Focal Stellia review

Focal Stellia

Sound Quality

 

 

It was with some trepidation that I first plugged the Stellia into my reference DAC/amplifier, the Questyle CMA600i, as I was genuinely worried about being disappointed. You see, when you’ve experienced and reviewed a lot of different personal audio gear, it’s often difficult to get ‘wowed’. Sometimes it’s because something might not gel with your own personal preference with regards to sound signatures; sometimes there’s expectation bias; sometimes things are genuinely tuned poorly; and sometimes things just happen to sound plain-old, non-offensively ‘good’. But surely a $3K headphone can’t be that good, right? 

Stellia’s supplied 4-pin XLR cable.

I fired-up a tune I haven’t heard in years – ‘Slither’, from now-defunct hard rock supergroup Velvet Revolver. Immediately, you notice that the Stellia is dynamic – it punches you in the gut and makes you sit-up and take notice. The drums and bass guitar have a sense of impact like no other headphones that I’ve heard before – they’re felt rather than simply heard. And then, when the rest of the band joins in, there’s simply an overload of the most immense, full-on detail I’ve encountered right up and down the frequency band. Guitars attack with crunch and brutal detail, cymbals are snappy and laser-like, and imaging is simply off the charts. And when Slash’s guitar solo starts wailing at 2:43, it’s absolutely raucous. 

To try and borrow an analogy, it’s a bit like watching a 60fps/4K film for the first time. It’s music, as you know it, but it makes you feel a little uncomfortable for a moment as there’s something different about it – you’ve never heard it with such clarity and focus before. The Stellia is not ‘neutral’, as that would imply it’s boring or flat. No, the Stellia is well balanced in that it does everything bloody superbly (and then some), with nothing out of place nor jarring. Another reason why I can’t call it ‘neutral’ is that it’s simply so brutal in the way it delivers musical notes. It’s hands-down the most dynamic sound I’ve heard from a headphone, and more akin to a speaker-like presentation. 

Bass is unquestionably elevated, in a tastefully refined way. There’s decent sub-bass extension for a dynamic driver, but the Stellia impresses me most with the way it handles the texture and detail in the mid-bass region. The kick-bass and bass guitars in the title track of RHCP’s ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ sound simply astonishing in terms of their speed, impact and tautness. But, the Stellia’s bass never overwhelms the detail nor encroaches on the mid-range. The sheer level of the Stellia’s bass is apparent on Thom Yorke’s ‘I Am a Very Rude Person’, it’s truly awesome how the Stellia is able to juggle thumping and tight mid-bass with lightness and quickness in the track’s subtle treble detail.

The Stellia’s soundstage isn’t vast, but what it does with the things that happen inside that relatively intimate space is nothing short of remarkable. Fast-forwarding a track on the Thom Yorke album ‘Anima’ to ‘Not the News’, and you’re treated to the perfect example of how the Stellia is able to create individual pockets of space around individual parts and instruments within a track, and create laser-like edges around them. The same track reveals the Stellia’s treble to steer a neat path between ‘detailed’ and ‘bright’ without ever becoming sibilant nor fatiguing. The sheer amount of treble resolution available in the Stellia, while managing to keep a musically enjoyable and coherent tuning is remarkable. The speed and decay of those beryllium drivers is genuinely something that needs to be experienced – if you’d like to nerd-out of the technology behind the driver technology, check-out Focal’s white paper

The Stellia’s midrange doesn’t feel overly ‘forward’, but rather still feels extremely impressive due to the fact that it’s largely linear and devoid of any peaks or recession. What’s most incredible about the mid-range is the stupid amounts of detail that the Stellia delivers. Timbre-wise, the Stellia is ever so slightly on the dry and metallic side, but vocals and instruments are delivered with incredible crispness and definition. ‘Quiet’ by The Smashing Pumpkins is anything but, the Stellia plays it back with the thickest wall of guitar-fuzz imaginable.

Vocals are hyper-detailed on the Stellia, which can at first feel like it’s at the detriment of smoothness, but it’s simply playing back exactly what went into the mixing board at the recording studio. The Stellia reveals every vocal nuance on both the male and female vocal parts on ‘You and I’ by Wilco with stark clarity. 

Focal Stellia vs ZMF Eikon.

Stellia vs. ZMF Eikon

I bought the ZMF Eikon for myself as something of a decadent ‘treat’, having sampled a whole range of headphones and deciding that they were the ultimate combination of craftsmanship, aesthetics, and a natural, enjoyable yet detailed sound signature. They also just so happen to be close-backed, and until the recent arrival of the close-backed version of the Verite, they were ZMF’s flagship closed offering, which makes them an interesting head-to-head with the Stellia. Listening to the Eikon immediately after the Stellia is a strange feeling – the Focal makes them sound positively laid-back, smooth, and almost veiled in the midrange and treble by comparison. The Stellia simply trounces the Eikon and its biocellulose drivers in the technicality department, and for its sheer amount of detail retrieval – and that’s pretty remarkable because the Eikon is no slouch in that regard. The Stellia also shows the Eikon to have a slight peak somewhere around the 5K area, that can make some vocals sound a little ‘breathy’. The Eikon is without question a more natural-sounding headphone, tending to smooth-out vocal and instrumental performance, but to go back to my video analogy from earlier – once you’ve seen 4K, it’s hard to go back to 1080p. 

Stellia vs Beyerdynamic T1

The other European flagship dynamic headphone I have on hand at the moment is Beyerdynamic’s T1, a semi-open design with 600-ohm Tesla drivers. The T1 is a detailed and airy headphone but feels remarkably soft and gentle back-to-back with the Stellia, which simply ‘out-muscles’ with its dynamic approach to playback. The T1 has a much wider, open stage and shows just how intimate, immediate and dynamic the Stellia is, by comparison. Interestingly, going back from the T1 to the Stellia does highlight the Stellia’s sometimes unnatural timbre in the upper midrange, which can give instruments a somewhat brittle sound at times – which I noticed in the guitar part in ‘Fell On Black Days’ by Soundgarden, but not quite enough to pull you out of enjoying the music – I’m definitely nitpicking.

The article continues on the fourth page. Click here or use the jumps below.

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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.

    17 Comments

    • Reply March 2, 2020

      Hanesu

      Hi Matty!

      I love your writing style – your articles are always a great pleasure to read!!!

      Could you maybe add some sound comparison to other headphones?

      • Reply March 2, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Thanks for reading mate, it’s much appreciated. I left some impressions comparing the Stellia to the ZMF Eikon and Beyerdynamic T1 on page 3 – I think it’s important to compare against headphones you can directly listen-to back-to-back, so I try to always to comparisons with headphones that I have with me at that point in time. Are there any particular headphones you were keen to hear them compared against?

      • Reply March 2, 2020

        Harsha

        Hi,
        Any comparisons with the ZMF Verite Open. I understand open vs closed isn’t fair. Would you rate it on the same level as – LCD 4s/Empyrean/D8000 ?

        • Reply March 2, 2020

          Matty Graham

          I haven’t spent enough time with the Verite or D8000 to give you a proper answer. I LCD-4 is just too dark, and too heavy for me; the Empyrean is tonally very lovely abut just doesn’t have the same aggressive dynamics as the Stellia.

      • Reply August 28, 2020

        Kerim

        I’m fortunate enough to own these, and your review captures them to perfection. I haven’t found a better or more precise description of their strengths and few minor weaknesses. I kept nodding my head and thinking, “Yes, exactly!”

    • Reply March 2, 2020

      Miguel Betancourt

      What a joy and pleasure to read your reviews, simply put, just wonderful!

      Gracias!

      M.

    • Reply March 2, 2020

      Mike I.

      Very nice review, again; thank you !

      Your comparison with the Beyer T1: gen 1 or gen 2 ?

      A comparison with the ZMF Vérité – closed would be very nice: cheaper, less bling-bling, and also beryllium.

      • Reply March 4, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Thanks Mike – it’s the Gen 1 Beyer T1. I don’t have ready access to a Verite – being handmade, direct-to-customer, and generally pretty expensive! Although, I would love to hear one. If one happens to manifest in the next few days I’ll try and add some thoughts to the article.

    • Reply March 2, 2020

      Thomas Ho

      Well said, I agree with the points that you’ve made about being an audiophile as a hobby. I’ve fallen in love with your review. Well done!

      • Reply March 3, 2020

        Matty Graham

        Great to hear, thanks Thomas!

    • Reply March 2, 2020

      MhtLion

      Thanks for great review! Just a quick question please. When you said “does highlight it’s sometimes unnatural timbre in the upper midrange”, you are referring to Stellia or T1?

      Actually, one more question. Have you heard Elex? Sure, it’s open back, but Elex is such a good value proposition. If one wants Stellia but only can afford Elex, I wonder how much of difference there will be.

      • Reply March 3, 2020

        Matty Graham

        I’ve just tweaked it to make it clearer – I’m referring to the timbre of the Stellia when it come to how it deals with some instruments and vocals texturally.

        I have heard the Elex – I recall it being tonally very awesome, and its dynamics certainly were impressive. It’s not going to hit as hard as the Stellia in the low end, in particular, and the beryllium drivers of the Stellia do give it a noticeable edge in the speed and clarity stakes.

    • Reply March 3, 2020

      MHTLION

      Thank you for the response and clarification!

    • Reply March 4, 2020

      Brian Becker

      Superb review friend! Such and enjoyable read.

      I heard the Stellia while visiting London and was gobsmacked silly.

      Since there was no way I was getting this approved by my CFO (aka wifey, bless her heart), and I just had to have something, I got the Elegia instead.

      Very happy I did. Cheers!

      • Reply March 6, 2020

        Matty Graham

        They do have an uncanny ability of impressing you right from the get-go, so I’m not suprised Brian. You have yourself an awesome set of cans in the Elegia, enjoy mate.

    • Reply March 6, 2020

      teknorob23

      Great review, thanks! It will be interesting to see what you think of the ZMF Verite Closed. I was privileged enough to have the two together for a couple of months. The VCs and Stellia are to my ears, head and shoulders above the closest CB competition as well as being right up there in the overall list of current greats. Having initially been blown away by the sheer scale of the VCs stage and visceral bass kick i was sure they’d be the keepers, but as time wore on i found the stellias on my head more and the VCs less and less. The VCs are slightly W shaped and as such the mids are just that bit too recessed for my tastes, that an i started to find them a portly and plodding compared to the up front, but even handed Stellia, with almost utopia levels of detail and in more liveable with tonal package. I should caveat this by saying i listen mainly to complicated electronica/techno with spattering of 90s alt rock like MBV and pavement. I love hearing up front and detail, but in the most analogue manner possible and nothing takes me into the music like the Stellias. Thanks again :):)

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