Focal Elegia: A Closed-back that opens new doors…almost

Focal Elegia: A Closed-back that opens new doors
Written by ngoshawk
Published 1 minute ago

Pros – Affordable.
Typical Focal open sound.
Vocals presented well.
Pleasant sound representation.

Cons – Missed a tremendous opportunity in my opinion.
Bass-light.
Cable.
Build not up to Focal standards.
Plastic looks cheap.
Headphone slider scratches…already…

Focal Elegia: $899. A Closed-back that opens new doors.

Rating = 3.75/5

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Website: https://www.focal.com/headphones/elegia/
Spec sheet: https://www.focal.com/headphones/pdf/elegia_specification-sheet.pdf
TTVJ: https://www.ttvjaudio.com/Focal_Elegia_Closed_Headphone_p/foc9900001.htm

I want to profusely thank Todd from TTVJ for yet another stellar tour. A good portion of my gear has come about as a result of his tours, including a huge wish for the Apex Pinnacle 2, the finest piece of gear I have ever tested. He graciously offers his wares, for the betterment of the Head-Fi society, as well as to expand our own knowledge surrounding new products. I had a fantastic week, and it was another grand effort.

Initiale:

Upon finding out that Focal would make a closed-back headphone, I immediately started perusing the net looking for clues and reviews. Since I happily own the Elear, I quickly surmised that this could/would be a closed back version of them. Some had mentioned the sound was closer to the Clear. Having not heard the Clear, I relied upon the findings of others, and pulled my Elear back out. It was as sound as I recall, but now just one from my arsenal as opposed to being top dog. I did not mind, other than not being in the rotation as much; so this would make for a revisit to an old friend. Old friends rock.

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There would be stiff competition in the house as I was graciously offered (and accepted!!!) @pinky powers superb ZMF Atticus, in Ash (1 of 20, so I treated them better than my wife…don’t tell her that…), my Campfire Audio Cascade (picked on up used since the new ones are sold out; superb bass from my review of Will’s wonderful set), and a newly acquired set of Mr. Speakers Ether-C Flow (used again, and turned out to be the bargain of the century, at least for me). So, one direct competitor, and two filling the tiers above. Not a bad week if I say so myself.

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Specs:

Elegia is an audiophile circum-aural closed-back pair of headphones from Focal. The ergonomic design makes them incredibly comfortable and offers excellent sound isolation, making these headphones the ideal solution for long listening sessions. Continuing its headphone development programme, the Focal R&D team has introduced several new innovations, all with incredible audio performance in mind. The full-range ‘M’-shape aluminum/magnesium dome speaker driver provides a very high frequency response, which is the basis for Elegia’s supremely dynamic sound. In addition, the frameless voice coil, which is lightweight yet incredibly stiff, reproduces the minutest details that adds to the convincing all-round performance. With its incredible tonal balance combined with long-term comfort, the Elegia is a key reference in the high-end closed-back headphones sector.

Type

Circum-aural closed back headphones
Impedance: 35 Ohms
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL / 1 mW @ 1 kHz
THD: 0.1 % @ 1 kHz / 100 dB SPL
Frequency response: 5 Hz-23 kHz
Speaker driver: 1.57″ (40 mm) ‘M’-shape Aluminium/Magnesium dome
Weight: 15.4 oz (430 g)

Cable provided: 3.94 feet (1.2 m) asymmetric cable (0.14″ – 3.5 mm TRS jack). 0.14″ (3.5 mm) to 0.25″ (6.35 mm) stereo jack adapter.

Hard-shell carry case provided: 10″ x 9″ x 5″ (250 x 240 x 120 mm)

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Gear used/compared:

Focal Elear (2.5bal cable)
Campfire Audio Cascade (2.5bal cable)
ZMF Atticus (2.5bal cable)
Mr. Speakers Ether-C Flow (3.5/6.3se cable)

*iFi Stack of: iTubes2/iDAC2, Micro Black Label*
MacBook Pro/iFi Stack
Thebit Opus #2
Macbook Pro/Burson Play
Questyle QP2R

Songs used:

Coldplay-All I Can think About Is You
Coldplay-A Message
Coldplay-White Shadows
Dona Onete-Sonos de Adolescente
Los Lonely Boys- Heaven (en Espanol)
twenty one pilots-Trees
twenty one pilots-Car Radio
twenty one pilots-Heathens
Damian Marley-Everybody Wants To Be Somebody
Damian Marley-So A Child May Follow
Damian Marley-The Struggle Discontinues
Ziggy Marley-Lighthouse
Ziggy Marely-See Dem Fake Leaders
Mark Knopfler-Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes
Santana w/ Mana- Corazon Espinado

twenty one pilots-Trench

Unboxing:

Coming in a traditional black rectangular box, the packaging is glossy but unassuming. Understated as expected from Focal. But, be careful…for the top comes off by standing the unit up. If you are not careful, the top WILL slide off and the rest of the box will fall. Luckily, I caught it, but not the best use of the box in my opinion. Whew! With specs on one side-end, and vertical pictures with horizontal writing about the uses on the other, there is not a whole lot. That’s OK, inside is what we are after.

The “bottom” portion reminds me of an old self-paced reading box, complete with u-shaped slot on the front so you can look at the Focal symbol on the fabric case. A nice addition is the formed foam on the bottom of that section, so the case sits cradled in protection.

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A slot on the back “wall” houses the quick start manual of brochure-type as well as a small booklet for the warranty in many languages. Tasteful.

Lifting the headphone case out, I marvel at the presentation. Dark gray glued fabric on the outside, headphone-shaped formed hard plastic, with a soft-touch graces the inside. With an elastic to hold the cable in place between the cups, the case is top notch. Embossed with Listen Beyond, a leather strap crosses both halves on top as well as a two-way zipper (two pulls of very high quality). This is good stuff.

Sitting inside, the silver, gray and black Elegia nestle safely inside. Almost belying the sturdy construction of the headphone, itself, the case takes on the look and feel of a caring parent to a baby. Overly dramatic description, but so be it.

Fit-n-finish:

Since I am familiar with the Elear build, I had no surprises since they look all but identical. What did take me back (even if I had read about that aspect already) was the plastic backing on the cup. With lightly cupped divots the pattern is regimented and formal. Again, what one would expect. What I did not expect was how cheap the plastic would feel. I could even discern a couple of “almost” finished gluing spots as well (see picture).

Using the same brushed aluminum finish, the yoke feels thinner to me upon first look. I also noticed on both sides of the headband where the yoke enters/exits for adjustment were subtle, but visible scuffing from the slider. I have done my Elear hundreds of times and have no such mark. So, for this to happen on a tour, even with many adjustments, is unacceptable. This should not happen at all on a $900usd headphone. Minor blemishes, yes but still visible.

Bendable aluminum (just like the Elear) allows for a semi-custom fit. I carefully bent my Elear to form my head. It took me about three days of carefully doing so. Based upon the sliders scratching, I did not try this. Covered with fine leather on top and a perforated, absorbent terry-like cloth underneath the feel and fit is good. Nicely embossed silver Focal logos grace each end of the pad/housing.

That same terry-like cloth is used on the pads, and I really do not mind. The same as the Elear, I would like to try leather pads to see the difference in isolation. Coming off easily to reveal the slanted driver, it is easy to change pads. The driver is angled for a reason. Focal decided that angling the driver forward gave a better sound presentation. 3.5mm jacks finish the bottom, which leads to a brief discussion of the cable…

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That cable…oh that cable. An audio appliance has not garnered this much discussion or hatred since the debate about cables themselves (don’t go there…). Shorter than normal, but still attractive to me; the cable is flat until the y-splitter, and it looks like a Zebra Mussel (Dreissena polymorpha). It is as hard as the Zebra Mussel’s shell, too. Very well built, with an innovative screw on 6.3mm jack the cable itself works very well to me, providing good sound. But there are pretty severe microphonics as well above the y-splitter. Plus, did I mention it was stiff? Since it has the same connectors as the Elear, I will be using my LQi cables (https://lqicables.com/) as well. I do like the look and performance of the cable, but I, like others, cannot get past the feel of it. Not the best option, Focal.

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To a Deeper Understanding (not really, but it sounds good…):

The Elegia is easy to drive. One would hope this is the case, since it is aimed not only at the top tier closed-back market; but more importantly the commuter/smartphone/office geek who must have their sound the whole while (I certainly do not fault that, as I often carry quality gear to use on my plan, so more power to us!!). While not foldable (like the Cascade), but what I would call a “transportable” (I first used that term with the iFi Black Label, and find it appropriate here as well) case, the Elegia can be fairly easily taken with you. I could see myself happily strolling down an Avenue in NYC (or Tokyo, THAT would be nice…) with the Elegia on. I might worry about the bling aspect, since the silver highlights are plain for all to see. Then again, the Wallyworld brands carry more bling so you might get away with it. Maybe if Focal made an off-gray/black for those who like to keep their gear incognito would be appreciated (like the Cascade or Flow). Then again, compared to the Atticus, this is downright humble, so there is that.

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Speaking of the Atticus, I mentioned in the comparison part (here as well) that I quickly became tainted by that sound. I won’t repeat the conversation I had with Caleb during that time, but suffice to say I was the one doing the talking….oh my. But, once I cleared my head (and thoughts), the Elegia grew on me. Part of that might be the ingrained nature of their sound due to my Elear, but part of it might be simply because the Elegia is good. Very, very good. Neutral is thrown about quite a bit, and as I stated in other reviews, I probably cannot tell you what that means, or reference for that matter. But, if I had to gander a thought on that (hard for me sometimes), the Elegia just might fit that mention. Nothing really stands out to me. Some mention that the treble is “cut off” at the top, but I would dribble that I am the wrong one to glimpse that query. The treble does sound a bit short.

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Going full neutral on the EQ setting, the treble does seem to stop short of the mountain top. But I must state that the view is just fine where it does. Clarity, conciseness and details revel from that position. This is one of the finer treble presentations I have heard of late.

Mids are hard for me to nail down (always have been, other than forward/recessed), but Aretha’s soulful Rolling In The Deep is a wonder to hear. Her voice can drive lesser cans to their knees with that reach and punch of sound. The Elegia acts like one of the support singers and adds that bit of flair needed to complete the song. Vocals are just about perfectly centered, and I will admit a bit tame. Not quite the thoroughness that the treble provides. This is verified on her seminal song At Last. Where the Atticus and Ether-C Flow drop ME to my knees with subsequent tears coming out, the Elegia does an adequate job, and quite decent. Just not sensual with full representation. Quite adequate, but I was expecting to be wowed.

Which of course brings us to what I feel is the real Achilles of the Elegia…a lack of far reaching bass. And this is where that reference to well “reference” or neutral sound comes in. I have what has been called a neutral/reference/studio sounding IEM right now, and the difference is stark. That IEM is one I would purchase to replace something in my stable right now. It has supreme detail, and clarity. The sublime way it presents sound is impeccable. And here is where I think Focal didn’t take that chance. They had a chance to make something truly special at the sub $1k market and it falls short. I expect this out of my Elear, since it is a semi-open, but not with a fully closed. I can EQ bass in for the Atticus and Flow, but they really do not need it to be special. The Cascade? Doesn’t need any more bass. Too much for some, I relish that bass and anytime I get to hear it.

Now, the above might come across as truly negative towards the Elegia. It shouldn’t. Focal has a sound, which is quite successful, and they should be lauded for that. I do love listening to my Elear to clear my thoughts, but I don’t want a closed-back version of the Elear. I want an Elear with better bass. MORE bass. Better control of that bass. When Laughs And Jokes And Drinks And Smokes comes on, I want the feel of that Irish pub in my bones. I want to be the one singing the song at the top of my lungs with the other patrons as we swig back that fine single-malt or stout. The way it is presented on the Elegia though is one for that quiet evening in your drawing room. Nothing wrong with that, but I WANT that kick from the song, and the Elegia doesn’t make it.

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Other rambling items:

So…if you are still with me (and I do so hope), fortunately this story does not end on that somewhat-sour bass note above. That clarity of sound is infectious, and some other manufacturers would do well to ask Focal how it is done. And some of those same corporations should be jealous of that as well. I find this to be among the best of late in those terms, and there is something to be said for a presentation that reminds you of what is there. Nothing else, but what is there. And the Elegia does it with aplomb. I can clearly hear where the percussive instruments are on Corazon Espinado, one of my all-time favorite test tracks. If this song does not scream sensuous to you, then I cannot help you. The drums are a bit laid back (those mids again), but Carlos man…goodness gracious. Succinct and ever so detail oriented, his solos are worth the price of any admission. That succinctness carries over to the vocal and percussive support. Clearly stage left and right can be discerned. And those layers. It is as if the audio engineers literally peeled each layer of tape (think old school) and precisely laid them over the others. No mismatch, no delay, just precise to a degree.

Followed by See Dem Fake Leaders, there is good quality of bass, just not that thump and rumble the song deserves (think Cascade). Ziggy’s vocals are the sounds of heaven, I am sure. And the Focal does that splendidly. The support horns slightly stage-left give the song that brassy edge, which is needed to offset the thump of bass guitar. With a bit of reverb built in, the song represents well.

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Comparisons:

Focal Elegia ($899usd) vs ZMF Atticus ($1100usd):

Had I listened to the Elegia first, I would most likely have been floored that Focal could take the wonderful sound of the Elear (I still love mine dearly, even though it is not the “flavor of the month” anymore) and all but turn it into a closed-back gem. It really is quite good, and a full review is forthcoming. But alas, I listened to the Atticus first, and that memory is burned into my cranial matter just like the evenly spaced venting slots. The Elegia wins the bass department. Better reach it all but rumbles. All but. The mids and treble are where it falls behind the Atticus. More of a forward nature presents itself well, but there is not nearly the air between notes on the Elegia. Nicely sparkled up top to a point, it just doesn’t sing like the Atticus. The velvet sound of Ella on At Last is a sound to die for. Oh…my…GAWD, that song is as sensuous as it gets. The Elegia presents it well. The Atticus lives it well. That is the difference.

On R.E.M.’s seminal Losing My Religion, the mids seem a bit hidden on the Atticus. Not quite as airy as other songs. A warm sumptuous presentation, which I can account for variation possibly due to the warm song of the iTubes2. On the Elegia, the mids are forward, presenting themselves front and center. Almost a bit too much. There is a lack of depth to the bass as well.

The velvety fit of the Atticus wins as well. You wear the Elegia, and rather tightly. You envision the Atticus.

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Focal Elegia ($899usd) vs Mr. Speakers Ether-C Flow ($1799):

The Ether-C Flow was a find, after borrowing Caleb’s Atticus. I was looking at several closed-back headphones (a step higher than the Cascade) and happened across a used pair on eBay. Shooting the dealer an offer, we agreed and (other than silly FedEx delaying) I had them in hand to compare. Suffice to say, THIS is the closed-back pair I have been looking for. To say they are marvelous would be an understatement. I have not heard detail on a headphone like this until now. Even the Atticus falls behind (in my mind) on a couple of options. That said, there is a very fine review, which includes all of the top “dog” closed-backs you really must peruse. Even after that (I disagree with the findings, duh) you really should make your own decision.

Where the Elegia has a more central mid, the Flow’s mids are more forward, and peaky to me as well. I feel the presentation of the mids are better in the Elegia, but quality is better on the flow. The high end belongs to the Flow, though. Sparkle in a high-end headphone is present and accounted for. I am in love with the treble presentation. But what truly separates the two to me (other than cost, duh) is the bass. On Ky-Mani Marley’s Love Over All, the bass guitar would make car windows rattle and possibly break on a top car audio system. On the Cascade, I can honestly feel the headphone vibrate (in a good way). While the Flow does not do that, the quality of which the sound is presented is exactly what I wanted from Focal in the Elegia. If they had come even close to the way bass is presented (not quantity), the Elegia would be the toast of closed-backs. And those of higher price would certainly be looking over their shoulders. I made the right choice.

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Focal Elegia ($899usd) vs Focal Elear (now $700-750ish):

As stated elsewhere, I rather enjoy pulling the Elear out for a run to clear my thoughts between reviews. I do this with my UM Mentor V3 on the IEM side as well. Popping the Elear on brought a smile back to my face. Man, these are good, and perfect for what I use them. Solo time and when I need to compare. Solo time is at a premium in our house, so this made me smile knowing I brought out an old friend. Better bass. Period. Better quality. Better quantity. From a semi-open. That defines the problem, right there. I will detail that in my finale suffice to say.

I will say that the Elegia treble is of a better quality to me. A bit more detail and sparkle (even if they cut it short), and this as I recall was one of the “flaws” mentioned by many when the Elear came out. Well, people overreact, and this would be one time it was unwarranted. The treble in the Elear is just fine. I laugh and dance with them on and to those who don’t like it so be it, that leaves more for the ones who like this sound. A bit darker of sound than the Elegia, but just fine in my book. Again, Corazon Espinado finishes it for me. Just sensual sound in nature does it for me. The Elear holds a very special place in my house, and it will continue to do so.

Focal Elegia ($899usd) vs Campfire Audio Cascade ($799):

Every time I listen to the Cascade, I chortle with mirth at the fact that something with such bass quantity (some would say it shouldn’t be considered a basshead headphone. I laugh in your general direction!) can sound overall so good. This is CA’s first attempt at a headphone, for goodness sake!!! My extended time with Will’s tarnished me to what a closed-back could sound like (deepened lately). Ever since then I looked to find one. It is a supreme example of what American mettle and work ethic can produce. While I don’t really care for the plastic surface, it is not meant to please me, but protect the Cascade. Making a truly portable top-tier closed-back, the Cascade can be likened to a tank. It can play Stravinsky as well as Santana. Dylan as well as Dobro music. It essentially knows no bounds in my humble opinion. The only place that the Elegia wins in my book is fit. Where the Elegia comforts your cranial, the Cascade clamps your cranial. It can be tight, too tight fitting for many. Throw in glasses, and it can become painful after an hour or so. Luckily you can order fixes, which aid that. Sound wise? The Elegia has better clarity and detail representation. So, if that is what you are looking for, then give the Elegia a try for it is good.

So…what the heck are we left with now?..

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Finale:

Through the last bit of comparisons and convections, you may surmise that I really did not care for the Elegia. Especially when compared to others. Well, that may be partially correct. Again, if I had heard the Elegia before the Atticus, my ears (and mind) would not have been tainted by that sweet melodious sound. From removal of that thought, I garnered that the Elegia slightly edge the Atticus out on detail. If you are looking for air between your notes, and represented honestly, then the Elegia does it in exemplary fashion. Somewhat better than the Atticus. But there is so much more to the overall package than air between notes and placement of instruments. So much more, and it is here that I think Focal missed the mark.

I believe they aimed for the Clear/Utopia sound, leaving their core behind (OK, non-Utopia coree…). There is little wrong with the Elear in my mind, and they had an opportunity to make a closed-back version, which raised the bar (the way they did with the air between notes) sound wise, while adding a killer bass sound. THIS would have set the world on fire in my opinion, and I do believe focal fell victim to persuasion. Internet persuasion.

Following the absolute success of the Utopia (even with its detractors, good lord give me a break…) was hard, extremely hard. How do you rightly bring down that stellar sound to a more affordable model? Well, you don’t. you make something a bit different, taking a chance. And in the Clear, they tried. They tried to “correct” what what wrong with the Elear, while bringing some of the aspects of the Utopia down. I will admit I have never heard the Clear, and it does get good reviews, so they must have succeeded. And this is where I think they could have taken a real chance with the Elegia. Go a different route (a bit) for the sound. Make a Utopia, which has such superb bass along with that air, and people would line up for days to purchase. TAKE A CHANCE, on something different. Don’t be cautious, with that caution we may have never had the Utopia, arguably one of the 4-5 best headphones in existence. All that said, the Elegia is good. Quite good. And it should receive serious consideration if you are looking for a superb closed-back sub-$1000.

Focal was aiming for a competent closed-back, with their usual stellar sound qualities’ and they did succeed. I just wish they would have taken that chance; much the way Ferdinand Pech did all those years ago. Look what that got us.

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I profusely thank Todd for a superb Christmas week with the Elegia. It was my honor to have it grace my house. I do like it quite a bit, but it misses too many marks for me to give it that wholehearted unabashed love that it should have received if done properly.

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