First, I want to make a quick comparison between the Elear and the good ol’ HD650. Both offer full bodied bass and mids, but the fact that the upper-midrange is more in line with the rest of the midrange, almost makes the HD650 sound a little brighter than the Elear, especially with vocal music. Of course, I am just talking tonality here. The Elear bass is tighter, goes deeper and everything is much cleaner. It is clearly operating on a higher level.
The headphone I really want to compare the Elear with is the Hifiman HE-560. I know the HE-560 is a planar, but they are similar in price, make an interesting contrast, and hell, it’s what I have handy.
Both have an excellent bass, but in very different ways. The HE-560 bass has a more reference tuning where it goes deep and is very well textured, but the Elear hits consistently harder, and has more body. It is less dependent on the music playing. The Elear may not go quite (maybe) as deep, but the difference is minimal at worst. Both do what they do really well, but I have a hard time imagining more people not favoring the bass on the Elear. It is also far less amp dependent, so the bass is easier to come by.
The midrange is a much more interesting fight. The Elear has more body, but drops off in the upper-midrange, while the HE-560 is consistent throughout. Let’s bring Jenny Lewis back into this again. With the HE-560, her voice simply sparkles. On the Elear, her voice takes on a more romantic tone that is beguiling. Which is better? I really don’t know. Depending on my mood, I could favor either one. Both are clean and detailed (although I might find the Elear cleaner and the HE-560 more detailed. Seems odd to me, but that’s what I hear). Honestly here, it depends completely on the flavor you are after. Both do a great job.
Treble is the Elear’s weakness: lower in the lower-treble, and spiking in the mid-treble, where the HE-560 sparkles. Some might find the HE-560 too bright (I don’t), and folks aren’t libel to throw that accusation at the Elear, but the uneven treble to me is the Achilles heel of the Elear.
I am convinced that the strong dramatic punch is the cause of the poorer sound stage performance on the Elear. I know others have said as much, but switching back and forth between the Elear and the HE-560, I would be surprised if most don’t come to a similar conclusion. Switching to the HE-560 after using the Elear, I am immediately struck at how soft and distant it sounds in comparison. Switching back to the Elear after a while, the dynamic punch would strike me, but I would wonder where all the space went. Imagine you are sitting in front of a two channel stereo system, listening to music. Now, take the two speakers and place them right next to your ears so you are sitting between them. At that distance, the punch of the speakers is shooting right into your ear and has no space to dissipate, but as a result, you don’t get the sense of the music existing in its own space. It is just right there. That’s the Elear’s presentation. It is a strong one, and a very engaging one, but it might not be to everyone’s taste.
My thoughts were confirmed when I brought the Elear to a local headphone meet. All loved the dynamic punch, and the bass made many friends, but the crowd was torn on some of the other aspects. Some people loved it. One guy in particular just adored the Elear, and thought it is exactly how he wanted to hear his music. His position is easy to understand. The Elear rocks. On the other hand, there were those who missed the air and sense of space that headphones can provide (having an extremely well driven HD800 near at hand didn’t help the case). That is also an easy opinion to understand. Who is right? That will be up for you to decide.
I played around with EQ for a bit, but wasn’t ever able to find just the right balance. For those so inclined, balancing out the midrange and treble should be doable.
So, did the Elear live up to the hype? While I don’t think it is the be-all-and-do-all, I really fell in love with the Elear. Its stellar build, comfortable fit and kick ass sound easily won me over. When listening to it, the issues with the upper-midrange and lower-treble don’t really bother. It was a sad day for me when I had to send it back. The Elear is currently on Headfonia’s recommended headphone list, and it most definitely deserves its spot, but, like all headphones, you should give it a good listen first to see if it will meet your needs. I have the feeling that a lot of people will love what the Elear is selling. The fact that it isn’t too picky about what’s driving it means you don’t have to toil over your pairing like you do with some headphones (it sounded great with JDS Labs EL stack). The Elear sells for $999, and if you are considered a purchase in that price range, you HAVE to hear Focal’s Elear.