Focal’s Elegia Is a Clear Winner
As mentioned in my January review of the Sennheiser HD820 and HD800S, more and more headphone companies these days are attempting to turn their most well-received open-back headphones into audiophile-quality closed-back cans.
But there’s a reason why most flagship headphones are open. As Sennheiser’s former lead designer Axel Grell has explained, “Open type headphones are better by principle because sound that is radiated by the diaphragm to the rear can leave the system and the sound that is reflected from the ear can also leave the system.” In closed designs, rear reflections introduce a whole host of problems that make creating a quality closed can more complex than simply sealing off the cups in a successful open-back design.
The uneven reception that greeted the flawed-but-impressive HD820 illustrates the perils of the task facing even the most innovative headphone companies and ingenious engineers.
With the Elegia (U.S. MSRP of $900) and the Stellia (U.S. MSRP of $3,000), Focal has released two competitors to Sennheiser’s HD820 aimed at audiophiles seeking the best sound from closed-back headphones. This review will focus on the former, more modestly priced entrant.
In 2016, Focal introduced the Elear and Utopia. For many audiophiles, it was a shot across the bow of Sennheiser in a battle for audiophile headphone supremacy, with the Elear lining up as a challenger to Sennheiser’s HD600 line and the Utopia taking aim at the HD800.
In designing the Elear and Utopia, Focal endeavored to place “a full range loudspeaker in a pair of headphones.” Both used Focal’s unique “M”-shaped dome — aluminum-magnesium for the Elear and beryllium for the Utopia. The Elear and Utopia were also remarkably stylish, with aluminum yokes, leather headbands, and a simple, classic cup shape. Likewise, the wide padded headband and firm, but not overwhelming, clamping force meant that Focal’s new line was comfortable for most head shapes without the need for aftermarket padding.
Some reviewers justifiably critiqued the Elear’s slight upper-midrange “suckout” and the Utopia’s eyewatering price, but the clarity, speed, tonal accuracy, and comfort of Focal’s new line made it easy to look at the company and think, “Man, somebody knows a hell of a lot about headphones over there,” as InnerFidelity’s Tyll Hertsens wrote at the time.
In late-2017, Focal released the Clear, which landed between the Elear and Utopia in terms of both price and frequency response, correcting some of the most common complaints about each of Focal’s previous offerings. In the process, Focal also lowered the Clear’s impedance to 55 Ohms, down from the Elear and Utopia’s 80 Ohms, making the Clear easy to drive with portable DAPs and DAC/amp USB dongles. With the Clear, Focal also replaced the foam padded cardboard case that had come with the Elear and Utopia with a beautiful, fabric-covered molded hard-shell case.
Around the same time that Focal introduced the Clear, it also unveiled the Elex, a partnership with Massdrop. The Elex took the Elear and tweaked it, both visually and in sound signature (thanks to a different set of pads). While the Elex lacked some of the Clear’s “raw technical performance,” as Ian Dunmore put it in his apt rave review of the Clear, and didn’t come with the Clear’s luxurious hard-shell case, the Elex nonetheless brought the Elear’s somewhat wonky frequency response into line with the Clear’s neutral signature at a fraction of the Clear’s price, making the Elex one of the best bargains in high-end headphones.
While Focal had released four superb entrants into the open-back audiophile market in a span of two years, its closed back Listen releases had been aimed at the portable mid-fi market dominated by the likes of Beats and Audio-Technica. The introduction of the Elegia and Stellia late last year changed that. Drawing a clear line between the Listen and the Elegia and Stellia, Focal has referred to the latter two cans as the company’s “first closed-back high-end headphones.”
So how did Focal fare in its foray into the audiophile closed-back market?
Unlike the Elear, Utopia, and Elex, the Elegia comes with the same high-quality molded hard-shell case as the Clear, as well as 4-foot 3.55 mm cable. If there’s anything worth quibbling with when it comes to the Elegia’s accessories, it’s that the fabric-covered cable can be stiff, making an aftermarket cable a consideration, if not a necessity, for those who prefer more flexibility,
As its name might suggest, the Elegia’s silver-and-black color scheme ensures that, at least physically, the Elegia closely resembles the Elear. In place of the latter’s black metal mesh cups, the Elegia features rigid plastic cups.
The metal Focal logo on the Elegia’s cups feature vents to allow for dissipation of the low frequencies, while an EVA foam pad inside the cups absorbs high frequency reflections. Finally, the dimples on the outside of the cups correspond with diffusers on the inside of the cups designed to “spread the residual energy homogeneously through the overall space.” According to Focal, the “main objective” of the multi-method decompression and damping is “to prevent the energy emitted by the back wave from returning to the speaker driver cone and thus turning into an additional unwanted sound signal.”
But while the Elegia’s name and appearance suggest that it’s a closed-back Elear, the Elegia’s sound falls much closer to the Elex and Clear than the Elear.
Measuring closed cans can be much trickier than taking stock of their open counterparts. Getting a good seal is paramount, and small changes in placement can dramatically affect results. After repeated attempts to get a representative measurement of the Elegia with my MiniDSP EARS, I landed on the below, which compares the Elegia (black) and Clear (blue):
My EARS unit has been calibrated with a slightly modified version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a flat frequency response is represented by a flat line.
While the EARS holds its own against much pricier measurement rigs, the EARS does have its limits and oddities. One of those oddities is its protruding screws, which made getting a good seal with some closed cans difficult, likely accentuating some of the deviations from neutrality, particularly at the extremes of the frequency spectrum.
For that reason, it’s worth taking a look at Jude from Head-Fi’s Elegia measurements taken with his GRAS system. While the overall story is roughly similar, his measurements show much smaller differences between the Clear’s FR and the Elegia’s FR than my measurements, and subjectively I think his come much closer to accurately representing the Elegia’s sound.
While the Elegia has a few more dramatic dips above 3k Hz than either the Elex or Clear does, the Elegia doesn’t feature any deviation from neutral as notable as the Elear’s upper-mids “suckout.” The gradual dip between 3k and 6k Hz apparent in both my measurements and Jude’s does rob distorted electric guitars of some of their bite, but the effect is much smaller than was apparent with the Elear.
Likewise, the Elegia’s 10k dip causes recordings to come across as less airy than is apparent with the Clear. The sound of the room comes across loud and clear on the Clear (pun intended) when listening to hi-resolution remaster of “Alabama” from Neil Young’s Harvest via Qobuz and Audirvana+. In comparison, the Elegia’s representation of the ambiance of Young’s makeshift barn studio is slightly muffled.
However, the same 10k dip also cuts down on sibilance. On the Clear, Danielle Haim’s vocals on “Falling” — the opening cut of Haim’s excellent debut, Days Are Gone — can come across as strident and “essy,” while her vocals are easier on the ear through the Elegia.
The Elegia can’t compete with the Clear’s detail retrieval and realism, however. On that count, the Elegia is closer to the Elear or Elex. Going back to Harvest, the subtle inflections and reverb on Young’s voice on “Out on the Weekend” are much more apparent with the Clear than the Elegia, with the former being a more accurate and revealing representation of the recording. Likewise, the Clear better captures the string articulation on the infectious bassline to Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” from Mothership Connection than does the Elegia.
But it’s perhaps unfair to compare the closed Elegia to its more expensive open-backed brethren. For closed cans, the Elegia’s nuance and balance is remarkable. A comparison of the Elegia (black line) with the aforementioned Sennheiser HD820 (red line) is instructive:
Like the HD820, the Elegia has a dip in the upper-bass/lower-mids, a tuning decision that Sennheiser said allowed for elevated bass that “wouldn’t blur the mid details.” However, while the HD820’s dip is large and bottoms out around 300 Hz, the Elegia’s is much more modest and centered around 200 Hz. As a result, the Elegia’s slight upper-bass/lower-mids dip does provide nice separation of the mids from its sub-bass extension without disturbing instrumental balance and tonality in the same way that the HD820’s tuning did.
To be sure, the Elegia can’t compete with the HD820’s soundstage, and the HD820 also has an edge on high-end microdetail. But the Elegia provides better overall tonal accuracy and performance at less than half the HD820’s price.
With the Elegia, Focal has created a pair of headphones that, while still bound by the inherent tradeoffs imposed by closed-back cans, blends the look and sound of the Elex and Clear at a price that falls squarely in between those two sets of open Focal cans.
Ultimately, the Elegia is an impressively clean and detailed closed headphone that outperforms both the much more expensive HD820 and the similarly priced Aeon Flow Closed from MrSpeakers, at least in the humble opinion of this reviewer. For those who prefer a slightly warmer, smoother sound, the ZMF Atticus remains an excellent closed alternative to the Elegia. But for anyone looking for neutrality above all in a sub-$1,000 closed headphone, the Elegia is perhaps the best choice currently on the market.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.