Focal Radiance Review

Listening

Keeping things French-themed, we’re going to go with Daft Punk’s excellent 2013 album ‘Random Access Memories’ for today’s listening tests. Not only is the music awesome and varied across each track, but it’s also brilliantly recorded and mastered. It’s a classic, and it can really reveal a headphone’s capabilities. 

From the first couple of bars of ‘Give Life Back to Music’ it’s clear that we have a wonderfully-tuned set of cans on our hands in the Radiance. Its voicing is warm, coherent, and absolutely pleasant in every regard. The Radiance sounds pretty closely matched to the Harman target – the average consumer’s benchmark in terms of approachable tuning – with a slight elevation in sub-bass and mid-bass that contributes to the Radiance’s sense of warmth, plus a gently relaxed treble. 

Moving onto track #2, ‘The Game of Love’, we get a real sense of the bass performance of the Radiance. Kick-drums hit with authority and impact in a speaker-like kind of way – it feels like those 50mm aluminum drivers are really moving a lot of air, and reminds you of being in the front few rows of an intimate rock gig. The bass guitar part is quick and articulate with a nice sense of texture. It’s been a while since I listened to the Focal Elegia, but despite having drivers of the same diameter and aluminium construction, the Radiance is tuned far differently to it. I found the Elegia lacking in low-end, but bass-heads certainly won’t be disappointed with the Radiance. It kicks in a controlled, refined, yet impactful way.  

The Radiance’s mid-range is just about spot-on in terms of both linearity and instrument/vocal presentation. ‘Instant Crush’ shows-off the Radiance’s ability to present a lifelike and present vocal performance from Julian Casanblancas without a hint of mid-bass interference, and the tonality of the string-section from 5:17 onwards in ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ has a wonderful organic, believable texture. 

Hands-down the greatest characteristic of the Radiance is its dynamic ability. Like many of Focal’s high-end cans, it creates a speaker-like sense of impact in a way that is not only heard but felt. I believe that a headphone’s ability to make drums sound lifelike is a telling sign of their technical abilities, and the Radiance gets absolute full-marks in this sense. The drum parts in the outro of ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ from 5:50 onwards is a visceral treat with the Radiance. 

Adding the speaker-like characteristics of the Radiance is their wonderful sense of imaging. I mentioned earlier that they are superb for gaming due to their ability to pin-point individual sounds in a 3D ‘environment’, but for a realistic music experience, they take it to the next level. The Radiance cannot defy physics and has a fairly intimate soundstage (about on par with the Stellia, and perhaps the Sennheiser HD650, for reference), but they do something magical within that intimate space. The initial percussion ‘shimmer’ of and left/right-panned back-up vocals of ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ are incredibly immersive. 

I mentioned that the Radiance has a somewhat relaxed treble, but I need to be clear that this should not be misread that I think that the Radiance is a dark, or non-detailed headphone. It is neither. Rather, there is simply a complete absence of harshness and strident-ness. Every iota of guitar, hi-hat, and synth detail is evident in ‘Get Lucky’, and the Radiance manages to resolve this detail speedily and adroitly while managing to eke-out a quick and thumping bass. It’s a 10/10 ‘fun’ pair of headphones that never once feels like it’s venturing into fatigue-territory. 

Radiance vs Stellia

After spending a good couple of weeks listening solely to the Radiance, I thought that they sounded pretty close to the tuning and performance of the Stellia and really ought to give them a solid run for their money. However, playing them back-to-back on a volume-matched rig, again I’m blown away by the sheer technical abilities of the Focal closed-back flagship. While the Radiance sounds rich and detailed, the Stellia takes the same track and is simply able to extract more out of it in every way. The Stellia reaches deeper in bass, hits even harder in terms of dynamics, and somehow manages to take each individual treble track, pull them apart, and create an individual pocket of ‘air’ around them. While the Radiance is certainly no slouch, it just sounds far less layered and brilliant than the Stellia, whose Beryllium drivers are detail and dynamic monsters. 

Radiance vs Audio Technica ATH-WP900

I enthusiastically reviewed the high-end portable closed backs from Audio Technica late last year, and I greatly looked forward to pitting these cans head-to-head. And they couldn’t be more different. The lightweight Audio Technica simply disappears on your head compared to the more substantive Focal, but it doesn’t have the same sense of envelopment as the Radiance. Sonically, they’re chalk and cheese as well. ‘Beyond’ show the WP900 to have near comical levels of elevated sub-bass versus the restrained, yet still impressive capabilities of the Radiance. The scooped mid-range of the WP900 does make instrumentalists and vocalists take three steps backward compared to the Radiance, but then again, it’s intentionally a V-shaped headphone. The Audio Technica has a slightly brighter, more metallic tone compared to the Focal, with a bit more brightness and ‘tizz’ in the treble.  

Amping and powering

At only 35 ohms and 101/dB sensitivity, the Radiance is a breeze to power and will happily work with mobile devices and discrete headphone amplifiers alike. My Samsung Galaxy S9+ gets the Radiance quite loud at 70% on the volume dial, and actually sounds respectable, but pairing the Radiance with a mere smartphone comes at the cost of dynamics, tonal mass, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to do that with your shiny new ‘Bentley’-emblazoned headphones now, would you? 

Moving over the SE200 from Astell&Kern rewards you with a far greater sense of immersion in ‘Fragments of Time’, and a more sure-footed, impactful bass-line. This pairing makes for an incredibly silky listen, and one I’d be more than happy to take on the road, or on the plane with me. 

Despite loving the performance of the Radiance with a dedicated DAP, there’s simply no substitute for a discrete headphone amplifier, and the Radiance will reward in turn with incremental performance when paired with one. It’s not an overly ‘picky’ headphone in terms of amp pairings, and the Radiance certainly enjoyed the oodles of clean, dynamic power on-tap from the page 3. I found that the Radiance really doesn’t benefit much sonically from the use of balance cables, and ought to be fine with most well-implemented single-ended amplifiers. My favourite pairing with the Radiance was the $199 Schiit Asgard 3, whose 5 watts of single-ended Class A/B power turned-out to be quite the sonic match for the Focal. The slight hint of warmth and dynamic capabilities of the Asgard 3 suits the Radiance’s rich characteristics and makes for an entirely musical and enjoyable pairing. Highly recommended. 

Final Thoughts

I was concerned that we may have had a one-off ‘gimmick’ on our hands in the Focal-meets-Bentley Radiance, but I am happy to report that underneath the shiny logos this pair of headphones is the Real Deal. The Radiance is exquisitely packaged and tuned masterfully with a dynamic and engaging rich voicing. Focal has managed to create what I honestly believe is the price-to-performance champion in the high-end closed-back headphone category. While the Stellia remains on top of its perch in the performance stakes, for a fraction of the cost, the Radiance is actually a better-packaged product and gets you most of the way there sonically. The Radiance really does ‘shine’ and as a result gets our strong recommendation for anyone looking for a closed-back headphone with a little bit of luxury ‘flair’. You might not be able to afford a Bentley, but you can get yourself a fraction of the experience for $1,290. 

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Matty's a musician, music-fan, and 'gear-phile' from Sydney, Australia. Outside of his day-job in creative advertising, Matty enjoys live music, lawn bowls, craft beer, and spending far too much money collecting vinyl.

    3 Comments

    • Reply January 5, 2021

      Mike I

      What a pity Focal is overcharging their newest top-headphones again (Radiance after Stellia) with french “bling-bling”. With the exception of “nouveau riches”, who cares about Bentley and wants to pay more for it ?

      • Reply January 6, 2021

        Clément Nerma

        Focal has always been a kind of luxury brand and they built their image on it, so it’s only logical they charge of money for this. They won’t make a lot of money by selling it for sure, but the brand image is important (just look at Sennheiser’s New Orpheus at € 60.000 in Europe or at the Shangri-La for instance).

    • Reply January 13, 2021

      Arivale

      Comparison to Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd gen)? Similar price and use case–which is best for what kind of listener?

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