Story by Ryan Waniata, via our partner site, Digital Trends /
After years in the audio game, we’ve blown through a litany of headphones, including some of the best (and most expensive) cans in the world. Even so, few headphone models have revved our motor quite like the latest from French audio maker, Focal. Fashioned with a sleek and glittering silver frame, and begging a regal price, Focal’s latest are nothing short of a testament to transparency, right down to their apt and simple name: Clear.
Luxuriously adorned and steeped in striking minimalism, Focal’s new Clear headphones match stunning good looks with equally stunning sound. And while the performance of these bombastic cans isn’t without some intriguing idiosyncrasies, the Clear reveal a sweet mix of gorgeous bass and astonishing detail that truly has to be heard to be believed.
The headphones arrive in a domed hard-shell case with an impressive collection of cable options in tow, including a 4-foot 3.5mm cable for travel and two 10-foot cables, one with a quarter-inch termination and one ending in a four-point XLR jack. If you didn’t know already, those latter options signal the Clear are designed for serious listeners.
In both the look and feel of their design, the Clear are among the finest examples of quality headphone craftsmanship you’ll come across. Handmade in France, the Clear’s slick metallic frame is hewn from rock-solid aluminum and feels incredibly stout, even for a pair of headphones that cost around the same price as a well-used Volkswagen Beetle.
While there’s plenty to ogle here, it’s the fit of these headphones that’s perhaps their most impressive design element. Designed to stay firmly in place for the perfect balance on your head, the rigid headband fits like a well-worn glove as you put the cans on, somehow perfectly match your head size. The earpieces do all the work, staying firmly in place while adjusting to fit with spring-like tension, taking the onus of clamping force off the headband itself. Donut-shaped microfiber pads add sumptuous comfort along the earpieces, matched with the same padding above. Weighing nearly a pound, we were amazed every single time we put on the Clear at just how light and fluffy these headphones feel, making this one of the few times we agree with a brand’s PR narrative almost entirely.
Adding more fuel to that disappearing headphone trick are the incredibly transparent open-back screens on each earpiece’s outer shell, offering little more than a window screen’s worth of separation between your ears and the outside world. While that’s not ideal for listening in a busy office or on the bus, it allows for an incredibly airy and open soundstage when those drivers get humming.
Speaking of the drivers, it’s notable that Focal employs dynamic drivers for its “reference” cans, as opposed to the planar magnetic drivers found in many other high-end headphones from the likes of Oppo, Audeze, HIFIMan, and others. Borrowed from the company’s luxurious Elear ($1,000) and aspirational Utopia ($4,000) headphones, the Clear’s “M”-shaped aluminum-magnesium dome drivers are 40mm in size, and set with the brand’s specialized copper voice coil designed for improved dynamics and well-controlled bass, even at high volumes. Again, we’re forced to agree with Focal’s PR department there, as the drivers provide excellent execution on both points.
When it comes to specs, the Clear headphones have some numbers worth noting, including 55-Ohm impedance, making it fairly difficult to drive these cans without a legit headphone amp. The frequency response is a claimed 5Hz-28kHz, and we’re prone to agree with that number, especially on the low end where the headphones show serious punch and fullness even in the sub-bass frequencies.
We auditioned the Clear headphones by listening to a variety of music genres and file types, including compressed, lossless, and high-resolution files. For a power source, we recruited Antelope’s Zodiac headphone amp/DAC, as well as Astell&Kern’s SP1000 hi-res audio player.
Perhaps the best word to describe the Clear’s performance is simply “more.” The Clear’s sound signature provides more . . . everything, really, running the full gamut of their massive frequency response. While the soundstage, as mentioned, is extremely open and airy, the sound signature itself is more colored and bombastic than the “flatter” frequency response found in our reference headphones, including Ultimate Ears’ UE18+ and UE RM in-ear monitors, and Audeze’s more affordable EL-8 planar magnetic open-back headphones.
Instead, the Clear provide a highly engaging, hyper-realistic soundscape; rattling nickel-plated cymbals clang with more slick metal grit, crunchy sawtooth synths and electric guitars bite with extra crunch, and taut mandolin strings click with textured definition as though you’re inches from the fretboard. The cans seem to accentuate almost every audible frequency, leading to absolutely exquisite instrumental detail and, as you might guess by the name, stunning clarity. Shocking, really. The Clear are unflinchingly lucid, especially in the higher register, feeling almost like x-ray goggles for your ears, allowing you to peer your way through productions of the utmost complexity and isolate every note, every string slide, and every lip movement effortlessly.
The Clear’s almost supernatural revelations in well-worn tracks lead to a scavenger hunt of discovery from within your library. One such memorable moment in our review came when listening to the chaotic string section in Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.” The strings sound almost like they’ve been remixed through the Clear, offering more musicality, more colorful overtones, and more liveliness to the frantic bowing than we’ve heard in dozens of previous listens. We could practically analyze individual violin timbres among the chorus, like a storied conductor.
Other such experiences of sublime detail included Muse’s “Soldier’s Poem,” where we heard Matt Bellamy’s high harmony in the final chorus cut through the cacophony of sounds for the first time ever; a clearly revealed floor stomp added to the clapping at the end of Ben Folds’ “My Philosophy,” again revealed for the first time; and a riveting mix of flavors in the percussion at the end of Dirty Projectors’ “Up in Hudson,” allowing us to identify not just the location of each instrument in the mix, but also the different pitches and resonances of each little tap strewn across the vast soundstage. You’ll hear vocal breath puffs you’ve never experienced, guitar string slides you’d swear were just added in, and swelling dynamics in the simplest instrumental lines that bring more liveliness and authenticity to virtually anything you audition.
The Clear’s ability to magnify your music with incredible power, of course, has dual edges, and with a headphone of this caliber we’re a bit more nitpicky as you might imagine. For one thing, the upper register is often a shade or two brighter than what we expect from reference-level headphones, adding some extra zeal to metallic instrumental flavors such as Bob Dylan’s jangly guitar strings on “It’s Alright Ma,” or Miles Davis’ buzzing muted trumpet from “It Never Entered My Mind.” Both instruments sounded a little bracing, though not all-out harsh or sibilant. Meanwhile, any sort of harmonic dissonance, distortion, or other recording flaw is wholly exposed by the Clear, to the point that some of our favorite grungier recordings were essentially unlistenable.
That high-powered sound magnification also extends to the bass response, which is so rich, so full, and so present (especially in the lowest frequencies) it mixes with the higher frequencies almost like a subwoofer with a set of high-end studio monitors. Bass is incredibly sumptuous through the Clear, offering authentic reproduction of sub-bass frequencies, velvety mid and upper bass response, and sledge-hammer rigidity from well produced tracks. One particularly luscious moment came in the bass solo from Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” which enters so masterfully, our scribbled notes said simply: “There is no other sound in the world.” The bass is so absolutely encompassing (in a good way), it seems to take over the entire room.
Bass also tended to get just a tad heavy in some of the bassier productions we sent its way, though. The clearest example came when auditioning the first episode of CBS’ newest addition to the Star Trek Series, Star Trek: Discovery, where the omnipresent sub-bass frequencies meant to emulate deep space became a bit of a distraction. Listening to other soundtracks and effects from TV and movies seemed to occasionally reveal ballooned bass response, especially during the musical themes — much like what happens when you’ve connected a regular hi-fi with a powerful subwoofer in your living room. But the issue was, for whatever reason, much more pronounced using the Zodiac than with the A&K SP1000.
Through either device, a few hip-hop songs like Anderson .Paak’s “The Bird,” were also a bit heavy in the sub-100Hz domain, though bass is layered with so much chocolatey goodness, it’s hard to find much fault. Sampling bass-heavy albums like The Weeknd’s Starboy resulted in a pleasurable punch of dance-club verve, and sprinkled in amid those robust and rigid bass lines were plenty of sparkling details, including the near-visceral soda bubbles fizzing as The Weeknd says the line “mixin’ up a drink” on “Party Monster.” That particular detail is another among many we’ve missed in previous listens, and yet with the Clear it was so … well, clear we felt like we were mixing that drink ourselves.
Apart from our most bass-heavy tracks, the Clear balance the sonic colors well. Tracks that sound well-balanced in our other reference cans remained balanced through the Clear, though again, with some added flavor. The headphones tend to simply amplify whatever tendencies are present in the mix in the first place, usually for the better.
For the vast majority of our review, we found ourselves simply reveling in the sterling clarity and detail afforded by the Clear, which stand as some of the most remarkable over-ear headphones in their class.