If you spend more than $1000 on a pair of headphones, you are purchasing a luxury product. If all you seek is high performance, without aesthetics and build quality to match, you can have audio nirvana for hundreds of dollars. But if you seek the audio equivalents of supercars like a Bugatti or Lamborghini, you need to check out Focal’s over-the-top headphone offerings. In this review, we’ll look at the Focal Stellia, a closed back headphone model that features a pure beryllium dome transducer and is capable of cutting-edge performance. The price? $3000. But that’s not all! These headphones came paired with the Focal Arche amplifier, which has a preset that optimizes the sound for the Stellia. The kit, Stellia + Arche, sells for $4000 on Amazon
Unpacking the Stellia is an experience unto itself. The supplied case Immediately speaks to the high-end nature of the product, with quality materials and a stylish aesthetic. The headphones are supplied with an accessory kit that includes two detachable headphone cables, one that is 10 feet long, balanced and has XLR connectors for use with the Arche and other dedicated headphone amplifiers. Also included, a 4-foot cable that features a standard mini headphone jack, allowing you to use these headphones with portable devices (although high-end, these are easy-to-drive headphones).
Fancy packaging is part of the Focal Stellia's luxury experience
The Arche amp is not presented with packaging possessing the same panache as the Stellia, but the amp is not something you wear on your head, either. Like the Stellia, the Arche is manufactured to a very high standard of fit and finish. Moreover, it is a solid-state class-A amplifier that promises rarefied fidelity. It's is definitely designed for in-place listening, nothing portable about it. The integrated headphone holder reinforces the point that you should find a good spot for this amp, near a comfortable chair. Setup is as simple as can be... attach headphones with provided cord, turn the amp on, choose "Stellia" as the headphone, select input, adjust volume to taste and you're in sonic heaven. I'm not one to review a properly working, well designed solid-state amp since with any good amo, transparency is key. If the amp is not messing with the original signal, it's job. Unless...
Unless you have a DAC/Amp that features built-in DSP to compensate for any non-linearity found in the headphones they drive. Now, this is not a unique feature, but it is a logical feature. The catch is that the amp's output, instead of being purely flat and linear, will include the minor compensations needed to compensate for whatever minor deviations there may be in the Stellia's uncompensated response. The end result is in effect like having active headphones, with an amp that's optimally matched for the specific device it is driving.
Plenty of input options on the rear of the Arche DAC/amp
Focal Stellia Features and Specifications
• Type: Circum-aural closed-back headphones
• Impedance: 35 Ohms
• Sensitivity: 106dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
• THD: 0.1% @ 1kHz / 100 dB SPL
• Frequency response: 5Hz–40kHz
• Loudspeaker: 1.6" (40mm) pure Beryllium "M" shape dome
• Weight: 0.96lb (435g)
• Reference closed-back headphones for home and on-the-go use
• Exclusive full-range speaker drivers with an ‘M’ shape pure Beryllium dome
• Uncompromising tonal balance, reproduction of the tiniest sound details at both very high and very low frequencies
• Incredible dynamics within a pair of closed-back headphones
• Excellent performance when connected to a portable audiophile player
• Very good ambient noise soundproofing
• Comfortable and ergonomic
• High-quality materials used
Focal Arche DAC/Amp Specifications
• Type DAC and headphones amplifier
• Max. power 2 x 1W @ 1kHz under 32 Ω
• Frequency response 10Hz to 100kHz
• Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) < 0,001%
• Signal-to-noise ratio > 116dB @ 32 Ω (Class A)
• Power supply 85 to 265 Vac / 47 – 63Hz
• Dimensions (H x L x D) 321 x 200 x 297mm (with stand) / 60 x 200 x 297 mm (without stand)
• Weight 10.25 lbs (4.65kg)
• Audio inputs Unbalanced analog RCA
• Digital S/PDIF coaxial (RCA): Max.
• Sampling frequency 192kHz (AES3-compatible)
• Max. resolution 24-bit
• Optical digital (TosLink) Max. sampling
• Frequency 192kHz (AES3-compatible)
• Max. resolution 24-bit
• Digital USB (USB-B): standard USB: USB 2.0 / USB 3.0 – USB audio class
• Audio outputs Balanced analog 3-point XLR
• Unbalanced analog RCA
I genuinely enjoyed listening to the Stellia headphones. They are transparently neutral and deliver tremendous detail to the listener. Given sufficient amplification, they will play as loud as a live concert, or deliver “reference level” home theater sound. All without the slightest hint of dynamic compression or distortion.
The closed-back design offers the usual advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, bass is tight and deep plus sound does not escape so you can listen in privacy and even (ostensibly) take these with you on a trip or use them in a public space. The minus of the closed design is a somewhat constricted soundfield and... depending on the situation, your ears can get a bit warm after a while. Overall, the closed-back design makes these headphones more versatile than an open-back model thanks to the passive noise reduction that works both ways (keeps outside sounds out, and inside sounds in).
Focal Stellia headphones
Overall comfort is very high, it's superior to full-size planar-magnetic headphones of similar caliber because the package is lighter. It's hard to imagine anyone finding these headphones to be anything less than luxurious to wear and even if your ears get warm, wearing a pair for hours on end induces no fatigue. Whether you are brave enough to venture into public with $3000 headphones that actually look the part is another, separate question.
Viewed through an objective lens but ignoring the value equation, there is literally nothing I can complain about when it comes to the Focal Stellia, and doubly so when they are driven by the Arche amp. As long as you understand how strict the law of diminishing returns can be, you are "getting what you pay for." It's just that you are paying a lot for it.
Now comes the more direct, relevant question... can you get better-sounding headphones for less? Oh yeah... IMO you can, if only because the "best" headphones are a matter of taste. But the gains will be very specific, mostly related to soundfield—the Stellia have a fairly intimate sound to them, unless the recording itself includes spacial effects or you use 3D processing, the sound you do hear is going to be "stuck inside your head" and while This is an admittedly subjective judgment call, I feel there are other headphones that offer a more expansive sound (granted, these are typically are open-back designs).
if you made it this far into the review, you are probably wondering "Mark, you heap all this praise on Focal Stellia and Arche, is there anything you did not like about this kit?" Sure... the price! And the size, they are pretty big. I also touched on the somewhat restrained soundstage and warm ears, but you can't blame Focal for qualities that are intrinsic to the closed-back design. But also, I found the cables were a bit stiff, I like something much more supple that drapes on its own, after all these headphones don't demand a ton of power to get loud. Anyhow, both the included cables were thick and somewhat inflexible. I have to stress, these are taste-dependent nitpicks an extremely high performance, well-designed headphone set.
The included cables seemed unnecessarily thick and stiff
As you'd expect from such a premium audio device, there was nothing the Stellia headphones could not handle, music-wise. For portable use, I recommend not "just" relying on your phone, but you also don;t need to carry a brick in your pocket to run them right. I chose the Creative SXFI Amp ($150) for use with my two Android phones and it was able to achieve very high output and clean/deep sound on the go. As usual, I mostly stuck with IDM/dubstep/reggae dub/rap with a touch of rock and pop, IMO if you own Stellia headphones you are going to be critiquing the mix, not the headphones.
Speaking of critiquing the mix, my favorite use for these headphones is with music-creation software (NLE, non-linear editor). I use Ableton Live and numerous VST plugins (virtual instruments) and used the Stellia/Arche combo to monitor my mixes. I did this by taking advantage of the USB DAC in the Arche, which shows up as an audio device in Windows (Focal offers dedicated drivers). You can really appreciate the fidelity of these headphones when you feed them an uncompressed hi-res signal directly from a virtual drum machine and synthesizer. You don’t have to worry about microphones and the effect of a room on recorded sound, you craft the sound inside your head using the provided controls and the results can be just about anything you imagine including adventures through the deepest bass tones (including clean 16 Hz reproduction, for those who can hear it), plus elegantly filigreed midrange and treble textures.
With the Focal Stellia and Arche combo, get a lot for your money, but you are putting up a lot of money since you are paying a premium for pure
unadulterated performance. You can shop for some decent IEMs or even electrostatic headphones under the Stellia's $3000 price point ($5000 with amp) and get even better sound, IMO. But here, you are paying for a complete package: For no-holds-barred full-size closed-back cans that a phone can drive yet can make the most of a high-end headphones amp, for the craftsmanship and the branding, for pure beryllium drivers, and yes... you are paying for a product that is made in France.
The entire audible spectrum is presented with precision and dynamics that reveal whatever is in the mix. Listen to your favorite tracks through these in a quiet room and I promise you’ll catch every detail, but without having to exaggerate any part of the sound to get there.With the explicit caveat that this is a price no object sort of purchase, I'm happy to give the Focal Stellia Headphones and Arche DAC/amp combo a Top Choice award for 2020. You only live once.
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