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A French approach to headphone design

The Focal Clear headphones are designed and made in France to satisfy the most demanding audiophiles.

Focal is best known as France's leading high-end speaker brand, but starting just last year it introduced two spectacular headphones, the Elear and the Utopia. Today I'm reviewing Focal's latest entry, the similarly named Clear, and all three headphones share a similar design and aesthetic. They're all over-the-ear, open-back headphones, with a sound that's big on clarity, spacious imaging and neutral tonal balance.

The Focal Clear


The 40mm aluminum-magnesium dome driver and its ultralight copper voice coil are exclusive to the Clear. Its perforated microfiber ear cushions are super-comfy. That's good news because the Clear weighs just under 1 pound (450 grams), and yet it was still a very comfortable headphone to wear over long listening sessions.

To ensure maximum flexibility the Clear comes with three sets of cables, a 3-meter cable with a 6.3mm plug, one with a four-pin XLR plug, and a 1.2-meter cable with a 3.5 mm plug. The Clear is made in Saint-Etienne, France, and build quality is very much up to high-end standards. The headphone comes with a snazzy hard carrying case to protect these gorgeous 'phones when you're on the move.

I'm guessing the Clear will be mostly used as a home headphone, but it's easy enough to drive with portable music players, or even smartphones. I was really happy with the sound with the Clear plugged into my iPhone 6S. Even so, the sound noticeably perked up when I plugged the Clear into an Astell & Kern Kann portable music player. There's just one snag with portable use: as an open-back headphone, the Clear doesn't block external noise.

What does it sound like? "Clear" would be an obvious place to start, with an unforced quality that just seems to let music through without imposing any change on it. I associate that sort of sound with vanishingly low distortion, and maybe that's why the Clear makes music sound so realistic. A set of Audeze LCD3 Fazor headphones were veiled by comparison. Norah Jones' "Flipside" for example had a more opaque quality over the LCD3, the Clear uncapped more of the music's drive and life force. So much so I that started swaying in what passes for dancing with the Clear on my noggin. The Clear's sound was more open and spacious, while the LCD3's was slightly claustrophobic. The Clear's treble was more extended and pure, and bass definition was also superior. Still, the LCD3's bass oomph and visceral punch outpaced the Clear's, so if you're looking for a muscular, gutsy sound, the LCD3 would be a better choice.


Left to right, the Focal Elear, Clear, and Utopia

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Stepping up to Focal's flagship Utopia headphone brought not only more clarity, but also more body to the sound of the instruments, populating cellist Yo-Yo Ma's "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" classical/bluegrass fusion album more than what I heard from the LCD3 or the Clear. The Utopia doesn't just deliver vivid transparency; there's an organic wholeness to the sound.

Rocking out to Cream's "Disraeli Gears" album was pure bliss, the Utopia  just sounds better and better the louder you play it. This headphone is an audiophile guilty pleasure, but returning to the Clear wasn't that much of a letdown. The Clear revives the ghosts of the musicians that played on that record decades ago.

I next compared the Focal Elear with the Clear, and the latter is simply a higher resolution, clearer and airier sounding headphone. The Elear is a sweet but less immediate, less tactile-sounding device. It's all a matter of degrees of course, and that's still high praise indeed for the Elear.

As you might have figured out by now, the Clear is the middle model of Focal's high-end headphone line, it sells for $1,499, but since UK and Australia prices have not yet been set, the straight conversion equivalents are around £1,130 and AU$1,900. The Elear is $1,000, £892 or AU$1,199; while the Utopia goes for $4,000, £3,499 or AU$5,500.