Clear. It’s both the name of one of Focal’s premium headphone models, a descriptor of those headphones, and possibly even a one word review of them. Priced at $1500, the Clear is the top end of Focal’s aluminum/magnesium driver consumer headphones lineup – with Focal’s flagship models, the Stellia and Utopia using beryllium drivers. Let’s take a closer look to see if the Clear lives up to its name, and its status as top end dynamic driver headphones.
Build and Design
Focal provides a high level of brand consistency across their headphone line while also giving each model a personality of its own. The Clear is an open back design, with a white grey and silver color scheme. One of the most eye-catching aspects of the design is the metal grill that serves to vent the speakers. You can catch the smallest glimpse of the backside of the driver assembly through the metal grill from the right angle, and I spent more time than I care to admit trying to find the perfect angle to see through. It has a very comfortable fit, with an easy to adjust cushioned headband, and good sized earcups that accommodate larger earlobes without being any larger than they need to be.
The packaging is simple and classy. Inside the box you’ll find a travel case which includes the headphones themselves, and the 3.5mm unbalanced cable, and a second small box which has the 6.3mm unbalanced and balanced XLR cables for the Clear. The case also has a 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter to save you from needing to bring multiple cables on the road if you’re traveling with it.
The Focal Clear has a generally neutral, balanced delivery, with some narrow cuts in the treble range. The highs are crisp and airy and the mids provide good presence and detail. While the bass levels feel natural, and aren’t elevated, they still provide a good amount of physicality and “oomph.” Another aspect to the “clear” nature of the Clear’s sound is its spacious soundstage. The impression of space I get from the Clear is that I’m sitting in the middle of an open air amphitheater with the music happening in front of me and filling the sky around me.
The Clear really shines with synth-pop like CHVRCHES. On “Leave a Trace” the intro is bouncy and fun, and layers build over it to create a thick wall of music. The Clear provides solid separation so that within that wall each individual piece is separated from the whole, and remains free of congestion. The low end feels smooth and powerful, while the higher notes hit with the right amount of airiness. The vocals are clear and personal. The Clear delivers the build-ups with energy, but remains coherent throughout.
With its sense of space and balanced low end, I expected it to do well with jazz. With guitar and piano driven works like John Scoffield or Thelonious Monk, the Clear provided a relaxed, balanced delivery with plenty of detail – from the nuances of cymbal work to the dynamics of the lead instruments. However, listening to some classic jazz recordings, from both Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, I found the saxophone or trumpet would overpower the rest of the band a little. To be honest, while the balance wasn’t quite to my personal preference, the sound was very much reminiscent of most live jazz I’ve seen in small clubs where the trumpet in particular tends to overpower the rest of the band. So this is perhaps more of a situation where the Clear is being “honest” with the recording, rather than an issue with its tuning.
Possibly my favorite part of my time with this review was listening to Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Fairytales. I bought the album nearly twenty years ago, but listening to it with the Clear felt like listening to it for the first time. While the vocals and guitars were mostly as I remembered them, the clarity and detail in the drums and bass brought out aspects of the songs I had never noticed before. For an album with fairly simple instrumentation and composition the Clear reveals so many details in the recording – from the positioning of each member of the band, to the unique percussion accents found throughout – that add a depth and richness to the listening experience. As an example: throughout the album, the main rhythm guitar is placed just off-center to the right and the drums are on the left. The bassist is placed right in between them. When there’s a second guitar tracked it’s placed off-center to the left. If I were teaching a class titled “Imaging in Headphones 101,” I might start by having all my students put on the Focal Clear, and listen to this album.
Both from its appearance and sound signature, my initial impression was that it was clean and refined, and probably shouldn’t sully itself with things like heavy metal. But perhaps the Clear could be a good pair of goggles to see through the busy, congested waters of such music. I started with throwback metal band Slough Feg who’s signature feature is their use of heavy unison riffs – two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, mirroring each other through heavy pentatonic runs. On a track like “Headhunter,” the Clear both captures the energetic nature of the music and helps you cut through the mud to help you pick out the individual parts of each punishing riff. Switching gears, to Swedish electro-metal band Amaranthe, the Clear’s detail and sense of space created an epic soundscape. The guitars have a suitable crunch, the bass drops on the chorus and bridge have thickness and weight, and the keyboards and synthesizers add ethereal accents over the whole affair. While they might not be the top pick for many metal fans, the responsiveness, along with the detailed, revealing nature of the Clear makes them a good fit for the more detail oriented metal listener.
Comparisons: Audeze LCD-X, HiFiMAN Arya
The Audeze LCD-X and HiFiMAN Arya have a lot in common with the Focal Clear. All three are premium headphones in the $1200-$1500 price range, with reference based neutral tunings. Each also have their own pros and cons that will make them the best choice for different listeners.
In most testing, I found the Clear to be perhaps the best "all-around" of the three, while being in between the other two some aspects of performance. For tuning, the Arya had the most “flat” feeling tuning, while LCD-X had clear elevations in the bass and excellent sub-bass extension. The Clear is closer to the Arya tuning, but by virtue of its dynamic drivers had the clearest physical thump to the bass. To my ear, the Arya is still the king of open, transparent sound in this price range, and the Clear is a very close second. The LCD-X has a slightly darker feel, and lacked the sense of complete transparency. In terms of soundstage and imaging, I found that both the LCD-X and Arya felt a little more spacious than the Clear, but the Clear had the most precise imaging of the three.
Comfort is another story, and that’s one category where Focal takes clear top honors. The LCD-X is light compared to some of the other members of the LCD line, but it’s still quite heavy for long term wear. The Arya isn’t so heavy, but it features extraordinarily large earcups in a teardrop shape which I find more challenging to keep in place. The Clear is about the same weight as the Arya, but it’s smaller, simpler design was significantly more comfortable for long term use.
The Bottom Line
With its neutral sound and reference-style tuning, the Clear is like a canvas to paint music on. Lest we get “neutral” confused with “boring,” the Clear is also dynamic and responsive, delivering the energy and emotion straight to your ears. Put this all together in headphones that are spacious, detailed, and revealing, and your music sounds like it’s being played against a clear blue sky with nothing in between you and the performance.