Celestee – sound quality
The recently-retired Elegia garnered a reputation as a properly-sorted closed-back audiophile headphone with a mid-forward, mildly neutral tuning with great imaging and dynamics. It’s perennial criticism was that it is a fraction bass-light, and that it suffers from a slightly congested staging. While on paper the Celestee has a similar-sounding driver arrangement in terms of its 40mm diameter and its aluminium/magnesium construction, out of the box it’s most definitely a differently-tuned headphone, despite (disclaimer) me not having heard the Elegia for a few months now. At a first listen, the Celestee reveals itself to have a lively, dynamic tuning matched with great detail retrieval and is pleasingly well-extended at either end of the frequency response graph. Tonally, the Celestee is more on the leaner side of the equation but has a nice tickling of warmth as opposed to being out-and-out ‘lush’.
Dealing with the bass question right off the bat, The Roots’ ‘Mellow my Man’ thumps with a pleasing amount of dynamic kick. The Celestee’s bass extends nice and low into the sub-bass district and has a slight mid-bass rise that adds a degree of warmth to the Celestee’s voicing without interfering with mid-range whatsoever. While the Elegia always felt a little lean to me when it came to playing with certain genres like EDM and hip-hop, the Celestee is able to wrangle both without breaking a sweat thanks to its extra bass energy that never feels bloated nor sluggish.
The Celestee has a slightly less ‘in your face’ mid-range compared to my memories of the Elegia, managing to create some great ‘rock-out’ energy and excitement in the electric guitar tracks in Tinariwen’s ‘Sasstanaqqam’, whilst creating an entirely believable male vocal performance in terms of texture and tone. Female vocals are equally-well performed by the Celestee – Snail Mail’s ‘Pristine’ is crystalline in quality, with rather natural decay.
The Celestee hits the ‘Goldilocks’-zone in the treble department in terms of balancing great detail and insight, whilst never venturing into harshness nor sibilance territory. It’s able to resolve the nuances of Pearl Jam’s live performance of ‘Even Flow’, but I would have liked it to dig a little deeper into the mix when it comes to the realism and texture of acoustic guitar and cymbal parts.
Focal’s ‘Home’ line-up of headphones have never been soundstage monsters, and the Celestee isn’t an outlier in this regard. It’s not able to overcome physics in terms of overcoming the physical confines of a closed-back design, and as such it presents a distinctly ‘in-head’ experience that is somewhat congested – even by closed-back standards. It’s able to give a sense of where the different orchestral parts are coming from in Howard Shore’s ‘The Three Hunters’ from The Two Towers soundtrack, but the Celestee never gives you a sense of vastness. The Celestee is certainly dynamic in terms of its sense of ‘drama’ and punch, but its narrowly sandwiched soundstage tends to somewhat dampen the party.
Vs Focal Radiance
Many of you might be asking if the Celestee is simply a Focal Radiance minus the Bentley badging, automotive leather, and black aesthetics. Can you pick up the Radiance’s performance in a navy-blue tone for $300 less? Well, no. They’re very much different-sounding headphones, and this is evident in their respective bass response. The Radiance is clearly a warmer and more bass-rich sounding headphone, with Guns N’ Roses ‘Better’ revealing the Radiance to have a good few dB of bass shelf below 150Hz compared to the more even-sounding Celestee.
The Radiance also has a whisker more treble energy, making for a slightly more ‘exciting’ and shamelessly ‘fun’ overall sound, whereas the Celestee has a more ‘audiophile, by no means unengaging sound. If they were the same price, I’d pick Radiance every day of the week. Whether you think they’re worth the additional three Benjamins will come down to your sonic preference, and if you like the idea of getting your hands on a slightly more rare offering (and if you can live with the slightly more ostentatious Bentley badging).
Vs Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 Noir
The $899 Aeon 2 Noire is likely to be the Celestee’s primary foe in the fight for wallets and ears in the sub-$1K closed-back headphone, and they certainly make for an interesting, and a rather close tussle. They go about making ‘noise’ in completely different ways, with Dan Clark Audio opting for the speed and technicalities of planar magnetic drivers, while Focal has never strayed from the tonal benefits and speaker-like properties that dynamic drivers offer. On the head, the Aeon 2 Noire is far and away a more comfortable pair of headphones, offering nearly zero perceived weight on the top of your head, and it also perches there a fraction more securely, dispersing its weight a little more evenly. Sonically, the Celestee trumps the Aeon 2 Noire for warmth, slam and dynamics. ‘Epic’ by Faith No More sounds a little more, um, ‘epic’. It’s certainly a more engaging listen in terms of visceral impact, but more extended listening starts to show some of the brilliance of the Aeon 2 Noire in the technical department. The Aeon’s bass is punchier and quicker, and it offers the treble insight, air and energy that I would dearly love to extract out of the Celestee.
So which one is the ‘better’ headphone? It’s a tough question, and it’ll come down to what you value from music listening. If you prefer a more linear top-to-bottom tuning with great speed and technical abilities, you’ll probably lean towards the Aeon. If you’re looking for a more ‘fun’, dynamic experience with a bit more warmth and punch, the Celestee is likely going to be your candidate.
Amping and power requirements
Focal is rather refreshing in the high-end headphone realm in that they have never produced cans that need to be strapped to the back of a speaker amp to extract proper performance out of them. Rather, their high-end headphones are quite sensitive and are able to be paired with modestly powered sources to great effect. Naturally, your experience will scale depending on the quality of your source, and the quality of the recording that you’re listening to.
At 55 ohms impedance and 104dB sensitivity, the Clear MG is a rather easy headphone to drive, and the Celestee at 35-ohms impedance and 105dB sensitivity is even more so. I tested both with a range of solid-state amplifiers, including the new Playmate 2 from Burson (key an eye out for the review coming soon to Headfonia), which easily powered both Focals happily in low-gain mode. The Clear MG and Celestee yielded expectedly excellent performance from the extremely neutral and powerful Topping A90 which did lean a little on the drier and analytical side, but my favourite source for each is the class-A ‘Current Mode’ CMA600i from Questyle which added a hint of warmth and richness.
For science, I tried pairing the Clear MG with my Bottlehead Crack which has an output impedance just South of 100 ohms with its Tung Sol 5998 power tube, which made dramatic impacts on bass quantity. While it did make for a much more pronounced low end on the Clear MG, it wasn’t necessarily for the best, being rather tubby and slow. My transformer-coupled tube amp – the Hagerman Tuba – isn’t in the house at the moment, but I’ll be sure to add some notes later down the track once I’ve had the chance to pair the Clear MG and Celestee with it.
Being sensitive headphones there isn’t much audible benefit in ‘going balanced’ with either the Clear MG or Celestee. The only discernible difference I could hear in either headphone is loudness from the extra voltage that the balanced circuits in the A90 and CMA600i put out. The XLR cable supplied with the Clear MG is provided mainly for convenience and compatibility with a range of sources, but I found that I used it solely due to its extra length and usability.
Both headphones are a great pairing with high-quality portable sources, and I did spend a good period of time using the Celestee in a solely portable set-up. I thoroughly enjoyed partnering the Celestee with the excellent SE200 digital audio player from Astell&Kern which managed to perform extremely well in single-ended mode via the Celestee’s 1.2m 3.5mm cable, eking-out excellent dynamics and instrument separation.
Focal ought to have two more ‘hits’ on their hands on their hands in the Celestee and Clear MG. The Celestee bests the outgoing Elegia in just about every regard, and enjoys some much-appreciated trickle-down sonic and visual cues from the Stellia and Radiance, all wrapped up in a far more subdued, palatable packaging. It makes a strong contender as one of the go-to recommendations for the best closed-back headphones under a grand, sneaking-in by a mere ten bucks.
While I might have some personal reservations about the sonic direction that Focal has taken the Clear MG in as a huge fan of the voicing of the original model, they have gone and made one of the most instantly easy-to-love high-end open-backed headphones with their all-new model. Tonally, the Clear MG serves up lashings of detail with a hugely balanced signature while adding a degree of richness, texture and dynamics that will no doubt convert listeners away from more analytic offerings like the Sennheiser HD800s. Oh, and I reckon it looks sensational, to boot.