The easiest way to hype up a new headphone is to call it a “Sennheiser HD650 but better.” It’s an established “good” headphone that many people in the hobby have heard, so it’s a good reference. I’ve owned the HD650 three or four times in the ten years I’ve been in this hobby and I’m quite familiar with it. It’s one of my favorite headphones at any price, but it has enough flaws that I’ve never been able to justify keeping it. The Focal Elear is not a “better HD650” as many initial impressions of the Elear seemed to claim. Instead of making a midrange-heavy, bassy headphone with relaxed treble, Focal created something completely different. There may be slight similarities, but it’s a stretch to say one replaces the other, as they have different strengths and weaknesses.
The Focal Elear comes in a large, very heavy, cardboard box with ample padding inside. It comes with a four meter long cable. It’s thick and heavy and I would not blame anyone if they bought a new cable for their Elear because it’s a pain to transport this cable. It almost weighs as much as the headphone itself.
The Elear’s brightest spot is easily their build. I’ve held fewer headphones that felt nicer than the Elear. If I knew nothing about headphones and someone handed me a Sennheiser HD800, I might be generous and say they cost about $500 because they look so strange. But the Elears actually feel like they cost $1000. From its all-metal frame, to its soft microfiber pads, to its leather headband, the Elears exude “expensive” in a way even companies that use metal in their headphones, like Beyerdynamic with its T1, can’t even approach. They’re a little heavy at a bit less than 500 grams, but anyone who’s owned a Hifiman or Audeze planar magnetic headphone will find no problem with the Elear.
But the sound.
The Elear is so close to being great. What keeps it from being a great headphone is grain. It’s a term describing roughness in the sound that I don’t believe I’ve used often because I usually don’t have a problem with it, but it sticks out like a sore thumb to me in the Elear. The HD598 is infamous for its grain, and while I do hear it, it doesn’t bug me as much as it seems to bug some other people I know. The HD598’s grain to me is mostly focused on the treble and maybe a bit of the upper mids. But the weird thing with the Elear is that the grain is everywhere. Going back and forth, the HD598 is significantly grainier in upper mids and treble, but for some reason, there’s a certain roughness in its lower mids (and even its bass that I don’t really want to call grain) that showcases the lack of refinement I expect for a high-end headphone.
The Elear is best described as thick and somewhat wooly. The Elear isn’t bassy like the Fostex TH-X00 or the Beyerdynamic DT770 is bassy. The Elear doesn’t have the same visceral punch that the two headphones put out due to a midbass lift. The lack of extra mid bass punch may lead one to think that the Elear is more like a flat, extended planar than a visceral dynamic in bass presentation, but what keeps it from straying too far from the dynamic realm is the longer, slower decay typical of dynamic headphones. It creates a “blanket” of low end that makes music sound slow. It’s a unique sound that I can’t really describe as well as I want to. It has great extension, which the HD650 struggles with, and it doesn’t have the same midbass boost the HD650 has. It also doesn’t have the slight muddiness the HD650 has but, for some reason, it still sounds wooly and congested. It’s strange calling a headphone wooly but not hearing the muddiness that usually comes with that descriptor, but it’s really not muddy. It’s just strangely unclean in a different way. Rather than the low notes bleeding into each other, making the notes messy and difficult to separate, it’s like the driver isn’t fast enough to reproduce sub bass in time. There’s nothing technically wrong with it; it just sounds off. As a result, the Elear’s low end sounds slow and lumbering.
The Elear’s upper midrange past 2kHz is dipped. It’s dipped to a degree that’s immediately noticeable with even casual listening. It’s most prominent for me with female vocals; they sound almost muted, even compared to the already-dipped Sennheiser HD800. The dip aids with the Elear’s overall thickness by setting a stage for the low end weight to really show itself, it often gets overwhelming with softer acoustic music. But the Elear also has slight bumps around the 1-2kHz area to create the illusion of a more “dynamic” sound by adding shout (forwardness in vocals and guitars), to distract the listener from the tumble down past the 2k region. And there’s an overall roughness in the midrange. Vocals don’t flow smoothly like they should; they have an unnatural presentation that’s often distracting and even fatiguing. I hate to say it, but even the HD650 beats the Elear in this aspect, not even considering the HD650’s more forward midrange.
9-10kHz is my weakness. Peaks here tend to fatigue me more quickly than most others. Most headphones emphasize this area, but when the lower treble is dipped but mid treble suddenly spikes, I start having problems. The Hifiman HE500 has this problem, along with the Philips Fidelio X2 and a few others. But for whatever reason, the first time I used the Elear, I got a headache by the end of the first song. It wasn’t even an excessively bright song; it was “Giorgio by Moroder” off Random Access Memories. My main amp, a Krell KSA5 Klone, is a relatively bright amp, so I switched to my warmer Bottlehead SEX to see if the sound mellowed out. While the sound is overall less fatiguing, it wasn’t exactly completely smoothened. It was still unpleasant. I’ve been generously lent this Elear by friend (Thanks Nathan!) for about a month at this point, and I still can’t use it for more than two hours without taking a break. But the reason this peak seems too severe is the dip in the presence region that continues on from the upper midrange dip. It, like the dipped upper midrange, allows for the thickness to shine through, but such a severe dip in the presence region makes everything just sound distant. It’s the kind of distance that for some may lend to being able to just relax and let music flow, but for me, disengages me from my music and almost forces me to analyze why I dislike it. But worst of all for me is the severe lack of treble past 10kHz. The sound seems closed in and congested or veiled, which, as I’ve said many times, is accentuated by the Elear’s lower end thickness. The veil may be where some may have gotten the idea to compare the Elear to the HD650. In addition, the lack of air, or 15kHz and up, gives the effect of sounding muted; instrument harmonics seem to be cut short and what’s left sounds, frankly, unsatisfying. It’s a far cry from the very open HD800 but it even sounds more congested than the LCD2.
The FR measurements I took showcase the low treble to mid treble spike pretty prominently, affirming my fatigue problems. The difference of over 10dB from 1kHz to 5kHz also shows the huge dip in the presence region. Strangely, I heard 2kHz to be higher than measured though. The Elear’s measured bass is deceiving; even though it may measure relatively flat, the fact that everything past 1k other than the mid treble is dipped so severely allows for the low end to come through and subjectively be a little too much.
I’ll include distortion measurements for those curious to see the difference in distortion between a solid state amp and a tube amp but I ask the reader not to take too much stock in them because my rig isn’t particularly reliable for distortion.
The bass does indeed sound looser out of the SEX, but it’s not unpleasantly loose.
And finally, an FR comparing the two. I didn’t think ahead so the headphone is repositioned vs the previous graph but for these, I volume matched the two amps and left the headphone alone, only touching the plug between measurements. I took measurements for both amps four times. Both shades of yellow, red, and orange are with a Bottlehead SEX with an output impedance set to 4 ohms. Both shades of blue and both shades of purple are with the Krell KSA5 Klone.
As much as I may make it seem, the Elear isn’t a bad headphone. It has tuning problems, but it has many of the hallmarks of a $1,000 headphone. It’s clean, it’s resolving, it’s technically competent overall. But it’s just such a divisive sound in a field where there are other options.
I don’t think it’s worth comparing to the HD800; they’re totally different sounds and don’t have much overlap in intended audience. It makes more sense to compare it to the Audeze LCD2, which infamously has sound variation issues. I’ve yet to hear an LCD2 with the revised drivers for 2016, but every LCD2 I’ve owned or heard had a cleaner midrange than the Elear, though they had slower, slightly muddier bass and sounded less refined overall. The Elear’s main competitor to watch is the upcoming ZMF Atticus, which I’ve recently demoed and Amar reviewed. I’ll make a head to head comparison soon, but from memory, the Atticus was bassier but had a cleaner midrange airier treble, but also sounded slightly distant.
But despite my problems with it, it would be disingenuous to outright not recommend the Elear. The Elear has its market. It’s a much more consumer-friendly sound than the HD800 and a lot lighter than any Audeze LCD headphone.
The Elear is the kind of headphone you could give to a random person off the street and say, “This is the best headphone in the world.” And they would believe you. Most people who aren’t used to other headphones in the Elear’s price range won’t hear the grain problems or notice the lack of air or really be affected by the upper midrange dip. They’re more likely to notice the extended bass, their fantastic build, and the fact that they sound pretty good out of a phone.
If a random person emailed me asking, “Should I buy the HD800 or the Elear?” I could picture myself recommending the Elear over the HD800 4/5 times because it’s doesn’t require the ridiculous system matching and sounds better for more music than the HD800. But that 1/5 will understand why the HD800 is the technically superior headphone, and it frustrates me that people can’t have both–$1,000 is a lot of money to spend on a headphone. It shouldn’t be an either-or choice between sound signature and tecehnicalities. While I understand that Focal can’t “make the Elear too good” to avoid cannibalizing Utopia sales, the corners were cut too far. Instead of making a product that could dominate the market, Focal played it too safe and missed the mark.