Focal Clear Mg Headphones Review: Perfect Clarity

Published On: December 22, 2021
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Focal Clear Mg Headphones Review: Perfect Clarity

These are beautiful headphones that make the most of just about any source, from a smartphone to a dedicated high-end integrated DAC/amp like Naim's Uniti Atom Headphone Edition.

Focal Clear Mg Headphones Review: Perfect Clarity

By Author: Mark Henninger

Anyone paying attention to the premium full-size headphones segment knows that competition is fierce, but Focal has emerged as one of the top brands offering uncompromising comfort, build quality, and performance. Moreover, Focal achieves these qualities in headphone designs that are stylish and easy to drive, so you can even use them when traveling and with mobile devices. The new Clear Mg from Focal offers listeners everything that makes Focal headphones great, so let’s look at what makes ’em tick.

These are beautiful headphones that make the most of just about any source, from a smartphone to a dedicated high-end integrated DAC/amp like Naim's Uniti Atom Headphone Edition.
Focal Clear Mg are so nicely designed and made, they are practically a work of industrial art. Photo by Mark Henninger

Magnesium Drivers

Clear mg utilize magnesium for the M-shaped dome driver in this dynamic open-back over-ear design. Magnesium offers high strength and low resonance without the costs associated with Beryllium. Yes, Be is a better driver material than Mg, and Focal offers both, but there’s a lot to be said for the relative affordability of magnesium.

Focal Build Quality and Comfort

Focal’s premium full-size headphones feature similar aesthetics and ultra-premium build quality. These headphones are made in France and possess a jewelry-quality fit and finish. And the design is not just for good looks, these headphones achieve commendable comfort and are lightweight. Plus they are easy to drive and come with cables for both portable and dedicated amplifier listening.

Specifications for Excellent Sound

Spend $1500 on headphones, and they had better sound great. Fortunately, Focal has already proven its design prowess with a steady series of superb headphone offerings. Here, the specs speak of the performance potential: 55 ohms impedance, so they are easy to drive. 104 dB / 1 mW @ 1 kHz sensitivity means even a phone can drive ’em.

Easy-to-drive headphones are great, but how’s the fidelity? How about 0.25% THD @ 1 kHz with 100 dB SPL? How about a response of 5 Hz to 28 kHz in an open-back design? All in a pair of headphones that weigh only 0.99 lb (450 grams).

The open-back design is great for creating an open and spacious sound, as well as for keeping your ears cool. But be forewarned that there’s noise leakage, so if you play them loud, others will hear what you hear.

Focal anticipates both the use of mobile devices and more substantial tabletop headphone amps by including both a 3.9ft (1.2m) mini-jack cable with 1/4” (6.35mm) jack adapter and a 9.8ft (3m), 4-pin XLR cable.

Performance & Use

I’m not equipped to perform lab-quality headphone measurements, so instead, I lean on sources that do like rtings.com. There’s really not much point in repeating properly executed headphone measurements. When looking at the measured response (at least before the treble starts to break up) it’s not too tough to correlate certain aspects of measured performance to the subjective listening experience. The good news, these Focal sound detailed, neutral, and perceptually free of distortion and dynamic compression—at least at levels that I’m willing to expose my ears to these days.

Pricey? Sure. But sublime, and in the grand scheme of things headphones that will last your many years wind up costing very little when amortized. So, if you are hankering for that high-end audio sound in a stylish, durable, and arguably portable form, these Focal will do the trick, and when you want to get serious and listen through a dedicated high-performance DAC/Amp like the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, they are ready to respond and deliver concert-quality sound.

Not only do they sound great, but you can also wear these Focals all day long, and not even notice them. The only catch is since they are open-back if you play them in public, if you are in a quiet space, others will notice you. So unlike closed-back designs, you need to either have privacy or be in a public space where the faint sound that they emit is dissipated or masked. That’s the tradeoff but the upshot is sound you hear has the unconstrained quality of open-back headphones.

One thing you see in measurements and is confirmable through listening is the 5 Hz bass extension specification is not really meaningful. For one, you can’t hear that deep and would need crazy powerful subwoofers to feel 5 Hz. But it’s OK, a lot of headphone makers go for the lowest frequency their test gear picks up. But what I do wish to speak to, is that these headphones have great bass for an open-back design, which due to physics have a harder time digging as deep as closed-back and in-ear designs (headphones that create a seal).

For most listeners, the bass, and indeed the entire audio spectrum covered by the Clear Mg, will sound smooth and balanced. And it’s worth noting they are not bright or fatiguing in any way, the treble has tons of layer-revealing detail, but is not piercing and adroitly avoids sibilance.

I let friends and family try them on, and the comfort was universally praised, and the feeling of the cushions alone was described as being therapeutic.

Here are subjective impressions using three levels of amplification: iPhone “stock” adapter, a decent and affordable USB DAC/Amp, and the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition, a high-end integrated amplifier with built-in hi-res streaming, that’s not shy about driving the Focals to concert volume levels.



Build Quality

With top-notch craftsmanship, made in France, the Clear Mg is a cut above just about any other headphones you can buy.

Check out this 360 spin that shows the details of these excellent headphones.


Listening

Sony XPERIA 1 II Headphone Jack

Apparently using corded headphones with a cellphone is making a comeback. Some phones retained the headphone jack and are “coded headphone ready” right out of the box (lol) such as my Sony XPERIA 1 II, which is explicitly marketed as a phone for audiophiles and music lovers. I love that I can plug right in turn the volume up, and get a mid-level listening experience that’s extremely high fidelity. You can’t go loud with this combo, but best I can hear nothing else is missing.

Apple iPad Headphone Adapter

I was not sure who would use headphones like these with nothing more than that stock iPad headphone adapter (USB-C) from Apple. Turns out, anyone who wants killer sound! While you can’t come close to maxing out the Clear Mg, the volume levels I achieved, with clean dynamic sound, were a bit shocking! Definitely above what Sony’s XPERIA 1 II delivered. I don’t have the lightning adapter for my iPhone, only for the iPad Pro, but if it performs similarly well, then the Clear Mg is a great match, and all you need is a $15 dongle to enjoy your Focal headphones when you’re on the road.

Creative SXFI Amp (USC C smartphone DAC/amp)

This is a handle little USB DAC/amp that works with mobile, PC, and even PlayStations. It offers simulated surround sound, but it also happens to be a great amp running without any DSP effects. The SXFI Amp extracted quite compelling performance from the Focals.

I skip the SXFI processing and use this little Creative as a “pure” DAC/Amp with my phones, my iPad Pro and my PS4 Pro. What matters is the easy-going nature of the Clear Mg, it does not put any noticeable strain upon the Creative amp and there’s evidently plenty of headroom above my normal listening levels because it plays as loud as I would ever need for casual use. Plus it basically turns the Clear Mg into high-end gaming headphones thanks to PlayStation and PC compatibility.

At this point, it’s clear that the Focal Clear Mg can make the most of even modest headphone amplification.

Motu M2 2X2 Audio Interface

The Motu M2 2X2 is a USB-C audio interface designed for music production. It has a 1/4″ headphone jack for monitoring as well as quite favorable specifications for a device at its price point. For example, it can handle 32-bit (floating point) audio up to 192 kHz and is specified at 115 dB of dynamic range at the headphone output.

Typically an audio interface like this is used in music production since it features microphone and line inputs, and that’s how I use it, in conjunction with Ableton Live to create instrumental tracks. And for that task, the Focal prove a great match with their ability to reveal the subtlest details as well as the comfort factor. But perhaps what matters most is their easy-to-drive nature, which means that using them to monitor with the Motu gives you a proper rendition of the sound, even with the volume turned up.

Where Motu excels is low latency, which is crucial to music creation using virtual instruments, like a video game, you want instant response when you press a key. With the Focal and Motu combo, I was able to dive into virtual synths and tweak sounds to my liking, a process that demands extremely high resolving speakers or headphones to pick up nuances in the electronic textures. The real fun is the sounds are pure and uncompressed, and I get sucked into listening to the loops I create because the fidelity is so over the top good. I also appreciated the clean, unexaggerated bass that’s still powerful enough to “feel” a little bit when you crank the volume—that’s quite a feat for an open-back model running on a modest USB audio interface.

Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition

This fine piece of Naim AV machinery was sent to me as a complement to the Clear Mg. It’s a rock-solid connected integrated DAC/amp that’s able to extract peak performance out of these Focal headphones, as well as drive a pair of speakers if you ask it. When powering headphones, it’s pure glorious self-contained excess that says: “I care a lot about music and am willing to own a luxury device that serves it up on a silver platter.” In a nutshell, that’s what I think of the combination of the Uniti Atom Headphone Edition and Focal Clear Mg.

The Headphone Edition of the Uniti Atom sports a balanced XLR connector that works with a 10-foot cable supplied with the Clear MG. This is the home listening configuration and it gives you plenty of length so you can relax in a chair and enjoy, but it’s a balanced design so extraneous noise does not stand a chance, even when using the longer cord.

I get my music from Tidal HiFi and the Atom works with TIdal Connect, so it’s directly streaming CD-quality sound. at the minimum, if not hi-res. The promise here is the entire audio chain—everything in between the track itself and my eardrum—is exquisitely engineered by Focal and Naim, to the point of being effectively transparent.

The Atom Headphone Edition’s amplifier runs in pure Class A mode at lower output levels. This turns out as an advantage for the relatively sensitive and easy-to-drive Focals. It means that even with the volume turned up a bit, the amps run in pure Class A mode, except perhaps for a few momentary peaks if you happen to crank it. Plenty of other high-end headphones, for example, many planar-magnetic designs, have either lower sensitivity or higher impedance that pushes the Naim into class A/B mode. Clear Mg lets you enjoy more of that pure Class A sound.

As a fan of electronic music, I strongly appreciate what a great headphones rig offers: A full-on escape from reality at the push of a button and twist of a knob. Close your eyes and listen, and soon enough the music becomes everything. This won’t happen if the sound itself is not lucid, and the headphones are not comfortable, but with this combination, it’s 100% guaranteed to work every time. But there is one trick to really getting the most out of them: You need to lower your room’s noise floor. Since these headphones are open, that noise floor is also the headphones’ noise floor. Turn off any fans (like a PC, or HVAC, or air cleaner). When I do that, the noise floor drops from maybe 50 dB-A to maybe 35 dB-A, and 15 dB is absolutely nothing to sneeze at, people pay a lot of money for getting that sort of drop out of their gear. But here, with this gear, the only noise floors you will hear are what’s in the recording, and the room itself. As I said before, with this kit, everything between the track and your ear seems to disappear.

So, what do I listen to what I’ve got dynamic headroom to spare? Time for Griz, The Orb, Bassnectar, Sounds from the Ground, Sly & Robbie (RIP, Robbie Shakespeare), Daft Punk, and The Roots. Maybe some Snoop Dogg, and definitely KMFDM’s album WTF?! In other words, artists I’ve listened to a lot , on many systems and headphones. What’s the verdict? Overall, it’s like listening to the music in a studio, tracks are presented without any exaggerations, but also without any diminishment, every detail is there in proper balance. You can hear the elements of a good mix with each vocal, instrument, or effect in proper proportion. Imaging is crystal clear.



The Requiem: Pie Jesu Test

I know my taste in music (dubstep, rap, funk, industrial, ambient etc.) does not appeal to all, so I’ve got a few go-to tracks that have impressed me with their sheer fidelity, tracks that have elicited goosebumps during demos of high-performance systems. One example, Requiem: Pie Jesu by John Rutter, as performed by the Turtle Creek Chorale & The Women’s Chorus of Dallas. That track hits you with several 20 Hz and one 16 Hz organ note, and I have heard it fully and properly reproduced on several six-figure supersystems. So, it’s pretty great that the Clear Mg are able to do a lot with that same track.

Firstly, the track has little or no dynamic compression, and it plays really quietly. It’s the only thing I listened to where I maxed out the Atom’s volume control at 100. Now, reproducing the one 16 Hz organ note in the recording with headphones is largely a lost cause, it’s more about feeling than hearing, although you can sense it (but thankfully, the Clear Mg did not generate distortion instead). Meanwhile, the several 20 HZ organ notes are realized with depth and tightness that is surprising and could make you take off the headphones to be totally sure what you hear is truly just coming from within those earcups. That’s how clean, deep and spacious it sounds.

There’s more than just the bass, in this session I could feel the pressurized room, and I could hear the expansiveness of the hall when the chorus kicked in, and the main female vocalist’s almost opera-like singing stood out, photographically, within this surprisingly three-dimensional soundfield that is a true testament to how high performing the Naim and Focal combo is, the other DAC/amp combos I tried did not have what it takes to fully render the track with the same authenticity.

Conclusion

For their blend of style, build quality, and performance, Focal Clear Mg earn an HTR Editor’s Choice: Best Design award and is clearly among the finest super Premium Open-Back Headphones you can buy at any price. The brilliant thing is they work great with everything from just a phone all the way up to a super-premium, high-performance, dedicated DAC/amp like the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition.

Gallery

Photos by Mark Henninger


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