Designing and implementing a product that will sit between a top-tier model and an entry-level one is always tricky. If it is too close in performance to the top-tier component, it will cannibalize sales. If it is not sufficiently superior to the entry-level model, it simply will not sell well. And to increase the degree of difficulty, implementing a mid-level component after the higher and lower-priced ones have already been released further hamstrings a manufacturer, as prospective buyers have already developed expectations. Nonetheless, finding that “in-between” sweet spot is exactly what Focal is trying to do with its latest headphone, the Clear.
Priced at $1499, the Clear is intended to be the best option Focal offers for under $1500. Obviously, it shares a good deal of the technology developed for the Focal Utopia, which I reviewed in Issue 270, but its drivers are made of aluminum/magnesium rather than of the beryllium used for the Utopia. Like the Utopia and the $999 Elear, the Clear is an open-enclosure design, and like its two predecessors it uses a single full-range dynamic driver. How well does the Clear deliver on its mid-priced promise? Let’s see.
The Clear uses an aluminum/magnesium-dome full-range driver with a 25.5m x 5.5mm copper voice coil designed specifically for these ’phones. The driver itself is a 1.6"-diameter unit that Focal calls an “M”-shaped dome, because it is M-shaped if viewed from the side. Both the adjustable headband and the 20mm ear cushion use memory foam encased in a perforated microfiber fabric to maximize comfort. The cable is removable and easily replaced via 3.5mm locking jack sockets slightly recessed into the headphone enclosure. The good news with this arrangement is that the cable’s barrels do not stick out too far, so they are well protected from drops and other physical traumas. The bad news is this recessed arrangement requires that accessory cables have small barrels to fit. Therefore, some cables with similar terminations that might have worked will not because their barrels are too large. However, since the Clear comes with three cables, each with a different termination, Focal has addressed the consumer’s immediate need for additional cabling options. (For those who have a strong cable preference, Kimber, Audience, Wireworld, Cardas, Moon Audio, AudioQuest, and others either already have or are in the late production stages of developing cables for the Clear.)
The Clear has a sensitivity of 104dB at 1mW and an impedance of 55 ohms, which means that even a smartphone can drive it to satisfying volume levels. Also, I did not need to use a super-beefy desktop headphone amplifier to push the Clear well past my own maximum volume comfort level. Even the diminutive $99 Schiit Audio Magni 3 had more than enough gain when connected to the Clear.
Ergonomics and Design
Fit, when it comes to headphones, is a very personal thing. The Clear’s fit is similar to that of the Utopia, due in large part to their similar weights and physical designs. While the Clear does not “disappear” in terms of comfort, as some headphones such as the MrSpeakers Aeons or Stax Lambda Pros do, I had no fit or comfort issues wearing them for several hours at a time, even when I had my eyeglasses on.
One detail that I noticed about the Clear’s fit was if I gently pushed on the top of the enclosure I could increase the amount of perceived midbass. So, if I had a slightly wider head with a different head-shape, the Clear’s harmonic balance might be slightly different. The Clear’s yoke design has a spring system that keeps the top of the earphone from getting too close to the ear and affecting the harmonic balance, but prospective buyers should be aware that the shape and size of their noggins could have an effect on what they hear. In other words, fit matters.
While the Clear headphones are an open design, they do offer some attenuation of outside noise (principally at higher frequencies). This does not prevent others from hearing your music if they are within a couple of feet of you, however.
The Clear comes in an elegant and well-made protective carrying case with a shorter cable terminated with a mini-stereo plug for connecting to portable players out and about in the world. This hardshell case, two other cables, and a 1/8" to 1/4" stereo adapter are accessories that were, for the most part, not included with the Focal Utopia or Elear packages, much to the chagrin of some consumers. Obviously Focal is a quick study; it realized that anyone buying a premium headphone expects certain extras, and supplied them with the Clear.
I compared the sound between the supplied Focal balanced XLR cable and the supplied single-ended cable on several headphone amplifiers that offered both balanced and single-ended headphone outputs, including the Sony TA-ZH1ES, April Music HP100, and Moon Audio Dragon Inspire IHA-1. Unlike some less efficient headphones that benefit from the additional drive voltage delivered by certain headphone amplifiers, the Clear sounded the same whether driven by the balanced or single-ended outputs.
The original Clear model comes in a silvertone finish, with some mid-tone gray on the headband. If this color combination is a bit too shiny, Focal also has a “pro” model available for slightly more money ($1599). This pro version is all black with red earpads and a red inner headband. It comes with one cable, which is a coiled style with 1/4" stereo termination. It looks mahvalous, sort of like a little red and black Citroën coupe.
While it would have been ideal to have a pair of Utopias and a pair of Elears lying around for A/B comparisons with the new Clear, I had to rely on my listening notes. And since those notes are more than a couple of months old, I will admit from the outset that if you are looking for a mano a mano between the Clear and Utopia, I can’t help you. They have very similar sonic presentations, but whether the Utopia’s additional cost (due primarily to parts’ costs according to the manufacturer) is “worth it” is a discussion for another place and time.
Without trying to compare it to anything else, the Clear does everything that you would expect a premium headphone to do well. With the right recordings it can project a remarkably three-dimensional image with a level of specificity and focus that will cause you to jerk your head around as you search for the source of sounds that you have mistaken for real sounds coming from the room you’re sitting in. That happened to me often while listening through the Clear. While I never heard anything coming from directly behind me, the Clear was capable of producing sounds that seemed to emanate from a place behind my ears’ vertical plane, slightly in back of me. This “behind the head” phenomenon indicates to me that the Clear headphones are so phase-coherent and phase-transparent that they retain the subtlest phase cues well enough to fool my ear/brain—and probably yours, as well.
When you couple the Clear’s seemingly 270-degree angle of specificity with its warm yet natural harmonic balance, you have the makings of an easy-to-listen-to (and listen into) headphone. Even on aggressive pop mixes such as the Cheat Codes “Feels Great,” the grouped male voices (and auto-tuned back-up voices) remained decipherable without being overly soft or mushy.
The Clear also has a level of dynamic acuity that makes for lively listening. On all the modern pop music tracks I’ve added to my Tidal library it delivered serious amounts of dynamic push, especially in the midbass and percussion parts. There was never even a hint of dynamic constriction. When connected to a beefy headphone amplifier like the Sony TA-ZH1ES or the April Music Stello, the Clear’s lower midrange and upper bass had a level of solidity and dynamic weight that my iPhone 6SE couldn’t match. On dynamic tracks like Mike Posner’s “In the Arms of a Stranger (Brian Kierulf Remix),” when the synth bass track comes in at 1:08, if you’re listening at “disco level” the sound will lay you flat out. Pop music fans who use headphones often discuss a headphone’s ability to deliver “slam.” The Clear does this as well as other “slamming” headphones, such as the Sony MDR-Z1R or the HiFiMan HE1000 V2.
The Clear handles micro-dynamics as impressively as it does macro-dynamics. By that I mean it has the speed to handle and define even the subtlest changes in dynamics and emphasis. Tommy Emmanuel’s exquisitely nuanced guitar playing on his version of “Deep River Blues” (from his Accomplice One album) displays the Clear’s ability to reveal all the dynamic intricacies of a live, unamplified acoustic show.
Low-level detail retrieval through the Clear on some pop recordings, such as Charlie XCX “Lucky” from her Pop2 album, was exemplary. Every breath, every auto-tuned inflection, was easy to hear, even when it was layered deeply into the mix. Making out the words, even on some heavily inflected versions of English, was relatively effortless. On Bahamas’ “No Expectations” from Earthtones, I made out the French phrase “Tout alors” (as opposed to “Zut alors”) from the background vocals on the first listen, though it took me several more passes to be absolutely sure that was what was being uttered continuously in a loop, buried deep down in the mix.
I’m the first to admit that if you are concerned with a transducer’s behavior between 15kHz and 20kHz, I’m not the right guy to ask, since my hearing fades at 13.5k. But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell if the region above 2kHz is smooth without noticeable spikes. Going back to a longtime fave track, Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” from his masterful Something/Anything album, the slightly tinny guitar track and fried-egg-sizzle hi-hat are clearly audible (as is the low-level hum when the track begins), but it is never unlistenably nasty. On more purposefully aggressive mixes such as Blackstone Cherry’s version of “Hoochie Coochie Man” from Black to Blues, the sound is hard and in-your-face as intended, but never ugly.
True audiophile cliché No. 1 is: “It’s all about the midrange.” It doesn’t matter how much slam and inner detail a transducer can produce; most folks won’t enjoy the experience if the midrange isn’t right. Like any and all single-driver transducers the Clear has an advantage over multi-driver units since it doesn’t have a crossover to introduce group delays and other phase and harmonic nonlinearities. “Angel from Montgomery” performed by Buddy Miller, Brandi Carlile, and The Lone Bellow on the Cayamo Sessions at Sea album is a wonderful “live-to-tape” recording with no overdubs. The midrange has a high level of purity with a lack of additive grain or electronic texture that was immediately obvious when I listened through the Clear.
While the Clear’s bass is well controlled with fine pitch definition, speed, and detail, it is not quite as impressive at the extreme bottom as some of my current reference earphones. If you’re not a Dubstep or dance music fan, you may not miss that added kick below 30Hz. But if you listen to a lot of pop, you may yearn for that satisfying rumble that seems to well up from just below the threshold of audibility. DJ Snake’s “Frequency” from his How Low? album has a lot more sub-bass energy through the Sony MRD-Z1R than through the Clear. Does the Sony have too much low bass, while the Clear is just right? That’s a judgment call you will have to make for yourself based on your own requirements and musical tastes.
I’m sure some readers are disappointed that I couldn’t listen to the Utopia and Clear in an A/B comparison. But I did have several headphones on hand that are closer in price to the Clear, and since they are well known they should supply some context for the Clear’s overall performance level.
As I mentioned earlier the Sony MDR-Z1R ($2199) had more low bass than the Clear, but it was not quite as spatially precise. Since it is a semi-closed design the Sony delivers more isolation and could be used in environments where the Clear may be too “noisy” to use. Both produce large soundstages, but the Clear has slightly tighter, more focused images than the MDR-Z1R. Both over-the-ear designs are equally comfortable, but the Clear does have a bit more side-pressure than the MDR-Z1R.
MrSpeakers Ether Flow ($1799) needs quite a bit more power to drive than the Clear. At first, the Clear seemed to have more harmonic complexity when compared to the Ether Flow in rapid A/B comparisons, but once the two headphones were adjusted for equal volume output (which can be something of a challenge), they showed equally rich and complete harmonic signatures. Both headphones have excellent image specificity, but the Clear produce a slightly larger overall soundstage. Bass extension on the Clear and Ether Flow was virtually identical, as was ability of each to produce an uncolored harmonically complex midrange. Personally, I found the Clear to be a smidgen less fidgety fit-wise than the Ether Flow, due primarily to the added size and weight of the Ether Flow’s ear capsules (combined with lower side-pressure).
Mid-line components are often the most neglected in reviews and in consumer interest. Flagships get the raves, while entry-level models get approving nods for their value and economy. But when it comes to pure value for the money, those overshadowed mid-line models are often the best options. That’s exactly what you get from the Clear—a well designed, beautifully made, high-performance earphone that can deliver an exceptional musical experience. Is the Clear a giant-killer that can compete with higher-priced “reference-level” models? Yes and no. Both the Sony MDR-Z1R and the HiFiMan HE1000 V2 produced more extreme low-bass energy, but neither bettered the Clear in midrange purity, harmonic complexity, and imaging prowess.
Combine the Clear with a first-rate headphone amplifier (even the $99 Schiit Audio Magni 3 qualifies), and you’ll have a headphone rig that should satisfy you for many years to come. And you can do this for far less than the cost of most manufacturers’ top-tier headphones. Just like the flagship models, the Clear delivers a nearly ideal combination of fine sound coupled with elegant design and quality construction, but unlike those more expensive headphones the Clear is available at a price within reach of a much larger percentage of listeners. The Clear, Focal’s “middle-of-the-road” headphone, could very well prove to be the road most traveled by value-conscious audiophiles.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Dynamic, open-back headphone
Impedance: 55 ohms
Weight: 0.99 lbs.
Price: $1499 ($1599 for pro version)
FOCAL NORTH AMERICA
313 Rue Marion
Repentigny, QC J5Z 4W8