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Focal Clear: open-back headphones perfect for high-fidelity listening on the sofa

Door Alban Amouroux |

A few weeks ago, we tested the most advanced closed-back headphones in the Focal range: the Stellia. The Clear model by the same brand is for people who like listening to music in a quiet environment (think relaxing in an armchair in the living room). The Clear is open-back with different qualities from the Stellia, yet still just as intriguing.

Closed-back Hi-Fi headphones aim to block out outside noise. We’re not talking about electronic noise-cancelling technology, like what lots of Bluetooth headphones use. We’re talking about headphones that completely enclose the ears in a sealed shell, meaning that you can use closed-back headphones when there’s background noise or people talking nearby. In addition, the sound remains trapped in the headphones and probably won’t disturb others. Closed-back headphones can be used outdoors even though they’re often quite big and not always practical for travel.

On the opposite end are the open-back headphones. They’re almost identical, except for one detail that makes all the difference: they’re not sealed. They send sound towards the ears as well as towards the outside of the headphones. Despite their impressive design, they don’t isolate outside noise. Plus, the music coming out of the headphones may disturb people around you, even though the volume will be minimal. Exploring two Focal headphones with an almost identical external design but different internal construction (check out our Focal Stellia headphones test), we delve into the advantages and disadvantages of each. We hope that this ease any decision you might want to make. The Focal range includes three closed-back and three open-back headphones ranging from €200 to €4000.

Characteristics

Price: €1500
Impedance: 55 ohms
Sensitivity: 104 dB SPL / 1 MW @ 1 kHz
Frequency Response: 5 Hz - 28 kHz
Speaker Drivers: 40mm M-shaped aluminium and magnesium dome
Provided cables: 1x 1.2m asymmetrical cable TRS 3.5mm jack, 1x 3m asymmetrical cable TRS 6.35mm jack, 1x 3m symmetrical cable 4-pin XLR connector, 1x jack adapter 3.5mm female - 6.35mm male
Weight: 450g

General presentation of the Clear

The Stellia came in a rather eccentric cognac colour. The Clear is more discreet, with a silver-grey finish. As we’ve said before, each Focal model has a different colour. All the premium Focal headphones use a similar design with a wide leather headband on the outside (grey on the Clear). The fabric that’s in contact with your head is made of perforated microfibers, whereas the Stellia used leather. Bear in mind the Clear costs half as much as the Stellia.

The headphone cups are also covered with perforated microfibers. The parts connecting the headband to the cups (called “yokes”) are made of aluminium. They hold the cups in place via a pivot system attached to a frame. The cups are made of plastic painted in a scratch-sensitive grey - probably the only aesthetic downside for headphones of this price bracket. Everything else is perfect, both in terms of material choice and assembly.

The outside of the headphone cups is covered with a fine mesh, allowing you to see into the headphones, proving that they’re open-back. In the centre, an aluminium plaque carries the name of the model, the words “Fabriqué en France” and the materials used for the speaker membranes. This all surrounds the Focal logo, which is always clearly visible. The brand name is also written in full on each side of the headband.

The headphones are comfortable as soon as you put them on and the support is well-distributed between the headband and the cups, despite weighing 450g. The pads are made from memory foam, meaning that you can also wear glasses without any discomfort. There’s no tightness or warmth around the ears, even after listening for a while.

How the Clear works

The speakers used by Focal in the Clear measure 40mm and have an M-profile that the brand is increasingly using in their various other products. The dome is made of an aluminium and magnesium alloy. They save Beryllium for their two top-of-the-range models (so not including the Clear, which is just below). After all, there’s a hierarchy to uphold! With an impedance of 55 ohms, the Clear works just as well with a portable audio player as with a headphone amp.

These open-back headphones are made for people who sit still. It’s best to use them with a system or an integrated Hi-Fi amp equipped with a good headphone output. The two 3-metre cables supplied are very useful for this. The first one is asymmetrical with a 6.35 mm jack. The second is symmetrical with a 4-pin Neutrik XLR connector. They’re detachable, as is the third asymmetrical cable with a 3.5mm mini-jack plug. With a length of only 1.5m, it’s mainly aimed at smartphones or portable audio players.

The Clear comes in a nice hard case. There’s a central pocket to store one of the cables. The other two cables come in a case with magnetic folding flaps. This is also where you can find the instructions. The whole thing is supplied in very high-quality packaging perfectly in line with the Clear's calibre.

Upon Listening

For our test, we paired the Clear with a headphone amp acting as a USB DAC, the RME ADI-2 Pro AE. We simply used the Qobuz app on our Mac. When we pressed play on Desafinado by Stan Getz on the Jazz Samba album with Charlie Byrd, the first thing that struck us was the softness. If you’re looking for headphones that will never have an aggressive sound, look no further. That’s not to say that it’s dull or flat – in fact it’s the exact opposite. Everything seems to flow naturally. But that doesn't stop it from easily bringing out the floating melodies and being able to differentiate between sound levels and the position of each instrument. The attack of the notes is met with a speed that has surprised us more than once.

Its open-back construction gives it a certain advantage for live recordings. Petra Magoni's voice on Musica Nuda - Live à FIP is well-placed in the centre with the double bass on her right. The spread of the sound is reproduced perfectly with a lucidity rarely achieved with headphones. The applause seems to come from outside the headphones for even more realism while the echo from the room surrounds your entire head. The double bass takes shape with great detail, especially in its touch and resonance. The whole thing is a real beauty, with a palpable presence when the harmonica comes in for the second part of the piece, responding to the guitar and the double bass. You can follow the three independent instruments easily.

The controlled balance of the Focal Clear can give the impression that the low register is a bit limited. This is because other headphone manufacturers have got used to inflating the bass to sound more appealing. The Clear is measured but realistic in this domain. Without being aggressive in the treble either, this linearity means that you can listen at a sustained volume without feeling tired. We end with the track Read My Mind from Lianne La Havas’ latest album, where the percussions are sustained and deep, accompanied by a beautiful bass line. With different so-called "bass line headphones”, the bass on this modern and skin-prickling soul would overflow in all directions, making it far too invasive to listen to. With the Clear, we simply sit back and enjoy it.

“+” and “-“

+:
Relaxing listening
Large sound format
Balanced registers
Comfortable headband and earpads
Symmetrical and asymmetrical cables

-:
The finishing around the headphone cups
No choice of colour

Conclusion

These are quintessential Hi-Fi headphones. The term takes on its full meaning here because the Clear reveals music without any artifice. They’re the opposite of headphones with supported sound technology. With the Clear, you can never have too much of this or too much of that. If you’re used to vivid, sound-boosting headphones, the Clear might seem a bit too... clear at first glance. But it is simply “transparent”. It doesn't add anything, especially not in the low frequencies. The harmonious whole makes for pleasant listening and it never feels forced. It’s very easy to follow each instrument and the details in the way they’re played. Add to this the ability to reproduce a very wide listening space around the head thanks to its open-back construction. The Focal Clear is simply ideal for quality sedentary listening. Its premium level means that it must be used with a quality source and headphone amp that will deliver a perfect sound.