Wow, these look amazing. Another thing on my list of nice to haves haha. How does the weight compare to the stock cable?
It’s a shade heavier than the stock Stellia cable, thought you’d probably have to weigh them to tell the difference, assuming the same termination on the amp-end, but quite a bit lighter than the cables that come with the Utopia and Elear
Have you tried Amphenol connectors? They seem to be decent quality for the price.
They’re nice connectors, quality wise they’re a professional choice, much like Neutrik and Switchcraft. For inexpensive, high-quality, connectors I personally go with Neutrik (for a variety of reasons).
For the cables I build for myself, and occasionally for others, with a few exceptions (Furutech 3-pin XLRs, Eidolic milled-silver 4-pin XLRs and HD8X0 and OEM Utopia connectors) the parts costs get largely lost in the noise compared to labor costs … especially in the execution of the complex, precise, wire geometry.
Saving $15 on a $1,000 cable by going with Amphenol or Neutrik isn’t worth the overhead (for me). And doing a custom one-off, at least where those sorts of connectors are concerned, will wind up eating the difference just because of the one-off shipping cost to get the parts anyway.
So I designed the best cables I know how to build, after lots of experimentation, and I stick to specific parts for specific purposes to keep things consistent, simple, and to reduce the amount of stuff I have to keep hold/track of. This means sticking with a couple of boutique connector brands.
I don’t, for example, offer a choice of Furutech 4-pin XLR vs. Eidolic 4-pin XLR. 4-pin XLR cables I build are all Eidolic connectors. Same with dual 3-pin XLRs … those are all Furutech. 1/4" TRS … Furutech. 4.4mm TRRRS … Eidolic. And so on …
@Torq one question about the sound of your cable: Do you hear a difference between stock and your upgrade cable? If yes, how would you describe them?
It´s not that I don’t “believe” in the alteration (because of impedance?) of the sound of different cables, but once I bought an aftermarket cable by Lavricables (silver) for my PM3´s and I heard no difference to the stock cable. When I bought an upgrade cable for my PP8 IEM (with Hansound redcore), I immediately heard a significant difference I liked and hoped for.
So my second question would be: Do you think the sound differences are better heard with IEMs because the BA´s are more likely to take up the different materials of the cables?
This deserves a comprehensive (technical/engineering) response, but I am traveling and don’t have a proper keyboard to type on so that’ll have to wait until the weekend.
Ahead of that, I will say that I do hear a difference with my cables, that what the difference is different with every headphone/amp combination, that any such differences will be extremely small and that I do not make claims about what anyone else will or will not experience using them.
In other words, I sell them on the basis of modularity, ergonomics, aesthetics, configuration and measurements.
Once you have a competent balanced cable (which doesn’t have to be expensive), you’ve already done ~99% of what can be done.
But I’ll get into the math, theory, measurements (electrical and audio) and engineering when I get back.
Focal Stellia Review
When I first heard about the Stellia, I was immediately curious because I’m a big fan of the Focal Utopia, and the idea of a closed back version using the same or similar driver had me very excited. The Utopia has possibly my favorite tonality of any headphone, second only to that of the HiFiMAN HE500, which has a little bit better extension in the bass. The primary reason to be excited about Focal making use of its Beryllium M-shaped dome driver system is that it produces possibly the best detail retrieval capabilities of any headphone in the Utopia, or at minimum, it’s the best for any dynamic driver I’ve yet heard. My current environment also requires me to use closed back headphones for the majority of my work day, and while I do enjoy the Elegia as my current go-to, there is a notable difference in detail retrieval capabilities between it and the Utopia (and even the Focal Clear). So, the question on my mind for the Stellia has been this: Is this the Utopia in a closed back design? It turns out the answer is a bit more complicated than just a simple yes or no.
Impedance: 35 Ohms
Sensitivity: 106dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
THD: 0.1% @ 1kHz / 100 DB SPL
Drivers: 1.6" (40mm) Pure Beryllium “M” Shape Dome
Weight: 0.96lb (435g)
- 1 X 4ft OFC 24 AWG Cable With 1/8" (3.5mm) TRS Jack Connector
- 1 X 10ft OFC 24 AWG Cable With 4-Pin XLR Connector
- 1 X Jack Adapter, 1/8" (3.5mm) Female – 1/4" (6.35mm) Male
I’ve been running the Stellia through my usual catalogue of high-quality jazz and instrumental/acoustic music from the likes of Alison Krauss, GoGo Penguin, Molly Johnson, Patricia Barber and Ulf Wakenius. But I found myself also revisiting some of my heavier preferences from younger years, just to see how this headphone performs with material that’s a bit rougher. For this I chose my old metal favorites in Opeth, Tool and Pain of Salvation – stuff that might be a bit more difficult on highly resolving headphones.
At first glance, I wasn’t into the look of this headphone. In some ways it screams “luxury”, but at the same time also has a sort of “earthen Spiderman” look to it with the web-shaped cover on top of leather on the back of the cup. It feels oddly satisfying to hold, almost like holding a small cantaloupe, where the leather also feels a bit squishy. It definitely leaves me with a few question marks when it comes to the headphone’s longevity though. I’ve seen leather deteriorate and crack over time, and while it’s a unique and appealing concept, I prefer the more solid feeling cup design of the Elegia. Others may be drawn to the unique look of the Stellia though, with its “mocha and cognac” inspired color scheme. Without the Bob Ross descriptions, it’s just different shades of brown to me – maybe I’m dead inside when it comes to visual aesthetics. Thank goodness these are headphones.
The driver design is similar to the Utopia in that it’s a solid Beryllium M-shaped dome for maximum rigidity and stiffness to the diaphragm, especially at the center, with a ‘formerless’ design to the driver, allowing for an extremely fast response. It’s effective in the Utopia and it’s equally effective in the Stellia, however the latter being sealed means the same design ideas used by the Elegia to overcome the challenges of making a closed back were implemented in the Stellia as well. It uses the same breakup boxes on the inside of the cup in order to eliminate standing waves and reflections from the back of the cup. It’s a unique design for both the Elegia and the Stellia in that many other sealed headphones opt for damping foam on the inside instead.
Build & Comfort
In spite of my reservations about the Stellia’s presentation, the build feels reasonably solid, much like the rest of the Focal line. It has less of the famous ‘Focal creak’ to the headband, and they’ve implemented the same progress they’ve made with the Clear headband as well. There’s no hotspot on top like there is with the Utopia. This is aided by the fact that it weighs considerably less at only 435g (compared to the Utopia’s 490g). The Stellia’s wide headband is covered by very comfortable leather without any roughness to it. In addition, the Stellia has possibly the best pads I’ve ever felt on any headphone. They are made of extremely soft leather, and the foam feels like it has less resistance than the rest of Focal’s headphones. The cups retain the same spring-loaded design as the rest of the lineup, so it’s very easy to get a comfortable fit for long sessions. All of this combines to make the Stellia easily the most comfortable Focal headphone. The one caveat is that because this is a closed back headphone, the pads should seal around the ear, and that might be a problem for anyone wearing glasses.
The question I was hoping to be able to answer in this review is whether the Stellia is a closed back Utopia or not. When it comes to its performant qualities, without taking the frequency response into consideration, I can safely say the answer is yes. This is an extremely fast, resolving and technically capable headphone, just like the Utopia.
Resolution & detail retrieval: Unsurprisingly, Focal’s ‘formerless’ Beryllium M-shaped dome driver causes you to hear things in your music that you’ve never heard before. The tonality is totally different, however, and that makes the Utopia slightly outperform the Stellia when it comes to detail, but that should also be expected given the Utopia’s advantage of being an open back.
Speed & dynamics: The same goes for speed and transient response. For the most part, the Stellia is just as fast as the Utopia, but it doesn’t quite have the same dynamic presence as some top of the line planars. It doesn’t slam as hard, and the bass tonality causes it to lose a bit of definition that the Utopia has, although the added bass emphasis of the Stellia makes its capability difficult to discern without EQ.
Soundstage & imaging : Surprisingly, the stage on the Stellia presents bigger images than the Utopia. This gives it the illusion of a wider stage, but it also doesn’t sound quite as open and airy, which shouldn’t be a surprise.
This measurement was done using the MiniDSP EARS rig, which should not be compared to other systems and is not to be taken as an industry standard measurement system. Also note that there may be some variation on a unit to unit basis, and while the general shape remains similar, this unit appears to have a more pronounced 100-200hz bass hump.
These measurements show that the Stellia is in fact not a closed back Utopia, nor does it appear to aim for that goal. Instead, Focal have done something entirely new with the Stellia. They’ve managed to make a headphone with a more traditionally V-shaped sound signature that exhibits similar detail retrieval capability to that of the Utopia. This is that “fun yet resolving” closed back headphone that some enthusiasts have been looking for. That is of course, before doing any EQ. And with that in mind, I’m personally not a fan of “fun yet resolving”. I generally prefer a more emphasized midrange.
As this graph shows, there is a distinct elevation in the upper bass between 70-150hz that appears to bleed into the midrange a bit. Without question, the bass is a bit much on this headphone for me, and with just about any other driver, this would likely be an issue, but the detail retrieval and speed capabilities of this driver minimize this problem. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t look great on a graph, but when you listen to it you lose any fears you may have had. But with that said, I do still prefer a more linear response in the bass-to-mid transition, so I reduce the upper bass by about three dB. After doing so, the midrange becomes slightly more distinct and shines through a bit more. Without EQ, the V-shape tonality causes vocals to sit a bit further back, which some listeners will be totally fine with or even prefer.
The rest of the frequency response looks fairly flat, and it sounds that way too, with the exception of a substantial cut at around 5-6khz that takes away a bit of bite, but also makes room for some of the splash up top to come through a bit more strongly. Attempting to bump up 5-6khz a bit to get it closer to the target curve has yielded mixed results. On the one hand, it does brighten the tone up a bit, but on the other hand, for most of my music, I don’t find it necessary beyond a few dB. There’s also the risk of going too high, and I find that if I get it to where it measures appropriately, I don’t like it as much given the rest of the tonality. If I were to nitpick the Utopia, it would be the slight metallic timbre. Keep in mind that the Utopia also has a slight cut at around 5khz, and whether it’s this or the nature of the pure beryllium driver’s stiffness that causes the issue I’m as of yet unclear. The Stellia seems to have solved the issue, and perhaps this is due to the more relaxed tuning. The rest of the frequency response comes back up at around 7khz, but thankfully there’s absolutely no sibilance, and the Stellia provides a surprising amount of air and splash up top for a closed back.
Focal Elegia – This is my closed back go-to at the moment. Detail retrieval is markedly superior on the Stellia, and it’s immediately noticeable. The Elegia has a more neutral or mid-emphasized tonality, with a bit better definition and tightness to the bass (before EQ), albeit with a flatter transition between the bass and the mids as well. Stellia also has bigger and more distinct images.
Focal Clear – I got a chance to listen to the Clear for a few days recently but sadly had to give it back to its owner. The Clear has my preferred tonality out of all of Focal’s lineup and if I had my pick of any I’d probably go for this one, however the Stellia still wins on detail retrieval capabilities. The Clear does sound more open and is airier in the treble, being also a bit more forward throughout the upper frequencies. Choosing between the Clear and the Stellia would be difficult if it weren’t for the fact that the Stellia is a closed back headphone and costs quite a bit more, having the flexibility for a totally different application and coming in at essentially twice the price. Is it twice the resolution? No, but it is an improvement in that category and you can use it in more environments.
Focal Utopia – As I mentioned in this review, the Utopia has my preferred tonality, second perhaps only to the Clear (with slightly more bass than the Utopia). The Utopia does outperform the Stellia on detail retrieval capabilities but only slightly, and that’s likely to do with A) the fact that it’s an open back, and B) the Utopia’s tonality is more conducive to transparency and clarity than the V-shape tonality of the Stellia. As mentioned, the Utopia also exhibits a somewhat metallic or artificial timbre that the Stellia lacks. Whether this is due to the Beryllium driver or simply the tuning is yet unclear to me, but at the very least, it seems that they were able to solve this issue by relaxing the treble of the Stellia. The Stellia is also considerably more comfortable than the Utopia, being both lighter, and having a superior headband (and better pads!). But of course, the Utopia is still the king of detail.
ZMF Eikon – I really enjoy the tuning of the Eikon, and the biodynamic driver is very capable. It provides bigger images and has a larger stage than the Stellia, and rivals it in terms of dynamics and slam (if not superior). But the detail capabilities of the Stellia are simply on another level. With that said, the Eikon has the more ‘neutral-warm’ tonality that I quite enjoy. To put it another way, the Eikon is like a closed back Sennheiser HD650 upgrade, and the Stellia is like a Fostex TH-610 upgrade, just with extra detail and speed.
Audeze LCD2 Closed – The Stellia is so much more comfortable, weighing approximately 200g less than the LCD2 Closed. It’s also better in just about every way, except for the bass response and soundstage. The LCD2 Closed has a very odd upper midrange dip and a bit of harshness up top that the Stellia doesn’t suffer from.
Mrspeakers Aeon Flow Closed – While the Aeon is a more neutral tuning, the Stellia once again wins on detail capabilities. The Stellia also has a bigger stage with a more relaxed and luxurious sound, and I actually find the Stellia to be more comfortable as well given the Aeon’s clamp force and stiffer pads.
To answer the question that I posed at the start of this review, the Stellia is not quite a closed back Utopia. Personally, my preference still lies with the tonality of the Utopia. However, with the more relaxed tuning of the Stellia and its dip at 5khz, some of the Utopia’s criticisms are dealt with – namely, its somewhat metallic timbre, narrow stage with small images and clinical or harsh presentation of poorly recorded music. The Stellia is none of those things, and while the Utopia does still outperform the Stellia slightly and is by all accounts a more “audiophile” tuning, this is a welcome alternative to the Utopia in more ways than just making the closed back concession. With the Stellia, Focal has accurately identified what was missing from their headphone lineup and filled it in accordingly. I can confidently say that this is the most detail capable closed back I’ve ever heard, in spite of it not being my preferred tonality. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the Stellia is as good as it gets for closed back so far and if ever there were an example of a headphone that sounds better than it measures, this is it.
You can check out the video review here as well.
Great review with great photography once again. Nice job @Resolve.
Great review. I enjoyed reading your comparisons most of all, even though I only have the Clear’s. I do love the Clear’s and don’t think I will be trading those in any time soon but even still, I was debating on getting the Empyrean’s or the Stellia’s. I ultimately just decided to purchase the Empyrean’s but may still end up with the Stellia’s one day.
Thanks @Resolve for that great review. Do you in the meantime know why your unit has a bit more midbass than the unit @Torq has measured? Or is the variance only seen on the graphs? It would be interesting to see when Torq also measures your unit, what differences there really are.
Ya I’d be interested in that as well.
At the moment I think the most likely reason is that there is some slight variance in the units. This is the case with other Focal headphones as well, where the shape is generally the same, but off by a few dB in some places. Not something to worry about really, especially if you EQ anyway. The other possibility is that my test environment isn’t as good as Torq’s. I’ve literally just got it sat on a desk, where as he has his more carefully set up to eliminate vibration and whatnot. But my other measurements tend to line up more closely with his, so I’m leaning on the side of it being variation between units.
One of my favorites!
Here are my first impressions of the Stellia:
Overall the Stellia has a perfectly balanced sound and is very suitable for long listening sessions. For me, a very little bit more subbass would have been fine, and in return a tiny bit less high mids. There are some tracks where the “s” and “sh” sounds of the singers are too pronounced. If I had a DAP with good EQ (like the new LPGT), then that would be achieved in no time, although of course I prefer to use no EQ, if it can be avoided.
Which I’m not really satisfied, is the sound attenuation from the outside (this has made my old Oppo PM3 better as well as the CA Cascade). Also, the Stellia loses a lot of sound to the outside and disturbs, especially when listening to louder volumes, the people in the same room. In my opinion, therefore, the term “closed-back” is not right. It should be called “Semi-Open” or “semi-closed” for my sake. But “semi” - something does not sell well I guess
The earpads themselves are incredibly soft and adapt well to the shape of the head. Even with glasses (at least for me) no problem and no bass loss, which I very much welcome. Nevertheless, it would of course be fine if the headphone had been a bit light weightier. On the other hand, this is hardly possible to produce without giving up high-quality materials. Since I prefer to do without cheap plastic I´d rather take the weight into account. But if Focal still finds lighter quality materials, I do not mind.
The cable is ok. When the music runs, you can hear no more cable noise. It is just too thick and inflexible, but at least high quality. I would have liked, for the price of the Stellia, an additional cable with 2.5 balanced, on which one could put on a 4.4 adapter. Of course, if Focal had managed to add even lighter and more flexible cables than those that shipped them by default, that would have been fine.
All in all, I could have done without the luxurious packaging, and would have liked to have better cables, see above.
The case is great because where the cable is, my DAP fits in!
The Stellia is more than enough to drive with my Calyx M. The processing of the Stellia is great! It is the first “closedback” - cough cough - headphone that is not foldable, which I have considered. In fact, I will use it every day as I walk through the city. So far, I’ve heard with the InEar ProPhile8, the Stellia is an upgrade in every way, but not, as mentioned, in terms of isolation.
All in all, however, a 1A product.
Great. Very nice impressions.
After being “on the road” with the Stellia for a few days, I feel that somehow I’ve got the reverse problem of @Resolve, in that I am losing too much bass frequencies with all the traffic going on as well as underground etc. So what did I do? I cranked up the volume a bit so that the bass was back again to my linking. Then there were two problems: First, I annoyed the others in the bus etc. because the leakage was too much and secondly the mids were too much for me now.
When listening at home the sound is perfect, but alas on the go, it is not. Then I thought about stacking (because its the low priced alternative in getting a new TOTL DAP like the LPGT that has a good enough digital EQ). So I researched a bit and found two options: The new ifi X-Can that has a good price but maybe not TOTL sound quality (I don’t know … does anybody know?), the other one that is the more pricey one is the VorzAMP Duo II. Both units have got a “bass switch” that I would use for on the go. Has someone heard the VorzAMP Duo II? The reviews suggest that the EQ is analog and very nicely done (without bleeding into the mids … at least the +3 db switch). It´s about 700-800 Dollars, that’s really not nothing, but it is way less than buying a new DAP, because for the time being I am still quite happy with my Calyx M DAP. So I´d rather invest into a portable amp and maybe in 2 years get a flagship DAP used for a bit more reasonable price. What do you guys think? Good idea?
In regards to isolation for headphones, I think there are a lot of bad assumptions/beliefs and/or misunderstandings about what’s possible.
For one, passive headphones will always be better at keeping sound in, than in shutting it out. For another, the amount of effective possible attenuation of external sound for over-the-ear designs tops out at about 10 dB. And that number is for hearing protection devices, which are specifically designed to shut out noise. Headphones will invariably be lower.
You can read more about it here. It’s relevant to all headphones, not just the Stellia. And it rapidly becomes a case of “right tool for the job” if you want it to be effective.
In regards to how much sound headphones keep-in, and the Stellia in particular, they’re a bit better in this regard than the Elegia, but, in the most relevant region (1 kHz to about 6 kHz) are as much as 12 dB “leakier” than, say, the non-vented (as far as I’m aware) AEON Flow Closed:
I’m a bit surprised that in an environment as noisy as any bus I’ve ever been on (typically about 90 dB in motion) that anyone can hear any sound coming from the Stellia unless they’re being run at levels I’d consider unwise (if not actually unsafe) and/or they’re sitting inappropriately close. If they are, they are, but I’m still surprised by that.
As to using an additional amplifier with some level of bass-control, I find it hard to imagine that the on/off nature of such things is going to justify the cost …
And the Calyx M does not, as I recall, have a proper line-out - which means you’d be amping its amplifier output. This is less than ideal. You’re probably better served with a new DAP around the same price as the amplifiers you’re looking at … $7-800 today would get you a DAP that beats out the Calyx M in terms of sound quality and features AND that includes a proper, high-quality, EQ capability (with both parametric and graphic configuration options), lower noise and more powerful output.
At the end of the day, its down to what you’re happy with. For me, that means “right tool for the job” which pretty much precludes using any passive headphone in anything but the quietest of public settings.
Thanks for your response. I already saw your measurement and can confirm that. Those 12db that are “leakier” than some other closed backs are those 12db that kind of matter for me. Maybe the busses in my hometown are quieter than others hahaha. Also my family told me that they hear the music, they didn’t complain when I heard with the same loudness with my PM3s.
Which DAP would you suggest? I don’t care about android/wifi/bluetooth etc. I don’t even care about battery life. I care about sound. That’s why I still stick to the Calyx M, which by many is considered on par with TOTL daps like the new Cayin N8 and LPGT. I compared the Calyx with the AK380 and found the SQ of the AK inferior, also the new Cowon L flagship can’t compete IMO. But I didn’t try the new SP1000 daps (which are too expensive of course). Anyways, I´d like to try 7-800 $ DAPs and if they are better than my DAP then I am all in
I should have said “$7-800” DAPs that I think sound better than the Calyx M, since different people obviously have different preferences and put different priorities on various technicalities.
I preferred the A&K SR15 and both the Sony ZX300 and WM1A (would have to be used to come in at the stated price) over the Calyx M. Both offer balanced output, as well, which the Stellia is fully able to take advantage of. I found the mid-range on the Calyx M to be a bit unsettled when there was a lot going on and the overall presentation to be “hyper-detailed” (in an “oversharpened” way, rather than “an actual resolution” way). Not that it was bad, it just didn’t work for me.
I’ve not heard the Lotoo Paw Gold Touch, but I do have the Cayin N8 here … and while I’d need it side-by-side with the Calyx M to be sure, and only have about 8 hours listening to it now (with whatever caveats about burn-in you want to apply/assume), its as good as, or better than, several units that I have heard in direct comparison to the Calyx unit and all of which were, for me, better than the M. So there’s a bit of triangulation in there.
I wasn’t an A&K 380 fan either. Haven’t heard the Cowon L.
As ever, I’d recommend trying before buying as preferences, priorities and synergy are all important factors. But I still don’t think adding an amp to get a 3 dB (or other fixed value) bass boost is going to get you what you want.
Thanks @Torq. I will definitely try to listen to the recommended DAPs!
Maybe I should have mentioned that my M is hw modded. But anyways, you’re probably right that it’s not the wisest to pair it with a portable amp, because it also has no line out (except I succeed in getting a used one for 300 bucks or so).
The search goes on for the perfect synergy with the Stellia. Meanwhile though I‘ll listen to some good tunes
Well, it’s been a month, or more, longer than I intended, but I finally finished my full review of the Focal Stellia. Not that it should contain any surprises for anyone that’s been following this thread!
This review will likely mark the last I do that’s so long. My plan is to focus on the sound, essentials and final verdict in future reviews, with references back to the official product threads, and the manufacturer’s site, to flesh out the non-subjective details (design, technology, etc.), and more immediate, and stream-of-conciousness/episodic impressions.