Build and comfort
I’ve yet to come across a poorly or even a ‘pretty well’-built pair of headphones from Focal – they know how to engineer a pair of headphones to not only look terrific, but also ones that absolutely inspire confidence in terms of their longevity. This trend has certainly continued with both the Clear MG and the Celestee which really do set the benchmark by which other manufacturers must be judged at their respective price points. Materials and craftsmanship on each are first-rate, and their form-factor – like their fellow Focal headphones in their audiophile lineup – just works. The Clear MG and Celestee share the same single-piece aluminium yoke which is spring-connected to the earcups, and extendable via 9 sturdy ‘clicks’ of gradation on either side of the headband. This design doesn’t have a ton of lateral swivel in the earcups in terms of backwards/forwards twisting, but it’s ample for this reviewer’s head.
Clamping force on both headphones is moderately strong do their headband design and spring-mounted cups, perhaps more so on the Celestee thanks to its firmer leather pads which grip your head rather snugly. The perforated microfibre pads on the Clear MG certainly feel airier and more comfortable to the touch than those on the Celestee, but the Celestee’s sound is more seal-dependent and so is an understandable trade-off. The Celestee’s leather pads are reasonably supple and pleasant to the touch, but they can’t hold a candle to the superbly soft leather used on the more expensive Focal Radiance. Both the leather pads on the Celestee and the perforated pads on the Clear MG provide ample room for my ears in every direction and are deep enough so that they don’t touch the honeycomb driver covers.
I do tend to find that while reasonably snug and comfortably, Focal headphones tend to be on the heavier side of the ledger, and so tend to get a bit tiring after a while. The Clear MG and Celestee are no different. The Celestee tips the scales at 430g, and the Clear MG a fraction more at 450g. After extended listening periods (usually anything longer than one album) I tended to find that I’d experience a slight ‘hot spot’ right on the top of my head from the headband from both the Celestee and Clear MG. It’s by no means a deal-breaker, but it’s probably advisable to give them a good audition first to check that they’re a good fit for your noggin.
The Celestee is above average in terms of passive sound isolation, with those big leather pads and cups doing a good job of putting up a physical barrier to the outside world. The Focal logo in the centre of the disc on the outside of each side is actually ported, to allow air displaced by the drivers to be expelled from each cup, which no doubt has a slightly adverse effect on isolation. While the Celestee is very much a full-size pair of headphones, it very much able to perform double duties as a ‘portable’ pair of headphones. The Celestee’s case manages to squeeze into my work back reasonably well, and I found that it managed to do a pretty great job of banishing much of the outside din of public transport noises during my office commute. Being a rather sensitive pair of headphones thanks to a 35-ohm impedance and 105dB sensitivity, The Celestee is also very easy to pair with even the most modest of portable devices. I must quickly remark that being a completely open-backed headphone, the Clear MG won’t hide anything in terms of sound coming in, or out of those shiny new spiderweb-like grilles – it’s a completely open-air experience (but you already knew that, right?).
Clear MG – sound quality
The original Clear was perhaps one of the most aptly-named headphones on the market, being an absolute master-class in neutrality and transparency, yet at the same time delivering a dynamic and engaging performance throughout every octave. It does sit on the leaner-side of the tonal spectrum with a modest yet beautifully-textured bass performance, but its greatest attribute is hinted at in the name: a wonderfully-insightful treble with gobs of detail, and a crystalline-like shine to the upper register. Coming from just about any other headphone, listening to the original Clear sounds as though a fog has been lifted off from your music, offering an uninhibited view of every last iota of detail that went into the recording. So in other words, we have a pretty solid tonal benchmark on our hands. And does the new magnesium-equipped Clear MG continue this tradition? Yes, and surprisingly, no – I’ll explain.
Since my last review was published, we all received the sad news that Daft Punk has decided to hang-up their shiny robot helmets and call it a day, and so naturally the first record I spun with the Clear MG was their peerless 2013 album ‘Random Access Memories’ (a reviewing staple of mine, with good reason). Immediately, I recognised that the Clear MG is a noticeably warmer pair of headphones that the ‘OG’ Clear. The floor tom hits and bass guitar in ‘The Game of Love’ tell me that there’s a couple of decibel’s worth of noticeable lift in mid-bass emphasis, lending the Clear MG a little more fullness and texture in the low-end which establishing more of a solid foundation for the rest of the frequency range to sit upon.
The next thing I noticed, and probably the most significant departure from the previous model’s tuning, is a far more relaxed upper treble which removes much of that signature spicey ‘zing’, replacing it instead with a more tempered, smooth and linear approach. It’s particularly evident in the percussion parts of tracks – there’s far more energy and sizzle in the hi-hats in ‘Fragments of Time’ compared to the slightly more sober approach of the Clear MG. And therein lies the key tonal characteristic of the Clear MG: while still abundantly detailed and superbly adept in the technical performance stakes, it’s now a smooth-sounding pair of headphones. I suspect that this detail will either sound like sweet music to the ears of those who found the original Clear a little too sharp and treble-focused; and foulest heresy to those who adore it for its airy immersion and sparkly voicing.
I can say two things for certain with regards to the Clear MG: firstly, it is without question going to appeal to far more listeners in terms of its voicing. It’s a more even-handed and linear tuning, and from an objective viewpoint, it’s a more balanced headphone top-to-bottom. It’s clear (pardon the pun) that Focal intends for the Clear MG to make it onto the shopping list of more those who prefer more of a Harmon-target-esque voicing, and in that regard, I can say that they’ve succeeded spectacularly – tonally, it doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Next, I can say hand on heart that from a personal viewpoint that I genuinely prefer the tuning of the original Clear – it just sounds more special. Don’t get me wrong – they’re not miles apart in terms of their tuning, there’s a definite audible family resemblance between the two, but the original Clear simply whispers sweet nothings to my ears with its brilliant and incisive treble. I can’t help but think that Focal has gone and ‘clipped the wings’ of the original Clear, somewhat. I am most definitely a card-carrying treble-head, so you should take this with a grain of salt. I also tend to prefer a leaner, nimbler bass. While the Clear MG is most certainly not a bass-head’s pair of headphones, the way that the original Clear adroitly renders the snappy bass guitar in Destroyer’s ‘Downtown’ is more like this reviewer’s cup of tea. I will most certainly be in the minority in this regard.
To give you a comparison, the differences between the Clear and the Clear MG are much like the familiar-yet-different takes on tuning of the Sennheiser HD600 and HD650 – the latter being a warmer and more tonally rich take on ‘reference’, which in this case is the Clear MG. It probably comes as no surprise that I prefer the original HD600.
Sticking with Destroyer for a moment, the horn section plus Dan Bejar’s utterly distinctive voice in the track ‘Sun in the Sky’ does sound noticeably more lifelike and textured on the new Clear MG, whose midrange is both more linear and organic sounding than the more metallic-toned original clear.
Sensational imaging chops is one of the finest attributes of the Clear, and the Clear MG certainly continues this trend. Radiohead, teaming-up with the London Contemporary Orchestra in ‘The Numbers’ is an immersive spatial treat with the Clear MG. While the staging of the Clear MG isn’t abundantly huge (like its predecessor), it does seat you in a cosy, personal auditorium providing you with a vivid picture of the different vocalists and instrumentalists scattered around the space in front and around from you. One thing I must point out with the Clear MG is that it sounds much more like a ‘headphone’-listening experience compared to the original Clear. This might sound a little strange, but let me explain. Because of the airy character of the original Clears, they’re so transparent that you often forget that you’re wearing headphones (apart from the weight of them, of course). The Clear MG creates a slightly more intimate, inward feeling that is more ‘in-head’ – the actual staging width and depth isn’t any wider or shallower, but the more relaxed treble makes for a more ‘lean-back’ presentation that makes you more mindful that you have two tiny speaker drivers sitting right next to your ears – it’s an overall less 3D experience.
Clear MG vs HEDDPHONE
The imposing $1,899 USD HEDDPHONE by HEDD (reviewed here by Lieven) is a shockingly detailed technical masterpiece that really is near-peerless in terms of detail-retrieval and speed, pipping the magnesium drivers of the Clear MG in both regards, despite it being no slouch in either field. Perceived bass is higher in the Focal due to its mild mid-bass rise, but the HEDDPHONE digs deeper and hits faster, despite feeling like an entirely more neutral pair of headphones across the board. Pumping a bit of classic rock in Slash’s ‘Ghost’ through both headphones award the energy and speed prize to the HEDDPHONE, but the Clear MG is simply a far more natural-sounding experience, rendering the HEDDPHONE somewhat unnatural and tinny by contrast. The HEDDPHONE has a much wider sense of staging, but the Clear MG trounces it for depth and spatial imaging cues. It probably doesn’t need to be said, but the HEDDPHONE does look somewhat ridiculous when sitting on a stand, and downright comical when worn. The Clear smokes it for comfort, with the HEDDPHONE’s 718g weight being its Achille’s heel.
Head over to page 3 to hear more about the Celestee’s sound quality.