December 15, 2017 marked a major milestone in headphone history. The Drop x Focal Elex was announced. It represented a serious shift in the market as it brought Focal’s innovations with the Clear down to over half its price at $800 . For many people, the Elex was touted as the natural upgrade to the classic Sennheiser HD 600/650/XXX line-up for those looking to retain their legendary midrange tonal profile but improve upon its soundstage, bass dynamics, and clarity. It was along these lines that I myself bought and reviewed the Elex two and a half years ago before letting them go when I switched to a set of speakers during COVID instead.
So why are we looking at it now? As it turns out, Drop just got bought out by Corsair. And coincidentally, Headphones.com will now be stocking the Focal Elex at $750. Interestingly, Corsair’s press release focused almost exclusively on Drop’s custom keyboards with no mention of their popular audio products like the Sennheiser HD 6XX or Focal Elex. It does lead one to speculate if that category will be dropped altogether. Now, I want to make it clear: I am but a humble reviewer. I don’t have affiliate links or commissions or anything like that. I don’t know any of the juicy details behind these business deals. But I figure it’d be a good time to take a second look at the Elex again after having a few more years of listening experience, giving it a definitive review as it approaches its 5th birthday.
Source(s) Used: Ferrum ERCO Balanced DAC & Headphone Amp
Build and Comfort
The Focal Elex shares a similar design language as other Focal headphones - but in a sleek all-black look with a heavy metal build similar to the original Utopia and Clear. Though it weighs in at about 450 grams, I didn’t find it to be a problem at all. I can have it on for a few hours at a time without interruption. And thanks to the padding in the headband, I don’t get a bad pressure spot at the top of my head like I do with some other headphones. The Elex hugs my head nicely with just the right amount of clamp force.
One of the most important aspects of a headphone’s comfort are its ear pads. And the Elex’s are worth a special mention. The Elex borrows the Clear’s fenestrated pad design and combines it with soft, pliable foam that conforms exceptionally well around my ears and even on top of my glasses. These pads are truly what make them special. Let me put it in a more direct way: Do not change the pads, or you will get a different headphone.
In terms of accessories, the Elex today comes in a big black box that says MassDrop on them, though that may change if they’re going to be a keyboard company. You get a couple of product booklets, an XLR cable, and a 6.5 mm cable. They’re both 6 ft / 2 m long, which is the perfect length for desk listening. Note that I hate the amount of cable memory in the flat, fabric-sleeved construction. Luckily, the Elex uses standard 3.5 mm connectors, so if you really want a 3rd party cable, it should be easy to find one.
The tonality of the Elex is the closest I’ve heard a headphone get to the Sennheiser HD 600 without sacrificing its own character. Tonally, the Elex is a lean neutral with a bright touch. Bright because it introduces a crisp treble forwardness and air not seen in the HD 600. Lean because it relieves the hint of warmth found in the HD 600’s lower mids. Together, it contributes to a greater clarity and openness in the presentation beyond the HD 600. But what truly sets the Elex apart from the HD 600 and almost every other headphone under $1,000 is its punch and dynamics. It brings a level of energy and liveliness to music that compels you to engage in the listening experience.
Frequency response of the Focal Elex using the GRAS 43AG measurement system. The dotted black line represents the Harman target, a reference frequency response developed using consumer preferences. The red line is how the Focal Elex measures. Effectively, this shows how significantly the headphone’s frequency response deviates from the target. Note however that the target is highly smoothed and strict adherence to the Harman target is not necessary for a headphone to sound good. *To be updated with B&K5128 data as this is an old measurement.
I usually write my reviews by systematically going through the bass, mids, and treble before capping it off with a discussion on presentation and technical performance. However, I already did that in my original review and frankly, my thoughts haven’t changed much. So instead, let me illustrate the difference between the Elex and HD600 by walking you through a pair of orchestral tracks I’ve been listening to lately.
Staging and Separation
As the track begins, I first notice the spacing and separation between the swelling strings and the large drum sounding off in the background. There’s a distinct separation between these two sections of the orchestra. With the HD 600, there’s a more intimate presentation, almost as if there’s some sort of glue holding everything closer together. This difference is further accentuated as the rest of the orchestra joins in. The Elex maintains a greater sense of space between instruments while the HD 600 keeps them close to one another. I’d say it’s the Elex’s leaner lower mids that partly contribute to this difference in staging. That said, I can certainly see someone preferring the HD 600’s here as it has a “creamier” tonality that binds the instruments together and complements its intimate stage.
Treble and Resolution
The second thing that stands out to me are their treble and resolution. This is most clearly heard when the horns start to play. The intensity of the brass notes come to life on the Elex, their brilliance on full display. Likewise, the subtle nuances and textures of the bows and strings in the violins and cellos are highlighted as they move across passages. The Elex adds a touch more resolution, definition, and clarity to every note and passage. This is accompanied by a backbone of airiness that you almost don’t notice is missing in the HD 600. The Elex’s sense of air doesn’t feel exaggerated in the least nor are there any harsh peaks to be found. I hate to use the word “veil” in the context of the Sennheiser HD 6X0 line-up given the unfair historical connotations of the so-called “Sennheiser veil” but I do think it very much applies when it comes to comparing the Elex and the HD 600. Hearing them side-by-side, it really is like a veil is lifted in terms of clarity and treble extension. I’m a big fan of this sort of treble forwardness.
Scale and Dynamics
The third difference is in the sense of scale and dynamics. The Elex truly conveys the grandiosity of an orchestral arrangement, especially as these pieces build into their crescendos. In comparison, while the HD 600 does an exceptional job of rendering every instrument, it doesn’t quite reach the same dynamic heights as the Elex. This macrodynamic prowess continues through the individual sections. The percussion is more thunderous. The blasting of the horns is ever punchier. Belting vocals soar even further. The strings are weightier. And make no mistake, the HD 600 itself is no slouch when it comes to dynamics. I can’t think of a headphone that's superior to it in its class. The HD 600 is good. The Elex is great.
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As you can see, despite Elex’s ostensibly minor tonal difference, it has a fairly significant difference in performance and presentation compared to the HD600. These differences are consistent across various instruments and genres beyond orchestral pieces. Here are some quick notes.
Piano: I grew up learning a bit of classical piano so I have a little more appreciation for when a headphone manages to capture a great performance. And the Elex performs excellently. Once again, it’s the dynamics of the Elex that truly stands out. Accents are actually accented. Forte is actually forte. Capturing the dynamic intent of a pianist is not easy but the Elex does so beautifully with outstanding clarity in every note. That said, the HD600 admittedly does a better job of rendering a warmer harmonic tone thanks to the slight richness in its lower mids. The Elex is slightly colder and brighter in its timbre in comparison.
Synths/Electronic: For synths and other instruments that make up the electronic genre, the Elex’s subbass and treble extension perform double duty. It increases subbass rumble and impact while the Elex’s tight transient response and treble lift sharpens snaps and claps. This duality gives music a greater vibrancy on the Elex compared to the HD 600 which lacks extension towards both ends of the spectrum.
Vocals: The Elex has a unique ability of subtly isolating vocals and highlighting them in a mix, including backing or harmonizing vocalists. Once again, it’s that lower mids leanness and upper treble air that’s creating this effect. Yet it doesn’t cause vocals, male or female, to sound anemic or lifeless. It’s just a tiny boost in clarity. It doesn’t ever become harsh or sibilant, at least, not beyond what’s in the recording. It’s a superbly clean, neutral sounding vocal performance. But when compared to the HD 600, it lacks that touch of tonal sweetness that makes the Sennheiser so legendary for its timbre.
Bass Guitar: Bass guitars shine on the Elex. Solitary notes carry the foundation of the track. The fading rumble and resonance of the strings moments after being plucked is easily picked up by the Elex, adding texture and flavor that’s often missed. Likewise, rapid-fire bass lines flit in and out effortlessly. The Elex’s note resolution and definition elevates the bass guitar from its status as the backbone of a rock track to an instrument you take notice of.
Electric and Acoustic Guitars: For all that the Elex accentuates, these guitars are relatively untouched. Electric guitars have a cleaner grit while acoustic guitars sound sharper on plucked strings compared to the HD600.
Drums: When it comes to the kick drum, the Elex tightens note definition and brings dynamic weight thanks to its subbass extension. Floor toms get an added depth and scale. For rack toms, the character of its resonant body blooms. Like the guitars however, the snare doesn’t differ too much from the HD600. Just a little bit more pop. If your library primarily consists of rock (like mine does), the Elex will not disappoint.
Hats/Cymbals: These instruments are what I fear the most when it comes to evaluating headphones. They can make or break a headphone. Thankfully, I have no problems at all with the Elex. They’re crisp, coherent, and forward. For an instrument like the glockenspiel, there’s a delicate, crystalline hint to them. While I’ve seen some criticism around Focal for having a so-called metallic timbre in their treble, I personally don’t see it in the Elex. Your mileage may vary.
I’d say the Elex’s soundstage is about 20% larger than the HD 600 in all directions (height, width, and depth). While the HD 600 constantly feels closed in, the Elex opens up the stage just enough to curb that sensation. Open is the key word here. While the absolute soundstage size isn’t immensely bigger, it’s the perception of openness in the Elex that contributes greatly to my enjoyment.
As noted with the orchestral tracks above, instruments have their own space to breathe and play in. In contrast, the HD 600 corrals them into a narrow stage. While this intimacy has its own advantages, it can be a limiting factor in busier tracks. The Elex avoids this constrained sensation and is accompanied by respectable imaging chops that effortlessly places instruments in space.
Comparison to the HiFiMan Ananda
Speaking of openness, HiFiMAN headphones are among the top in that aspect. They practically throw as much sound backwards as they do forwards thanks to their open planar magnetic design. With its MSRP of $700, the Ananda is a popular choice within the same price range. However, it’s quite different, doubling down on resolution and soundstage but faltering in dynamic ability and tonality. Its planar drivers allow the Ananda an effortless, weightless presentation with note definition even cleaner than the Elex.
Additionally, the Ananda’s tuning is thin in the mids due to a 1 kHz dip and exhibits some hard treble peaks. It’s also a less aggressive headphone, forgoing the dynamic heft and impact that the Elex has. Overall, the Elex is a more traditional headphone and a direct progression from the HD 600. The Ananda is very much a different flavor altogether, one that will appeal strongly to certain folks but certainly not everyone. I prefer the Elex as it does a lot of everything without making too much of a trade-off anywhere.
Comparison to the Focal Clear
The big brother to the Elex is the original Focal Clear. Priced at $890, it’s a noticeable step up in price…and bass physicality. The Elex’s driver is fast. The Clear’s is weighty. Not in a way that makes it sluggish, but in a way that you can feel the physicality behind each note. It’s apparent that the upgraded drivers in the Clear are why it’s priced higher – originally $1500 at launch!.
Beyond the bass however, the gap between these two headphones closes considerably. The midrange of the Clear is very similar except with a bit of vocal recession and lower-mids warmth. However as we approach the treble, there are a couple of peaks that introduce harshness and sibilance. It’s unfortunate because the Clear otherwise doesn’t have the treble forwardness that the Elex does and might’ve been a solid option for those preferring a more mellow treble. For the price, I have a hard time justify getting the Clear over the Elex.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. You might be thinking “Wow, this was a very positive review. Suspiciously so.” My counterpoint is: Why wouldn’t it be? For me, the Focal Elex effectively improves almost every aspect of the HD 600. That’s all I needed. Headphones are a tricky business. There are so many boxes to check and sometimes missing just one can restart the hunt. While it’s not to say the Elex is perfect; it simply checks off the most number of boxes for my tastes at a reasonable price. It won’t have the resolution of the Susvara or the sheer dynamism of the Utopia. But then again, it doesn’t cost $6,000. The only “weakness” of the Elex is that it doesn’t quite live up to the HD600’s midrange color. But if you’re looking to upgrade from the legendary Sennheisers, you’re probably already willing to make that trade.
In the spirit of transparency, I do want to note a few final caveats for the Elex beyond its sound.
- Pads. This is the biggest caution I have with the Elex. I’m not sure how readily available its pads will be, nor do I know what they will cost. Drop used to sell them for about $65 which is very reasonable considering the HD6X0 pads cost about $50 themselves. Pads will make or break a headphone. Here’s hoping Headphones.com will carry them.
- Drivers. Historically, Drop customers have complained of driver failure with the Elex. My current understanding is that the failure rate of Focal headphones are in-line with the rest of the industry. What happens is that the drivers shake themselves loose over time and can be easily fixed by tightening the screws. Regardless, Focal will offer a 3-year warranty with the Elex through Headphones.com.
These are two points that should be considered for any headphone but given the Elex’s unique history as a Drop collaboration product, it (rightfully) gets a little extra attention.