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Focal Listen Wireless review: A premium wireless headphone with refined sound and presence

The highly regarded French audio company's first stab at premium Bluetooth headphone delivers excellent sound. But is it the right sound for you?

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.

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You may not have heard of French audio company Focal, but among audiophiles its speakers and headphones stand in high regard. The Listen Wireless is the company's first crack at a full-size premium Bluetooth headphone.

Focal Listen Wireless-1
7.9

Focal Listen Wireless

The Good

The Focal Listen Wireless has a sturdy design, fits comfortably and snugly, and sounds excellent for a Bluetooth headphone. It folds up to fit in an included neoprene case and comes with a cable for wired listening. It also works well for making calls.

The Bad

The sound is a tad bright, which can make some music sound harsh. Heavier than some competing models. Lacks active noise cancellation.

The Bottom Line

Focal's Listen Wireless is well-built Bluetooth headphone with rich, refined sound imbued with a lot of presence -- perhaps too much for some people.

This $300 model looks similar to the wired Listen, which I liked a lot, but it has a more eye-catching glossy black finish instead of brushed silver. It folds up to fit in an included neoprene carrying case, and also comes with a cable for those times when you want to go wired.

The headphone feels sturdily built, although at 300 grams it's slightly heavy. While I found it easy enough to wear, it isn't as comfortable as Bose's QuietComfort 35. I do like that Focal's ear pads are equipped with thick, high-quality memory foam, and they managed to seal out a lot of ambient noise Unlike the Bose, however, there's no active noise cancellation. 

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The Listen Wireless is sturdily built but slightly heavy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The headphone has a dedicated on/off switch, which I liked, and it paired and re-paired without a problem, maintaining a steady Bluetooth connection. It doesn't offer multipoint pairing, which means you can't connect two devices at once and switch between them. Some people care about that feature.

I thought it also worked well as a headset for making calls; there's NFC tap-to-pair technology for devices that support it. Battery life is rated at up 20 hours of listening time, which is decent. No complaints there.

Rich, refined sound but a tad bright

Like the wired Listen, this model served up rich, refined sound, with punchy, well-defined bass and relatively open, airy sound for a closed back headphone. The mids sound natural and accurate. 

The only problem I have with Focal's sound is that it's a tad bright. It sounded great with some material -- it's designed to be revealing, but that also makes it a little unforgiving. With some tracks that extra bit of presence boost in the treble can lead to a touch too much sizzle and perhaps even some listening fatigue. 

The bright sound was even evident in wired mode, which causes much of the bass to drop out and kills the sense of balance. This headphone is best used in wireless mode only. Save the wire for low-battery emergencies.

Knowing the wireless headphone was probably going excel with jazz and well-recorded tracks, I fired up Diana Krall's "Turn up the Quiet" album and it certainly delivered. It was also an excellent match for tracks you'd typically encounter in a listening demo for a pair of audiophile headphones -- The Eagles' "Hotel California" and Pink Floyd's "Money" come to mind.

Where the headphone loses a little of its appeal is with today's amped up, heavily digitally processed music (one example among millions: Calvin Harris' "This Is What You Came For"). I'm generalizing, but the point is that headphones like Bose's QuietComfort 35 are designed to smooth out some of the potentially harsher elements of those modern mainstream mixes. The more revealing Focal brings them out and accentuates them, leaving you with a few wincing moments that make you want to turn the volume down (the headphone does play plenty loud with mobile devices).           

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Controls ring both sides of the right ear cup.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That doesn't mean the Focal Listen Wireless is a bad headphone. Not at all. It just might not be the right headphone for you and your listening tastes.

The other small issue is that it's a little too close in price to the Bose QuietComfort 35 and Sony MDR-1000X, both of which offer additional features, most notably active noise cancellation. There's also the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 at $250 that also delivers excellent sound (maybe not quite as good as this Focal), and also includes active noise-cancellation.

In terms of apples-to-apples comparisons, I also like the B&O Play by Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H4, which is a Bluetooth-only headphone that lists for $300 but can be had online for $250. It's lighter and slightly more comfortable than this Focal, though it doesn't come with a carry case. The Bluetooth-only V-Moda Crossfade Wireless 2 is another competitor that I also rate slightly higher.  

Focal Listen Wireless-1
7.9

Focal Listen Wireless

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Sound 8Value 7
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