Focal is a speaker maker that is also heavily invested in headphones. The French company’s Elegia closed-back reference headphones deliver luxurious fit, finish, plus awesome sound for under $1000.
Headphones are a lifelong obsession, I’ve spent much money over the course of three-plus decades pursuing better portable sound. Now, with the Focal Elegia ($899) I may have found a pair of full-size, over-ear headphones that comes close to my ideal when it comes to fit, finish and sound quality.
Recently, I started thinking that planar-magnetic headphones had leapfrogged dynamic driver designs when it comes to fidelity. But Elegia proves that you can have it all—the speed and detail of planars along with the punch, easy-to-drive impedance plus high efficiency of dynamic driver designs.
Features and Specifications
Focal Elegia headphones are large, beautifully crafted, and look like they’d be a challenge for a mobile phones to power. But looks can be deceiving, these cans are high-sensitivity (105 dB SPL / 1 mW @ 1 kHz ) and have an easy-going 35-ohm impedance.
Frequency response spans the range of human hearing and then some, it’s listed as 5 Hz to 23 kHz. Plus, distortion is low at 0.1% (1 kHz, 100 dB). This comes from a 1.57″ (40 mm) ‘M’-shape aluminium/magnesium dome driver designed by Focal.
These headphones come with a 1.2-meter detachable cord and a hard carry case. And that’s it! No bluetooth, no noise cancelling, no built-in microphones. You do get aluminum construction and thick memory foam earpads. Ultimately, these are simple high-fidelity headphones built to a very high standard.
It’s surprisingly difficult to write about a product where you can’t find fault, and Focal Elegia is causing writer’s block. So, I’ll begin with an objective observation: These headphones actually meet their 5 Hz bass specification. Mind you, you need to achieve a perfect seal, and have perfect positioning, plus you can’t actually hear anything that low, but a microphone can, and that’s how I know Elegia measure flat (or close to it) right down to single-digit Hz. And this is achieved without audible distortion.
Bass response is as advertised (flat to 5 Hz) with Focal Elegia headphones.
The pragmatic implication of this bass performance is that you will hear clean output right down to whatever the lower limit of your own hearing is. As long as you possess human ears, these headphones have you covered 100% when it comes to frequency response.
Listening to Elegia, I had zero sense of sonic claustrophobia, which can be an issue with closed-back designs. Not these headphones, which are so transparent that sound appeared (to me) to float in a tangible space, just as with speakers that image well and project a 3D soundstage. With Elegia, musicians were not at all stuck inside my head. While the effect strongly depended upon the mix, The sense of spaciousness is achieved without any special processing or DSP gimmickry.
The clean, tight, deep bass produced by Focal Elegia headphones is seductive. These may in fact be my favorite headphones that I’ve tried when it comes to bass quality, because the presentation so reminds me of what I hear when I set up multiple high-performance subwoofers using capable room correction like Dirac Live or Audyssey MultEQ. The only difference, of course, is the tactile part of the subwoofer experience is missing. But the sound itself is so deep, so taut, it creates the illusion of tactile response.
The rest of the audible spectrum is presented with equal care by Elegia. These are not just “rediscover your favorite albums” headphones, these are “have a revelation on a track-by-track basis while listening to music you thought you knew so well” headphones. No joke.
Preferences in headphones, like taste in music, are personal. I’m a fan of electronic music and I like large, over ear headphones above other form factors. That automatically means that I have a bias toward the Focal Elegia. Anyhow, numerous listening sessions featuring the likes of Bassnectar, Daft Punk, The Orb, Twilight Circus Dub Sound System, New Order, Flatbush Zombies, Bill Laswell and other talented musicians yielded an unending stream of aural delight. It sure seems as if Focal is zeroing in on a recipe for the “perfect” headphones—aside I suppose from price.
These headphones even managed to deliver a rousing rendition of the subwoofer test classic, “Disk Wars” from the Tron Legacy soundtrack. Daft Punk plus the London Symphony are a tough combination to do justice to; many systems resort to dynamic compression and ignore the deepest bass hits. But here, the measurements match up with reality and the dynamics produced by these cans imbues a sense of profundity that the track needs to come across correctly.
I’m sure there’s even greater performance that could be explored these headphones by connecting them to a high-powered, dedicated amplifier. I don’t feel that I pushed their limits in any way during my time with them. Also, I personally enjoyed walking around with them on my head. Yes, it’s a little bit ostentatious looking, but these days everyone is allowed to flaunt their headphones in public places and I’ve certainly seen other offerings that have even more bling. For a pair of Focals, these are actually almost understated.
It’s hard to decide if the Focal Elegia is expensive, or a bargain. Certainly, compared to many other headphones, they are expensive. But, also when compared to many other headphones, they are of exceptional quality. It is absolutely a fact that you can spend a lot more on a pair of Focal headphones. But, it is also entirely possible that $900 is all you need to spend to get a pair of headphones that should serve you well for years to come. The amortized cost of these cans is roughly akin to a “cappuccino a day” coffee habit, so don’t let that price tag intimidate you.
Ultimately, if you’re going to spend this kind of money on headphones, you want to make sure they are right for you. With Focal Elegia, the main risk is that once you hear a pair, you’ll be spoiled by the luxurious fit plus finish as well as the performance. Recommended… as long as 900 bucks doesn’t sound insane to you for a quality pair of closed-back cans.