Everyone keeps talking about the Focal Utopia headphones and how you just have to have a pair. I regard that as very good idea IF you don’t have to go without lunch and miss a few car payments as well. I don’t regard the Utopias as overpriced just, well, expensive. Fortunately, they have a little brother (or a little sister) called the Focal Elear. As I understand it, the Utopia and Elear headphones share similar design principles; however, most notably, the Utopias use beryllium drivers and the Elears use aluminum. I have no problem with that; and, even though I briefly lusted after a pair of Utopias, I ended up making the practical choice of the Elear accompanied by Moon Audio’s very fine Silver Dragon headphone cable.
When I first got my Elear headphones, I felt a little letdown. I had heard so much hype that I had unrealistic expectations. I don’t mean that I felt underwhelmed by their sound. I mean that they sounded different from any other headphone I had heard, a sort of combination of the Sennheiser HD650’s and the HiFiMan HE-1000’s. I needed to listen with them for a while to really appreciate how they made the hard work of reproducing music in an emotionally engaging way seem easy. I am listening to the TIDAL HiFi “Chill” playlist with a Woo Audio WA6-SE and the Elear headphones as I write this. The bass seems so taught and clean, the midrange so liquid, and the treble so extended but never annoying, I hear a level of detail that rivals the best planar magnetic and electrostatic headphones out there without seeming “tizzi”, to borrow an adjective from George Cardas.
Focal Elear on Woo Audio Headphone Stand
Listening to the red-book CD of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, I remained well aware of the rhythm but also heard the vocals and closely followed the lyrics, a musically poetic experience. Next I queued up Kate Bush’s classic double LP Arial. My favorite track is “Pi”, with Bush rattling off digits like some holy incantation performed by astronomers. Although I wouldn’t say that listening to the vinyl LP[s] of Aerial through the Elear headphones sounded like I had played the album through my loudspeakers, I did connect to the music in a way that reminded more of playing it aloud than when I use most other headphones I own. Only the Fostex TH900’s might have an an edge on the Elear’s in terms of a loudspeaker-like sound because of the TH900’s prodigious but natural sounding bass.
Pretty much purely by coincidence, an early pressing of John Coltrane Live! at the Village Vanguard arrived from the Paris Jazz Corner at 5 Rue de Navarre, Paris France right in time to try with my French Focal Elear headphones. All in mono and an example of model jazz (like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue), as soon as the stylus of my Audio Note Io Gold started following the groove, I felt transported to the crowded night club and could close my eyes and imagine John Coltrane standing right in front of me. Rather than accentuating the surface noise (of which I heard little), the Elear headphones just played the tune with no comment of their own. They “channeled” Coltrane right into me in a moment of pure bliss and splendor.
Lastly, I decided to experiment a bit with internet radio, so–after fiddling with several preprogrammed stations on my Magnum Dynalab internet tuner–I landed on BBC Radio 3 during their late night show in the U.K. You may think it difficult to judge the quality of headphones using a compressed stream coming, ultimately, through a cable modem. However, Magnum Dynalab learned a lot about digital signal processing when they developed the satellite radio tuners they offered. Without going into excessive detail, they try to reconstruct a musical waveform in as pleasing a manner as possible and run it through a an all-triode vacuum tube output stage. The result sounds really lovely and rivals terrestrial FM without so much noise. I have no idea what aria the BBC played, and I really don’t like opera all that much, but the Elear headphones offered a gentle yet detailed presentation of the music that lured me in, and I felt a little bit like Linda Hunt’s character Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously listening to Kiri Te Kanawa with arms lifted in the air as if to conduct. I can personally think of no higher compliment to give the Focal Elear headphones.