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?
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.
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.
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