Headphones, headphones, headphones – I’ve got ‘em hanging from the walls, equipment racks, and underneath desks. I’ve tried in-ears, planars, open-backs, and closed-backs… you name it, but I’m a loudspeaker dude through and through. I can remember not too long ago when mixing in the box was taboo and frowned upon. Now we’re talking about mixing with headphones. Go ahead. Throw your hands up in the air and threaten to quit. Like it or not, this is happening with or without your permission. Enter Focal’s new Clear Mg Professional open-back headphones to try to win you over. They employ large, full-range 40 mm speaker drivers that feature an M-shaped dome design. But before I gush on about some Focal mission statement, or wax poetic about how the Clear Mg Professionals have changed my thinking on headphones forever, let’s cover the basics.
As soon as you open the box, you’ll know this is a serious commitment. When wearing the Clear Mg Professionals for the first time, you can feel its professional-grade aura surround you – tactile decisions are ready to be implemented. These racy black headphones with maroon inner headband and ear pads seem inspired – both in look and build – by a post-futuristic anime humanoid-bug robot fighter (minus an antennae array). Included is a handsome, custom-fitted zippered carrying case, a four-foot-long straight cable with a 1/8-inch connector, a coiled cable with a 1/4-inch connector, a 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch jack adapter, and a spare pair of .75-inch thick memory foam vented suede ear pads.
Manufacturers have always experimented with innovative use of materials in driver production to improve quality of sound reproduction. Focal (not exclusively, but perhaps uncommonly) makes drivers/speakers in-house for all their products, which likely affords them the freedom to push boundaries with new techniques and materials instead of waiting for someone else to do it for them. Their original Clear Professionals [Tape Op #125] feature aluminum-magnesium drivers, while the Clear Mg Professionals employ an all-magnesium driver with frameless copper voice coil, resulting in improved detail, dynamics, and bass articulation with a claimed frequency response of 5 Hz to 28 kHz.
I have a hard time A/B’ing headsets – once I get used to something attached to my head, I can’t instantly get comfortable in a different atmosphere. I’m supposing we all normalize and adapt more efficiently in a somewhat constant and familiar space than to something that’s physically more-or-less attached to our ears – I know I do! That said, perhaps due to their outer honeycomb ear cup exoskeleton, the Clear Mg Professional’s design seems to allow the drivers to breathe in a more genuine way than any headphone I’ve ever used, resulting in a truly expansive open-back experience – it’s all out there! Additionally, the drivers are angled from the front towards the ears, which provides for an even more realistic “facing the monitors” feel.
There won’t be a Pepsi challenge or drag race against other headphone models here – we leave that to the online forums. Besides, with several popular makes and models at my disposal, I own none that can compete with the quality of components, forward-thinking design, or (let’s face the cold, hard truth) price point of the Clear Mg Professionals. Instead, my self-imposed testing challenge for this review was to simply mix a song using only these headphones, and then deliver said mix unapologetically to my client. Here’s what I found: The midrange on the Focals are killer in a super-accurate way. They can reveal the harsh reality of a cheap ride cymbal’s bell (or limitations of a microphone), the clumping of competing instrument’s frequencies around 200 Hz, or the difference in timbre between closely tuned rack toms that create annoying humming overtones. Highs are not characteristically vibey, but rather exactly what they should be: angular with a Shure SM57 on a Fender Super Reverb played with a bright Telecaster, grainy with a strong soprano vocal slightly overloading a vintage ribbon mic, and soaring on an orchestral violin passage. You’ll immediately be informed if you’ve over EQ’d the snare. Bass response is tight, and low midrange articularion is hands-down my favorite attribute of the Clear Mg Professional’s design – I can carve out just the right amount of acoustic guitar woofiness without destroying its woody vibe. I respect that Focal has not pushed a driver concept that attempts to exaggerate the low end in a “head-phony” way. Arguably, the most difficult thing to nail in a mix is the low end. With the Clear Mg Professionals, Focal has implemented bass reproduction exceptionally well. Representation of the soundstage and imaging can also be problematic with headphones, but I’m not hearing an overly inflated sense of space with the Focals. Translation is fluid – panning can be rendered with precision, and setting up lush effect sends are a snap! Dynamics are stunning yet sober; readily exposing abusive compression. While listening to familiar commercial releases or recently mixed tracks, I’m catching some detail (drummer crossing sticks bleeding through the overheads for example) that got past my loudspeakers. With a good headphone amp set to near ear-punishing levels (don’t do that to yourself please), the Clear Mg Professionals never seemed to muff out – nor could I perceive any noticeable distortion at healthy, but loud levels. Overall, I was able to work quickly, decisively, and confidently with the Focals strapped to my head, and in the end, the client was happy with the mix – only asking for those typical half dB tweaky adjustments that are commonplace with the revision process. When switching back to loudspeakers, I found no need to make any sweeping changes myself.
With a 55 ohm impedance rating, a smartphone or laptop can easily feed these headphones, but consider that an open-back design is not ideal for isolated listening (or editing on the train for example). Note: Differences in bass response are perceptible if the Focals aren’t adjusted properly, or if your eyeglasses are pushing the ear cups too far away from your ears. To be fair, this can be true for many headphones. Like most good professional tools, these are a sizeable investment. The Clear Mg Professionals are undoubtedly comfortable to wear, but some will need to get used to the weight (nearly twice that of a standard headphone), however, fatigue was never an issue for me. Out of the box, the Focals will flat out just not sound right. You will be concerned at first, but don’t dismay, you must break these headphones in as you would a typical loudspeaker – I noticed a significant change in dynamics and midrange response after a ten-hour/overnight break-in period, and their true character continued to bloom over my third full day of use. My only small quibble with the Clear Mg Professionals is that the headband padding seems permanently affixed and doesn’t appear to be replaceable.
As you read this, an engineer is mixing with headphones somewhere right now. You may agree or disagree with that process. For my use, I can see the advantage in toting the Clear Mg Professionals to studio sessions for referencing in a room I’m not familiar with, and they are definitely clocking some hours while I continue to mix at home (which won’t be changing anytime soon). The high-end professional headphone field isn’t yet overly crowded, but expect more makes and models to continuously emerge in the marketplace. Much in the same way loudspeakers are subjective to the listener, headphones too are a highly personal choice. Even though I’ve found my desert island ‘phones, I’m still not ready to scrap my loudspeakers or fundamentally change the way I mix, but I am committed to constantly improving results by integrating useful tools into the process. While many headphones are still intended to lead us into a hyped, isolated journey of aural escapism not ideal for real audio work, the Clear Mg Professional’s evenness in sound reproduction immediately drops me headfirst into the meat of the mix. Honest in character, yet not at all boring – the excitement is in its truth, which is exactly what I need from monitoring.