Focal Celestee Review - Luxury Closed-back
Written by Chrono
Early last year, Focal discontinued its midrange closed-back headphone, the Elegia. This, I felt, left somewhat of a gap in Focal’s line-up of high-end headphones, since even though it had a plethora of open-back headphones available at various price ranges, the $2,990 Stellia became the only closed-back offering in Focal’s collection.
Of course, around November of 2020 the excellent Focal for Bentley Radiance was made available, but it was only up for purchase for a limited time, and the Bentley branding was a bit of a turn-off for some enthusiasts. Now in 2021, though, the latest closed-back release from Focal is here to fill in the gap left by the Elegia--the Focal Celestee.
Sources and Music Used in Listening Tests
The Amplifier/DACs used in this review were the SPL Phonitor XE (with built-in DAC), Grace Design SDAC + A90, and the JDS Labs Element II connected via USB to my desktop computer. For the listening tests I used music from a wide variety of genres including Rock, Jazz, Classical, Acoustic, Hip-Hop, and latin. I played tracks from my own FLAC library as well as from Qobuz streaming service played via Roon (exclusive mode).
Like it’s predecessor, the Elegia, the Celestee comes with a pretty barebones set of accessories. Packaged alongside the Celestee you’ll find a 1.2m (4ft) 3.5mm-3.5mm cable, a 3.5mm to ¼” adapter, and a Focal hardshell case in blue and copper to match the Celestee’s finish.
One note I’d like to make here is that the included cable is one of the best I’ve seen from Focal, and that is a very welcome improvement. It’s using fairly thick rubber sleeving, and whilst a little stiff, it’s a lot more flexible and comfortable to use than the cables that were included with--for example--the Elegia, Stellia, or Utopia. I still wish it was a bit longer, as I think that 1.2m is just a bit too short, even for desktop use, but the new design and choice of material is a great step in the right direction.
Build and Comfort
As is to be expected from Focal, the Celestee’s design is great, and it sets a standard for how a premium pair of headphones should look and feel. Structurally, there is really not much I can say about the Celestee; it’s very well put together, with no flaws that I can identify in its fit and finish. Visisually, the Celestee borrows many elements from the closed-back flagship, the Stellia, with an identical, repeating circle pattern in the ear cups; albeit in the Celestee’s new and rather-nice, navy and soft copper theme.
For comfort, the Celestee fits similar to other Focal headphones; they’re not the most comfortable out there, but they aren’t particularly fatiguing or tough to wear, either. They weigh in at around 430g, which starts to creep into the heavier side for headphones, but I did find that the headbands and pads do a very good job at distributing and relieving that weight evenly. One thing I did notice was that the Celestee’s pads were quite a bit more rigid than on some of the other Focal closed-backs I’ve tried, and I found that mixed with the snug clamp force it could create some pressure near the lower side of my jaw; something worth keeping in mind if you’re sensitive to strong clamp force.
Like the Radiance, the Celestee is utilizing Focal’s 40mm “M”-shaped Aluminum/Magnesium dome full-range speaker driver. Additionally, the Celestee is using the same box-shaped diffusers used on other Focal Closed-back headphones to combat in-cup resonances and standing waves.
Right off the bat the Celestee struck me as having a drastically more balanced and refined frequency response than its predecessor, the Elegia. At the same time, though, I can’t help but to admit that having listened to the Radiance not too long ago, I was just a little disappointed with the Celestee’s sound.
That is not to say that I thought it sounded bad, as it does have a good tonality, but immediately I knew that for my tastes and preferences there was something about it that didn’t allow me to enjoy it quite as thoroughly as the Radiance, which I really liked for its warm and relaxed sound. The Celestee still had some of that warmth, particularly in the bass region, but as it moved on to the midrange, there were some accentuations that I found could make the mids feel a bit too forward, and it also impacted some of the Celestee’s timbral qualities.
The bass on the Celestee is sincerely excellent, and it reminds of both that of the Radiance and of my ZMF Vérité Closed. For extension, it delivers great performance, as it reaches all the way down to 20hz with no roll-off that I could hear; giving the bass region good depth and a satisfying rumble. In the mid-bass, between 100hz-200hz, there is a prominent boost to that frequency range. This emphasis, I think, is a very enjoyable one, it adds a satisfying contour to the bass region, with some pronounced kick, and it’s also likely where the Celestee gets that subtle warmth. Despite the midbass emphasis, though, the bass response on the Celestee is tight, with very good articulation, and a great sense of accuracy. In this price range I think that the Celestee is only second to the planar-magnetic LCD-2 in terms of its bass quality.
The midrange is where the Celestee loses some of its charm for me. In the lower mids, from about 300hz-1000hz, the mids are even and linear with a pretty good depiction of the fundamental tones that lie in that region. However, the upper midrange is where things start to get a little bumpy.
At around 1500hz, there is the same, subtle resonance I’ve heard on pretty much all Focal headphones, which can make the mids sound just a tiny bit boxy or congested. Then, in the presence region, 3K seems to have a slight emphasis to it, which for me made the upper midrange come through as having some forwardness or a bit of a “shout” to it. Now those two deviations weren’t very noticeable, however, as the upper mids transition into the lower treble, it sounded to me as though there was a fairly broad elevation between 5K-6K which for me unnaturally brightened the overtones in that region, and made things like vocals and electric guitars come through as somewhat harsh.
Ultimately, the combination of those rises made the Celestee’s timbral quality somewhat tinny for me. Additionally, the highlighted upper midrange was, for me, just ever so slightly fatiguing over extended listening periods. Of course this isn’t really problematic if you use some EQ, and this will vary per listener; but for those out there who, like me, are sensitive to that upper midrange region and are not comfortable using EQ, then this is definitely worth considering.
Aside from the elevation between the upper mids and lower treble I mention, I thought that the treble range on the Celestee was great. To me it seemed to be just a bit brighter than the Radiance, but I thought that the added sparkle up-top was nice, and it helped in fleshing out more of the harmonics in this region. It also sounded to me as though the Celestee had perhaps just a bit more energy in the air region above 10K, which added a nice glisten in the upper registers that was not as present on the Radiance.
For its $990 price tag, the Celestee delivers outstanding detail retrieval and overall sense of clarity, matching the performance of headphones like the LCD-2 and the Focal Clear. The image it creates of the music is a stable one, with all instrument lines being well-defined and fully-textured. Of the closed-back headphones in this price-range, I think that the Celestee is definitely the top-performer for resolution.
Soundstage, Imaging, and Layering
Not unlike other Focal headphones, the Celestee’s soundstage is a very intimate one. I was surprised, though, to hear that the stage felt a bit more forward than on the Radiance or Elegia, and was instead more like that of the Stellia. Nonetheless, the Celestee keeps its stage clean and properly-spaced by virtue of its precise imaging, and its layering; which work in tandem to create a soundscape that has depth and a good sense of directionality.
The driver here is fast, and has a very good excursive capacity. This allows the Celestee to deliver bass tones that are deeply satisfying, with a nearly unmatched sense of punch and slam. Additionally, in the upper registers the Celestee has a weighty snap and attack to it that helps in adding a sense of tactility for instruments like pianos, xylophones, and guitars, all which gain a more realistic presence.
This probably goes without saying, but Focal headphones are renowned for their dynamics and the Celestee is certainly no exception--it delivers a listening experience that is highly-engaging and energetic.
Of all the headphones I’ve tried, the Celestee has been the one that most effectively blocks out outside noise. When using the at my desk I was not able to hear my fairly loud mechanical keyboard, and I got an unusual amount of comments about yelling into the microphone when chatting on Discord. I think that this definitely makes the Celestee a very convenient headphone that will be suitable for office use, gaming, or even for travelling.
For the most part, I think that the Celestee has a good tuning that most listeners will really enjoy. Though, for me, since I’m a bit sensitive to the upper midrange region, I do like to add some EQ just to cool down some of the frequencies that for me came through as forward, which for me made it more enjoyable. If you’d like to try out my EQ, which seeks to warm up the Celestee’s mids a touch, these are the settings I used:
- Peak at 2000hz, -2.5dB Q of 2
- Peak at 3000hz, -1.5dB Q of 3
- Peak at 5500hz, -3dB Q of 3
Whilst I personally preferred the limited edition Focal for Bentley Radiance, the Celestee is--by its own merits--still a fantastic headphone. Whether they’re open or closed, there are very few headphones around this price range that can deliver the tonal and technical performance that the Celestee achieves.
Taking a look at what the Celestee offers as a whole, it’s a very well-rounded headphone, with an impeccable build, and a musical listening experience that also has all the benefits of closed-back headphones—definitely a headphone worth keeping an eye out for.
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