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A studio headphone that sounds like it was meant for the studio

Review by Mike Metlay

It’s been a while since Focal, the French maker of high-end pro audio monitors and home speaker systems, has released new professional headphones. Lorenz Rychner reviewed the Spirit Professional headphones back in November 2013, and those have been the only pro model in the Focal lineup since then—until earlier this year, when the Clear Professional and Listen Professional were announced.

I reviewed the Clear Professional in our August 2018 issue, and was blown away by its extraordinary combination of comfort and exquisite clarity. I also noted that at $1699 per pair, this was not a headphone for everyone—especially since as an open-backed design, it could only be used for mixing and editing, not tracking.

The Listen Professional couldn’t be more different than the Clear Professional in terms of its design and intended application. This is a working engineer’s headphone, through and through—a closed-back dynamic design with effective isolation that folds for portability. How’s it sound? Read on.

Look and Listen

The heart of the Listen Professional is a pair of 40 mm Mylar/titanium drivers that are designed for maximum linearity and rapid, clean transient response. The large oval earcups are surrounded by a 22 mm thick layer of memory foam covered in red velvet; they seal to the skull and provide exceptional isolation, if not quite at the level of that found in purpose-built isolating phones. The padded headband is designed for flexibility and sturdiness; the earcups fold for storage but do not rotate off-ear. They weigh about 10 ounces, lessening fatigue over long periods.

The Listen Professional ships with two oxygen-free copper cables that attach to the left earcup with twist-lock TRS submini plugs and offer miniplugs at the other end, all gold-plated. There’s a thick straight/coiled cable, about 5 meters (16 feet) in length, intended for studio use, and a thinner 1.4 meter (4.5 feet) straight cable with a built-in omni mic and a button for basic smartphone or audio player control.

The headphones and cables are packaged in a molded rigid plastic case with carrying handle, form-fit for the phones with cable pockets and even a loop to hold your iLok and/or the included screw-on 1/4  adapter for the thicker cable. The whole package is obviously designed for the engineer on the go, so nothing critical gets left behind.

Focal quotes a few relevant specs in the manual: A 32Ω impedance, so the Listen Professional gets nice and loud even when used with low-voltage headphone amps, a 122 dB sensitivity (1 kHz/1 V rms), a frequency response of 5 Hz–22 kHz, and total harmonic distortion of 0.3% (100 dB SPL at 1 kHz). Very respectable numbers, which I was looking forward to supplementing with my listening tests.

—and then Listen some more

I took a day or two to burn in the Listen Professional, and then replaced my usual monitoring headphones with them for a few weeks of reference listening as well as detailed mix and edit work in my home studio.

These headphones have exceptional comfort and isolation. They don’t bring on fatigue even after hours of listening, as long as you keep your listening levels reasonable—every headphone will fatigue you if turned up too much, and the Listen Professional can get deafeningly loud on even relatively weak headphone amps.

When listening to the Listen Professional, the lows and low mids grab attention immediately. These headphones are very efficient at delivering powerful bass, so much so that they can seem tubby at first on the wrong mixes… i.e. mixes that were mixed bass-heavy. Similarly, if you listen to a mix that was checked on “smiley face” headphones with lots of boom and tizz (as Paul Stamler would say), it will sound quite mid-forward on the Focals.

The highs don’t give any impression of being forced or bumped for excitement’s sake. They’re neutral in the same way that a well-made ribbon mic is neutral in the highs, and just as a ribbon can sound dark to engineers used to condensers with high-end peaks, the Listen Professional can sound dark when auditioning material that has been mixed flat rather than with a lot of treble zing.

Put this all together and what you have is a headphone that presents audio in much the same way that a good studio monitor does. What you hear is what’s actually there, without flattery in any part of the frequency response. This is not a phone that lends itself to kicking back and listening to boosted and tweaked playback for the fun of it; it’s a serious tool for serious work. There’s detail aplenty, but if a mix is congested or muddy in the mids or overly thumpy in the bass, you won’t be able to ignore the fact.

From my reference library, I moved over to doing work on the Focals. I’m currently in the process of going through some archived recordings of live shows I’ve done over the past—oh, gosh—20 years, determining if anything’s of releasable quality. My primary concern with these old 2-tracks is tonal balance and clarity rather than clams that must be edited out; there are no multitrack recordings of them, so remixing is impossible. The original audio has to be of usable quality before I can move forward with them.

I sorted through a number of recordings, using the Listen Professional to classify them as “worth a second listen” or “way off.” These choices translated beautifully to my studio nearfields; if something sounded clear and usable on the Focals, it was clear and usable elsewhere, and if something sounded off on the Focals, it was off in the monitors—even those mixes that sounded fine, even great, on more flattering headphones. The Listen Professional was telling me what I needed to hear rather than what I wanted to hear, and there’s really not a lot more to say after that.

Final thoughts

I would characterize the Listen Professional as a sort of audio magnifying glass: whatever’s there, it brings closer to you for careful examination. I wouldn’t call it ‘fun’ or ‘easy’—it’s designed to put your music in front of you and not let you look away from problems that need to be addressed, and that makes it a valuable addition to any control room. This headphone sounds gorgeous, but only if you feed it gorgeous audio.

There’s a lot of competition in this price range, but if you’re suspicious of exciting-sounding phones and where they might be steering your mix decisions, I recommend giving these Focals a good Listen.

Price: $299

More from: Focal, www.focal.com

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