Gramophone Dreams #22: Koss, Focal, iFi

Brooklyn, 1979: Fridays were fierce. After a week of doing construction, I would gobble Wild Turkey at the Spring Lounge, then fall asleep on the F train with a fold of cash and a Sony Walkman stuffed in a chest pocket of my paint-spattered Belstaff Trialmaster jacket. Usually I missed my York Street stop by only a few stations, but occasionally I'd wake up at sunrise on Saturday at the last stop: Coney Island. I didn't mind. It was restorative to shuffle the deserted boardwalk, listening to the Ramones' Road to Ruin or Television's Marquee Moon.

Koss Porta Pro headphones
During the money-flush, go-go 1980s, I upgraded my F-train act to a Walkman Professional WM-D6C player-recorder and a cool-ass pair of Koss Porta Pro on-ear headphones. The Porta Pros suited me well. They fold up small, clip together, and easily fit in a Trialmaster pocket. And they have a lifetime warranty. When I lost the foam earpads, or one channel went out, I just threw 'em in an envelope, and Koss fixed or replaced them for free. Now I have a new pair, through which I'm reliving those Marquee Moon memories as I type these words, admiring how sharp, lean, and pure Richard Lloyd's guitar sounds.

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These new Porta Pros cost only $49.99. They have a cord-mounted microphone so I can take phone calls on the fly; otherwise, they're unchanged from the pair I had years ago. But Marquee Moon sounds better than I remember. The Porta Pros are pulling out all that '70s studio reverb and slamming that drum sound. I remember walking the boardwalk, singing along with Tom Verlaine: "Oooh how the darkness doubled / I recall / Lightning struck itself."

I still like how the dainty, open-back Porta Pros rest so gently on my pinnae. The foam earcups, each the size of an old-style silver dollar, are joined by a thin steel headband that can be adjusted to three different tensions with side-mounted sliders: Light for talking on the phone while I do dishes, and Firm for flying down hills on my bicycle.

Brooklyn, 2004: When I bought my first iPod, I once again appreciated how ridiculously and pleasurably natural sounding the flyweight Porta Pros are. They weigh 2.5oz (70gm), have an impedance of 60 ohms, sensitivity of 101dB/mW, neodymium magnets, and oxygen-free copper voice coils. Their bass is clean and understated, but doesn't go low. As I type this, I'm listening to "No Hay Después," from Puente Celeste's Nama (5.6MHz native DSD download, M•A Recordings M084A), and I am beyond impressed. They sound startlingly good. The midrange is articulate and satisfying. But the treble gets vague sometimes. At $40, this state-of-the-recording-art DSD download cost me $1 more than Walmart charges for the Porta Pros. Unbelievably, few $200 headphones I've heard can match the succulent midrange or user-friendliness of these Koss classics.

One night, an old pal, a freelance sound recordist who was upgrading to Sennheiser HD650s, gave me his well-used closed-back headphones: Sony MDR-7520s. The strong bass and voice-articulating midrange of those sturdy, studio-grade Sonys opened my mind to the higher sound potential of headphones and took my listening to the next level. And they looked hip on the F train.

One day, my buddy Sphere said, "Herb, if you like the MDR-7520s so much, you're gonna love the AKG K812 Pros." Whereupon he loaned me a pair. To my ears, the AKG K812 Pros ($1499) sounded unbelievably open, high-resolution, and uncolored. At recording sessions for Chesky Records I've attended, they consistently beat other headphones for sounding most like live.

Focal Clear headphones
When I began reviewing headphones, nothing sounded as neutral or as transparent as AKG's K812 Pros—until the arrival of Focal-JMlab's Utopia headphones ($3999). The Utopias did all the neutral, open, dynamic things my K812s did, but were so ravishingly transparent that I thought they must be perfect. They delivered music and spoken word with extraordinary body and Leica-like focus. At the time, I had yet to experience Sony's MDR-R10 or JPS Labs' Abyss AB1266 or HiFiMan's Susvara headphones, so the Utopias received my outspoken vote for "best headphones ever."

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Nowadays, I'm enjoying Tidal and my collection of high-resolution files via a Mytek HiFi Manhattan II DAC–headphone amp, and reauditioning Focal's Elear ($1000) and Utopia models, as I compare both to Focal's newest, handsomest, most comfortable and, perhaps, most musically satisfying headphones: the Clears ($1500).

In my original review of Focal's Elear headphones, I described them as "fast, descriptive," and as possessing "most of the Utopias' speed and transparency." I also thought they were "a bit too even-tempered": a touch thicker and less transparent than the AKG812s or Audeze LCD-Xes. That was December 2016—long ago, in headphone years. Today, I'm listening to David Chesky's New York Rags (24-bit/192kHz AIFF, Chesky JD359/HDtracks) via a different pair of Elears, and while they still sound mild-mannered, with Chesky's striding, frolicking composition they actually soar and boogie—and more than I thought they could. I can only speculate, but something about the Elears' 40mm, aluminum-magnesium domes still seems a bit overdamped on some microlevel. They never light up and throw vivo, as my Audeze LCD-Xes do. Compared to the Utopias and the LCD-Xes, the Elears' microdullness sounds like an almost imperceptible thickening of detail and slowing of rhythmic undercurrents.

Meanwhile, Focal's Utopia have nothing dull or slow going on. Their beryllium domes and ultralight, formerless voice-coils light up music and let it move like time-lapse motion pictures. The intelligibility of voices is unmatched by any other headphones I know. With the Utopias, recordings seem clearly exposed and fully resolved. The Utopias are superbly crafted, almost comfortable, and deliver high-fidelity sound that ranks among the best of our time. If I were a recording engineer, the easy-to-drive Utopias would be my over-ear open-back headphones of choice.

But when I'm not working on a review or trying to decipher song lyrics, the Focal Utopias are rarely the headphones I reach for. These days, when I want headphones to watch a movie, or to listen to music for myself, I reach for Focal's new, warm-gray, absolutely comfortable, museum-quality–beautiful Clears.

Description: The Focal Clears are dynamic, circumaural, open-backed headphones built on a solid aluminum yoke with a soft leather headband. They look the same as the Elears and Utopias, except that they're soft gray, not hard black, and their cords and earpads feel more luxurious. The Clears use the same configuration of 1.6" (40mm) M-shape aluminum-magnesium dome and formerless voice-coil as the Elears, except that the Clears' voice-coils are wound with pure copper wire instead of the Elears' copper-clad aluminum. With an impedance of 55 ohms and sensitivity of 104dB SPL/mW/m, the Clears should be easily driven by an iPhone. They weigh one pound (450gm), which is 6.35oz (180gm) less than the Audeze LCD-Xes, and 4.25oz (120gm) more than Sennheiser's HD 800 S ($1699). Three attractive, cotton-covered cords are provided: one 3m long, with a four-pin balanced XLR; another 3m long, with a 6.35mm stereo plug; and a third 1.2m long, with a 3.5mm plug. The cords feel sexy to the touch, and match the exquisite styling of the earpads of perforated microfiber. They attach to the earcups with locking 3.5mm plugs.

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Listening: Before the Clears arrived, my headphones for daily use were usually one of four pleasure-inducing models: HiFiMan's Susvara ($6000), Abyss's AB-1266 Phi ($4495), Sony's super-comfortable MDR-Z1R ($2299.99), and my beloved everyday reference, Audeze's LCD-X ($1699). Now it's the Focal Clears that are constantly plugged into the Mytek Manhattan II DAC–headphone amp that anchors my desktop system.

The HiFiMan Susvaras are my reference for suave, sophisticated, easy-flowing musical sound. They present details and dynamics quietly, in a refined and unobtrusive way. The Susvaras reproduce all of music's power and subtle glories in proper proportion. The Abyss AB-1266 Phi's are my primary reference for perfectly natural and neutral headphone sound. They always provide the clearest window onto any recording.

The serene naturalness of those two planar-magnetic headphones make the metal-dome Focal Utopias sound slightly aggressive, most noticeably with penetrating hi-rez recordings such as the recital Come Away, Death (MQA streamed, 2L/Tidal Master). The Abysses let Sergei Osadchuk's solidly expressive piano and Marianne Beate Kielland's affecting mezzo-soprano pass through my skull in a divinely relaxed manner. They directed my attention toward the contrasting densities of wood, metal, and flesh. Pauses between piano notes, and sustained decays, were densely packed with harmonics. The Phi's and Susvaras delivered these songs of death as sensuous sonic feasts. That is why I love them.

In contrast, the Utopias' slight dynamic metallicness created unpredictable moments of glare that often caused me to turn the volume down.

Then I tried the Clears. Like a shark in deep water, the Clears glided effortlessly and powerfully through every composition on Come Away, Death. The sound was shark-denticle, racing-car smooth. With the Clears, large-scale dynamics operated in marvelous ways. Best of all was how effectively the Clears rendered the high frequencies on this recording: sweetly, suppley, and with enjoyable precision. Osadchuk's piano appeared wide, long, and harmonically expansive. Compared to the Abyss AB-1266 Phi's and HiFiMan Susvaras, the Focal Clears seemed a little weak and hazy, but so what? The Clears cost thousands less than either.

All of this made me wonder: How has Focal accomplished all this for $1499?

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Bogolu Haranath's picture

. HR made it "clear" .......... A "clear" winner ...............

dalethorn's picture

My headphone pusher (the Pusher Man, heh) tried really hard to get me to buy the Clear, but I wisely resisted, thinking that the improvement from the Elear was likely to be very minimal. But, AudioAdvisor was selling AudioQuest NightOwls for $400 (originally $700), so I bought one of those instead. And wouldn't you know it, they made it a little worse than the NightHawk I bought a couple of years ago. The NightOwl treble is a little worse (and choppy), and where the NightHawk had a good deep bass with some extra warmth in the upper bass, the NightOwl bass is just plain weak.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Agreed with everything you said ........... I own Night Owls as well ....... I agree with your assessment about their sound .......... They need a long break-in ...... You may notice some improvement in sound after the break-in ........ Get Clears ........ I am sure you will be as happy as HR and Tyll ......... BTW, I got both the Pine and Faust recordings of Bach .......... The Pine recording sounds nice and warm with more body and weight to the sound (more to my liking) ..........The Faust recording (like you said) sounds somewhat (mildly) lean and bright (to me) .......

dalethorn's picture

I reread the Innerfidelity review of the Clear. Not for me. For starters, fabric earpads - hate 'em. Secondly, the response looks a little ragged and bright, as he noted in the review (but downplayed). Then there's the approximately 60 ohm nominal impedance that hits a whopping 330 ohms in the bass, centered around 50-60 hz. No wonder the bass has issues! I'll be on the lookout for something similar that doesn't have a big impedance spike, that gets its best response with pleather pads, and looks a little smoother in the treble.

I wish I still had the Sennheiser HD800 and a couple other headphones I didn't measure when I had them - I have a pretty good mental frame of reference as to how they sounded (slightly bright or peaky), but I don't have any good reason to get them back.

dalethorn's picture

With most headphones for most users, by the time they have 500 hours on them they're already being replaced, not to mention deterioration of sound due to earpad wear. With the NightOwl and most premium headphones, a shorter break-in period of 30-40 hours takes most of the edges off, but rarely if ever changes the basic frequency response or cures obvious resonances.

In the specific case of this NightOwl, with a carefully applied EQ the sound is surprisingly good. In fact, playing the amazing Tutt-Keltner Drum Improvisation track, the razor-sharp detail is so good and with the upper harmonics stretching out to infinity, I'll bet it would compete with the Focal Clear. Very few headphones have that clarity and resolution well above 10 khz as the NightOwl does, and I didn't apply any EQ above 8 khz.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Ok, noted .... Where did you get that Tutt-Keltner recording? Can you provide me some info, like full name of the artist(s) and the name of the album? .......... I like to get it ........... Thanks .....

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Ok, I found it ......... It is Sheffield drum and track record ....... I also, found another Sheffield drum and track record released in 2008, which I downloaded .......... Thanks .......

dalethorn's picture

While the PortaPro might seem like a real dog given its price, I borrowed one from a friend recently since I had never heard it, and I was surprised how good it was. I've gotten much worse in the $200-$300 range.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Portapros could be a good "entry level" 'phones for a budding headphonophile .............

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