Lighter than air, clearer than crystal—a headphone for the ages
Review by Mike Metlay
Focal has a great reputation in the worlds of pro audio and home listening; we’ve reviewed too many of the French firm’s amazing monitors to keep count, and are continually impressed as it rises from strength to strength. However, it’s been a while since Focal has launched a pro headphone, and we were excited to see not one but two models announced at Winter NAMM—the Clear Professional and the Listen Professional.
These are very different headphones, not just “closed and open versions of the same design” as some companies offer. The hi-fi side of Focal offers the closed-back Listen (now available in a wireless Bluetooth model) and the open-back Clear, and the Professional versions of these popular designs match exceptional design to uncompromising sound.
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I had a chance to work with both sets of headphones for several weeks, and came away very impressed with my findings. Originally this was going to be a double review, but I had to shelve that idea. We’ll return to the Listen Professional in a future issue when it can shine on its own; for now, I’m going to focus on the Clear Professional, which reduces nearly every headphone I’ve ever reviewed to also-ran status.
Out of the box…
The Clear Professional is built to feel, and in a sense to sound, like you’re not wearing headphones at all. The large circumaural earcups are ventilated with a fine mesh on the outside and feature 40 mm aluminum/magnesium alloy diaphragms with free-floating copper voice coils, suspended in the middle of the earcups. The diaphragms, if you were to cut them in half and look at their cross section, have an “M” shape, which is designed to produce the best possible transient damping so details in music aren’t lost to ringing.
The earcups are attached to an adjustable aluminum yoke with a soft padded headband that matches the thick memory foam ear cushions with ventilated microfiber covers in a tasteful red. At just under a pound, these aren’t the lightest headphones I’ve ever worn, but the sense of freedom and complete openness is remarkable.
…and into the studio
I worked with the Clear Professionals at my home studio and in the Recording offices, relying primarily on my Schiit Audio Modi 2 / Magni 3 high-resolution DAC and headphone amp for the serious listening tests. My usual procedure for working with headphones is to just turn them on and play through selections from my reference library, and then move to my Hall Of Shame (mixes from early in my career with significant flaws that are exposed with better-quality monitoring) before starting to work with them on mixes and edits. In this case, I almost didn’t get past the first stage, because these phones sounded so gorgeous that it seemed sacrilegious to subject them to my Bad Mixes!
The first thing you notice about the Clear Professional is the incredible sense of spaciousness it provides. The sound floats around your ears, blending subliminally with the sound of the room you’re in to give an impression, however subtle, that you’re actually listening to speakers. I would imagine that combining these with a Grace Design headphone amp or other design with adjustable speaker crosstalk would yield an even more realistic sensation.
The next thing you notice is its remarkable transient response. Attacks of notes and percussion hits are so tight and precise that there’s never any sense of lost detail or smearing. This was where my Bad Mixes really suffered; muddy and congested arrangements had nowhere to hide. (Sigh.)
One mark of a really high-quality headphone is balance and extension in the highs without being hashy or spitty. Listening to content with a lot of highs, like intricate cymbal or hi-hat work, should offer clarity and detail without transients getting mushed together. The Clear Professional earns its name here, with a beautifully extended high end that’s in no way exaggerated or disproportionate, giving a great representation of what’s really going on in the top octaves.
Listening to low frequencies on the Clear Professional is quite interesting, because you pick up a lot of detail in the lowest lows that might be obscured by other headphones. A great deal of the hearing sensation of “low end” comes from the brain hearing overtones of low frequencies and building in the fundamental under them; this is why it’s possible to mix reasonably accurately even on speakers that don’t reach all the way down to 20 Hz. With the Clear Professional, you’re actually getting all the bass that was originally recorded, and it can be a little disconcerting at first. My first concern was that the Clear Professional was hyping the bass, but comparing the listening experience to a pair of full-range studio monitors revealed a very similar low-end profile.
Naturally, this open design makes them unsuitable for use near blaring monitors or open microphones; they’re meant for a quiet listening environment for best effect. This really is a mixing headphone, if you’re the sort who believes that it’s possible to mix reliably on headphones (and I am).
The headphones come in a form-fitting rigid zipper case with room for a cable and a slot for an iLok (hey, most of us have one to keep track of—this is an easy way to not forget them on remote sessions!). They’re supplied with two oxygen-free copper cables: a very heavy coiled cable that’s 5 meters long when stretched out (but more like 4 to 5 feet in practical use) with a gold-plated 1/4“ TRS plug, and a lighter 1.2 meter straight cable ending in a gold-plated miniplug with screw-on 1/4“ adapter. The cables connect to both earcups with gold-plated TRS miniplugs that don’t lock. A spare pair of ear cushions is included; a custom stand is optional.
A few relevant specs: the Clear Professional has a 55Ω impedance, so it’s easily driven by the headphone amplifier in a computer or portable music player. It has a sensitivity of 104 dB SPL for 1 mW at 1 kHz and THD of 0.25% at 1 kHz at an earbusting 100 dB SPL, and a frequency response (no tolerances listed, as is common for headphones) of 5 Hz to 28 kHz, making it suitable for listening to high-resolution audio.
There’s no mid-forwardness in the Clear Professional. Vocals and guitars are glued into the mix picture right where they should be; there’s so much ‘air’ in the overall sonic presentation of these headphones that you can hear fine details in the all-important mids without having to strain, even with such a balanced frequency response. It’s refreshing to hear, and leads to the Clear Professional being a very non-fatiguing headphone to use over long sessions.
One caveat for those long sessions, though: be careful about setting levels with these phones. Because they’re so comfortable and present such an airy soundstage, it’s easy to crank them up louder than you might with other phones, and you can get fatigued very quickly. It’s important to get used to them, set a level that’s clear yet safe, and stick to it as you work. (Pro tip: if your jawbone is vibrating, turn them down, no matter how much fun you’re having. Don’t ask me how I know this.)
I took the Clear Professional into the studio with me for mixing and editing, and discovered that its clarity lent itself very well to adjusting balance issues and picking up tiny details. It’s almost never preferable to mix on headphones vs. monitor speakers, but some of us might not have the choice, given less-than-ideal rooms or living arrangements that don’t allow for a great monitor system. If headphones are your only practical mixing platform, the Clear Professional will get you closer to a translatable mix than pretty much any other phones out there.
I don’t get to review phones like this very often, and I find the experience simultaneously joyous and humbling. If you regard headphones as something to grab off a peg at the store without a second thought, spending well over a thousand dollars on phones—particularly phones that you can’t use around an open mic without bleed—might seem kind of insane. Hearing what the Clear Professional can do, especially when paired with a really good headphone amp, is the best explanation for this wonderful madness that I can come up with.
These headphones are not cheap. They don’t feel cheap, they don’t sound cheap, and they don’t give you cheap results when you work with them. If you believe that headphones for editing and mixing should be chosen with at least as much care as one uses when picking studio monitors, then oh boy does Focal have a headphone for you.
More from: Focal, www.focal.com