Review written by Jake Cheriff
An audio engineer’s perspective on a Focal flagship
Focal Clear / Focal Clear Professional
On March 12th, 2020 after my fourth work cancelation due to the Coronavirus outbreak in New York City, I read the writing on the wall and looked up directions to Adorama in Manhattan. I knew I was going to be stuck at home for a very long time. I might as well be stuck at home with some new headphones.
Some months earlier I had listened to a number of different Focal headphones and absolutely fell in love with the Focal Clear. So I went to Adorama and purchased a pair. Then I went to the grocery store and purchased several months worth rice, beans, and frozen meals.
Finally, I went home and took a long shower while listening to Donald G. McNeil Jr. on a New York Times podcast discuss our collective impending doom.
One year later, I have no regrets regarding the Focals. The frozen meals, however, remain untouched in my freezer.
Note: By all accounts, the Focal Clear and the Focal Clear Professional are the same headphones in different colors and with different accessories. So while I’m reviewing the Focal Clear specifically, all of these impressions should apply equally to the Focal Clear Professional.
Build, Design, and Comfort
The Focal Clear, like everything Focal produces, is beautifully designed. I’ve had mine for almost a year now and they still look / feel brand new apart from the ear pads. Replacement ear pads are extremely expensive at $200 per pair. For reference, Sennheiser sells replacement pads for their HD 6-line for $50 per pair. In theory, ear pads have a substantial effect on a headphone’s sound which is how Focal justifies such a steep price. There are third-party replacement pads available for the Focal Clear but according to objective measurements and subjective impressions by Andrew Park at headphones.com, none of them sound the same as the stock Focal Clear pads. The pads on my Focal Clear do look worn but despite wearing them for 6+ hours just about every day this year, they still feel firm and sound the same as they did when I got them.
Unlike the ear pads, the headband is not replaceable. This is an unfortunate design flaw. In order to keep the headband fresh for as long as possible, I purchased this headphone headband (affiliate link) which happens to perfectly match the Focal Clear color scheme.
The Clear is unreasonably comfortable for how heavy it is. At almost twice the weight of Sennheiser’s HD 6XX, the Clear is almost just as comfortable as the 6XX if not more comfortable in some ways. The (very expensive to replace) ear pads are perforated which probably contributes to the Clear’s breathability along with the Clear’s open-back nature. In the year that I’ve spent using the Clear for recording/mixing/mastering sessions every day, comfort has never been an issue. It isn’t as comfortable as wearing nothing, but it may be the next best thing.
Eyeglasses seem to have a noticeable effect on low end response. With glasses on, the sub frequencies sound slightly off. I avoid this issue by resting my eyeglass temples on top of headphone ear-pads like a complete maniac.
Note: These are open-back headphones. This means there is no isolation between you and your surroundings. These are useful for listening critically at home in a quiet room. They would be totally inappropriate for use in public spaces because 1. everyone would be able to hear what you’re listening to and 2. the noise of your surroundings would make it difficult for you to hear what you’re listening to.
Reference Tracks | Jake Cheriff
pictured: my reference tracks for evaluating speakers, headphones, and room acoustics
Frequency Response / Sound
The Focal Clear is aptly named. Focal has somehow managed to produce a headphone that has been described as neutral, warm, bright, punchy, articulate, etc, etc… I think the contradictions from review to review are a testament to the sweet spot in tuning and resolution that Focal has achieved with the Clear. There is an authority to the way they reproduce audio that I have never heard with other headphones.
Looking at the measurements above, you can see that the low end starts to droop just under 50 Hz. This makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve often found, when mixing with the Focal Clear, that I need a second perspective to get the sub frequencies of kick drums and bass guitars just right. Hifiman’s Sundara, Ananda, and Arya all beat the Clear at sub bass reproduction as does Sennheiser’s new HD 560S. These days, mixing and mastering engineers are pretty careful not to lean too heavily on sub bass in order to balance a mix because we know that most people will listen to the music on systems that don’t reproduce sub frequencies like laptops, phones, bluetooth speakers, computer speakers, earbuds, etc. So in practice, the lack of energy on the Clear below 50 Hz is not so noticeable.
The bass dynamics are phenomenal rivaling excellent speaker systems minus the physical impact that bass from great speakers has on your chest and body. To me, the punch rivals that of any of the headphones listed above. Listening to the intro of “Mythological Beauty” by Big Thief, there is an awesome sense of realness or authenticity to the way the kick and snare interact with the room they’re recorded in.
In terms of texture, I think the planar magnetic headphones I’ve heard have typically been more textured in the low end than the Clear (dynamic driver) in a way that’s incredibly satisfying. Listening to “Halloween” by Phoebe Bridgers, the intricate low end feels a little congested on the Clear whereas the Hifiman Sundara reproduces the three different baritone guitars (?) more distinctly.
It could be that I’m just so used to the way that the Clear sounds, but I hear the mids as just about perfect. The graph makes it look like there might be some ‘shouty-ness’ north of 1 kHz, but that’s definitely not how I’m hearing things. Or maybe that’s just in line with my preferences.
Every once in a while, there are instances of sibilance landing just barely on the side of unpleasant. I imagine this is a necessary compromise to designing a headphone with a frequency response that approaches neutrality. Listening to “Fruity” by Rubblebucket, the vocal sibilance is definitely a little hot, to me, around 10 kHz. Unlike my experience with Beyerdynamic open-back headphones, I do find that I get used to the level of sibilance after a couple minutes of listening. From a music production perspective, I think this is a helpful attribute because it will keep your mix’s sibilance in check, at least where the Clear’s treble response is closest to the edge. The treble on the Focal Clear has a unique ‘cleanness’ to it that is unmatched by any of the aforementioned headphones which sound grainy in comparison.
Focal Clear on Avantree Universal Headphone Stand
Soundstage / Imaging
The soundstage is a significant step up from Sennheiser’s HD6-series and, in my opinion, a significant step down from the Hifiman Sundara. It sounds like Focal was really going for a ‘speaker-like’ presentation of the sound — the stage sounds like it’s in front of you. You’re in the front row watching the show instead of on stage, playing in the band. In general, I think the Sundara’s soundstage is a little more enveloping and exciting. But I’ve found that the less enveloping soundstage of the Focal Clear makes me work harder to create a more enveloping mix than the Sundara does, making the Clear a potentially more valuable tool for music production.
The imaging is also reference class. I’m rarely surprised by the placement of elements in a mix when switching from the Clear to another playback system.
Value / Conclusion Grade: A
This is going to be controversial, but I rarely use my studio monitors to mix anymore since picking up the Clear. I’ll check mixes on my speakers and other headphones at the end of the day, but I’m doing a majority of the work on these headphones and I’ve been really happy with the results.
My Studio A signal chain: Universal Audio Apollo X8 (DAC / Interface) → Drop + THX AAA 789 → Focal Clear
The objectivity of headphones versus speakers (which are subject to things like speaker placement, room acoustics, listening position, etc.) is extremely attractive to me. I’m able to work in any quiet space without worrying about “getting used to the room.” And the Clear seems to be, quietly, the best headphones for music production out there right now. It’s no surprise that Focal re-branded the Clear in a different color and called it the “Clear Professional.” To be fair, I haven’t heard Focal’s exorbitantly expensive “Utopia” yet… That will likely have to wait — at least until the next global pandemic.
pictured: polar bear, Crumbs, Focal Clear
Thx for reading.