In my review of the new Focal Listen headphone, I mentioned that it was at the bottom rung (so to speak) of three new headphones from the French company Focal. Further up the ladder were the Elear and Utopia headphones—both very different headphones and both much, much more expensive. When I was given the chance to review the Elear headphone, I jumped, because the Elear has been garnering a lot of attention and has introduced many people to a new level in headphone enjoyment.
Man, that sounds like a bunch of advertising hyperbole, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true. tThe Focal Elear headphone may be the best headphone available for the money today. How can I say that when the Elear costs a whopping $1,000? And who the heck has that kind of money to spend on headphones? Not many I admit, but hear me out.
The Elear headphones sound unlike many headphones available today. They are open-backed which gives you an expansive soundstage making music sound more real and spacial—although I was surprised that the range of expansion was not as great as I thought it should be. Grado’s 325is headphone’s soundstage is much more pronounced. Whether that’s better than Focal’s Elear or not is strictly subjective. There is no right or wrong approach. I just expected something sounding a bit bigger.
The Elear headphones are extremely well made. They have aluminium/magnesium ’M’-shaped domes—inspired by the Utopia—Focal’s even more expensive headphone ($4,000!). The ear cups are covered in a metal mesh and are slightly off-center and angled towards the ear from front to back. The mesh allows sound to leak like crazy—a byproduct of an open-back design. Even so, I prefer open to closed-back ear cups in every instance, as long as I’m not in a quiet room with other people, because they will hear the music. The Elear’s replaceable ear cup cushions are memory foam wrapped in a micro-fiber covering. The pads are soft as well as firm, yet will remain comfortable for hours. This is good because the Elear phones weigh 1 lb—not lightweight. The headband is padded quite nicely in real leather with more microfiber underneath, which helps hold the Elear in place.
Unlike most headphones today, the Elear have the larger 1/4“ stereo Jack connector which (obviously) will not work with any smartphone or other mini plug port. The Elear is meant for serious listening using a quality receiver or amp with the proper connector port. The removable thick cord is a whopping 13 ft. long and separates into a “Y” with mini connectors for each ear cup. In order to match the Elear with my digital audio converter (DAC), I had to use a 1/4“ to mini plug converter. This worked quite well for me, but it’s something to consider if you plan to listen with your computer. Also, the Elear has an 80 Ohms impedance rating—which is another way of saying you need an amp if you want to get the most out of these headphones. You don’t spend a thousand bucks on a headphone just to use a weak, underpowered amp.
Let’s talk about how the Elear sounds. Is the (very) high price justified? That depends on what you’re looking for. To say that the audio is accurate is an understatement. No, these headphones will not make you exclaim, “OMG!” because that’s not their goal. There’s no bloated bass for those who crave bass and there’s no exaggerated highs for so-called audiophiles. No, the Elear sits right in the middle with the goal of presenting music the way it should be heard—and enjoyed.
Despite what I listened to, I was rewarded with sound the way I like it, unfiltered and un-fooled-around-with (I don’t know how else to word it).
I’m an unapologetic fan of The Moody Blues. While I’ve always been a fan of their music, their albums have always been a cut above most rock albums in terms of audio quality. I listened to high resolution versions of their albums and the Elear headphones sent me back to when these albums were new. Granted, I didn’t have good speakers or headphones in the 60s-70s, but the sheer enjoyment of listening to Moody Blues music as it was intended made me feel younger. There was also the added bonus of being able to hear things missed in those early listening sessions. What fun!
Say what you will about Abba, but their studio work is every bit an equal to groups like Pink Floyd, Steely Dan and AC/DC in sheer recording and mastering quality. Plus, they wrote killer hooks. The Elear headphones are able to handle both the higher frequencies and disco kick-butt percussion Abba was famous for. Vocals are clear and distinct even in the tight harmonies. The open-backed design allows the voices and instruments to sound somewhere outside your head. That’s what makes open-back headphones so cool.
The Elear headphones are subject to the law of diminishing returns—which states that any audio product will have a huge leap in sound quality between (for the sake of argument) $100 and $500. That difference shrinks as the price goes up, so the leap in quality between $500 and $1000 is not nearly as great. However, this is a general rule that can have exceptions. So while the Elear may not sound unbelievably better than any $400-500 headphone I have, that’s not where the magic lies. What’s shocking is after listening to the Elear headphones for a straight 4 weeks, that difference in audio hit me in the face (ears, actually) when i returned to my other headphones. It’s like drinking cheap wine and liking it until you taste the good stuff. Then, you can’t go back, because you now know and can appreciate the difference. Unfortunately, I need to return the Elear headphones to Focal when this review is finished. That’s not going to be easy. It may take a few weeks for my ears to “forget” so I can enjoy future headphones I need to review.
The Focal Elear headphones sell for $999 US.