Focal Clear Open-back Headphones - Official Thread

Thanks for these impressions - I’m very much enjoying your comparisons here.

Have you considered or tried the Jotunheim 2 with the Clear? I was on a loaner tour for that amp on another forum and what follow are my impressions of that amp vs. the MCTH (via the Massdrop x Airist R2-RDAC):

RDAC—>Jot 2, balanced out—>Clear (vs. MCTH)
The surprise here is that the MCTH doesn’t trail all that far behind the Jot. The Jot 2, though, is superior in several ways:

  • It has a blacker background and sounds cleaner
  • Macrodynamics and slam are slightly stronger
  • Resolution, instrument layering and separation are all better. I wonder if the Jot’s better imaging make its soundstage seem larger (in both width and depth). In other words, the Jot goes a long way towards offsetting one of the Clear’s main weaknesses
  • The Jot sounds a bit more refined, by which I mean that its sound is rounder and softer in some ways; it lacks the harder, more crystalline treble of the MCTH
  • At the same, time, though, higher frequency strings have more bite than with the MCTH, and cymbals are crisper and cleaner
  • My sense is that the treble is smoother, then
  • Bass with the Jot 2 seems less prominent than with the MCTH; by contrast, the Jot’s mids sound richer and more prominent
  • Overall, the Jot’s a warmer amp

In the MCTH’s favor are its greater bass heft and its less-forward staging. Out of both amps the Clear can be a bit too bright and aggressive, even with the darker RDAC.

And, FWIW, here’s my earlier comparison, on that same forum, of my ZDT Jr. with the MCTH:

The MCTH does justice to many of the Clear’s qualities: the headphones sound nice and open and fairly spacious; they retain their clarity and punchiness; the Clear’s imaging is precise, and instrument separation is distinct. The headphones are also fast. The bass is tight and goes reasonably deep but it’s not all that weighty. Vocals are quite forward. Electric guitars have a good deal of bite and crunch. The highlight for me - as someone in middle age, with some significant hearing loss, and who likes bright headphones (note again that I have the HD 800) - is the pairing’s treble extension, which retains a decent amount of smoothness and coherence even as it also stays airy and sparkly. Taken together, the pairing makes for an exciting, energetic listen, albeit one that can be a bit fatiguing, with the treble at times having a bit of steeliness, if that’s the right word (brittle? glass-like?).

So far, so expected. What was a surprise were the benefits afforded by the ZDT Jr. (from the low Z output). The sound was now thicker and richer, presumably as a consequence of the amp’s tubey character, although perhaps the bassier presentation also tilts the overall frequency response in a warmer direction. The highs didn’t extend as far. Flutes in orchestral music were faint to the point of being imperceptible; cymbals were a bit soft and shimmery. Music came across as more dynamic, though, and with better separation and possibly improved imaging. The stage was deeper but narrower. Layering seemed better. The headphones also sounded more intimate. Best of all: acoustic instruments’ notes had more weight, and the instruments’ timbre improved, as though the music gained more texture. I lack the experience to discern, let alone appreciate microdymamics, plankton, and microdetail, but I was more aware of subtle gradations of volume, and of tiny details in music (Jeff Buckley’s epiglottis wobbling on Hallelujah). Finally, the overall signature became less bright and fatiguing. The Clear were less aggressive.

I’m hoping to find an amp that combines the best qualities of the ZDT Jr. and the MCTH for the Clear.

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Is that adapter 4-pin XLR to 3.5, or 4-pin XLR to 2.5 balanced?

Thanks and same to you. And I am on a similar path, I want ZDT Jr but just even better… and optimally without having to spend a fortune on tubes.

I actually did read your impressions some while ago as I am considering the Jot2 as a next solid state. But currently I am more in the tube track, I just havent heard SS yet which gives me what tubes can =) On the tube side the Hagerman Tuba and maybe the Feliks stuff seems interesting for my Clears. Whereas a Jot2 would hopefully also play nice with my planars, HD6xx etc. Although I am a bit worried of the Jot2:s high gain, getting loud to early with Clears and other sensitive headphones. As I dont volume adjust from my computer for bitperfect reasons.

Schiit stuff is not that common here in Europe so not much 2nd hand and not easy to try out. I expect this whole Focal Clear synergy search will end in a main tube amp for music and gaming deluxe, then 2nd solid state when I wish to save on tube life.

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Its actually 4-pin XLR to 3.5mm Balanced (TRRS 4-pin).

GOV2+ Infinity has two 3.5mm jacks, one is 4-pin balanced, with a red plastic cap on. Connecting single ended 3.5mm to that jack might damage the headphones or amp to my understanding. I think one of the reasons for balanced outs being 2.5mm or 4.4mm Pentaconn these days.

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It does seem as though a lot of folks like these amps for the Clear.

Even with high gain, I managed to control the volume with the Jot 2 and the Clear reasonably well. You get more travel, of course, on low gain. The volume pot is actually really nice and makes it fairly easy to turn up the volume to your liking. It’s way better than my MCTH’s volume pot, which is far too easy to turn.

Sorry for the off-topic: I even managed to get decent travel on the volume pot with my Andromeda 2020 IEMs, which are super sensitive. I had to be very careful, of course, and while there was some hum and the noise floor wasn’t the best, I was using the single-ended output, and Jason Stoddard of Schiit Audio has said that the balanced output with IEMs is dead silent. The versatility of the Jot 2 makes it appealing as a second amp, as you suggest, especially as it does seem to work well with planars.

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Excellent impressions @Hifi_and_Headphones. Great job.

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impressoin of Focal Clear coming from Hifiman Ananda after a couple of weeks with the THX 788 monolith:

The good:

  • very satisfying amount of detail

  • the instrument separation and details is far ahead of the Ananda, images are extremely well defined.

  • nothing gets buried by something else, clear wins this one but Ananda was not bad in this regard neither.

  • never before have I been able to so easily put my finger on each instrument and be able to follow it all along the recording without losing it, specially symbols sound great and don’t drown in the recording, keep track of symbols way more than in the Ananda.

  • in a song where there is a small choir of a few people, you hear them indivisually instead of all being blended together, very touching feeling. (specially noticed in stop making sense, Talking heads)

  • image size or “scale” is smaller than Ananda, Ananda feels more like a concert hall vs a studio room with the Clear

  • sound stage isn’t as big, especially the “height” and front image, but its deeper on the sides

  • comfort is fantastic, cups are smaller than the huge Ananda and feels totally like it’s supposed to be, i don’t miss the headband strap, this “traditional” design works totally fine

  • Compared to the Ananda, this has much more satisfying bass, well defined and detailed

  • the dynamic punch (not to mix with the bass) is great, the Ananda were too thin sounding, they didn’t move air and didn’t punch you like these do.

The bad:

  • Ananda had too much Air in some recordings, the clear has peaks that annoyed me sometimes, specially listening to Miles Davis or John Coltrane. ?

overall thoughts:

I was supposed to keep these for a few weeks until i get my ZMF verité C, now i hope the VC will have an equal level of separation and detail but maybe slightly different tuning? it will be warmer and i think i will like that, i want to listen to miles Davis and be relaxed instead of “pierced”.

I’m not that experienced so i hope I’m being fair to them, they are truly fantastic and taught me that you do get what you pay for, definitely see how this 1500usd pair is a higher tier than the 700usd Ananda
tell me what do you think and maybe what should i expect of my ZMF VC when they arrive ?

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You are summarizing many “typical” differences between dynamic drivers (Clear) and planar magnetic drivers (Ananda). I will say that the Ananda’s bass, punch, and thickness may improve on a very strong amplifier, while the Clear performs well on weaker amps. Planars want a lot of electrical current. Focal’s products do often indeed ‘explode’ or ‘dissect’ music into its components. Many other models (especially planars) can be diffuse and fuzzy.

You may have heard random high-range spray with the Ananda. Focal’s products can make notes become narrow and precise but piercing.

What amp and DAC are you using? I prefer the Clear on a tube hybrid amp to soften its edges a wee bit.

No comment on the ZMF, as I have no experience.

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It can help if you use a nice smooth amp or some tubes for the Clear…using the thx stuff can definitely make it sound peaky…

Oh, you will get pierced…a lot! But that’s before burn-in. It takes a while to burn-in the VC but once it does I think you’ll definitely enjoy them. I believe burn-in does happen but only within the first few minutes. The VC for some reason takes much longer than that from what I’ve experienced.

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Generic is not selling smoke. Moving the Ananda from a Schiit Magnius, to a Matrix Mini-i 3 to a Bryston BHA1 was a revelation in the low end.

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Synergy is always the keyword. It’s incredible how an headphone can change in sound with an amp that seconds or changes its nature. That’s why I always suggest to try different solution before changing equipment and why I believe variety is better than one piece.

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Great impressions @Seif.

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I’m really enjoying my MG Pros, but I’ve been reading that OG Clear pads on these bring back a bit of the OG sound signature, and have a touch more detail and soundstage. Seems like a bit of a fetch, but I’ll find out when I’m home from work tonight! I ordered a pair of OG Pro Pads from Moon Audio. Right off the bat, the MG pads are noticeably thinner. Maybe even a touch softer? Probably because they have 10+ hours on them. I’m awful at explaining, but hopefully soon I’ll be back with some input on feel and sound changes that can actually be beneficial for whoever else is curious.

First pic - Left: Worn MG / Right: OG Pro
2nd pic - Left: New MG / Right: OG Pro


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Super vague initial impressions time! The OG pads are an improvement on the MG headphones. Both pads disappear on my head, but because the OGs are thicker, it’s SO slight but I get a better sense of openness with my music. And I’m sure if your ears were touching the drivers with the MG like some people have said, OG pads should fix that. Also the MG pads have a lot more of a memory foam feel for those who want to know.

The MG headphone has never sounded veiled to me, but the OG pads somehow seem to pick out more detail throughout the whole FR. After some quick back and forths on songs, I ended up on Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, and high hats seemed to have more tingy treble presence (I dunno what to call it lol) and I had a better sense of how and where cymbals were hit with OG pads. The bass guitar sounded similar enough on each pad, but details like plucking might have been easier to pick out with OG pads. I’ll have to listen more to gather thoughts on mids. Maybe I’m just subconsciously biased toward the OG pads for being new and different, but I feel that the OG pads are an improvement! I’ll definitely be doing more comparing over the coming days.

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Focal Clear Review - The Critical Take

Introduction

Based out of France and purveyor to some of the world’s finest audio transducers, Focal’s a brand that’s been on my radar for some time. The Focal Utopia, in particular, has afforded me many a moment of yearning. And angst, I should add, looking at that price tag! For mere mortals like myself, then, the Focal Clear was the clear alternative that promised comparable performance at a fraction of the Utopia’s cost. And yes, I’ll try and refrain from more bad puns going forward. Anyways, courtesy of Headphones.com, I’ve been evaluating the Clear for the last couple months.

I know I’m quite late to the party with my review. And if you’ve read any other reviews, then I think it’s already been well-established that the Clear is a pretty awesome headphone. There’s not much fun (for me, at least) in parroting those reviews, so I’m going to do what I do best: Let the critic in me run wild. This is not a review for the faint of heart; however, if you’re interested in a more critical perspective on this highly-acclaimed headphone, then I encourage you to read on.

Source & Drivability

Critical listening was done off of a Burson 3X Conductor, iFi iDSD Micro BL > Macbook Air > Audirvana > lossless FLAC files. That being said, the Clear is a remarkably easy headphone to drive due to a low impedance of 55 Ohms. I was able to listen using a number of portable sources like my iBasso DX300 without an issue. For music used, check out the end of the review where you can find some of the tracks I use for my listening.

The Tangibles

The Clear arrives in a large, black cardboard box with Focal’s branding on it. The following accessories are included:

  • Hard-carrying case w/ storage for one cable
  • 1.2 meter cable w/ 3.5mm jack
  • 3 meter cable w/ 6.35mm jack
  • 3 meter cable w/ XLR 4-pin connector

I really like the included carrying case. It also has a slot for a 3.5mm to 6.35mm adapter so you can get away with just bringing the 1.2mm cable. I think my biggest complaint about the included accessories would be the tactility of the cables. They are fairly…well, janky, for lack of a better word, and I would like to have seen higher quality cables included. They look like the same cables you might find off a desktop lamp from Ikea (no really, I encourage you to check out some posts in the r/headphones subReddit). Then again, you’re getting three separate cables, so maybe that’s fair.

The Clear itself sports a substantial build. It has an aluminum frame, leather headband with perforations, and memory foam cups with perforations for breathability. There is some play to the yoke when moving the cups from side-to-side, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it affords a more comfortable fit when the headphone is being worn. The cups themselves also have a very cool spring system which contours the cups into place so you don’t have to worry about adjusting the headphone as much. Again, really solid stuff overall. The only thing I’m somewhat on the fence about is the lighter color of the pads. They’re prone to discoloration given time (and replacement pads are not cheap!).

For fit and comfort, the Clear is certainly not as comfortable as something like the HD800S, but it is far from being the least comfortable headphone that I have worn. I think most people would be fine, as I’m quite picky about headphones and don’t wear them often. Because this is an open-back headphone, do be aware that there is zero isolation. I wouldn’t purchase this headphone expecting to use it on public transportation or in louder environments.

Sound Analysis

Twitter-review summary: The Clear presents a neutral-warm sound signature that’s reasonably well-balanced sans some quirks in the upper-midrange and treble. In tandem with its technical presentation, it is a forward, engaging listen that demands attention.

I actually have the venerable Sennheiser HD800S on-hand at the time of this writing. Suffice it to say that I was not impressed with the HD800S’s bass response, and switching to the Clear presented an immediate improvement. The Clear’s bass is pretty much exactly what you would expect of a higher-end, dynamic driver headphone. It is near-neutral and extends fairly deep. I would say it’s on the faster end of dynamic driver bass; not the hardest hitting nor crazy clean like a planar, but simply…good. I would certainly prefer more sub-bass quantity; of course, that’s personal preference. Oh, and before I forget: If you’re wondering about the oft-cited driver clipping, unfortunately, I don’t have any input as I don’t listen remotely loud enough for it to occur.

The midrange is where things get more dicey. The Clear transitions into the lower-midrange properly - it’s dead flat - followed by a peak at roughly 1.5kHz. This part actually sits fine with me. While it certainly contributes to the Clear’s slightly boxier presentation, I immediately noticed that it flies superbly with the likes of piano. I’m no musician, but to my ears, piano tones sound incredibly exuberant and rich on the Clear. In general, the Clear is a headphone with a focus on the lower-midrange. Now, I think the Clear’s second midrange quirk will be more contentious. It is a dip at roughly 4kHz. This is not necessarily an issue standalone - in fact, many of my favorite transducers recess this region - but the Clear contrasts this with a minor peak at 6kHz in the lower-treble.

The end result is a double-whammy, as I hear substantial amounts of sibilance and grate with female vocals. If you’re not familiar with the term sibilance, it’s when certain consonances are emphasized over others with a hissing characteristic. A quick example I can point to is Girls Generation’s “Flyers” at 0:45 on the lyrics “peace sign”. It almost sounds like the “s” has shifted into an abrupt whistle. Before you say “It’s your garbage K-Pop tracks!”…well, yes, it is partially baked into the track, but I don’t hear this on any of my other transducers, or at least not to this degree. The Clear also has what I would consider a fairly textured timbre (it certainly leans more textured than, say, the venerable Sennheiser HD6XX). To my ears, these instances of sibilance unnaturally highlight the texture to the degree of which I use the word “grate”.

You know, it’s unfortunate that the Clear’s 6kHz peak contrasted to the 4kHz dip is just enough to result in sibilance. Because despite measurements citing that fairly pronounced 6kHz peak on the Clear, the peak was barely audible based on sine sweeps I ran by ear. I want to say that the Clear’s treble response is actually more mid-treble oriented. Like so, I observed a peak somewhere at roughly 9kHz, followed by a significantly stronger one at 11kHz. After this point, the Clear slopes off not unlike the Sennheiser HD6XX; it’s not a particularly airy headphone to my ears. But frequency response only tells us so much. How does this actually translate to practice?

To my ears, then, the initial impact of percussive hits are pulled out longer than they should be, and there’s a type of dirty resonance that harkens to the Hidition Viento-B. I don’t think it ever quite comes across as smeared - the Clear has fairly good nuance - however, it contributes to what some might describe as a “metallic” timbre. Doesn’t sound pleasant, right? But here’s the thing: I have to admit that I don’t dislike it. It’s a peaky treble response to be sure, but there’s an edge of authenticity to the Clear’s treble that appeals to me. For example, when the opening cymbals of SawanoHiroyuki’s “Cage” drop, there’s a tasteful sense of authority; it’s almost like you’re on stage right next to the hits.

Technical Performance

But while the Clear’s a brighter-leaning headphone, I don’t get the impression that it’s using frequency response to compensate or “fake” the perception of detail. Indeed, the Clear is a remarkably strong performer for a sense of internal detail. I would mainly point to the Clear’s microdynamics - reverb trails, decay, and the nuance of individual instrument lines. I freely admit that I struggle to hone in on this stuff, and at the end of the day, it’s mostly me acting on gut instinct. Nonetheless, most readers will know that I come from a strong IEM background where (in my opinion) microdynamics are largely non-existent. The few IEMs I have heard with the ability to scale more intimate fluctuations tend to have a certain, say, “micro-texture” to the way notes decay. The Clear definitely has this quality, and I think it pays compliment to its macrodynamic ability.

Speaking of which: the Clear’s excellent macrodynamic contrast. In any given track, there are decibel peaks and valleys; macrodynamic contrast is indicative of a transducer’s ability to scale said gradations. Pro tip? A hallmark of a headphone with good dynamic contrast is one where you find yourself turning up the volume on quiet sections of tracks and, conversely, turning down the volume on louder parts of tracks. The Clear is not a headphone for listeners who want to kick back and relax after a long day’s work; believe me, this is a headphone that demands your attention. Watch those listening volumes with the Clear!

That said, I still have bone to pick concerning the weight, the second derivative of macrodynamics to my ears, with which the Clear rides dynamic swings. What do I mean? If you have ever heard a 2-channel system - heck, even some IEMs like the 64 Audio U12t and Tia Fourte - you might notice that there is a sense of intensity, pressure, as certain tracks build. On Taeyeon’s “Make Me Love You,” for example, the opening bassline should successively wash you with a gentle, yet firm sense of authority. Then when the song transitions into the chorus at 0:50, it should be the auditory equivalent of a wave slamming into you. In this instance, the Clear’s a fairly punchy headphone with a good sense of immediacy to be sure, but I think its ability to articulate that more innate sense of body, gravity if you will, could use some work.

Of course, this is me nitpicking. For most listeners, I think the Clear’s most apparent weakness will be soundstage size. The stage of the Clear is a more intimate one and, if I had to guess, this is due equal parts to the forwardness of treble and to the bump at 1.5kHz. This is particularly evident relative to the HD800S which chooses to cut the 1kHz region; instruments sound slightly squeezed on the Clear. To be fair, these headphones are going for two very different things. The Clear is certainly warmer, and I think it maintains solid imaging chops, at least on the front of positional accuracy. The Clear’s soundstage depth, like most headphones, is something I don’t think is worth commenting on.

The Verdict

The Clear was not quite what I expected it to be. In many ways, it is the antithesis of my time with the Sennheiser HD800S. I felt that the HD800S sacrificed microdynamic engagement and bass in the pursuit of a more analytical sound. By contrast, the Clear is a more visceral, energetic expression of what’s possible from a dynamic driver headphone. I want to reiterate that I have been intentionally critical throughout this review. While it’s far from perfect, the Clear is still a fantastic headphone in my books, one that I once considered purchasing for myself. If you’re okay with living with some of the flaws that I’ve outlined, then it’s my pleasure to recommend the Focal Clear.

Reference Tracks

  • Aimer - Hakuchuumu
  • David Nail - Let It Rain
  • Everglow - DUN DUN
  • Girls’ Generation - Galaxy Supernova
  • Illenium - Broken Ones
  • Joe Nichols - Sunny and 75
  • Keith Urban - Defying Gravity (2009)
  • Keiichi Okabe - Weight of the World (NieR:Automata Original Soundtrack)
  • Sabai - Million Days
  • Sawano Hiroyuki - Best of Vocal Works Remastered (2020)
  • Taeyeon - My Voice (2017)
  • Tiffany - I Just Wanna Dance
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Great review! I’m happy that you’ve begun reviewing over-ear headphones. Keep ‘em coming; perhaps a midrange to high end planar driver transducer next.

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Great review and nice pictures! :+1::blush: Thank you

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I don’t usually go in for EQing headphones because once I start EQing I can’t get myself to stop thinking about it and I get caught up in comparing the differences instead of enjoying the music :space_invader:

THAT SAID, this Focal Clear EQ by Innerfidelity (via SoundSource) usually beats no EQ for me…

That u12t EQ also rocks

current chain:
Apollo Twin X → 789 (Balanced) → Clear

Reference Playlist (Spotify)

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Note that it is the headphone FR measurement that comes from Innerfidelity while the EQ used is generated by AutoEQ software based on that measurement (GitHub - jaakkopasanen/AutoEq: Automatic headphone equalization from frequency responses). There is a significant difference in sound between the oratory1990 EQ that you need to add as a custom EQ into SoundSource and the AutoEQ based on oratory1990’s FR measurement that is built in even though they are both using the Harman target.

Very interesting!

More variables / controls = more anxiety for me because I can’t shut off my audio production brain - so the “one-button” EQ solution is particularly attractive so long as it sounds good. I’ve tried re-creating several different people’s Focal Clear EQ settings using FabFilter Pro-Q 3 and I’ve never come across one that beat out having no EQ on most of my test tracks.

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