France-based Focal is best known for pro and consumer audio speakers, but the company has, in recent years, moved into all aspects of the headphone market. Up for discussion here are the new Clear Professional open-back, full-sized headphones aimed at mastering and recording engineers. Focal's marketing materials say the design goal was "to make the headphones disappear"; in other words, to simulate the listening effect of high-quality monitor speakers in a perfect acoustic environment. They also claim the Clear Professionals "are so comfortable that you forget you are wearing them and the listening experience feels like studio monitors." Those claims, combined with the relatively high price, set a very high bar for these good-looking and solidly-constructed headphones. Check out the Focal website for the complete marketing spiel and design details.
I had the Clear Professionals in for review at the same time as RME's ADI-2 DAC [this issue], so they spent a lot of time hooked up to it. But I also used them with my Little Labs Monotor [Tape Op #117] headphone amp in the studio, and on various other devices. I set up a 24-hour playlist and let them break in before I did any serious listening – the sound quality did not change over the month I spent with them. Their 55 ohm impedance makes them easy to drive, and I confirmed that they can achieve very usable SPLs from an iPhone 7's headphone jack. Given the size of the drivers and Focal's emphasis on extended (but not boomy) bass, this is pretty remarkable. Many full-size, full-range headphones fall apart when driven by a wimpy amp in a cell phone. The idea of true high-fidelity listening out of a smartphone is pretty darn appealing!
The Clear Professionals have a sound quality pretty much as described by Focal – they are like good modern studio monitor speakers with a neutral and extended tonal balance. They are not on the "warmer/softer" side of things like, for instance, Sennheiser HD 650 [Tape Op #43] and not as "in your face" as Audio-Technica ATH-M50 [#63, #113]. They are only slightly less efficient than the ATH-M50, and the bass response is dialed in and tight, somewhat deeper and yet less boomy than the ATH-M50. They tell the truth, for better or worse, and while far from diffuse or "soft," they aren't harsh. I listened to all types of music, for hours, at moderate volume levels, and did not suffer any ear burnout.
I used the Focal headphones to do some cleanup and processing on a small transfer job, and was pleased to hear that the end result sounded great on both near-field studio monitors and on full-sized room speakers. I was particularly pleased that the work I did on the low end translated perfectly; for me that has been a problem with other headphones.
I also plugged the Clear Professionals into some older Tascam cassette decks and Technics reel-to-reels to hear how high-quality modern headphones do with the old fuzzy, ‘80s and ‘90s, built-in headphone amps. They were very honest about how bad these things sounded! But, they were able to pull out any and all sounds coming off the tapes that made it through the old headphone jacks.
Focal's claims about comfortable fit and a design that doesn't fatigue the head and spine over many hours of use are mostly true. My main complaint about these headphones is that they're somewhat heavy, due to the industrial-strength construction and the large drivers. Weight-wise, they are on par with the old Koss brown "cans" from the ‘70s. The typical headphone-centric production environment today involves sitting, staring at a screen, using a keyboard and mouse or touchpad, which is already tiring to the back and neck. Put a moderately heavy thing on the head and it's noticeable. But, in Focal's defense, they made big headphones as comfortable as possible. The padding is lush, and the fabric and foam seem to have some sort of venting or heat and sweat-reducing properties. The fabric on top of the head doesn't create hair-raising static charge like on some headphones. Included in the deluxe packaging are a coiled and a straight cable. Both are quite stiff, so beware of them sweeping and scattering loose small items around your work area. The package also comes with extra ear cups and a sturdy zip up carrying case. The somewhat flashy overall presentation told me that Focal aims these at both audio pros and audiophiles.
Summarizing, the Focal Clear Professionals sound like good monitor speakers on the ears, and may be the most extended-range and yet neutral-sounding headphones I've ever tried. But, they are somewhat heavy and bulky, and they cost a lot of money. You get what you pay for as far as sound and build quality, it's a matter of whether you need that much headphone and if you can tolerate the somewhat heavy weight on your head.