Top Tier Sound
For as long as I can remember new open-backed headphones under a grand that are meant to be offering top performance just don’t get near the grade. I am talking about the likes of the Oppo PM-2 (£799.99) and Audeze EL-8 (£599.99) and it ends up leaving me suggesting a used pair of more expensive cans or something old school like the Sennheiser HD6XX series to someone who wants to get performance for their money at this price. Truthfully I think that under a grand we lack something definitive to stand out in the price range… until now! Elear doesn’t just sound good for its price, Elear sounds utterly fantastic without considerations. It is a headphone that can confidently be compared to every other can under the sun. The question you will want to find an answer for is if the sound signature is for you, not if the quality is high enough because I can assure you it is.
Baring in mind my most listened to model would be Sennheiser’s HD800, I find Elear to have a very capable bass response combined with a helping of elevation and the upper mids and lower treble to sound a touch relaxed. They are its most blinding traits that summarise its sonic signature as an analogue and smooth sounding product. The other keywords I would have to attach to its psyche would be full, thick and DYNAMIC!
For this type of product, Elear has a relatively low impedance of 80 ohms. I used it with a range of amplification, with my favourite being the Questyle CMA800R but also having used Metrum’s Aurix, Phatlab’s Phantasy and Harmony Design’s Ear 909. I was worried a lower impedance may be an issue like it was with the 26 ohms Dharma that hisses with all my favourite amps, but the Focal’s remained ever silent and showed versatility when being driven.
The bass response from these headphones is startlingly good, considering they are open inside and out. The driver isn’t sealed off and the housing is equally as ventilated, regardless these still managed to have incredible extension in the lows. Open backs are something you normally start to consider with the mutual understanding that they will lack the last breath of depth but this is a tradeoff to be made for the heaps of other benefits going to an open headphone reap. While there is no doubt that the bass is not strictly neutral, you can’t help but love the way it goes about its business. Whether it was brass instruments in some of my favourite jazz or powerful beats in my more modern music, I was engulfed by an extended and strong-willed response. It is immersive but still hits you with a nimble and meaty punch. In terms of quantity, it probably isn’t too dissimilar to the Dharma, but the Focal was textured and pulsing in a much superior way. Beyond that, nothing in my collection (open) is up on this level in terms of bass quantity. Everything else just feels a bit thin in comparison. I must quickly add that doesn’t mix closed back into the fray, ZMF’s Blackwood is certainly a bassier can.
While Elear are Bolt-esque in their speed, the midrange isn’t handled in a way that is all about being super revealing and mega detail orientated, like my current faves the HD800. That is not to say it doesn’t have these qualities, it just doesn’t wear them on its sleeve, instead being more candid in regard to these areas. Perhaps a reason for this is the way they step back a little in the upper midrange, losing some gain around 3kHz. My preferences like a stronger presence range and this does stray from that, darkening the sound a minuscule amount. My preferences aside this slight dip in FR is not a flaw, just a choice in tuning that allows for this brooding midrange that comes at you so hard and yet remains ever a joy to the ears. It is just something a bit different to the HD800s and even more so my Ultrasone Edition 10s. I still find timbre to be rich with an alluring note decay and vocals are both distinctive (more so than on my HD800) and seductive. I would say the distinction and focus maybe so impressive due to the very successful transient response of this can, perhaps the best I have heard on a dynamic (and probably throw in planars as well) headphone to date. Before we hit the upper areas, the midrange plays very nicely with the bass, it is hearty and the frequencies are very coherent, much more so than with Dharma’s hybrid technology, which sounds a bit detached but more forward in the midrange.
After taking a breather at 3kHz for a bit things get back on track a little more through the treble. The dip in frequency doesn’t last too long and we seemingly build into the upper treble, which is airy and topped off with a 10kHz spike that gives some zip and zest to the presentation. I still find the treble to be leaning to etc controlled side, not in a distant fashion, just topping the sound off gracefully.
From top to bottom these are technically magnificent, something I don’t think I have emphasised just enough so far. We have micro details complimenting the huge macro dynamics, extension at both ends of the spectrum and a driver that can more than keep up with anything. While I have made it clear that this does have a slight tilt down from bottom to top, all in all, it is a balanced headphone with meat on its bones. After a week of listening to these on a daily basis you don’t hear them and go this has an emphasised bass or a drawn out upper midrange, these tokens of knowledge only come from a/b comparisons with the other models in my collection.
My biggest niggle with the sound would be its soundstage. It comes across rather intimate with narrow depth and height and only a bit of width to play with. Maybe I have just been spoilt for choice with my flagship Sennheiser’s and the S-Logic boasting Ed10s but I would love this to just be spread out a little more. Thankfully, these are still open back and as I said it just has a more intimate presentation, not a claustrophobic one.
I can’t give you one good reason not to buy this. I can’t think of the last time I could happily recommend a product to absolutely any reader of this website, especially not when the price is nigh on 800 quid. I mean this is something 4 years in development and shares most ideologies with the three and a quarter thousand pound Utopia. Beyond all that it just performs awesomely, additionally, it is well built, comfortable and stylish. The only things I would see changed is the overall weight lowered and perhaps a bit more space in the soundstage, beyond that everything is just right. In its price range it really doesn’t see any competition, I mean Oppo and Audeze in this area should be passed up on for free and I think at £800 Focal have their heads screwed on right. The pricing is a really gutsy move fuelled with integrity, I think they could have gotten away with asking double for these and still got positive feedback (although that’s the sad story of how the rest of the industry is going). I will happily give these our Good Buy award and wouldn’t even hesitate about giving them the Great Value award on top. For now, the Pride of Place for my favourite headphone will still seat the HD800, but all I say to that is bring on the Utopia!