Focal Stellia Review - Closed-back Endgame Contender
Written by Chrono
Headphones provided on loan for evaluation by headphones.com
The Stellia is Focal’s flagship closed-back, dynamic driver headphone, and it was designed to deliver a high-end, acoustically-accurate listening experience both at-home, and on-the-go. As one of Focal’s top-of-the-line offerings, the Stellia is adorned with astonishingly premium materials and–I think more importantly–Focal’s best headphone acoustic technology.
With the Stellia’s retailing at a jaw-dropping $2,990 I think it’s safe to say the question of perceived value has been completely thrown at the window, and to be fair, that is a very subjective metric anyways. So, what I want to focus on in this review is sharing my experience with this beautiful headphone in hopes that it might be helpful for those wondering if this is the one for them.
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 + Topping 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).
Packaging and Accessories
If I’m being honest, I’m not usually that interested in a product’s packaging or presentation, as I tend to focus more on performance. However, the Stellia’s packaging made for a delightful unboxing experience that was very reminiscent of that of luxury fashion products.
The box’s top cover is wrapped in a pleather that matches the Stellia’s visual design. Inside you are greeted with the Stellia inside traditional Focal hard-case (albeit in a chocolate-like color to match the headphone), and a fold-out box containing the cables, as well as a wallet with all the documentation for the headphone.
There are two cables included with the Stellia. Although they both terminate in dual-sided 3.5mm connectors on the headphone side, and are wrapped in a color that matches the Stellia’s colorway, they do vary in their length and terminations. One of the cables measures 1.2m in length and is intended for portable use, as it terminates in a 3.5mm jack. The second cable is fairly longer at 3m in length and terminates in a 4-pin balanced XLR connector. Now, whilst both cables look and feel rather nice, they are still fairly awkward and stiff for desktop use and I highly encourage the use of aftermarket cables if you find that the included ones get in the way too much.
Build Quality and Comfort
Aesthetically, the Stellia is a significant departure from the rest of Focal’s line-up. Whilst headphones like the Utopia, Clear, and now discontinued Elegia feature clean, simple designs, the Stellia instead looks and feels like a product that could have been made in collaboration with brands like Bally or Salvatore Ferragamo; using full-grain leather and metals that follow a rather striking Cognac and Mocha theme. From a structural standpoint, though, the Stellia’s design is identical to that of all the others in Focal’s family of headphones. The Stellia is constructed entirely out of metal, it feels remarkably well put-together, and there are no build flaws or loose parts that I can find on it. There really is no part of the Stellia’s build which I feel I can sincerely flaw, I find it to be a very reliable, and beautiful design. One thing I will note for the Stellia, however, is that because it is using genuine leather in a fairly light color, it is subject to discoloration and alterations over time as a result of its exposure to light, body oils, and just general usage–something worth keeping in mind if you are not particularly fond of patina on leather products.
Whilst not the most comfortable I have tried, the Stellia has been a pretty easy wear for me in day-long listening sessions. Straight out of the box, the clamp force was a little bit on the tighter side, but I did find that even after just a few hours of use they eased up quite nicely and the headphone’s weight is distributed pretty evenly. My only concern with the Stellia is that whilst they are pretty deep, I do find the inside area of the pads to be a little bit small, so users with larger ears might find contact with the inner sides to be somewhat annoying. Nonetheless, I do find the Stellia to be pretty comfortable, you just have to keep in mind that it does have a snug fit.
The Stellia shares a driver design that is almost identical to that of Focal’s esteemed flagship–the Utopia.
Housed inside the Stellia’s ear cups are Focal’s ‘M’-shaped pure Beryllium dome speaker drivers and as a closed-back headphone, it combats in-cup resonances and standing waves by using box-shaped diffusers that absorb and break up sound waves with a method that can be compared to that of acoustically-treated rooms. So, with its cutting edge acoustic technologies, how did the Stellia perform in my experience listening to it?
I will admit, that before listening to the Stellia myself, I had seen some frequency response measurements that worried me, as they looked a little bit odd. However, once I actually listened to them I did not find these headphones in particular to sound strange like the measurements suggested.
When I first sat down to listen to the Stellia, it immediately struck me as being this incredibly energetic headphone with outstanding technical performance. It presented music with a tonality that could be characterized by very present, slightly emphasized bass, rich mids, and highs that, although a little lacking in air, were well-tempered. As I will discuss briefly when diving into a more in-depth look at the different frequency response registers, I did find some quirks in the Stellia’s tonality when listening to it, but by and large these were very minor, and I felt like it did have a very enjoyable, warm balance overall.
The Stellia’s bass response feels extremely fast and well-defined, with a great ability for adequately texturing low tones. I found the Stellia to be significantly more articulate than the HD 820, and I felt as though it was even a little more nimble than headphones like the LCD-X in this region of the frequency response. For extension it reaches far down, almost all the way to 20hz. This gave the bass a very good sense of depth, and in this regard it’s really only outperformed by some of the planar-magnetic headphones I’ve listened to which are more capable when reproducing that 10hz-20hz rumble.
I do find that frequencies in the subbass region under 100hz are a little boosted for my preference, as they sit very close to the level suggested by the Harman Target Preference Curve, but I do think this added emphasis adds a “fun,” warm character to the Stellia that I think many listeners will enjoy. Moving on the mid and upper bass, I find it has a very good tuning on the Stellia, as I heard no bloats making the bass one-note-sounding, and it had a smooth, uncongested transition from the upper-bass into the lower mids. Altogether, when you combine its balanced tuning and precision, the stellia has, hands down, the best bass I have personally heard on a dynamic-driver headphone thus far; I just think it sounds extremely clean, but also exciting in the way it reproduces low tones.
Whilst it does have some of the same slight quirks I’ve heard on other Focal headphones, I still think the midrange on the Stellia sounds great and has a good tuning. The lower mids, particularly around 300hz-600hz seems to be ever so slightly elevated, which I find lends vocals a very full-sounding body and makes brass, woodwind, and string instruments in particular come through with a heightened tonal richness in their fundamental tones. Where I do find that the Stellia deviates a little bit from what I consider to be neutral or natural-sounding is in the upper midrange.
Like the Clear, the Stellia sees an elevation at around 1K, but also has a small rise at 2K. They are very subtle, but depending on the music and instruments you listen to they might become more apparent. I found that those peaks could add slightly nasal character vocals, and could make percussive instruments in particular sound a little boxy or metallic. At the same, I felt like those two elevations added a really satisfying emphasis to brass instruments’ overtones, which, for me, gave them a more realistic bite. Lastly, whilst it did not sound recessed, I did feel like there was an upper midrange dip at around 4K-4.5K, which took away some vocal presence and added a small emphasis to the nasal quality I mentioned. Still, these were very minor deviations and for the most part I would consider them to be nitpicks. Also worth mentioning is that, compared to the Clear, the Stellia did not sound to me as though it had that somewhat metallic character that listener’s have noted on some Focal headphones, and seems more transparent in that regard.
I would describe the Stellia’s treble range as mostly smooth, with no one frequency band jumping at you or coming through harshly. I did notice, though, two very minor bumps in this region of the frequency response. The first one was this small rise at 6.5K that added a little bit of glare in the lower treble. Then there was also a slight peak at 8K that placed a stress on consonant sounds. Mind you, it wasn’t a large enough peak to make the treble come through as piercing or sharp, but it did add just a bit of sibilance here and there; which could prove distracting on certain tracks.
I think that if there’s one thing that disappoints me in the treble region for the Stellia, is that it’s treble extension is fairly poor, and has some pretty noticeable roll-off in the top end. For me, there was a noticeable lack of air, so the highs didn’t glisten as much as I would have liked them to and I felt like instruments occasionally missed some of those upper treble harmonics. Additionally, I feel as though this made the Stellia sound a little more closed in and just a little less resolving, however this was something I did find could be amended with a little EQ. Apart from the lack of air, though, I do like the Stellia’s inoffensive, and well-balanced tuning in the highs.
For detail retrieval and overall sense of clarity, I feel like the Stellia delivers outstanding performance. In all registers of the frequency response, but particularly in the bass and mids, the Stellia presents a very clean image of the music that surfaces all the tonal and structural nuances in different instrument and vocal lines. I think that for internal resolution, the Stellia is a step-up from the Clear, is slightly ahead of HD 820, and is about on-par with the HD 800 S which I find remarkable for a closed-back headphone.
Soundstage, Imaging, and Layering
Whilst I feel as though the Stellia has immaculate imaging that precisely discerns the directionality of the different instruments and elements in a recording, it’s not a particularly spacious headphone, as its soundstage is very lacking in sense of distance. Despite the small stage it has to work with, though, the Stellia does maintain a fantastic instrument separation that lends the instrument and vocal lines composing complex music passages a distinct place of their own. Needless to say, the soundscape that the Stellia creates is a very intimate one, but it’s not one that I felt was overly confined or cluttered–it might just feel a little underwhelming compared to most open-back headphones, or something like the HD 820.
Dynamics is undoubtedly one of the Stellia’s strongest qualities, and in fact, I don’t think I have personally heard a headphone with this great a sense of punch and slam. In the low notes, the Stellia hits with remarkable authority as it delivers a physical impact that really lets you feel the kick behind bass drums and the bottom, undertone bloom of strung instruments. In the top-end, the Stellia has a fast, weighty snap to it that perfectly recreates the attack of acoustic guitar strings, piano keystrokes, and snare strikes. Altogether, this strong, excursive quality in the Stellia adds an incredible amount of energy that makes tracks feel more life-like and makes for an astonishingly engaging listening experience.
Despite having some ports in the rear of its cups, the Stellia does a pretty fair job at keeping sound from leaking; for the most part, I did not get any complaints from people I chatted with on Discord or Zoom about my music becoming audible through my microphone. Additionally, when listening to music, I could not hear the sound of my typing when working. I think that this makes the Stellia a very convenient headphone for when keeping one’s music from becoming intrusive for others is a priority, or for office usage.
As I mentioned earlier, despite what the measurements might suggest, I think that out-of-the-box, the Stellia is one of the best headphones I’ve had the opportunity to listen to for frequency response and tonality. However, like all other headphones, it’s not perfect and I do like adding some subtle tuning via EQ. I adjust the upper midrange a bit to give vocals a bit more presence by slightly boosting 4K, and I reduce 1K and 2K to reduce the chance of instruments coming through as a little boxy. Then in the treble I reduce 6K and 8K whilst also adding a shelf above 11K to add a little more air; a small change which adds a nice glisten up-top and one I think helps the Stellia open-up a bit more. If you’d like to try my EQ settings for the Stellia, these are the filters I used:
- Peak at 1000hz, -2dB Q of 2
- Peak at 2000hz, -2dB Q of 3
- Peak at 4500hz, 2dB Q of 3
- Peak at 6500hz, -2.5dB Q of 3
- Peak at 8000hz, -1.5dB Q of 4
- High Shelf at 11000hz, +3dB Q of 3
The Stellia is a truly marvelous headphone that, aside from having an intimate soundstage, is able to overcome all the challenges that drivers face when being closed-off and it delivers performance that I personally think lives up to its flagship label. The Stellia provides a superb musical experience that packs an infectious, energetic sound within an ergonomic, supremely beautiful headphone that I believe can serve as a true “endgame” for many listeners.
Regardless of whether it’s open or closed, if you are looking for a top-of-the line headphone that delivers a rich, musical, and exciting sound whilst surfacing all the nuances in your favorite recordings, I think that the Focal Stellia is a delightful headphone that you might be able to call the one.
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