to be blown away by the sheer dynamic spectacle of a track.

If you are looking for a “classic” open backed headphone sound, the Elear may not be exactly what you imagine, sharing more traits with high end closed backs (or IEMs), and lacking that truly expansive soundstage and presentation that an open back can provide. These are traded for a level of dynamics and crunchy texture to the sound that are a little different to the competition, and certainly unlikely to be drastically bettered by anything else in this price range for the foreseeable future. In fact, price is an interesting consideration – while these definitely fall into the bracket of diminishing returns compared to the $200-$500 headphone market, the level of performance you can attain in an overear certainly for this pricetag certainly seems to outstrip the smaller and more incremental improvements in the in-ear market at the same sort of range. If portability isn’t a concern and you do most of your listening at home, the comparative value for money on these compared to an IEM in the same sort of pricerange is certainly worth considering. These are a can for listening to in the comfort of your favourite listening chair at home, that will make you feel like you are in the middle of a heaving crowd in your local music venue. If that’s what you are after, I can recommend the Elear without reservation – pipe and slippers wearers need not apply!

2 thoughts on “Focal Elear: dynamism with a dash of French flair

Add yours

  1. What an excellent review of the elears, thank you for your thoughts on them. I have a pair myself and actually ordered the same Questyle amp a few days ago, happy to hear that they match so well.

    Like

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