Focal Clear Review - The Critical Take
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 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.
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.
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 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.
- 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