You don’t need to sell me on the benefits of “cutting the cable”, so to speak, when it comes to why you’d want to choose a pair of wireless Bluetooth headphones for enjoying music on the go. We’ve all been cursed by Entanglör, the ancient God of headphone cable tangles, at some point or another, and as we know, he is a bitter, bitter God who likes to smite frequently. As a frequent flyer, there’s nothing worse than getting caught up in a Boa constrictor-like web of cords and face-masks while trying to navigate the security desk at Sydney Domestic Terminal #2, and I’ll freely admit (even as a seasoned audiophile) there’s been more than one occasion where I’ve felt like tipping my drawer full of cables onto the ground, pouring on some liquid accelerant, and setting them ablaze in ritual sacrifice to curry favour with Entanglör.
It’s no wonder then that the masses - particularly the travelling masses - have embraced Bluetooth wholeheartedly. But plucky audiophiles have still steadfastly clung to their cables for one very understandable reason: out-and-out sound quality is usually far down the list of attributes on most rank-and-file Bluetooth headphones, which are usually pitched as providing convenience and tech features - especially noise cancelling - as the key reasons to adopt a pair. On the flip-side, your high-fidelity wired headphones probably aren’t that suitable for listening outside the home (especially if they’re open back!), especially if it means carting along an appropriately-powerful source device with you. Once you stack some kind of DAC, amp, and all the associated cables and paraphernalia that you’ll need to make them “go”, you may as well have stayed home to enjoy your music!
So why then, has Bluetooth been largely shunned by the hifi-loving 1%-ers, who are a small but ardent subset of consumers? Well, despite advancements in higher-resolution codecs such as aptX-HD and LDAC, Bluetooth is still considered to be a “lossy” format - that is, lower in resolution than 16-bit/44.1kHz CD-quality. And any audiophile who’s seeking to extract the last word in sound quality from their headphones ain’t going to start with a less-than-perfect source signal. Also, despite their vociferous protests, audiophiles aren’t exactly top-of-mind when mass-market manufacturers are developing their products, and so wireless headphones are generally “tuned” for the middle and lower end of the bell curve. I’ll go ahead and say right out of the gate that most noise-cancelling headphones sound awful, and I’m sure you know what I mean too: DAT bass. Muddy, warm, mid-bass that drowns out any sense of mid-range detail, plus a confined, cloistered sense of space devoid of any air or sense of refined treble. I’d settle for a pair of consumer-grade noise-cancelling cans if I was spending a flight watching VHS-converted youtube downloads of 1980’s rugby league grand finals on my phone, but trying to properly enjoy music on them is almost enough to make you want to take the 187-hour walk down the Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne instead.
So, we’ve established that Bluetooth/Wireless headphones are usually a compromise in one way or another. When I look at the market, wireless headphones tend to fall into one of two brackets: 1) “convenience” cans - functional headphones aimed at more tech-oriented consumers, or 2) “fashion” cans - more aesthetically-designed headphones pitched at those who don’t mind the odd Instagram selfie or two (I won’t name names).
It’s not exactly a compelling proposition to take a punt on a pair of headphones for their sound quality when their manufacturer is better-known for producing smartphones or flatscreen TVs, but when a new product arrives onto the market from a manufacturer with as impeccable an audio pedigree as Focal, then it’s time to take notice.
Meet the new Focal Bathys
Having spent 40 years developing high-end speakers and headphones, Focal has rightly earned a reputation as being firmly sound-first when it comes to product design, mixed with more than a dash of French flair when it comes to aesthetics as well. Hot on the heels of their newly-launched flagship Focal Utopia 2022 Reference High End Dynamic Headphones, Focal has taken their savoir faire and created an all-new class of audiophile-grade wireless headphones in the form of the brand new $1199 Focal Bathys Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones. The Bathys takes its naming inspiration from the “Bathyscaphe” deep-sea exploration vessel, which Focal explains is meant to evoke “the embodiment of calm, depth, and absolute silence”.
The Bathys is Focal’s first ever pair of Bluetooth Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) headphones, and they’ve gone all-out for their first foray into this hotly-contested market. It goes without saying that the Bathys looks unlike anything else when it comes to Bluetooth headphones, which are generally a sea of drab monotones. In fact, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the new Bathys at a glance for one of Focal’s range of high-end audiophile headphones, sharing more than a dollop of their visual DNA in its cup shape, circular geometric patterns, and signature profile shape.
For Focal's first wireless foray, they’ve tricked-out the Bathys with some pretty competitive features and specifications. The cliff notes:
- Bluetooth 5.1 compatible with SBC, AAC, Apt-X™ and Apt-X™ Adaptive codecs
- Active noise cancellation with three selectable modes: ‘Transparent’, ‘Soft’, and ‘Silent’
- 40mm “M-shaped” Aluminium-Magnesium dome drivers
- USB-DAC mode offers hi-res compatibility up to 24-bit/192kHz via USB-C cable
- Voice assistant compatible (Alexa/Siri etc.)
- Extended listening with a battery life of 30+hrs
- Customisable sound with adjustable EQ settings via app
So while these features sound pretty competitive for the wireless/ANC category on paper, the Bathys promises two important attributes that ought to make it stand out: Focal’s legendary sonic performance, as well as their signature design and build-quality.
Packaging and presentation
The Bathys doesn’t quite get the same bulky, sumptuous packaging and unboxing experience as its more “home-oriented” wired brethren. It arrives in a far smaller box than you’d expect for something that looks like a full-sized Focal headphone, but the white magnetised box that it’s shipped in is entirely premium and befitting of a headphone with more “portable” leanings. Inside the box you’ll find a pair of QR codes that helpfully point you towards two useful links: the Focal companion app for tweaking the Bathys’ settings as well as a web page with more in-depth product instructions, including some nicely produced short explainer videos.
Focal’s protective headphone cases are best-in-class, and the Bathys’ zippered “clamshell” case is no exception. The black/grey fabric-coated case is both lightweight and rigid, and feels up to the task of getting tumbled around in carry-on luggage while keeping your nice new Bathys safe.
Inside the case you’ll find two cables - a 1.2 metre USB-C to USB-C cable for charging and using the Bathys in USB-DAC mode, and a 1.2 metre 3.5mm to 3.5mm aux cable for using the Bathys to listen out of source devices with a standard headphone jack.
Design, form-factor and comfort
While the Bathys does look fairly similar to the other Focal range of full-sized audiophile headphones, it’s not until you’ve picked them up that you realise that they’re quite a bit more svelte and “travel-ready” compared to, say, the Focal Celestee. Putting them on my travel scales, the Bathys weighs in at an entirely wieldy 350 grams. Putting them on your head, they feel perhaps even lighter. Whereas most manufacturers opt for weight-saving plastics and other cheaper materials in their portable-oriented headphones, Focal has chosen to use magnesium for Bathys’ yokes, plus aluminium elsewhere throughout the construction of the headphones to ensure longevity as well as a first-rate product experience.
The Bathys’ wonderfully plush ear pads are made from a supple black leather and offer plenty of space inside the cups for my ears - they feel positively cavernous compared to most ANC headphones! Despite being reasonably portable headphones, they’re as comfortably over-ear as many full-sized traditional hifi headphones that I’ve experienced. These great pads help to create a secure, yet comfortable clamp on your head that’s well distributed between the pads and the headband. The Bathys passes the “drinking coffee” test easily, in that they don’t feel like they’re going to fall off any time soon if you move around suddenly or tip your head backwards.
Are they comfortable enough for an entire long-haul flight? While I didn’t get the chance to take an overseas trip during my time with the Bathys, using an all-day working session at my desk as a proxy tells me that they most certainly are. The headband on the Bathys is also leather-cladded, and has soft cushioning underneath that’s coated in microfibre that adds to their excellent comfort. The Bathys is height adjustable via a series of eight “clicks” on either side of the headband, and the swivelling cup and yoke system means that you’re bound to find a good fit and seal (which is important for isolation and noise cancellation) no matter your head size and shape. Unlike other Focal headphones, the ear-cups on the Bathys also fold flat so that you can lay them down on a table top or against your shoulders while wearing them around your neck.
The Bathys’ black and grey colour scheme makes them a little more “incognito” compared to other Focal headphones (I probably wouldn’t go wearing a Focal Stellia on the bus), yet its design language certainly sets them apart from your average “Economy Class” wireless headphones in a way that’s bound to draw the occasional eye or two at the departure lounge from the discerning fellow traveller.
With a similar circular “skeletonised” pattern to the Focal Celestee, LED backlit Focal “flame” logos on the side of each that actually glow (this can be toggled in the Focal & Naim companion app), plus the sleek metallic and leather lines of the headband, the new Bathys is quite the handsome pair of headphones. Combine this with a build that feels first-rate and sturdy, and the Bathys gives you the all-round impression of feeling ready for taking off in first class.
Setting up and using the Focal Bathys wirelessly
Most of the Bathys’ main functions are controllable via the physical buttons and switches on the headphones themselves. On the right-hand cup we have the following:
- Volume up/down buttons (which also controls track forwards/backwards with a double-press)
- Multifunction button for play/pause (which also pairs new Bluetooth devices with a long press)
- OFF/DAC/ON button (which switches the headphone off, and into DAC/Bluetooth modes)
- Voice assistant button
- 3.5mm AUX jack
On the left cup is the Bathys’ Bluetooth button, which can select between three different modes of Active Noise Cancellation:
- “Transparency” mode - lets in ambient noise for improved spatial awareness)
- “Soft” mode - light active noise cancellation suggested for moderate outside noise
- “Silent” mode - engages full active noise cancellation for environments with heavier outside noise
The Bathys’ transparent mode is accessible via a single quick press of the button on the left ear cup, and works pretty decently - I found I was able to have easy, intelligible conversations in public without needing to take them off my ears at any point. Changing between “Soft” and “Silent” requires a two-second press of the Bluetooth button, but I generally felt no need to ever go halfway in terms of ANC and tended to keep the Bathys in “Silent” whenever listening to music - especially because there was no perceivable change in frequency response when doing so. The Bathys has a barely perceptible noise floor when ANC is engaged but disappears immediately as soon as any audio is playing. I would describe the Bathys’ active noise cancellation as “decent”, but not as strong as the usual suspects that you’ll find at the electronics counter at the airport duty free store. The Bathys definitely does a great job of substantially reducing constant low-frequency noise which makes it well-suited to travel, but just note that it won’t make conversations nor higher-frequency sound in your immediate vicinity dead-silent.
Turning on the Bathys for the first time was a pleasant surprise for me, as I had no idea that the Focal logos on each ear cup light up when it’s on! It’s a cool “tech-y” touch, but I’d probably err on the side of switching it off, especially on a dark plane (you don’t want to be that guy). This can all be managed via the Focal & Naim app, which allows you to toggle the LED light between off, dim, and bright depending on your mood.
The next surprise for me after turning on the Bathys for the first time came when my Pixel recognised it immediately and asked me to pair with it - it’s my first time experiencing “Google Fast Pair”, and I Like It. You can pair the Bathys with up to two devices at a time, if that sounds like something that’s useful for you, and additional devices can be paired by holding down the multifunction button for four seconds. In terms of Bluetooth connection the Bathys worked flawlessly, with nary a dropout nor stutter in my time with it. Being a “smart” connected device, the Bathys also naturally works well in all kinds of other productivity situations. Need to jump on a video conference between albums? No worries. The Bathys has 8 in-built microphones to handle both noise cancellation as well as voice, and it uses “Clear Voice Capture” mic technology to ensure clear vocal communications - I didn’t get a single complaint on the other end of the line while making calls with the Bathys.
Focal & Naim control app
Companion apps are par for the course with smart audio devices these days, and the Bathys’ controls and setting can be further fine-tuned with the assistance of the “Focal & Naim” app (available on both Android and iOS). As well as giving the listener information about battery life and the particular Bluetooth codec being played at any given point in time, the app can also control the LED lights and noise cancelling (as previously mentioned), manage over-the-air firmware updates, and offer a degree of customisation for the Bathys’ sound signature via a five-band equaliser.
The app’s equaliser is not the kind of tool that will offer minute and specific adjustments if you’re used to a dialling-in your preferred tuning with a full parametric EQ-suite, but it’s a welcome and handy addition that will certainly help you tailor the Bathys to truly make it yours. However, I suspect many people won’t even want to touch these five sliders, because the tuning of those 40mm Aluminium/Magnesium drivers combined with the DSP trickery hidden under the cups is pretty dang sweet straight out of the box. More on this later.
One feature that I think really sets the Bathys apart when it comes to proper audiophile credentials is its USB-DAC mode. If you’re concerned that you’re not getting the last iota of detail from your favourite track via Bluetooth, then you can simply connect your Bathys to your smartphone via USB and voila - you’re streaming losslessly without the need for a separate DAP, dongle, or stack.
I can’t say how awesome this addition is in a wireless headphone, as it means that you can unleash streaming services like Qobuz to their fullest extent thanks to the Bathys being able to decode up to 24-bit/192kHz hi-res music natively. Using the USB-DAC also stretches the Bathys’ legs in terms of battery life, with a possible 42 hours of music enjoyment possible when plugged in (versus the claimed 30 in ANC/35 in wired mode).
Using the new Roon ‘Arc’ app I was able to stream hi-res music up to 192kHz from my home music library saved on my Roon core (I actually don’t have a single track in higher resolution than 192kHz, so I’m not worried about anything else higher-res than that) simply by attaching the Bathys to my Pixel 6 via USB and streaming via 5G/wifi. Now that is pretty sweet.
3.5mm wired mode
As the 3.5mm female jack on the right cup and the supplied 3.5mm cable would suggest, the Bathys can be plugged into any “legacy” analogue source. Just keep in mind that even if you’re plugging the Bathys into an external device like a DAP or an amplifier, the Bathys’ internal amplifier and digital signal processing will still ultimately be producing the analogue output that reaches your ears. I attempt to try and play the Bathys passively using an external amplifier, but just note that this actually won’t work - no sound will come out whatsoever. It’s best to think of the Bathys like an “always active” pair of headphones that can accept an analogue signal as a matter of convenience. You know what has a 3.5mm output? My Xbox controller! The Bathys sounds great as a pair of gaming headphones (a trait that most Focal cans share), with plenty of dynamics, drama, and have great directional imaging. This might be handy to know if you’re considering the new Bathys as your “everything” headphone.
So, it’s good to know that you certainly don’t need to go buying any upstream amplification or source equipment with your new pair of Focal wireless headphones…because it already has everything you need under the hood, and this is another point that should be factored into the overall value proposition of the Bathys, which really is shaping up to be an all-in-one hi-fidelity music (and more!) system. But, if that really is the case, then we’d better take a look at how it sounds.
Listening to the Focal Bathys
Seeing as it’s (mainly) pitched as a wireless pair of headphones, I started off listening to the Bathys in purely wireless mode, streaming lossless/hi-res via Qobuz from my Pixel 6. I came across US band Lake Street Dive only a couple of months ago, and I’ve really been vibing on their catchy tunes, great recordings and singer Rachael Price’s killer voice ever since. I saw that they’d just released a new covers EP called Fun Machine: The Sequel, so I was very happy to serve that one up as first course with the new Bathys. 8 bars into track #1, Automatic (originally released by The Pointer Sisters back in 1983) and I knew straight away that I was definitely listening to a pair of Focal headphones - that signature sense of punch and macro-dynamics is very much present in the Bathys, and lets you know right from the get go that you’re in for A Good Time.
The Bathys is not a “flat”-sounding pair of headphones - they’re most certainly coloured, but in an entirely tasteful and exceedingly enjoyable kinda way. There’s a good deal of bass extension and slam, with a real visceral sense to it that’s felt as much as heard when the kick drums and bass guitar kick-in. Pleasingly, there’s proper elevation in the sub-bass rather than the tubby mid-bass that’s usually served-up in ANC headphones, and it’s handled adroitly with good speed and texture without disturbing all that good stuff that happens in the mid range. Rachel Price has one of the best set of pipes in the business, and the Bathys nails her vocal performance in terms of detail and layering against the instrumentation in the mid range, which the Bathys handles in an extremely linear way with excellent levels of clarity and texture.
Tuning-wise, Focal seem to have managed to broadly follow the Harman preference curve with just enough bass emphasis to give them a sense of tonal “richness” that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. These headphones are made for musical entertainment rather than studio monitoring, and they have surprising levels of detail and technicalities to add some audiophile-MSG to the party. Playing The Decemberists’ Once in My Life back-to-back between the Bathys and Focal’s Celestee, the Bathys definitely has the more emphasised low-end between the two. Despite both having the same driver diameter (40mm) and materials (Aluminium/Magnesium), the DSP in the Bathys’ software has definitely given them a warmer, denser character. In fact, it’s actually closer to the tuning of the Focal Radiance, which has a little more ‘relaxed’ mid-bass weight compared to the Celestee.
While the Bathys’ impresses first-up in terms of a nice sense of aid and separation between the left/right panned acoustic guitar strumming and the lingering reverbed decay in Colin Meloy’s lead vocal track, switching over to the Celestee definitely shows-off a noticeably greater sense of detail, air, and ultimately refinement in the treble department. Rather than force-feeding “detail” into the equation by adding greater upper treble presence, Focal has tuned the Bathys with a gentler, well-balanced approach that is mildly relaxed and not likely to cause any sense of fatigue whatsoever during a long-haul flight.
The “passive”-only Celestee also opens up the soundstage in that same Decemberists’ track to another level, creating a more diffuse 3D effect with the airy vocals and synths. While it might be a little unfair to compare the digitally tricked-out Bathys to its (eminently capable) wired closed-back counterpart, I don’t want to sound like I’m taking anything away from it - I can say without question that it’s the most detailed and technically-capable wireless headphone that I’ve experienced to-date, and it’s a hoot to listen to.
Tool’s Tempest definitely dialled things up a notch in terms of intensity, and the Bathys can certainly “rock out” when called for, conveying all the aggressive snarl and bite of Adam Jones’ wailing electric guitar track, supported by waves of pummelling bass and slamming drums that are taut and well-controlled. The Bathys is also resolving enough to pick up some flaws in the production, revealing some clipped distortion around the 8:50-mark in track #2 off the same album, Pneuma. Chocolate Chip Trip, Danny Carey’s wild “stream of consciousness” percussion soliloquy certainly shows off the Bathys’ excellent imaging chops. And not just “good for an ANC pair of headphones good”, I mean actually good imaging for a pair of audiophile headphones good, period. While I was getting good directional cues from the Bathys and there is some actual beyond-head width (which is a lovely surprise from a pair of ANC headphones), it’s not super vast. The Bathys’ soundstage is more left-right focused, in that it doesn’t give much by way front-to-back depth nor height, but it’s still very much what I’d describe as an immersive experience - when the panning tom-tom rolls slide from left to right and right to left, you do forget for a moment that you’re wearing two small speakers a couple of centimetres away from your ears.
After testing out the Bathys’ in USB-DAC mode with it tethered to my Pixel 6, it was hard to actually knock its wireless performance because it was actually pretty hard to pull apart any huge differences between the two modes. Granted, it did take a good 20 or so seconds to change between modes and switch cables and so forth, so it’s hard to give a more “scientific” comparison in that regard. I noticed that the vocals tracks in Wilco’s You and I became a fraction less grainy-sounding when moving across to USB-mode, and in certain tracks with a lot of splashy cymbals and busy upper treble detail above 10kHz there was a better sense of decay and definition when keeping things hard-wired. Of course, if you have a bunch of music in hi-res formats (up to 192kHz) that you want to enjoy natively without being downsampled, then you can also rest easy knowing that the internal DAC inside the Bathys is taking care of business.
If I could only take one pair of headphones with me for travelling to do everything, the new Bathys has immediately skipped its way to the front of the queue. Yes, they definitely command a price premium as far as ANC headphones go, but the upgrade in sound quality compared to any, and I mean any wireless headphone is worth the price of entry alone. Whereas all other Bluetooth headphones are a compromise in one way or another, the Bathys makes it hard to pick fault with them because they do most things excellently, and the most important thing brilliantly. And, if you don’t want to think of them as a Bluetooth pair of headphones, plug in a USB cable and use them instead as a “powered hi-res headphone with a built-in DAC”.
So compelling is the list of benefits stuffed into one good-looking package, that the new Focal Bathys is genuinely worth considering against other traditional “wired” headphones in their price category simply for the fact that you’ll get to enjoy music more often, in more places. And if anyone wants to argue the point with you, simply turn active noise cancelling on, kick back, tune out, and enjoy.