Focal Headphones Comparison - 2019
A thorough analysis of the Clear, Utopia, Elegia and Stellia.
Company & Product Overview
If you are in the world of high-end audio, you know Focal. The French based company started in 1979 and has crafted a wide range of audio equipment from headphones to car audio. Every Focal product is fully designed and produced in Saint-Étienne to ensure optimal consistency and quality.
In this article, we are going to dive into some of their high-end headphones and compare each one based off of their sound and defining qualities. If you are in search of an exceptional sounding headphone and have the budget to back it, Focal headphones deliver some of the most detailed and immersive listening experiences you will find.
The four headphones we will be looking at are the Focal Clear, Elegia, Utopia, and the new Focal Stellia. Each headphone is at a different price point, possessing unique features and advantages to fit every listener’s tastes.
Operating Principle: Open-Back
Impedance: 55 Ohm
Loudspeaker: 1.6" (40mm) Aluminum/Magnesium 'M'-shape dome
The Focal Clear is one of our top-selling headphones and has become a go-to for an open-back design. In case you aren’t familiar with open-back headphones and their distinct advantages, open-back designs can be identified by their open drivers (typically with mesh behind the driver), giving the sound a more spacious feeling and a wider soundstage (you can read about open-back vs closed back here). The Focal Clear does a fantastic job of creating a defined soundstage without sacrificing low-ends. The bass remains tight and very defined without being too forward.
The impedance on the Focal Clear is 55 Ohms, meaning they can be powered using a portable audio device or laptop. However, it is highly recommended to use a headphone amp to hear their full potential.
Used in many Focal headphones, the Clear utilizes a M-shaped inverted dome loudspeaker to produce full and accurate sound. The loudspeaker in the Focal Clear is constructed of Aluminum and Magnesium, giving them the ability to produce frequencies (5Hz-28kHz) that go below and above human hearing (20Hz-20kHz).
When testing the Focal Clear, we immediately noticed how comfortable they are! The ear pads and headband feature microfiber wrapped memory foam, designed to fit firmly, while remaining breathable and soft. Like all of the headphones in this comparison, the ear cups have the standard vertical pivot, while the yoke allows them to rotate laterally for a proper fit to any head shape.
The sound of the Clear makes them worth every penny. They are incredibly balanced, meaning no level (bass, treble, mid) is exaggerated or dull. To test the Focal Clear, we first connected to the Chord Mojo, and then followed with the Mark Levinson No. 519 to demonstrate a popular setup compared to a luxury setup. On both we played a mix of Jazz, Acoustic, Rock and Electronic. The standout genre to our ear was Jazz; these headphones can reproduce the amazing sound stages in the recordings, along with minor details. Although, they sound fantastic with just about any genre we played. If you have an ear for detail, the Clear is for you.
Operating Principle: Open-Back
Impedance: 80 Ohm
Loudspeaker: 1 37⁄64“(40mm) pure Beryllium “M” shape dome
Continuing on the path of open-back headphones, the Utopia is the Clear’s big brother and Focal’s flagship open-back headphones, adding new technology to 35 years of innovation to make them one of the best on the market. While these headphones aren’t for those on a budget, they use the ideas from their already great sounding Clear and take it to a new level!
At an impedance of 80 ohms, the Utopia requires a headphone amp to get to a listening volume that shows their jaw-dropping dynamics. The reason the headphones are so tough to drive is a combination of the monolayer voice coil, magnets, and their Beryllium “M” shape dome. The results show for a headphone that can drop down to 5Hz and reach as high as 50kHz, far beyond our range of hearing and even higher than what some studio mics can capture. This allows for high registering frequencies to be played, and while you may not be able to audibly detect them, they add texture to instruments like pianos, harps, cymbals and brass instruments.
Besides just the technical advancements in the Utopia, they put forth some extra effort to make these headphones some of the most comfortable. After all, what are great sounding headphones if you can’t stand to wear them for more than 30 minutes? The Utopia only weighs about a pound and features perforated, ultra-soft lambskin leather on both the padded ear cups and headband for extended comfort and breathability.
The sound from these headphones will blow you away. All of these headphones do an astonishing job of recreating music with amazing detail, but the Utopia delivers an experience that most people haven’t heard. To many, $4,000 sounds unbelievable for a headphone, but most that hear the Utopia will agree that they are like no other. Testing the Focal Utopia, we used the same power sources as the previous test: the Chord Mojo and the Mark Levinson No. 519. While both powered the headphones well, allowing them to show great detail and dynamics, the Utopia’s full potential could be heard once connected to the Mark Levinson No. 519. The combination placed us in the song, hearing details that hadn’t been experienced before. With the open-back design, the sound was given a spacious room filling illusion. One of the surprising songs that stands out to us is Punch Brother’s title track “All Ashore”. In the start of the song, a banjo starts lightly playing and is joined by a mandolin, and on the mandolin strings you can hear the details of the pick lightly scraping and popping as it comes off. When tested with other headphones, you could hear the sound, but without the same amount of detail.
If you are looking for hyper-realistic, immersive sound, and are looking at high-end, open-back headphones, the Focal Utopia is worth spending the extra money.
Operating Principle: Closed-Back
Impedance: 35 Ohm
Loudspeaker: 1.57" (40 mm) 'M'-shape Aluminum/ Magnesium dome
Moving to a closed-back design, Focal’s Elegia headphone was the first from their lineup to not share the open-back concept. The goal was to create a headphone that was isolating, but still retained the sound quality of past models, even borrowing elements from both their structure and materials.
The Focal Elegia were designed with mobility in mind. With an impedance of 35 Ohms, they can be powered by a laptop or smartphone. The closed-back design ensures isolation from outside sound wherever you are.
Although an important benefit, portability wasn’t the most important design element in creating these headphones. To make the Elegia what Focal refers to as “the first audiophile circum-aural closed-back headphones,” the sound had to meet their standards, so they added a 1.57" (40 mm) 'M'-shape Aluminum/ Magnesium dome, a similar loudspeaker to the Focal Clear. Even though the Elegia shares the same loudspeaker size and materials, there are many other internal and external components that differentiate them. The Elegia keeps the astounding detail that the others have, but without the same design and driver combination as the others in the lineup, they don’t possess quite the same soundstage. With that being said, the design allows the Elegia to be much warmer and deliver articulated low-ends.
The construction of the Elegia is reminiscent of the Clear, in that they have the same yoke and shape, but the microfiber material on the earpads is black. Overall, they keep the same cushioned comfort as others in the lineup and weigh just under a pound, so you won’t feel the fatigue of heavier high-end headphones.
We tested these headphones with four different power sources: the two from the other tests (Chord Mojo and Mark Levinson No. 519) but added an AudioQuest Dragonfly and a laptop as reference. We tested these using a few songs from various genres: Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bars,” Jackson Brown’s 1977 live version of “Shakey Town” from Running on Empty, Chet Baker’s 1954 recording of “My Funny Valentine,” and various synth and electronic based songs. The results incrementally step up as we go through the sources. With the laptop, high-ends were chopped off and bass was weak, decidedly not able to deliver the full Focal sound that you come to expect. After moving to the AQ Dragonfly, those tones start to reveal, displaying crisp and detailed trebles and accurate bass. As you move to the Mojo, the headphones start to shine, delivering punch and crisp vocals that make the acoustic songs sound close and personal. Taking the leap to the Mark Levinson No. 519, it polished the sound, but it wasn’t the jump that we heard from the others in the lineup – that may be due to their lower impedance or qualities associated with their driver. Overall, the Focal Elegia have an amazingly wide soundstage that is hard to find in closed-back headphones, crisp detail, and tight, accurate bass. If you’re a person who loves heavy low-ends, these might not be the headphones for you, but if you want warmth, then they’ll be perfect.
Operating Principle: Closed-Back
Impedance: 35 Ohm
Loudspeaker: 1.6" (40mm) pure Beryllium "M" shape dome
For our last headphone, we have Focal’s brand new flagship closed-back design, the Focal Stellia. This headphone is one of the most impressive headphones that we have tried, and not just for a closed-back. Focal made these with some of the same portable ideologies as the Elegia, but went all out with the sound, making these absolutely remarkable. While they are set at a high price point ($3,000), they’re worth every bit if you are a headphone enthusiast. The Focal Stellia shares the same dome material and shape (1.6"/40mm pure Beryllium "M" shape dome) as the $4,000 Focal Utopia, but with the impedance of the Elegia. The frameless voice coil and closed-back design make the Stellia the perfect headphone for on-the-go or at home listening.
The design and construction follow the same path as the other Focal lineup, but add cognac and mocha finish with full grain leather cushions and headband. These are just as comfortable as the Utopia, and the overall design and color make these an immediate eye catcher. These headphones make you want to sit and listen to a full album after playing one song.
We didn’t know what to expect out of a closed-back headphone with a Beryllium dome. After letting these break in for around 50 hours, we started our testing with the Chord Mojo and were immediately blown away! We played Pink Floyd’s “Time” and that’s when we realized these were something special. The ticking clocks and deep drums became three dimensional and every detail revealed itself. At the 2:20 mark, David Gilmour’s voice floats in front of you. The low-ends in the Stellia are strong and tight without being overpowering, similar to a high-quality floorstanding speaker, while the highs are crisp and defined without being remotely piercing. To test soundstage, we moved up to the Mark Levinson and played Yosi Horikawa’s “Bubbles”. The song starts with what sounds like ping pong balls, marbles, and kickballs bouncing on concrete towards you. With high-quality headphones, you get a sense of room space and can almost point to where each bounce is. With the isolation and detail of these headphones, they make you feel like you’re a part of the show. If you are searching for the perfect pair of closed-back headphones, the Focal Stellia is your answer.
Each of these headphones have their own price point and defining qualities to fit your ear and lifestyle. Focal’s entire lineup is the result of 40 years of innovation and craftsmanship and any headphone of theirs will be an impressive addition to your setup. If you’ve been looking for a high-quality, comfortable, and great sounding headphone, strongly consider Focal.
If you have questions on how a set of Focal headphones will fit your system or listing style, give us a call, chat, or email. Our experienced team can help find the right pair for you.