Scott Schumer is an executive in the fields of consumer electronics, commercial audio, video, and IoT who has a passion for custom AV installation, smart home, affordable AV equipment, and high-performance headphones.
He formerly served as sales, marketing and product development at Sennheiser / Neumann USA; Harman; Loud Technologies; and Blue Microphones; and is currently managing North American sales for Peavey Commercial Audio.
Focal, the uber-high-end speaker manufacturer out of Saint-Étienne, France, now offer three models of headphones, with its Clear ($1,499) open-back reference over-ear headphone positioned between their entry-level Elear ($1,000) and top of the line Utopia ($3,999). The look of the Clear is decidedly modern, with a heavy reliance on quality materials and an understated grey finish that emphasizes elegance over flash. Leather and memory foam headband and ear cushions with a perforated microfiber fabric are complimented with a solid aluminum yoke that allow the ear cup to rotate inward. This and the sliding headband are the only adjustments available and, indeed, all that are needed to achieve a comfortable yet secure fit.
They weigh a hefty 0.99 pounds but even during extended listening sessions, I never found the weight uncomfortable, nor did they get too hot. The Clear's full-range speaker drivers employ an aluminum/magnesium alloy M-profile dome and copper voice coil, and the headphones come with a beautiful hard-shell carry case that can hold one of the three included cables: 3-meter with 4-pin balanced XLR; 3-meter with a 6.35mm stereo jack plug; and 1.2-meter with a 3.5mm stereo jack plug.
It appears from Focal's press releases that they envision the Clear as an audiophile offering for home and portable use, but as the headphone lacks any sort of folding design and offers no microphone for making or taking calls, I consider it more of an indoor cat. That said, the 55? impedance does allow them to be driven easily from portable audio players, so if you wish to go mobile with them, you certainly can.
So, in deference to the team at Focal, I walked a local nature preserve with the Clear while listening to high-resolution FLAC files on a borrowed Astell & Kern SP1000 ($3,499) and yes, all the depth, clarity and detail were present. Even on a hot summer day, the headphones remained comfortable and secure. If you have an Astell & Kern or other audiophile DAP, you will not be disappointed.
My first listening selection was Maroon 5's "Girl Like You" featuring Cardi B. The acoustic guitar picking right at the opening was spot on and the vocals were clear and present. This isn't the track to test the bass response, though, so I cued up "Primavera" off the Supernatural album by Santana, which is just a great track and will challenge your headphones with both low and high frequencies and a lot of tasty riffs in the midrange.
I haven't included a classical track in my listening sessions much lately, so I next turned to Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor (Op. 113, "Babi Yar"). If your headphones can't handle a composition by an angry Russian living under Stalin's rule you definitely owe it to yourself to hear how well these Focal Clear headphones handle the dynamics and bombast.
Comparison and Contrast
The Sennheiser HD 800 ($1,399.95) is feature a similar open-back design, and exhibit a little flatter and more precise tonality, making them preferable to me for classical music and tracks with space between the instruments and vocals. For denser tracks, and especially harder rocking tunes, the Clear were my favorite, though they were able to handle whatever I threw at them quite well.
The HD 800 have an impedance of 300Ω, meaning they do take a bit more power to drive than the Clear, but I've never had trouble getting them as loud as I wanted. There is a different sound signature to be sure, but it really boils down to personal taste rather than one ranking clearly better than the other. The $100 you'd save buying the HD 800 is not enough to tip the scales either, so if you're in the market for something in this price range, you'd do well to audition both.
Oppo's PM-1 Planar Magnetic ($1,099) are open-back and circumaural in design as well, but owing to the planar magnetic drivers, they offer yet another sonic signature. The PM-1s are exceptional on transients, from horn stabs to plucked strings and the crack of a tight snare. The stated 32Ω impedance means they play about as loudly as the Clear and are equally well suited to use with mobile devices. They have energy to spare and can truly carry both bass and high frequency extension to the limit without distortion. I preferred these when tackling varied tracks from the Talking Heads, Daft Punk, Tower of Power, and Drake.
Put all three of these headphones in front of three different audiophiles and I'd hazard a guess that you'd end up with three different top picks. You really cannot go wrong with any of them, though, unless your choice of musical genres steers you in one direction or another.
Of course, the one question that's probably on a lot of minds is whether or not Focal's Utopia headphone is a definitive winner over the Clear. The answer to that is a pretty resounding, "yes. Yes, they are." So, if you have $4,000 to drop on a pair of headphones without batting an eyelash, you wouldn't be wrong to do so.
For those of us for whom $4,000 isn't an insignificant investment, though, the Clear is very well positioned as the "Goldilocks" choice of Focal's current lineup, easily besting the Elear and knocking on the door of the Utopia for thousands less.