I lifted the magnetic latch of Focal Elear’s cardboard storage box, its soft lining reminiscent of acoustic foam, as though pushing open a heavy mahogany door. Within, I found the open back headphones reclining on a chaise lounge by an open fire, shirt open.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Elear said in French-accented English, cradling a glass of red wine.
Of course they were French. How could such a seductor originate elsewhere? Elear’s bedroom eyes locked on me, a plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries resting temptingly beside them. Everything was in its place, perfectly designed in anticipation of my arrival.
“Oh… Hello.” I was expecting them, but the reality of dealing with a $1599 pair of headphones was nerve-wracking, an experience I am unaccustomed to. Could they smell the cheap moisturiser and op shop shirt on me?
Elear approached, either oblivious or uncaring of my humble origins. Caressing my cheek with circum-aural memory foam cushions covered in soft microfibre fabric, their solid aluminium-magnesium body glinted in the firelight. “Are you ready to hear me?”
I reclined as Elear settled upon me, distributing its firm 450g weight evenly upon my head so it didn’t feel too much of a burden. I had expected them to have a heavy, chunky build, as many high-end headphones tend to have. But while Elear’s body was larger than your average commuter headphones, they were still compact, the clever design preventing them from feeling bulky.
“Is that alright?”
I nodded, the headphones remaining securely on. Despite their size, Focal’s flagship headphones were surprisingly comfortable. Tight enough that they wouldn’t be dislodged unintentionally, but loose enough to be gentle.
“Then let’s begin.”
I closed my eyes as they pumped waves of sound into my ears. I could hear every detail and string. A whole concert, just for me. It was akin to putting on glasses for the first time and discovering the leaves on trees. Elear was open backed, so I could hear every sound around me as though I weren’t wearing them at all, but my world was filled with music. It sounded natural. The way music should be.
“That was beautiful,” I exhaled once when the music stopped. My ears were a little warm, but I wasn’t terribly uncomfortable.
However, Elear’s attention had been drawn to the door, and the dark night outside. There was an interloper.
The $2199 Focal Clear pulled up in its hard grey carry case, shaped to caress every curve and line, plus one cable. Elear could have easily fit into the same case, as both are of the same form factor. But it was Clear’s case, and Clear who emerged from it, approaching with the same confidence and charm as their darker sibling.
Elear bristled as Clear approached. “Excuse me, can you not see that the lady and I are busy?”
“Why yes, but I thought perhaps she would like to know all her options before she makes her decision.” Clear took my hand and kissed it. “Bonjour, belle femme.”
Elear and Clear were near identical in construction, the former black and the latter silver grey. Aside from their colours and labelling, the only visual difference appeared to be that the microfibre fabric covering the Clear’s cushions was perforated, as was the material upholstering its headband.
“Where are you even planning on going with that case?” Elear muttered angrily. “It is not as though either of us ever leave home.”
Both needed to be treated with delicate care – they likely would not last long if subjected to rough treatment, and weren’t designed for commuting.
Clear smiled at me, not bothering to look at Elear as they responded. “Protection is always necessary.”
Though stunning, Elear receded slightly in my affections when compared to Clear’s slick grey body. With Clear, nearly everything about Elear had been elevated. These headphones had all Elear’s virtues – the balance, the fit – but felt airier. Though in actuality both weighed 450g, Clear felt lighter, just weighty enough to be luxurious.
Clear’s memory foam ear cushions, too, were improved. Covered in a perforated microfibre fabric, they felt suede-like resting on my cheek, like a gentle puppy’s paw. Even softer than the Elear.
Clear didn’t have some of the bass present in Elear. It sounded less full, which initially disappointed me. But I soon realised that what I was missing was mere familiarity. While Elear had more bass, it also felt more confined, intimate in comparison to the Clear. A sound closer to that of classic closed back commuter headphones, albeit with more breathing space. For many, this would be closer to a sound they are more accustomed to.
In contrast, the perforation present on the Clear opened them even further than the Elear, letting sound leak rather than bounce inside. Clear sounded closer to listening to excellent speakers, rather than having sound whispered privately to me. The music enveloped me. As wonderful and natural as Elear sounded, Clear somehow managed to top it.
Clear’s frequency response of 5Hz – 28kHz inched out Elear’s 5Hz – 23kHz. It sounded clean, coherent, every instrument able to be separated out and identified. Every detail rang clear, every tiny nuance, every exhalation, every vibration and echo.
Though unsure at first, lying back and trusting Clear I found I preferred their transparency. What I heard was what I got, and I could hear everything. Elear wasn’t dirty or muddy by any means, but Clear was that bit clearer. And, in comparison, my ears remained cool.
Clear crooned love to me well into the night.
“I have a display stand,” they said.
“The display stand is optional, and I have one too,” groused Elear from the side of the room.
“I also have three long, thick cables,” Clear continued, ignoring Elear’s outburst. “One 1.2m cable with 3.5mm stereo jack.” Their soft material nuzzled my cheek. “One 3m cable with a 1/4″ stereo jack.” Their music breathed into my ear. “And a 3m cable with a XLR 4 pin symmetrical connector.”
Shifting attention from me for the first time since entering the room, Clear looked over to where Elear leaned against the wall. I followed their gaze.
“… I have a 3m oxygen-free copper cable with a 1/4″ stereo jack.”
Clear returned their attentions to me. “I suppose that’s fine, if you don’t care for flexibility.”
I shot a sympathetic look at Elear over Clear’s shoulder. Clear’s slimmer striped cables looked and felt more attractive than Elear’s heavy black one. And they were braided, while Elear’s was not. Elear couldn’t compete on this point, and they knew it. I had no trouble running either from my RME Fireface UFX audio interface or my phone, but I was forced to borrow Clear’s cable to use Elear with the latter.
The music faded, leaving me with a terrible choice to be made in the silence.
Both headphones were beautiful. Both were desirable. Both could give me a comfortable life. But which would I take? Clear beautifully wore their name, but were a full $600 more than Elear. And Elear had a more familiar sound, but were just slightly less comfortable than Clear, and came with fewer cables.
Clear and Elear watched me expectantly from beside the fire. The pressure was too much.
“I… I need time to think.”
I fled, running to the gardens. Was I ready to throw myself into an audiophile’s life? Would I truly be happy listening to music like this, tied down to home and hearth rather while commuting?
A silly question. Of course I would be. For those moments not on the move, either of these headphones would no doubt satisfy. Though if I were to give my heart to only one, I knew which it would go with.
When I returned to the room, biting my lip as I peeked around the mahogany door, both headphones were still waiting patiently for me. Clear worried the long stem of a rose, while Elear paced by the fire.
I stepped through the door, heart pounding. Their attention snapped to me. I had to do this.
“I… I’m sorry, I just… I can’t justify that price. I’m not an audiophile. I love you both, I always will, and Clear… Clear, you have stolen my heart. But we just aren’t right for each other. I’d never appreciate you like you deserve.”
Both Clear and Elear were gorgeous headphones, there is no denying it. But they were too far above me and my budget.
“Please, mon amour!” Clear reached for me, but I turned away. In another life, they could have been the one. I just didn’t belong in their world.
My heart broke as I returned them to their storage boxes. They didn’t deserve this. I know they will eventually move on, find a listener who is happy to spend thousands of dollars to appreciate their clear sound, who will spend hours reclined in their favourite chair at home, listening to their FLAC collection with pristine clarity. I envy that listener.
But as for me, I shall keep beautiful memories of melodies, reminiscing about our youthful romance whenever I stream Spotify through dreary $250 headphones.
For information on where you can pick up the Focal headphone range, head here.