Hailing from St. Etienne, France in 1979, Focal are a loudspeaker behemoth. They have been around for a while and are one of those household name brands as well as being successful in the pro audio sector. Until 2012 they were solely focused on loudspeakers, be it for traditional two-channel setups, home theatre or in your car, they handled it. Listening to their Stella Utopia EM (£64,999) driven by partnered company Naim’s Statement (£125,000) front end was one of my first truly emotive audio experiences. One that listening to London Grammar caused my hair to stand on end. That was back in 2013 at the Audio Show East and coincidentally back then they were also showing off their first foray into headphones with some modest priced closed-back models. They never blew my mind like their speakers have over the last 5 years but I presume they were merely testing the water of the personal audio realm and fortunately their cans were met with great success! I say fortunately because last year they launched into the high-end sector of the headphone market, with their Elear (£799) and flagship Utopia (£3,249), both four years in the making! Perhaps without the original success, they would not have pursued headphones with quite the same force. The flagship Utopia will be reviewed soon, but today we place our magnifying glass on the Elear.
Founded by Jacques Mahul, Focal started out as a research office. Using his father’s small workshops his passion for HiFi fuelled him to tinker around making speaker drivers which obviously acted as a catalyst to where the brand are today. Focal’s innovation for making drive units has been one of their more outstanding traits. Ideas like their K2 cone that consists of a polykevlar sandwich structure has been developed ferociously over the years since its introduction in 1986 and when they launched the Beryllium tweeter into their products in 2002 they innovated at large once again, inspiring many others, surely even Campfire Audio whose Lyra in ear monitors I enjoy with their much smaller Beryllium drivers. When Focal decided they were to make a flagship headphone to go toe to toe with absolutely anything else on the market they got back in the lab and set to work making a driver that could achieve their goals. They didn’t jump on the planar magnetic bandwagon or just OEM a dynamic driver, that is not their way, they would research and create a dynamic driver to their own specification.
Now while Utopia obviously received their ultimate design a lot of the tech trickled down into the Elear, which uses a different but equally impressive driver in its own right. When I first saw images of a loose Elear driver I was dumbfounded by how it looked like a tiny little loudspeaker driver, completely different to the “traditional” headphone alternative. It doesn’t just look different either, it operates unlike anything else. They utilise aluminium/magnesium alloy ‘m-shaped’ domes. The domes material choice is significant because it allows it to be stiff and lightweight, which is important because rigidity is needed for bass while being lightweight and fast is obviously important for the higher frequencies. Shredding weight off the driver as a whole did make a whole lot of work for Focal. It led them to make the surround just 200 microns thick and also creating a voice coil that has no support or form, something that is typically unheard of! The total assembly mass is just 150mg.
If you were to open up some headphones you currently have on you, it’d be likely that you’ll find a transparent diaphragm, vastly different in properties to this alloy dome. Another difference would be that the voice coil is wider than the norm on Elear, getting closer to the edges of the dome in opposed to being the bullseye of regular paper or plastic diaphragms, allowing for sound to release easier from the back of the driver and cause fewer unwanted reflections. Expanding on that the speakers are completely open, not in the sense that the ear cups is vented (although that is also the case) but that the driver unit itself has no housing. The reason you normally would have a housing is that said housings would then be vented to control the bass response. It has a frame and a surround to suspend the driver and allow it to move to the ideal limits but there is no enclosure to the driver, which all other open back dynamics would still have. Talking about how much the drivers are able to move and at 40mm in size, they have a mobile displacement capability of over 10% of that figure, travelling 4.5mm, apparently, that is why they have such a stellar dynamic range! Seriously dynamics are one of the most noticeable things about this headphone but we will get to that later….
It is clear that they have gone into this project with their speaker background and knowledge in mind, even to the point that they treated the ear pads of the headphones as the “room” consequently using materials to treat it as you would a two channel listening chamber. That being said they have also clearly made things suited to a headphone and done things specifically for this application, they haven’t just shrunk down their Grande Utopia EM driver and stuck it in a headphone. As far as I am concerned this has been some of the most serious research put into headphone design ever. Colour me VERY impressed!
Built As Any Great Headphone Should Be
This may not look as space age as the Sennheiser HD800 but its black finish with gunmetal yokes along with the odd glimmer of brushed aluminium makes for a sophisticated aesthetic. Additionally, the finish is tight and polished making for a very well engineered physical headphone. It did not get sloppy once Focal had finished with making the driver to their liking. They have even put the Focal logo over the back of the driver, which sits nearer the front of the headphone so that the drivers are angled towards your ear, little touches like that will go a long way.
At 450 grams they are not the lightest headphones in the world and it is much more obvious I am wearing something in comparison to my lighter HD800s (331g) or all plastic HD580 (259g). I am someone who is sensitive to a heavy headphone and actually sold my HifiMAN HE-500 back in the day because they made my neck sore so I did wish these could be a bit less weighty. That being said the deep fabric coated memory foam pads offer a seal with no pressure on your head and the OFC cable doesn’t add any strain making for these still a very comfortable headphone.
The weight probably comes from the decision to use metals throughout this headphone and I should expect nothing less from a premium headphone; the plastic used in ENIGMAcoustics Dharma certainly takes something away from it visually. The yokes are tastefully made out of aluminium and curve at just the right angle for them to meet with your head as is most natural. I did want to move on to talking about the cables because this is one of the few areas I would have to question Focal’s decision making.
They use removable cables, which I think is an absolute necessity but for Elear the connection points are a pair of 3.5mm jacks. While probably something I am quicker to associate with portable cans than your flagship models, it is a convenient enough method. When using it I have found no fault with it but my annoyance instead comes with the very fact that Utopia uses Lemo connectors. They are higher quality no doubt but I just think it would be much smarter for both headphones to use the same connector. If I was to own both I would not want to have to shell out on two balanced cables, whereas I could own every Audeze LCD model and have one cable available for use with all of them and even other brands offerings such as ZMF. I know they are trying to give some extra premium features to the Utopia but I think when a lot of headphone enthusiasts will be needing balanced cables or just wanting some aftermarket ones, using different connectors is a nuisance.
The actual cable is the style where after the y-split the two channels run next to each other. This means that they will have a separate ground and should you have a soldering iron and a steady hand, you could decapitate the 1/4 inch jack and attach the relevant balanced connectors for your amplification, in my case dual 3 pin XLRs for my Questyle CMA800R mono blocks. Thankfully this does make the connector issue a little less of a pain.
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