This year marks the fortieth anniversary for Focal, the famous French loudspeaker and speaker driver manufacturer. Focal differentiates itself from most competitors by being vertically integrated. Leveraging its extensive R&D capabilities, Focal designs and builds every component found in its products. The company then assembles all those products in house, all in France. Of course, this provides the advantage of greater control over both cost and quality.
Recently, Focal has taken its extensive reference loudspeaker design and manufacturing knowledge to high-end circumaural headphone market. Over the last three years, Focal introduced several new open-back models. And more recently, Focal has followed that up with a couple of high-end, closed-back models. First, the entry-level Elegia ($900) was introduced last fall. That model was quickly followed up this past February by Focal's new flagship closed-back model, the Stellia ($3,000). While this review is of the Stellia, Focal also sent along an Elegia review sample for comparison purposes, and another review is pending.
Opening the cognac-colored, simulated leather clad slipcase containing the headphones, it's immediately apparent that Focal has paid meticulous attention to every design detail. Inside is a zippered, two-tone brown fabric, hard-sided case that's molded to perfectly protect the enclosed Stellia headphones. Also included in the slipcase is a smaller foldout box containing an exquisitely styled leather wallet containing product information. The wallet looks like it could be from Coach.
There are also two cable options included. The first cable, intended for use with mobile sources, is four feet in length and is fabric-covered in a cognac and mocha striped design. It has a 3.5-millimeter TRS jack and a threaded 3.5-millimeter to quarter-inch unbalanced female adapter plug, along with right (R) and left (L) 3.5-millimeter TRS plugs at the headphone end that plug into their corresponding ear cups. And with an impedance rating of 35 Ohms and sensitivity of 106dB SPL / 1mW at 1kHz, the Stellia is certainly easy to drive with virtually any mobile source.
The second similarly fashioned cable, intended for use with either desktop or full-size systems, is 10 feet in length with a 4-pin XLR plug at one end and the same right and left 3.5-millimeter TRS plugs at the headphone end. Given its 4-pin XLR plug, this cable seems to have been specifically designed to mate with Focal's new Arche amplifier/DAC. Since my desktop system has a 3-pin XLR input and not a 4-pin XLR, I used the shorter cable with the quarter-inch adapter plug and then just removed the adapter when switching to my mobile sources.
The headband and aluminum yoke assembly of the Stellia is the same mechanical design used in the flagship Utopia open-back model. Aesthetically, however, the look of the Stellia is unique in that the padded headband and memory foam ear cups are covered in cognac and mocha colored full-grain non-perforated leather that is buttery soft to the touch. The leather just exudes quality. The aluminum yoke assembly is anodized in a matte cognac finish, as are the ear cup housings. The headband/yoke assembly is of the slide-and-click adjustable variety. The patterned stainless-steel ear cup outer lattice cover design is finished in anodized mocha and holds in place cognac leather covering the back of the ear cup. The middle of the ear cup back cover sports the Focal logo, which cleverly camouflages a tuned vent specifically designed to dissipate the lowest frequencies without disruption. Focal says this solution enables excellent decompression, removing the resonances typically encountered with closed-back designs.
The full range drivers include a 40-millimeter M-shaped, pure Beryllium dome, the same geometry used in the Utopia. Beryllium was chosen for Focal's closed-back flagship because of its extreme rigidity, light mass, and excellent damping characteristics. The drivers in total, though, are different from those of Utopia. They have a frameless 100-percent copper voice coil with new surround that is about 50 percent lighter to account for the closed-back design and properly control their displacement. There are computer designed, pyramid-shaped indentations on the inner wall of the ear cup behind the driver that act to diffuse the extra energy, avoiding any potential back wave distortion. There is also EVA foam located behind the driver to absorb part of the excess energy as well. The frequency response of the transducers is rated at an impressively wide 5 Hz to 40 kHz.
To prevent initial reflections of high frequencies of the ear pad, the inner part was designed to consist of a 50/50 mix of acoustic fabric covering the memory foam and leather. According to testing performed by Focal, this combination results in a very linear response of those upper frequencies.
When it comes to headphones, my first priority is always a comfortable fit. While not the lightest circumaural headphones I've come across, the weight of the Stellia at 435 grams (just under one pound) is not objectionable. The combination of the form fitting yolk and headband assembly plus all the padded leather surfaces meant I never experienced any pressure points or discomfort with these headphones. Quite the contrary, the Focal Stellia is the most comfortable pair of circumaural headphones I've ever used, with no discomfort or heat build-up in the ear cups even during long listening sessions.
During the review period, I listened to the Stellia with a variety of sources. For listening on the go, I used both an iPhone 6 Plus and an Astell & Kern AK240 DAP (reviewed here). For home use, I occasionally connected the Stellia to the Naim Uniti Nova player I had in for review. However, most of my home listening was with the Stellia connected to Questyle's reference desktop CAS192D DAC and CMA800R amplifier combination using the provided Focal cable with the quarter-inch plug. Because Questyle's reference amplifier sports two such quarter-inch outputs, I was able to easily switch back and forth between the Focal Elegia and Stellia headphones, making comparisons effortless. Because of this ability, I used the Questyle rig for all critical listening sessions.
To put the spotlight on midrange quality, I listened to the Fleet Foxes tune "Fool's Errand" (Qobuz, 96/24) from their album Crack-Up (Nonesuch). Through the Stellia, Robin Pecknold's soaring vocal remains prominent, supported by the gorgeous harmonies of his bandmates without disappearing into them. Pecknold's vocal had great clarity, stability, and warmth. Through headphones with less capable midrange reproduction, there can be a tendency for his voice to sound a bit thin and even get lost within the harmonies. But not so with the Stellia.
Next I queued up "A Thousand Years" (Tidal, 44.1/16) from The Piano Guys' self-titled album (Portrait/Sony Masterworks). The piece has lots of dynamic nuances due to the extensive register of the piano combined with the different playing methods utilized by the cellist. The Stellia more than kept up with all the dynamic changes throughout the arrangement, with each instrument taking the limelight fluidly. The panning techniques employed in this track add a spatial dynamic, which only a quality headphone can do any justice to. And the Stellia shined at reproducing this movement. There was a transparent quality to the open and spacious soundstage.
There are bars where the two instruments play as the perfect duo, bars where they play off one another, and parts where they almost battle for the spotlight. There are beautiful, complicated vibratos and embellishments from the keys to give the high frequencies a good workout, but the Focal Stellia didn't seem to break a sweat. The heavy left-handed playing tests the low end, as do the tonally rich cello lows and the percussive technique the cellist employs occasionally during the track. Again, the Stellia was spectacular at reproducing this aspect of the music as well.
To test the headphone's ability to reproduce sub bass, I listened to several bottom-heavy tracks, including The Weeknd & Kendrick Lamar's "Pray for Me" (Qobuz, 44.1/16) from Black Panther: The Album. This high-energy, electronic track features an unrelenting, repetitious bass synth beat.
The bass begins with a low rumbling drone, which would be tough to sustain without a good set of headphones.
I found the lower frequencies to be very rich in tone with the Stellia, but not heavy or slow in any way. In fact, I felt the bass was well defined throughout, drawing me into the subtler details of the music.
Comparison & Competition
Another similarly priced flagship closed-back headphone is the Sennheiser HD 820 ($2,399.95). With an impedance rating of 300 ohms, the power-hungry Sennheiser HD820 can't be used with a smartphone. In my experience, the Sennheiser is not as comfortable as the Focal Stellia for long listening sessions, either, and didn't excite me the way the Focals have. I just didn't find them to be as involving.
Another highly rated model for consideration is the Audeze LCD-XC closed-back headphone ($1,799.95). The LCD-XC has a large 106-millimeter planar magnetic driver. While I haven't spent enough time with the Audeze to compare its performance, it's noteworthy that this model also can't be used with a mobile source if that's an important consideration. It's also quite a bit heavier than the Focal Stellia.
Finally, there is Focal's other closed-back model, the Elegia, which substitutes a less expensive aluminum dome for the beryllium dome of the Stellia. The Elegia does bring a good dose of what the Stellia has to offer, having many of the same design elements. It's certainly an excellent headphone, but the extra cost of the Stellia is reflected in its performance. In my comparison I found the Stellia to have better tonal balance overall, with fuller sounding bass and clearer high frequencies without brightness, giving it greater overall resolving ability. It also possesses greater presence that draws you deeper into the music with its wonderful midrange.
The Focal Stellia is not only a luxuriously designed headphone, it's also hands-down the best performing closed-back headphone I've ever heard, no matter the musical genre. For me, the Stellia's combination of luxury design and materials, along with its unparalleled sound quality, justifies its luxury price. I found the Stellia to be beyond reproach from a sonics perspective, exhibiting a linear response across the audio spectrum.
I suspect that for some time to come, the Focal Stellia will be the headphone that future high-end headphones will be judged against. For those audiophiles with both the means and an unwillingness to settle for less than the absolute best in a circum-aural closed-back headphone, you need look no further than the Focal Stellia.
• Visit the Focal website for more information.
• Check out our Headphone Reviews category page to read similar reviews.
• Focal Clear Open Circumaural Headphones Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.