Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Focal Elear

In 2016 with the launch of the Utopia and Elear, Focal officially entered into the Hi-Fidelity sector. Having missed out on hearing the Spirit One which was a stable among the Mid-Range closed back headphone options, I was very eager to get a chance hear the Elear for myself.



The packing is... enormous. Infact it was so large I was unable to take a proper picture of it in my tiny little Photo Box. The grandeur that accompanies un-boxing the Elear is befitting of it's sound! 


It sit's quite tall, and upon opening it has a fabric strap to keep the lid upright.                                                                                   The entire interior is padded in foam offering excellent protection during shipment and un-boxing.  The strap ensures that you don't accidentally let the lid fall onto the headphones themselves. The Focal team clearly made every effort to protect the Elear during shipping. Striving to minimize any damage once the headphones have departed France to their new owners! 







The headphone itself while built ruggedly, is a bit creaky. The metal gimbals connect to the headband with what appears to be a plastic mechanism. Overall the whole design is very stiff, inflexible and a little noisy. I do, frankly, expect more from a headphone at this price point. 




Unlike the headband assembly, the ear pads are soft and firm. They were very comfortable and I had no fatigue when wearing them for long periods of time. Each of the pads has precise even seams and no inconsistency with size. 




While comfortable, the headband does feel a bit cheap. It is composed of plastic and covered in some sort of faux-leather like fabric. From a design standpoint, the headband is comfortable, evenly distributing the weight of the drivers. Though it feels very brittle in the hands. 



Attractive and functional, while I would prefer a more premium material, the adjustment mechanism is very smooth. It has a solid click and holds the drivers in place. This piece, while plastic, does not feel as brittle as the headband it's attached to. 


While not the most ideal place to put Left & Right indications, the 3.5mm input jacks are very solid. Being the most important part of the build, these do impress. The  massive OEM cable fits in nicely, and the jacks themselves are very solid and have no wiggle to them even while supporting the weight of such a massive cable. You're also able to use your own 3.5mm terminated cables as well, Focal has done an excellent job ensuring such a crucial part of the assembly is well made. 

Specs Frequency Response


Measurements From Superbestaudiofriends.org
  • 40mm Transducer 
  •  15Hz-25kHz Frequency Response
  • Sensitivity: 103dB @ 1KHz, 1mW
  • 26 Ohm Impedance 
  • Rated Power Input: 30mW
  • Maximum Power InputL 50mW
  • Detacbale Kevlar OFC Cable
  • Gold Plated 3.5mm jacks
  • Weight: 260 Grams without Cable

The overall sound signature of the Focal Elear is both very neutral and laid back. An while it has excellent resolve with a smooth relaxed sound, it won't hide audible compression in low-res files. The Elear is an absolute joy to experience, it brings excellent dynamics and beautifully voiced transients to your music, it even introduced me to a few new details in my favorite songs. 

Starting from the bottom, there is an audible mid bass hump present. While it compliments some genres, it takes away from others. When listening to classical music, the Elear would often present timpani drums with excessive boom. Such over emphasis in those large drums often made busier passages featuring them a bit crowded. The hump does add good heft and weight to percussion and acoustic instruments, and thankfully, the Elear is quick enough that its over emphasized bass does not bleed heavily into the mid range. I prefer a more linear response at this price point, but a touch of fun pairs nicely with the Elear's smooth resolve and low distortion.

The mid range is both smooth and very dynamic, with a wonderful timbre and a very relaxed sense of presence. Regardless of my source, I found myself drawn into the music. It's been said, "the soul of the music is found in the mids." While I personally prefer the drier more tactile sound of my Hifiman HE 4, I can't deny how comforting and relaxing it was to just listen to the Elear. Having a headphone with both a laid back and very well resolve mid range was a first for me. However, there was a noticeable lack of presence for many instruments.  While I do prefer the mid range of the Elear over my HE 4 on almost every genre during my first few days, I found the Elear too laid back and weak sounding for metal and other high energy genres. An after living with the beautiful softer sound on the Elear for about a week, I started to miss some the excitement and tactility I get in the mid range of my HE 4.

High end extension was quite good, and the smooth beauty of the Elear continues upwards from the mid range. I found many of the metallic percussion instruments to have a refreshing sweetness to them, such as bells, chimes, tambourines and the like. Again though, that sweetness comes at the cost of aggression. High hats, tom-tom and snare drums lack a bit of edge and snappiness to them. The slower, more fleshed out mid range really detracts from percussion in high energy tracks. But for Jazz that touch of sweetness really pairs nicely with airy ethereal percussion tracks. 

While it lacked air and depth compared to my HE 4, the Elear was phenomenally black. While the sound stage was more intimate and crowded than I like at times, it's super low distortion and overall black background allowed a lot of detail to shine through. A faster headphone isn't always better in every situation. On my system, the slower but blacker Elear introduced me to details on quite a few of my test tracks that I hadn't noticed before!   

Overall, after a having it for little over a week, the Elear proves to be one of the most resolving relaxed sounding headphone I've had a chance to listen to! While it's not my personal preference, and I think there are better sounding options,  what I do REALLY like about the Elear, is unlike the ZMF Atticus a similar sounding closed back or my HE 4 the polar opposite open back, the Elear sounds... quite similar out of both my NFb10ES2-> Project Ember, as it does straight out of my LG v20. Yes, there's better resolve and definition within the sound stage out of my home rig, but it was impressive right out of the phone as well. 

I think for the people who just want a headphone, paired with a very basic dac/amp the Elear is appealing, it's a very solid entry point into Hi-Fi, especially if you don't want to have to work to build the "perfect" synergy. The Elear gives an engaging but well resolved sound that rewards upgrades, without punishing the owner for using entry level source or amplification. 















Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Meze 99 Neo


After an enjoyable week with the 99 Classics, I’m very excited to get to revisit the exceptionally balanced and versatile house sound of Meze!  Made of more modest materials, the 99 Neo offers a fun twist on the great sound of the Classics without the luxurious wood cups. An frankly, really like the black and chrome aesthetics of the 99 Neo over the wood and gold of the classics. It has a slick contemporary vibe about it.

As always, while I am in no way affiliated with nor being financially reimbursed for my thoughts of the Meze 99 Neo, you can pre-order them right from their web site here!


The 99 Neo arrives in clean professional packaging. It's box is easy to open and features a magnetic flap to keep it closed. With a soft felt lining to keep the headphones cushioned.


Even cooler is the semi-hard shell that Meze includes with the 99 Neo. The semi-hard shell is the perfect size for the 99 Neos, and zips up easy. I had no issues tossing gently into the passenger seat of my car. It's the perfect balance of both form and function.



It even includes a little mesh cable for the detachable cables.


with even more soft felt to protect the headphones inside their shell. I really do like those little consistent details, and around this price point I like to see a few extra accessories come with a well built headphone. 

Speaking of build, the quality is top notch on the Meze 99 Neo. The pleather headband is simply comfortable and I had no problems with getting a good fit, nor any discomfort. 



The ePads are equally comfortable and the fit is simple, I will mention though some have noticed a drastic change in sound based on how well they seal. It has been reported that with a proper seal, these are very bass heavy... how ever with a "broken seal" they have a much more even sound. For better or worse, I apparently never got a true seal. I experienced a more balanced bass response throughout my listening. Maybe, there is some secret ritualistic fitting motion with my hands I'm forgetting to do or I just have a goofy shaped head. Either way in my week I never felt they weren't sealed properly. They sat evenly on my head, without excessive pressure or heat.



The gimbals are strong and sturdy. At no point during my listen did they ever creak, squeak or make any kind of audible noise. The headphone as a whole is well assembled, and feels sturdy in the hands. Best of all, just like the 99 Classics, ever part of the 99 Neo is serviceable and replaceable! Peace of mind and reliability like that is priceless in our modern age of disposable technology.



An best of all, that textured glow on that black ABS Plastic only compliments the shine of the zinc alloy hardware.

But packing, design  nor build are what's most important, the real question is how do they sound? 




Specs Frequency Response

  • 40mm Transducer
  • 15Hz-25kHz Frequency Response
  • Sensitivity: 103dB @ 1KHz, 1mW
  • 26 Ohm Impedance
  • Rated Power Input: 30mW
  • Maximum Power InputL 50mW
  • Detacbale Kevlar OFC Cable
  • Gold Plated 3.5mm jacks
  • Weight: 260 Grams without Cable


I found the overall sound of the Meze 99 Neo to be a warm neutral. With wet mids , a pleasant bloom in the bass and well extended sparkly highs.

Speaking of bass, I found it to be quite warm. Good extension and no humps, though there's a touch of audible distortion depending on what your listening with. For me, out of my Project Ember II, I didn't hear much of that distortion. Switching to my Pico Power it was a little more obvious. Still, my nitpicking will not be as obvious to those of you who will be living with these, enjoying your music! An music, is what the Meze 99 Neo Compliments. The bloom in the bass response adds a pleasant fullness with Jazz, Rock & Roll and Hip Hop. It didn't do as well with big percussion like Timpani drums, or Electric Bass solos. The bigger drums tended to sound a little bloated, and with a electric guitar solo there was a touch too much audible distortion and reverb. Again, I doubt most of you are going to be listening to a 3 minute Neo Classical Electric Bass Solo.

The transition from bass to mids is smooth, there is some bleeding but again it's not intrusive. Having a slight forward focus on the low mids, I found both male and female vocals to flesh out nicely. Guitars, both accoustic and electric, had a good edge and bloom to them. With a touch of wetness and a relaxed decay.

I enjoyed the top end the most on the 99 Neo, plenty of detail sparkle and air! With neither harshness or sibilance the 99 Neo has excellent top end extension. It pulled a lot of familiar details from all of my favorite tracks, such as the distinct and very quiet gong at the opening of So What to each and every breath taken in Igor Levit's Goldberg Variations, Track #1 BWV 988 - Aria with 30 Variations. 




However the Meze 99 Neo's strong point isn't micro detail or an amazing sound stage, but rather it's relaxed and versatile sound. It pairs easily with many different sources and with both local lossless playback or lossy streaming! It's not at all picky about what you hook it up to, but it scales nicely with better gear. Noticeable improvements are within the sound stage as you scale up, with both my at home and portable set ups it resolved left and right channel imbalances without to much difficulty and presented a modest sound stage overall with good air in-between the instruments. While nothing about the sound stage and micro detail were breathtaking, nothing was obviously flawed or claustrophobic. Good sound was consistent, regardless of source.

What the Meze team have done, is bring a versatile, comfortable and durable headphone to a crowded market. One with a modern contemporary styling and a sound signature that really lets you relax into your music. An that's what I like about it, very much a simple to own, simple to use enjoyable headphone!


Finally, if you'd like to read more check out the HD 25-1 ii vs Meze 99 Neo comparison here on Head -Fi