I recently reviewed Focal's Listen Wireless Chic Bluetooth headphones and fell in love with them. Awesome sound, great-looking, superior connectivity, and reasonably priced.
When I was offered Focal's $1000 Elear high-fidelity cans, I of course accepted. If the Listen Wireless is what the company can do for $300, then surely $700 more gets you singing cherubs strapped to your ears, right?
Unfortunately, if you base expectations on price alone, you're gonna have a bad time. I'm very much of the opinion that you pay for what you get when it comes to speakers and headphones, but I believe I've learned a lesson, and that is that there's a limit.
Let's get to it.
I was sent the Focal Elears specifically for an honest and unbiased review and did not go out and spend a whole paycheck of my own on these bad boys.
Well-made with some odd caveats
To start, these headphones feel expensive. The yoke is solid aluminum, the headband is genuine leather, and the ear cushions are made from a microfiber memory foam. That all goes into making a very comfortable wearing experience. It's like a Casper mattress on each ear. That and weight distribution is perfect — there's enough squeeze on your head so that the the headband isn't doing all the work, but it's still holding up its end of the bargain, making for a pair of headphones you can wear comfortably for hours.
Then we get to the "buts". The ear cups only tilt enough to fit your desired comfort; they don't fold in to make things more compact for travel. I mean, would you want to travel with $1000 headphones? Probably not, but still, for a cool grand, I'd expect the option.
The Elear headphones are designed with acoustics placed above all else, and that means that the ear cups are "open". Your ears aren't closed off, rather the outer ear cup is made from a tight aluminum mesh, so there's no sound isolation, let alone cancellation. Again, understandable when you're 100% focused on sound, but you're compromising valuable features for sound.
Another odd, and ultimately annoying, feature is the cable. It's 10 feet long, and heavy. And that's no exaggeration; it's a 10-foot cable, and that's all you get. I mean, fair enough, since who wants to sit right beside their amp to listen to tunes, but only the one cable? Yeesh.
And at the end of said cable is only a quarter-inch (6.5mm) jack. It's 2018, and a company is selling $1000 headphones with just a quarter-inch jack and no 3.5mm adapter. I get it. They're made for high-fidelity, and they're so powerful that you really do need an amp to drive them, and a stereo quarter-inch jack is the way to go in the case, but still. I understand that these fill a niche. There are diehard audiophiles out there who believe in sound quality above all else, and choose to sit in their living rooms and listen to their music straight from their sound system. And that's great, but I have to believe that that demographic is rapidly shrinking.
Dying are the days of purchasing a separate receiver, tower speakers, a separate sub, and bookshelf speakers. More and more people are instead opting for "good enough" in the form of various Bluetooth speakers, and I even rely solely on my Fluance Fi-70 to fill my house with music. I went out and bought a quarter-inch to 3.5mm adapter, but I know that diminishes sound quality, so I had to resort to odd testing methods. The fact that there's not a high-quality 3.5mm adapter in the box is sad, especially for $1000.
The way I tested the Focal Elear 'phones was first through a quarter-inch to 3.5mm adapter and into my phone (Galaxy S8) and my iMac. They sound good, but only about as good as my other headphones (Audio-Technica ATH-M50x (opens in new tab)). In fact, my Audio-Technica cans had brighter highs and warmer lows. I figured this wasn't a good enough test, so I went to my mixer in the basement, which has a quarter-inch plugin for headphones, and I pumped music from my phone in the board. I even went so far as to grab my 3.5mm to quarter-inch adapter and bring my ATH-M50x headphones down for comparison.
While the Focal Elears sound great, they still just don't sound $1000 worth of great. Now that may come down to personal preference, because in switching between the two sets of headphones I found something interesting. The Elears produced a massive range of sounds — listening to them felt like the soundscape was wide open and, if I may analogize, as though I was floating in outer space with the sound all around me. When I popped my Audio-Technica cans on, it was more like I had put on my space helmet and all the sound was contained in there — compressed and more concentrated.
And that makes perfect sense. The Elear headphones have a frequency response of 5Hz to 23kHz. My ATH-M50x have a response of 15Hz to 20kHz. That being said, I found the Elear's tonal profile to just be stretched too thinly. The highs weren't bright enough for me, not as crisp as I enjoy (and I have full EQ control on my mixer, so I played with that for a good while). I'm not normally a mid-range guy — I set most of my guitar distortion pedals with high low end and high high end, and I turn down the mids — but the Elear's midrange is gorgeous and clear. Vocal harmonies and second guitar parts come through wonderfully. The bass is present, it's punchy, but it also lacks warmth. I like my bass to wrap itself around my ears and hug them closely. I find that with the Elears, it's more of a very friendly handshake — it just doesn't take things to that next level for me.
Should you buy these? Nah
Unless you're an absolute dyed-in-the-wool audiophile, there's no reason you should spend $1000 on a pair of headphones. If these sounded earth-shatteringly amazing, and I had to go and completely rethink every decision I had ever made in my entire life after hearing them, then I'd wholeheartedly recommend them. But seeing as how they come with a ridiculous cable, no adapter, and are way too niche to justify spending money on, I just can't. I get what they're for; I admit that they're good for what they are. But you can find headphones that sound just as great (or better) for SO. MUCH. LESS.
Mick is a staff writer who's as frugal as they come, so he always does extensive research (much to the exhaustion of his wife) before making a purchase. If it's not worth the price, Mick ain't buying.