In hindsight when Focal released its new pairing of Utopia and Elear headphones simultaneously in 2016 from Saint-Etienne in France, Focal seemed to have intentionally bound the lauded cost-be-damned Utopia and the oft overlooked Elear for healthy sibling rivalry right from the outset. For good reason upon reception into the marketplace the Utopia (£4,000) was quickly anointed homecoming king of the headphone dance and was whisked away on a red carpet to receive the majority of the press and headphone community’s attention. However, as in any good sibling rivalry, the Elear was not about to be pushed over nor would it concede any ground to older brother Utopia no matter how famous and admired the Utopia quickly became. The Elear headphone (£1,000) is ready to show anyone who has failed to win the powerball lottery in recent months that it too has quite a bit to say about high performance. When Utopia passes far over many of our heads and the bright trail of stardust has dissipated at last you would be quite wise to let your eyes adjust and take a long fresh look at the Elear, which has been patiently waiting for its turn in the spotlight. In fact, the closer you inspect the Elear the more family resemblance you will find with the Utopia, despite the Elear being listed at a quarter of the price. The on-going conversation about who is really top dog in the Focal headphone family just got a whole lot more interesting when value entered the conversation, didn’t it?
The Elear headphones (like the flagship Utopia) are an open back circum-aural headphones designed around a visually seamless “one piece” aesthetic. The key to the Elear and Utopia design is that these headphone systems were conceived as open-backed, full-range loudspeakers with “perfect” frequency response. This goal of frequency based design necessitated incorporation of light weight materials and and driver diaphragms in order for the Elear’s drivers not to become physical roadblocks to sound reproduction–a pitfall some bulky, over-engineered headphones have failed to avoid. Focal makes no secret that the Elear headphone borrows several key innovations drawn from the Utopia’s extensive research and development period. One of the most compelling innovations is that the Elear boasts is its own M-shaped cone/dome made of aluminium/magnesium (this in contrast to the Utopia’s similar driver diaphragm, which is made of beryllium). Focal believes the M-dome allows an added degree of physical space in the earcup that allows the plane sound wave to fully develop much as it would in a loudspeaker, but in the limited space available inside the Elear’s ear cups. The Elear tests at an impressive demonstrated frequency response of 5Hz to 23kHZ. While this specification generally can be a red herring of sorts, the Elear complements the impressive measured frequency response with a relatively high impedance so you should not have an overly tough time matching it with any modestly powered headphone amplifier. While the Elear will play nice with a variety of headphone amplifiers most of Elear’s nearest competitors such as the Oppo PM-1 and HiFiMAN Edition X have a much lower impedance further raising the stakes for spot-on amplifier pairing. The Elear’s successful focus on dynamics is further bolstered with a lighter (and bigger) than its competitors 25mm x 5mm diameter voice coil and it also sports an 80 micron thick suspension. All of these choices drive home Focal’s key design tenet yet again: a headphone is enabled to excel when it can produce the highest frequencies and producing the truest frequencies comes down to light weight parts and engineering with minimal mass to move.
Potential buyers and window shoppers of the Elear will be pleased to realize that many of the remaining comparisons between Elear and Utopia are merely cost effective material trade offs or in some cases exactly the same components between two headphones. Take the headphone yoke for example, with Elear you get a solid aluminum yoke; with Utopia you get Carbon Fiber. With Elear you get a microfibre-lined headband and earpads; with Utopia you get true lambskin. Sounds pretty acceptable for £3,000 less than Utopia, I think you will agree. When looking at the signal cables, you will be pleasantly surprised that the 3M OFC shielded low impedance cable is actually exactly the same between both headphones. A quick note here on the cord: this beefy cord might be considered heavy and cumbersome to some. My tastes have always trended towards preference for a solid feel and build so it did not bother me, but it certainly has significant weight for some who might find this an annoyance. All in all the design and material choices Focal made for the Elear pull some of the best parts of the stunning Utopia right out of the starry stratosphere and puts them back within reach of many of us for the fairly managable sum of £1,000. Focal has reassuringly confirmed that as a company it is cognisant of what features are essential and what features are flexible for a solidly built and beautiful sounding headphone.
Oh right, speaking of sound… that is the point after all, is it not? When auditioning music it would stand to reason that the Elear’s rigorous focus on frequency perfection and dynamics would manifest itself during music playback in the ability to reproduce the tiniest nuances of a well crafted musical recording. Aimee Mann’s album Lost in Space[SuperEgo Records] is certainly an album worthy of such a charge as it showcases a healthy dose of delicate earcandy that the liner notes tantalizingly refer to as “space loops.” These celestial space echoes wind their way through a melancholy palette at wonderfully unpredictable intervals and are tailor made for a nuanced headphone to bring them to life and make them pop.
Looking forward to settling in, I decided to bring along the well regarded HiFiMAN Edition X to my couch to provide a basis of comparison. By way of Tidal Hi-Fi through the exemplary Hugo TT DAC the track ‘Real Bad News’ always proves to be a sonic rabbit hole that rewards well made equipment with continued visions into just how deep the tunnel can drop. In other words, a perfect place to set up shop and see how the Elear and the Hifiman Edition X compare and contrast when it comes to sorting out musical detail. The track’s climaxing “da-da-da” layered vocal finale ties together quite a few elements: a shimmering cymbal cloud cover on the top end, a tar-like sticky bass foundation, and a gloriously well recorded and presented mid range all of which are pushed to the max for the final 30 seconds of the track. This half minute run will push any equipment’s ability to keep the playback crisp and not slide into a soggy mess, but the Elear’s ability to glide through this dense mash of information and keep expanding the soundstage further and further away from my ears was nothing short of jaw dropping.
What I had perceived on previous tracks of the album to be the limits of the soundstage were shattered as the Elear when asked was able to effortlessly shift into a new top gear of horsepower to handle the tracks final push towards infinity. For comparison when the HiFiMAN Edition X were given a chance against the same stretch of music they performed bravely but just could not express the expanding depth and intention of the information that the Elear so effortlessly pulled out of ‘Real Bad News.’ The HiFiMAN Edition X’s presentation of the vocals over the course of Lost in Spacewas quite impressive and the warmth they brought to Aimee’s lyrics in my opinion surpassed the Elear’s presentation in this particular musical aspect. However, outside the vocal warmth the Elear was in a different universe when it came to the fullness of the sound and the captivating way that it rolled a multitude of minute details in the music into a complete balanced ecosystem all of its own. The Elear consistently outpaced the HiFiMAN in proportioning and placing instruments in the music and was simply intoxicating to listen to for long periods of time in large part due to the gentle yet hyper-detailed quality of sound. Lost in space indeed.
If you are considering a £1,000 headphone purchase I would tell you with a straight face that the Elear simply must be on your short list and an audition is required before any serious purchase. As theHiFiMANEdition X demonstrated, the Elear can be beaten in particular aspects of sound reproduction at the £1,000 price point, but when considered as a whole wrapping up aesthetics, technical design, build quality, and superb playback, the Elear is far ahead of its competition
Frequency response: 5Hz–23kHz
Impedance: 80 Ohms
Distortion: <0.3% @ 1kHz /100dB SPL
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