Focal Elear-a gem

Pros: excellent sound qualities, wonderful build, comfortable, very good bass, an intimate sound stage provide for an overall excellent package

Cons: Extremely long cable, which is quite thick. Open back lacks isolation

I want to thank @Todd of TTVJ for this wonderful surprise, and opportunity to review the fine Elear. It was a wonderful 7+ days, which I thoroughly enjoyed; extended due to a weather delay. Best of luck to the people that follow.

 

 

FOCAL ELEAR

 

What a surprise! Forgot I was entered, and when another unit became available, Todd emailed me. Woohoo! Quickly I had to research what/where/how/$/etc to be up to speed….some tour reviewers used VERY expensive Amps with which to review…:blink:….My hope was that the ampsandsounds Kenzie would be in the house with the Elear when it arrived, and as luck had it; they came one day apart (Happy, I was!).

 


Quite the nice shape

 

 

Reading those reviews, both formal and observational, a pattern developed rather quickly. There was a somewhat disconcerting repetition of comparisons to a particular headphone (actually two), which cost close to twice (and more than 2x) the price of the Elear. While I can understand the need and want to compare above and below level, after listening I believe the criticism leveled at the Elear against those particular headphones is quite unfair. That said, I have not listened to those in comparison. I was quite happy to judge the Elear as a stand-alone, along with the Kenzie.

 

It is a shame that those of us in the audio world tend to move on rather quickly when the “newest, latest, greatest” comes out. Too often, the “flavor of the month” is given its dues initially, and then moved to the curb sometimes quite abruptly. One need only peruse the Head-Fi “for sale” threads for listings of those same items. I will not mention names/brands/product, but it is painfully clear that this is not only wrong, but also a disservice to what has and is produced. In another fine product, which I just finished reviewing, the Sponsor-thread has clearly dropped off of the front page, well into the 2nd-3rd pages, depending upon who has commented. I really think this is a travesty of justice. One item I learned from my just finished review, is that you CAN reach that plateau where you are happy, and do not need to quiver about the smallest of details or the smallest of errors, the smallest of “faults.” You can indeed be happy with whatever current “units” you have, and still admire other products, which you graciously receive for review. It is that “other unit,” which has allowed me this peace, this listening harmony. I am not ashamed to admit it, either. In fact, I just placed my order for that unit, knowing it will be with me for a LONG time, as a result of this conclusion. Some day, I hope to add the Elear to that equation, that list of what I have, which is just right. It is enough for me to be satisfied, the performance of the Elear and the IEM of which I speak. Enough for me to simply plug in and enjoy without the need to “move further up” the food chain we call portable audio equipment. I am in complete enjoyment and satisfaction with the Elear, and am quite lucky to have thoroughly enjoyed my week (extended by weather and a Holiday). It is not perfect, and I will point that out, but I will unabashedly admit I have not heard anything above this price-wise, but feel no need to after my time together. Couple this with the excellent ampsandsounds Kenzie in the house, and I have found a “system” with which I could easily sell my home system and be done. The synergy between them is so good; that I do not need to look further, there is no need.

 

 

 

Build:

 

Absolutely top class, first-rate build is what I noticed from the opening of that really cool case to the time on my head. The quality of components used is of envy, as is the build. Soft colors of gray and black are matched with the silver highlights of accent rings on the ear cup, as well as trim just below the band. This is not a headphone, which shouts at you, but exudes an understated quality. One aspect, which drew my early criticism, is the silver aluminum adjustable bands, which go into the headband. My thought was that they appear and feel quite flimsy for such a purchase.  That was quickly allayed, when I realized how thick and wide the band was. I also realized that the “flimsiness” of the band going into the headband was by design to allow a certain movement on ones head for proper placement. The ear pads are also, non-concentric circles, much like the ear cup itself. Made of soft suede-like material, they are offset in their axis, again to orient the sound properly into our ears through good placing on our head; the front of the pad slightly overlaps the “sound room”. With orientation towards the front of the headphone there was no need for multi-dimensional movement of the cup, due to the suspension mentioned, and the band in-use “adjustment.” It is quite good, and quite heavy. That said I found my best fit was with a hat on, and I could happily wear the Elear for hours without much discomfort. As an eyeglass wearer, this is important. An undue pressure pinches the frames of my glasses onto my head. This did not happen, once I was able to adjust the Elear properly. A wonderful, non-portable case exudes quality and safety. This what a case should look like whenst one spends this kind of money. I will state upfront, as many other have that the cable is ridiculously long and heavy. I can understand why, due to various listening locale pleasures, but if the cable is unduly heavy, you can quite certainly feel it weigh upon the headphone. I was able to coil the bulk up and place it out of the way, but that would be a short-term solution. It is an extraordinary cable, but for me far too long and heavy.

 

 

 

 

 

Fit/Ergonomics:

 

The Elear is extremely comfortable….build quality is excellent as mentioned. No flaws. I would prefer a freer mounting system, which would allow the ear cups to rotate for better fit (see above comments, which negate this, but kept for initial repose). But this is accommodated by the change in pad shape. For overall fit, I am more comfortable in long sessions wearing a hat. Without, the lower parts of the pads tend to pinch. Without my glasses, it is better, but if you rely upon wearing your glasses, it may be an issue.

 

 

Initial listening:

 

 

MacBook Pro+ampsandsounds Kenzie+Elear:

 

Probably 75% of my time, at minimum was spent using this set up, because this was the set up I enjoyed the most. If I were to purcjase both test units, this would be why…to run with my Mac. It is a natural synergy, which I find as many excuses as possible to enjoy…many times over…

 

One of my favorite male vocalists is Dave Matthews, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan (my all time favorite artist, God rest his soul). Matthews has a “soft-gravelly” quality, which compliments his music extremely well. Throw in a diverse group, and you have a diversity, which lacks in much of the music of today. It is almost like he is from another era. Gravedigger shows the passion with which his music was developed, coming from a slower start, building to a crescendo, and finishing with that sad, intimate, almost forlorn ending. You FEEL for those that died in the song, and the Kenzie portrayed this without protest. It was as if the reverence from the amp was a conscious decision, which complimented the veneration from the Elear. It’s way of paying homage to those departed. What a respectful way it was.

 

Follow that with Grey Street, and you have come full circle. This journey is like an experience where you must be brought down to the depths then lifted out. There were times in which I would fail miserably during my two-day mtb races on the first day. I would have to dig deep on the second day to overcome this. With the help of my trusty Specialized Stumpjumper, more often than not I did. On a cold, wet snowy, did I say cold?, day in Lawrence, Kansas we rode the second day of the Kansas State Mountain Bike Championships. Moving steadily through the pack, this was the second muddiest race in which I had ever participated (Columbia, MO for the other). I am proud of my 7th place out of 65. And I was the only one to ride up a particularly muddy section…I attribute this to not only my skill (which wasn’t much), but also to the ability to read the terrain and let the bike decide the route. Almost intuitively, the Stumpjumper guided me; much the way the Kenzie is showing the way for the Elear. Showing me the correct path to choose while allowing me the choice of music for the journey.

 


KIND of like what I rode up…

 

 

Soundstage is narrower than I am used to with the Elear, but still quite satisfying. A song such as Dave Matthews’s version of Long Black Veil makes you understand that other than this being a semi-open headphone; this journey is for you and you alone. EmmiLou Harris’ voice just simply adds to the magic, necessary for that journey.

 

I do not have any experience beyond this, the Elear/Kenzie. After a glorious week together, I really have no need to move further up towards the summit. When you combine a “Summit-fi” amp with an entry into the “top-tier” headphone; and it synergizes such as these do, there is no need whatsoever to proceed further. Skyfall by Adele epitomizes this perfectly. A build of sound from her voice to the piano line, to the drums to the orchestra just finish the deal. I have no need to go any further. I will not call this my endgame, as that would be an insult to both. You reach a view on your journey, and it’s just…right….You can certainly see further, and higher; but because you have traversed the path to get there; you have already seen what you need; experienced what you need. Concluded what you have is enough. Again, this is not a slight, a disservice as in you have settled. No, certainly not. But you have reached that inner bliss where all you have in front of you laid bare is enough. The view and journey have solidified themselves as all you need to be complete. THIS is what the Elear/Kenzie combos have provided me. I have no need beyond this.

 

Conversely on Dave Matthews excellent song Dodo, his vocal is the foundation on which the song relies. Bass and drum line are most definite support, but too far forward with the Elear. Luckily, Dave’s voice can overcome that. His voice center stage, the bass/drum line at ether side extreme the combination fits well together, despite this not being the best combination through the Elear.

 

 

One of my favorite test tracks was Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Zigeunerweisen Op.20. The Elear/Kenzie combo was meant for this. It is as if all in the audience are collectively holding their breath throughout the whole song…The synergy of Elear and Classical music cannot be underestimated. This is a fine pairing. Details galore, instrumentation where it should be, as well as excellent separation, the Elear simply excels at the Classical genre, to me. The audience was breathless it seemed, and so was I at the listening.

 

Following that mix, Mission Impossible by Lindsey Stirling and The Piano Guys, to me epitomizes all things good in the Elear (besides those already mentioned). Instrument separation is very strong, and imaging quite good. Playing the piano across the mid-left line, and slightly behind, the string instruments show a true strength in bringing the whole together. As the song progresses, the piano can clearly be heard moving slowly towards the center, and more forward. The string instruments then move to either side, enveloping the “bad-guy” piano. What ensues is just a really, really good mix of the tension in the scene. Each instrument playing to be heard, and mixing quite well. I really like this song through the Elear’s. And yes, that dip in mids can be heard, but the overall presentation covers this “deficiency” well. I don’t really count it as a deficiency, but an almost “relief” which allows the other strengths of the Elear to show…the upper bass and the lower trebles simply shine. Follow that with Thrift Shop by, Stirling and Tyler Ward and the wholeness of presentation shows. Excellent male vocals, plucking of strings, and the deep support bass line from the guitar in the background show through very well. Just a sound, which I really like.

 

 

 

 

In the Elements-Orchestral version, there is just a holy buckets kind of sound. Simply an oh my goodness type of sound, which makes one truly marvel at what we can put together for our pleasure. This must be what the top sounds like. So deep, so spatial, so clear and vibrant, that my jaw slackens a bit, not in jealousy, but a wanting to jump wholeheartedly into the music, like no song has through the Elear/Kenzie up until now. And the other songs have been damn bloody good. I had to stop listening for the night after this song. Incredibly sensuous and surreal. I truly felt like I was in Transylvania. Hearing the beat of the cloth mallet on the chimes has never felt so real. I was INSIDE the head of the mallet. Every instrument so precisely placed, that I dare not breath, lest I disturb the smallest Ion in this sphere. This song truly defines a sense where intimate sound stage is desperately OK. Menacingly perfect. No sense of flaw is present, and you dare not disturb that aura. You dare not move. You do not want this sensation to end.

 

THIS is the site I had after opening, and of course hooking the cables up…

iPhone 6+(+) ampsandsounds Kenzie + Elear

 

Using my iPhone 6+ through the Elear/Kenzie, an almost deep foreboding sound was had. The kind of sound, which once you hear it, draws you into the darkness. Into that deep, deep cavern of unknown. An unknown you are hesitant to explore, but know you must. This is the true definition of “The Journey is the true meaning.” I cannot see myself using this set up, unless I had a quality amp to run the Elear through, and at that point, it would be better to run a whole better set up. Not unpleasant, just not the best, and not what the Elear was meant to be heard through.

 

Continuing with the 6+,  Stirling’s Element leads the way back into the musical bliss from which I enjoyed the Elear. Overall it isn’t the best sound but one, which you gladly take, knowing your smartphone will never sound this good again….Again, a very good sound, but one you will not use often.

 

Fiio x3ii+ampsandsounds Kenzie+Elear:

 

The Fiio x3ii gives the Elear a straight forward sound. Kind of analytical, which the Kenzie warms nicely. Almost a juxtaposition of sound smorgasbord…who wins? Well, I do right now! An interesting mix, which the Elear tries to meld into an elegant but slightly hollow sound presentation. It is not the Elear’s fault, though. I blame the almost antiseptic flat sound of the Fiio here. I really, really like the sound from the Fiio, but here it is just hollow and odd with some of the songs. Then on others, just right. Still quite acceptable, but not the weeping, teary-eyed emotion which the MacBook combo can bring. Highs are better positioned and of a clearer nature, but at the cost of that lack of….fullness. Maybe it is the trueness with which the Elear lays the sound to my ears. No hiding behind a false presentation.

 

Then a song such as Bailor (Sequiriya Cabal) comes on and dispels all of that hollow-nonsense. I’m very confused. Full, rich, detailed and deep, this song throws mud at me as if to say, “What do you expect? This is a good set up, too!” I cannot disagree, either. An honest sound that allows the strengths of the Elear not to be hidden. Shown full on, this particular song is at the front of what is good; detail, rich fairly-wide of sound, each instrument can be separated like you were running around the stage trying to get close to each instrument; then quickly like a mouse on to the other…aaahhh! Confusing, but in a good way.

 

Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela combine so well on the Hands album, that the combination is a natural. The title track is just a play on the emotions. Bass guitar and Flamenco combine seamlessly to concoct a sound, which really brings the strengths out. Variety, solid bass, mids which compliment and hold together the two opposites while there is enough treble to satisfy ones needs. No bleeding of sound into the others territories. Each playing nicely, to combine into a sound, that puts you front and center. Intimate, almost sitting on stage next to each guitarist, this is a sound, which is very small venue-like. Quite good. No mouse activity here…

 

 

 

 

Headphone Comparisons, Fostex T40RP Mk3 vs Audioquest Nighthawk vs Elear:

 

My assortment of IEM’s and Headphones is not that vast, and probably never will be. But I enjoy all that I have, using all as much as I can. That said, some unit’s fall by the side, rarely used. When I do revisit them, I am reminded why I purchased them in the first place.

The Fostex T40RP MK3 would be like a teens hopped up Honda Civic. A great headphone for modding, and tailoring sound to an individuals taste, the closed-back T40’s sound quite good. Decent reach on both ends, but bass can get quite boomy, and “unruly,” like a show-off or the Fart Can exhaust, which was (unfortunately) quite popular for a time. To show its best, it really should be modified, especially the older Mk1 & Mk2. Best used (to me) for Rock & Roll, it isn’t that bas when used for other genre, but just like a Civic, it reaches its limit when asked to do too much complicated music.

 

My newly acquired Audioquest Nighthawk would be like the fine touring machine, the VW R32. The ride, which excels in all conditions, thanks to the 4-Motion AWD allows the strengths to show, it’s excellent engine and engine note; along with one of the best interiors out there, belying WELL beyond the price range. Pretty darn fast (the car is, too) of sound, with excellent feedback; the NH doesn’t really do anything exceptionally well. It does sound VERY well, instead. As such, it does maintain that composure no matter the genre, or sound. An extremely competent headphone, which takes a different route to reach its sound spectrum; much the way the AWD R32 does. A headphone you would be extremely satisfied with (I am), but one when compared to the Elear leaves you wanting more. I will say, to me the bass is a bit better, and slightly deeper of reach than the Elear. Some have stated that the bass in the Elear sounds too “analytical,” a statement with which I would disagree. The bass is almost perfect for me. That said, I truly enjoy the bass on the NH.

 

This leaves the Elear. I would call the Elear the Porsche 911 Turbo of headphones. While one would think that this could very well have been a Ferrari 488 GTB that would be too much flash. No, the Focal Elear is more understated. The Elear let’s the performance speak. It is not about flash, it is about SUBSTANCE. Not that the Ferrari does not have performance, it certainly does, but in a much flashier way than the 911 Turbo. Performance speaks. And it expresses volumes about the character and substance of the Elear. A quality I very much appreciate.

 

On Stirling’s We Found Love, the female vocals are magical! Right where they need to be. The incorporation of native sounds as background is just right. Not overpowering, right where they need to be…bass provides a solid foundation on which the song carries without problem. A hint of bass being withheld, but I think it is so that the supporting drums and vocals can show their force…just fantastically represented by the Elear.

 

In Hello, Adele’s signature song, the bass line is a little too far forward. I think it is the recording, but I am not sure…her voice, though. Stunning, through pretty much anything; magnificent through the Elear. This combo is made for female vocals and violin…I am in love.

 

Someone Like You-Adele: I have goosebumps…just Adele and the piano. Royal Albert Hall; one of the most iconic venues on the planet cements this combination. Adele/Royal Albert Hall=Elear/Kenzie. For some reason I am brought to tears by this. I think it is the genuine love I have for my wife, and this combination of Adele/Royal, Elear/Kenzie makes such an impact upon the sound. I am the luckiest guy on the planet right now…

 

Set Fire to the Rain: vocals and piano upfront again, drum/bass as foundation. Strings again, alight as the middle, which holds the bass line and Adele/piano together. This songs shows that the Elear/Kenzie allow the music to shine through. Not imposing a “false sense” of sound on the proceedings. There is nothing false about this. This is true music.

 

Revisiting Anne-Sophie Mutte’s Zigeunerweisen the classical violin orchestral masterpiece shows this is what the Kenzie and Elear were meant for…oh my God. The Elear/Kenzie combo was meant for this. It is as if all in the audience are collectively holding their breath throughout the whole song…while magical, it is a hint too laid back for me, until the song hits the 6:45 mark. Then the finale finishes what has brought me to my knees. I think it is simply preparing me…slowly bringing me back into the fray. Preparing me for the finish…gently. Then not a slap in the face, but a collective RUSH of air thrown at me to take my breath away. I have no choice but to gasp, hopefully silently as she plays when that moment arises. So pure is that moment, that I decide then and there, that I have reached what is my moment in sound. That moment when you decide this is it. I need look no further. Yes, as I state below, there are other fine headphones, but when you reach that moment where the bass drops from the orchestral movement, seamlessly with Ms. Mutter’s unbroken violin playing you just have to sit back and admire what the Elear brings. That full rich slightly warm sound, which can play at the soft music as well as it can the louder. This makes me very, very happy.

 


My review rig for the week…I am a very lucky man…

 

The last song, which helped me define what I like in the Elear, was Bears, by Lyle Lovett. An excellent bass line is laid down, supported by the guitars in the mids followed by Lyle’s voice, which ties the two together. Crystal clear clarity, the sound provides you with enough space to separate all instruments but keeps that intimacy, which I find is one of the Elear’s strongest points. As @kman1211 stated, and I agree, “I’m not too picky about soundstage size, I care much more about imaging…” I wholeheartedly agree. If I can pick out exactly where Lyle’s microphone is compared to the National steel guitar and the electric mandolin, then I am satisfied. The instrument of our listening has transported me to the presentation itself. That is all I ask of my headphones…I get transported to the music. An avenue of delivery, which ends up being a good ride. The Elear is that instrument. That headphone, which takes me to that place of listening and does so without fuss. The Focal does so unencumbered by “what might be better” or “what has more depth,”…etc. It just does it.

 


The overall build is impressive, quite impressive

 

 

I am very aware that there are many, many other quality headphones out there which are not only in the same price, but more expensive. One need only look at the TOTL Utopia, from Focal to understand. When I started reading the reviews in anticipation of my time with the Elear, I kept reading, over and over that this headphone was better in tight bass, this headphone was better in spatial presentation, this one had clearer treble, etc…it kept going. Once I put the Elear on though, all of those comments simply faded away with the music. The music, oh the music. Such a sound my ears have not heard except with my home system. And it made me smile. It made me happy. It made me cherish my music. I enjoy my music very much, and if the instrument of listening can make me smile and the sound quality better, by putting me inside; then it is an experience with which I cherish. I really don’t care if the HD800S sounds “better,” or the T2 has better mids or treble or whatever. It is the sound of the Elear, which pleases me as I listen. The Elear gives me that sense of musicality, that sense of oneness with the headphone. Yes, the others cost more, and I have not heard them, and they very well could be better; but as I stated in my Aria review, I have found it. There is no need to proceed further. This is all I need. Is this perfect? No, but the minor flaws can be lived with or changed. That cable is incredibly long (yes, for far listening purposes), and an open back headphone cannot be used in all situations (like when my better half, my wife is watching TV, and it bleeds through), but when the Elear is called upon, it will be there. It will fulfill the sound with warmish tonality, far reaching bass, mids, which while somewhat recessed are still quite good, and treble (which seemed to divide the Head-Fi community the most) that supports when needed, and takes front when called upon.

 

 

I am very sad that this combination has left my house; far too soon, it has… But I smile knowing that the next people in line have such a tremendous treat in store. The Focal Elear has quickly transported itself onto my very, very short list of top headphones with which I would live happily for a long time. And that is all I could ask of the Focal.  I want to thank Todd from TTVJ for inclusion on the tour. It was a wonderful surprise, and I can unabashedly state that the Elear has been the best headphone I have ever listened to, or tested. Thanks again, Todd!

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