Hands-on With Focal's Bathys, $799 Wireless Headphones Aimed at Audiophiles
I'm not sure audiophiles were ultimately all that impressed by Apple's AirPods Max. But Focal's Bathys Bluetooth headphones could make a better impression.
David CarnoyExecutive 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.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
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French audio company Focal is known for its high-end speakers and headphones. You might call it the Bowers & Wilkins of France. And now it's finally done what a lot of high-end audio companies have had to do in this age of on-the-go wireless music listening: make active noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones.
Over three years in development, the Bathys cost $799 (£699, AU$1199) and feature not only wireless connectivity but a built-in DAC (digital-to-analog converter) for USB wired listening with any computer, smartphone or tablet with USB-C. They are easily one of the best-sounding wireless headphones.
Focal makes some hefty wired headphones for home listening, including the $3,000 Stellia that weighs in at 435 grams. For the Bathys, it created headphones that shared a similar design aesthetic but are more compact and weigh in at more reasonable 350 grams with a magnesium yoke used to help cut the weight. By comparison, the AirPods Max weigh 384.8 grams.
While they're not quite as comfortable to wear as the lighter Bose QuietComfort 45 or Sony WH-1000XM5, I did find them comfortable to wear over longer listening sessions. They didn't feel too tightly clamped, and the headband didn't create any pressure points on the crown of my head.
The name, by the way, is inspired by the bathyscaphe, the first submarine exploration vehicle, with the headphones being the "embodiment of calm, depth and absolute silence," according to Focal.
I haven't had enough time with the Bathys to post a full review but here are some quick first impressions:
While they're more compact than Focal's wired headphones, the Bathys are still large headphones and will look that way on your head. I liked how Focal's flame symbol lights up on each ear cup when the headphones are turned on (you can turn off the lighting).
The noise-canceling is good though not excellent, with a low and high mode ("silent" and "soft") as well a transparency mode. ANC has a tendency to degrade the sound so there's always a delicate balance adding ANC when sound quality is the priority.
The Bathys are equipped with Bluetooth 5.1 and have multipoint Bluetooth pairing (so you can pair them to two devices like a smartphone and computer simultaneously). I had no problem driving them with iPhone and Android devices and they do support AptX Adaptive on Android and other devices that are compatible with that audio codec. (They use the AAC audio codec for iPhones.)
I streamed music using the Qobuz app, which does offer high-resolution files. I connected the headphones via USB-C to a couple of Android phones as well as a MacBook Pro (you switch into DAC mode to go wired). Focal threw in a USB-C to Lighting adapter with my review sample so I could go wired with iOS devices, but that adapter isn't included with the retail version of the headphones, which is a shame (a pack of two Apple MiFi-certified adapters costs $20 on Amazon).
Going wired gives you a slight bump up in sound quality (it does help to stream high-resolution audio files for optimal sound). In wired mode, the headphones deliver up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution. But the headphones also sound quite impressive in wireless mode with excellent clarity, detail, accuracy and powerful, well-defined bass. They have a spacious soundstage (for a closed-back headphone) and allow you to hear each instrument distinctly in complicated tracks where several instruments are playing at the same time. They're what I call "revealing" headphones that will make bad recordings sound worse and good recordings sound even better.
The Bathys use Aluminum-Magnesium speaker drivers while Focal's higher-end wired headphones have Beryllium drivers that offer even more clarity and accuracy with the right setup.
The headphones fold flat (but don't fold up) into a nice carry case. Along with the USB-C to USB-C cable you also get a standard 3.5 mm analog headphone cable for use with in-flight entertainment systems. The cables are of basic quality and do not match the premium look of the headphones.
Overall, I was pleased with the voice-calling performance. Callers said I sounded good and could hear me well on the noisy streets of New York, where they heard some background sound leak in, but the noise reduction was good. They measure up well to the Master & Dynamic MW75 ($599) for voice calling and while they may not be exceptionally good like the Sony WH-1000XM5 for voice calls, you shouldn't be disappointed with the telephony performance. That can sometimes be the case with headphones that tout sound quality first.
With a press of button, they offer access to either Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or other phone voice assistant (Siri or Bixby, for instance).
An equalizer in the companion app for iOS and Android allows you to tweak the sound profile. Since these are an audiophile headphone, you can expect a flat default sound profile. Depending on what I was listening to, I ended up boosting the bass a bit.
Battery life is solid at up to 30 hours, with a quick charge feature that gives you 5 hours of use with a 15-minute charge.
The headphones can't be used in passive mode. You have to power them on, so if the battery dies, you need to charge them to use them.
In recent months, we've seen an increasing number of "high-fidelity" active noise-canceling wireless headphones released following the launch of Apple's AirPods Max, which list for $549 but frequently sell for $479 or less. There's the aforementioned Master & Dynamic MW75, the Mark Levinson No. 5909 ($999) and the just-announced Bowers and Wilkins PX8, which I haven't tried yet but lists for $699.
They're all great headphones but in terms of pure sound quality, the Bathys may be the best of the bunch and I particularly liked the built-in DAC and the ability to switch easily between wired and wireless modes.