Focal Stellia Review
The Focal Stellia was loaned to me for review by headphones.com
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
FLAC Library, TIDAL (HiFi and Master) - iFi iDSD Micro Black Label-> Cayin IHA-6 (balanced output) -> Focal Stellia
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.