Focal Clear Open-back Headphones - Official Thread

Hello and welcome @raindownthunda. Great review.

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The final (planned) part of my Focal Arche “episodic” review is posted, in case you want to read about the sound in a bit more detail.

That’s not to say I won’t make other comments on it here, for example I may post something about how it compares to other options in/around its price point (both AIO and separates) but I’ve finished the coverage I planned to do.

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I searching for my first headphone dac/amp to pair with the Clear. I have no experience but I have been reading a lot (thank you). My goal is to find the best sound and be done for some time in the future.

I was able to listen to the Focal Arche and the 4 hour trip was worth it. This was my first time to hear any amp/dac (not counting the blue tooth little guy I returned). It was a completely elevated experience, so nice. So much more depth to the sound. Now I know what everyone is talking about in a good amp/dac.

Unfortunately, the Arche open box must have gone fast as I looked soon after Torq’s post and it was not there. My wife is normally understanding with my hobbies (photography, golf) but she could not understand after purchasing the clear, why I would need to spend so much. So I continue my search with Arche in the back of my mind.

Based on readings, the THX 789 with the SDAC Grace would be one of the top in the $600 range. But I only have until the end of October to pull this trigger (for the 789) for an end of December ship dates so lots of questions.

Q1 - Any thoughts on how would the THX 789/SDAC Grace compare with the Schiit Jotunheim?

Q2 - Ordering the Jotunheim, would you go with the standard DAC or the Multibit? — I may go external with a Modi so I have more flexibility in the future which leads me to Q3.

Q3 - I can call Schitts but is the optional phono card for the Jotunheim a phono preamp? or would I need to purchase one even if I get the photo card. Assume my old B&O phono player does not have a built in phono amp. The card states passive but I still do not know what that means.

Q4 - A transportable unit has some advantages as I could take it on trips and also easily take it from room to room in the house. I am looking for the best sound for the money however. I have read many, many reviews and will continue to do this but any recommendations, comments about;
a. iFi Nano iDSD Black ($199)
b. iFi Audio xDSD ($399) Blue Tooth aptX attractive
c. Mojo ($399) Seems a bit quirky
d. iFi Micro iDSD Black ($599)
e. There is little mention of Fiio or Sony products?

Q5 - Would the THX 789 (with the SDAC Grace) or the Jotunheim be a stop up from say the iFi Audio xDSD or the iFi Micro iDSD Black? or any transportable around the same money?

I hope this is not too many questions, I know it is often better to split them up. Thank you for any feedback. Carl

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Hi moosehead/Carl

as ifi xDSD/SMSL SU-8 + THX AAA 789 user with the Focal Elegia…

The Grace SDAC balanced or maybe the ifi Zen DAC are good DACs to be run with the 789.

With the Zen DAC you can even change the sound a touch by adding low end

The Q5s or ifi xDSD - here it depends what your preference in soundsignature would be

the Jotunheim as AMP without DAC - from what I read it is warmer compared to the 789 - again what is your preference in soundsignature?

You could simply get away with one of the named transportable DAC/AMPs- the Clear is easy to drive and from what I know, it scales well with better sources

Adding later a stationary DAC/Amp solution can bring you Benefits in usability and soundquality

Fiio K5 Pro is a often named product for beginners
Here you would miss a balanced hf out

As Sony products- here you won’t find amything cheaper than the Focal Arche

It is rumored… a new Chord Mojo is on the way

What would be your budget for the mobile/transportable DAC/AMP + the stationary DAC/Amp without the money for the Clear?

Have you thought about a DAP only solution?

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Hi there. My experience is pretty young ( or almost none) but I can answer a couple of your questions.

Q2 - if you decide for the Schiit Jot. avoid adding a module to the same equipment. Just order an individual DAC, either Modi 3 or Modi MB and connect it to the Jot.
Q4 - I own bot IFI you mention here, the Nano and the Micro. When I had the Clears, the IFI Nano was enough, but Modi3/Vali2 where a lot better. Now I don’t have the Clears any more , but I have the IFI Micro and is amazing with my HD800, HD6xx and Elears, I’m pretty sure will be incredible with the Clears!!

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It’s currently sitting in my office, in its box, awaiting return to headphones.com.

At least, I believe this is the unit that’s available as an open-box option (I’ll need to confirm with Taron, who’s traveling at present). It’s possible there was another such unit.

But, due to a former situation where an open-box unit I had for review wasn’t removed from the “available” list, and someone actually purchased it via the headphones.com store, making for a fiddly situation and misunderstanding, they now get removed from the listings when they’re out for evaluation/Community Preview Program.

Competitive but different. The THX AAA 789 will post better numbers. I preferred listening to the Jotunheim, however (I’ve owned both). Both are highly enjoyable and pair well with the Clear. The Schiit unit is much easier to come by, of course.

If I had to choose one, I’d go with the multi-bit. But based on your question 3, I’d go with an external DAC instead and use the internal slot for the phono card.

The phono card is a proper, balanced, phono pre-amp. You can plug any proper turntable directly into it, provided you’re using a moving-magnet cartridge. You don’t need an additional box. I used it this way with the Rega Planar 3 I had at work.

The “passive” part refers to how the RIAA EQ network is implemented. Which is part of what makes it a proper phono pre-amp.

The reason I say to go with the phono card internally and an external DAC, is that I think the phono card is closer to the performance of similarly priced external phono pre-amps than the internal DAC card options are to similarly priced external DACs.

My path here would likely be, Jotunheim + internal Phono Card w/ Modi 3 - followed by an upgrade to Bifrost 2 (which will let you take advantage of the Jotunheim’s balanced input too) when you’re ready to move up.

Is this in addition to a desktop DAC/amp or instead of?

Ahead of an answer there, I’ll just rank the items you list in what I think is the appropriate order, from best-to-worst based purely on sound (bearing in mind the desire to pair with the Clear):

  1. iFi Micro iDSD Black Label
  2. Chord Mojo
  3. iFi xDSD (wired)
  4. iFi Nano iDSD Black Label.

Mojo can be finicky with a phone as the source (EMI issues with some phones).

Sony and FiiO have lots of options. Can’t really comment on the recent FiiO stuff, and hard firmware issues with the older X-series (which may well have been fixed as that was 2 years or so ago now). I’ve liked all the Sony players I’ve tried (ZX2, ZX300, WM1A, WM1Z), and they’ll do a nice job with the Clear.

Well, the transportable options there have better DAC sections, but aren’t as good on the amplification side of things. Though they’re both very flexible (other options such as bass-boost and 3D+ if you like those sorts of things).


An option to consider might be the Jotunheim w/ Phono Card + iFi Micro iDSD Black Label (it has proper RCA DAC outputs). That’d get you both portable and desktop options with the better amp, balanced headphone drive, a better external DAC, more features, etc. If you want both sources (phono and DAC) with the THX AAA 789 you’ll have two external boxes.

Though if it was me, I’d still likely pair the Jotunheim + Phono Card w/ a Bifrost 2, and if I still wanted something portable, go with a dedicated unit (I hate have to connect/disconnect stuff frequently).

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I was going to respond, as well but it looks like @Torq pretty much covered everything and exponentially more than I would have…

so instead I’ll just say, I have also had the Jotunheim and THX789, 788, iFi Nano BL, and currently a A&K SR15(which I will probably be putting up for sale soon, as I continue my consolidation of gear) and a Cayin N6ii. Modi 3 was also something I had as well as I currently have the SDAC balanced and the El DAC from JDS labs whew so that being stated…

I concur with Torq that the Jotunheim was more enjoyable as an amp but didn’t have as analytical a sound as the THX amps. The NiBL is a staple as a last minute portable plug in solution, but honestly doesn’t get much playtime anymore due to the N6ii and SR15.

If able (within your budget)I would also go with the Jotunheim(phono preamp) Modi/SDAC/alternate Separate DAC combo and a DAP for portability. But that is just my opinion and you should go with your preference, so if going for engagement and less clinical sound the Jotunheim, if a more analytical and clinical sound the THX models…I hear great things about the new THX-887 from mono price and is an alternative to the Drop THX. All the DACs listed I think are all great options, Torqs advice is what I personally would follow, in regards to the DACs as he has way more experience and knowledge there (and everywhere in regards to our hobbies, he is a wealth of knowledge, and greatly appreciated for sharing it here!)

The Clears really do pair and scale well so keep that in mind =)

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Thanks for explaining. That is good news for me. I will just check from time to time.

Thanks Martin – Budget - I already have the Clear and I do not have a budget but of course a $500 solution is better than $1000. I do not need a transportable but if that would get me started (around $500) and later use the DAC in the future with a really nice future amp, it may be a strategy. And sorry, I do not know what you mean by a DAC only solution? Can I use the iPhone, MBP simply with a DAC? I get enough volume with either but of course it is the really nice depth, rich sound that I now know is missing.

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AMP only = Jotunheim without build in DAC
DAC only = Mulibit / SGrace balanced / … etc

DAP only = a DAP like Cayin N6ii (for example) for all your usage at home and on the go - instead of stationary or mobile DAC/AMPs
The Clear is easy to drive. So it would be possible to start with a good Digital Audio Player (DAP)
Less hustle with a phone connected wired or with bluetooth to a mobile DAC/Amp.
Love my ifi xDSD but look out for a DAP like the Cayin N6ii, HiBy R5 or something in between to use at the office, on the go or at the sofa with my In Ears or headphones.
Maybe you can get a Focal Arche later

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Thank you for the explanation on the Phono Card and all your options.

I like the Jotunheim with the phono card option ($499) plus an external DAC.

DAC - The Bifrost 2 at ($699) must be significantly better than

  1. SDAC Grace ($150)? or
  2. Modi ($100)?
  3. Modi Multi bit ($250)
  4. the DAC in the iFi Micro?
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I understand, thanks for being patient. I do not think the players can do apple music which is my current source. I will be going to a better source in the future however.

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Price, in audio, is an unreliable indication of anything beyond how much the thing costs.

“Better”, from a subjective perspective, is in the ear of the listener. As in this context it’ll translate to “what the listener enjoys the best” (and other factors too).

Differences between DACs are generally very small. Reviews tend to make them seem bigger than they are. Without extensive, focused, practiced listening it is frequently extremely hard to make out audible differences at all. And if and when you can, then “better”, from a listening perspective, is as much a factor of “preference” than anything else.

So statements like “significantly better” both have to factor in personal preference, and consider the fact that “significant” differences in the context of DACs means (or should mean, at least) something very different to if you applied the term to headphones.

And then there are things like “the law of diminishing returns”, which take hold very quickly with DACs … a $100 DAC, at least objectively, may offer 90-95% of the performance of a $2,000 unit (hell, there a good number of $100 DACs that measure better than stuff 100x their cost).

I personally enjoyed the original Bifrost Multi-Bit better than the Grace SDAC, Modi 3, Modi MB (though the differences here, via USB, were VERY hard to discern), and the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label. And so far (it’s only been not-quite-a-day) I am liking the Bifrost 2 better than the original Bifrost Multi-bit.

They are all at least measurably different, by a comparatively large degree in this case - at least for the four on your list there.

What I enjoy the most, subjectively, and what you will are potentially worlds apart.

Which is a long winded way of saying, your best bet is to try them yourself and buy the one you like the best. And if you can’t tell the difference (ideally in a level-matched blind comparison) buy the cheapest that has the features/aesthetics you want, or that has the best measured performance.

Hope that helps!

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I agree and well said. You and others have helped me so much. In the past, I have always listened to audio options and made my own decision, easy. I did that with the Focal Clear headphones, easy.

Unfortunately I can not do that now due to the limited high end audio stores. I drove 4 hours to listen to the Focal Arche which was amazing but frankly the only other option at that location was the $5000 MHA150. I can drive 4 more hours to listen to the portable McIntosh MHA50 $700. I can fly to New York. I can take advantage of return policies but that is not my style. One of my hesitations on the Focal Arche to be honest is that I have not heard anything else. So as you said, maybe for $500 or so it would be 95% of the sound and call it a day.

Your feedback and other is much appreciated. Thank you.

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I purchased this product…BE CAREFUL using this.

I followed the instructions and it stained or darkened the alcantara earpads…

I would NOT use this…or if you do make sure you do the entire pad uniformly…

Alex

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Which product?

He’s talking about “Sonax” which is an alcantara/upholstery cleaner.

Some people have said it causes discoloration of the Clear pads. A chap I work with used it without issue, but that’s a sample of one.

For me, I never had my Clear pads need cleaning in the first place … and that was over the course of about a year of daily use, for several hours a day, but obviously everyone will have different experiences there.

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Yes it was the Sonax product. Be careful…

I bought it for another alcantara piece that was black and it was okay. I couldn’t bring myself to use it on the Clears because if it failed I’d have a worse off product. Instead I sold my beloved Clears and downsized to just Stellia and LCD-3.

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Understand that. After my bad exerience I went back and re-cleaned the earpads, but the damage was done I could not get the color, however darken to blend in well at all…so I have the drop version of the replacements on order (April timeframe!)…

I wish Focal would offer us users that have had issues with their pads discoloring a deal on a replacement set…I paid $999 for my Clears on sale, and $200 (20%) of the cost IMO is a bit steep for earpads…

Fingers Crossed!
Alex

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