Focal Celestee headphones

The Celestee headphones are fairly new to Focal’s high-end line up. As part of that high-end, they are made in France. They are a closed-back design with some design features aiming them at use with portable digital audio players. Let’s don the Focal Celestee headphones and see how they sound. But, first, some facts and figures.

tl;dr

  • Closed back, over ear design
  • Finished in navy blue with copper highlights
  • Employ 40mm aluminium/magnesium alloy drivers, formed as an “M”-shaped dome
  • Aluminium, stainless steel and leather construction
  • Earpads finished in semi-aniline leather
  • Leather and microfibre headband
  • Nominal impedance: 35 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 105dB SPL for 1mW at 1kHz
  • Rated frequency response: 5 to 23,000 hertz
  • Rated THD: 0.1% @1kHz @100dB SPL
  • Included cable: 1.2 metre 3.5mm stereo TRS to 2 x 3.5mm TS; gold-plated screw-on 3.5mm to 6.35mm adapter included
  • Other included accessories: rigid carry case
  • Summary: The Focal Celestee hadphones provide a comfortable These aren’t challenging headphones. They provide an attractive tonal balance, sufficient detail so that you don’t feel that you’re missing anything, a liveliness and presence that makes the music seem kind of real, but without the strange frequency balance that can make listening with some equipment a chore.
  • Uneven impedance across tonal range makes them unsuitable for low quality headphone outputs, such as those in most home theatre receivers
  • Price: $1,399
  • Available: here

Focal Celestee headphones

Putting the Focal Celestee together

Check out the pictures. The Focal Celestee is a handsome set of headphones. Analine leather is, apparently, leather finished with a translucent colour. It’s unclear whether the “semi” means its more transparent or more opaque. I suspect the latter because I could see no variation in colour.

Just to be clear, each earcup has its own mono 3.5mm socket. The supplied cable splits from 3.5mm stereo to two 3.5mm mono plugs. So of course it’s replaceable. The 6.35mm adaptor screws onto the stereo 3.5mm plug for a very sturdy join. The cable is only 1.2 metres long, which is one of those nods to use with digital audio players. If you’re walking around with your player – or even phone – in your pocket, you don’t want three metres of cable trailing along behind you. Tends to catch on things.

That said, at this price I think including a longer cable for home use would have been reasonable. As it is, the cable was a bit too short to reach the iFi ZEN CAN headphone amp I was using with the Topping E30 DAC and Mac Mini as my main desktop source. That’s why I am listing using a DAP even while sitting at my desk. For serious listening I sat closer to the ZEN CAN, and also tried out the headphones using a Cardas Audio Parsec headphone cable with a 4.4mm TRRRS plug in a balanced configuration. I also used that cable with a 4.4mm to balanced 2.5mm TRRS adapter part of the time with the portable audio player.

The other two nods towards portable audio use are the lowish impedance of 35 ohms, nominal, and the quite high sensitivity of 105dB SPL for 1mW input. That’s higher then quite a few in-ear monitors. With a device capable of supplying 1 volt into that load, you can expect peaks of up to 119.5dB. For a 0.5-volt output device, the peak would be 113.5dB. (An iPhone Lightning audio adaptor can cleanly deliver over 0.6 volts into such loads.)

Focal Celestee headphones

But against portability I’d note that these are large, bulky headphones. I imagine they could survive a few drops of rain, but I’d cringe at the concept. Their earcups do not bend in or swivel to allow a more compact package to carry. And even though we’re a few days into Autumn, the weather remains warm and I could imagine my ears getting sweaty very quickly were I outside.

Listening

I’m having trouble putting my finger on it precisely, but there’s something about the drums as delivered by the Focal Celestee headphones.

If you’ll permit me a digression, I associate two brands of loudspeakers with an especially impressive delivery of drum kits: VAF Research from here in Australia, and the Danish firm Dynaudio. These two brands have, to my ears, lifted drums, brought them forward, allowed them to penetrate the mix of music in a remarkable way. The Focal Celestee headphone brought that to mind. I’m not certain it’s the exact same phenomenon, but there was nonetheless a refreshing liveliness in the drumming.

Focal Celestee headphones

For example, the drumming around half-way through “21st Century Schizoid Man” on the debut King Crimson album – In the Court of the Crimson King – was really pretty glorious. The same with the Carl Palmer hammering on the timpani in “Toccata” on Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery.

Oh, oh, oh. After playing this music for a while, I started wondering: had I made the right choice? Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of different versions of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s releases (at least the first few). I have a general sense when I have multiple versions of something that “later is better”. So, confronted by my music server with a choice of “Brain Salad Surgery”, “Brain Salad Surgery [40th Anniversary Remastered]” and “Brain Salad Surgery [HD 2000 Stereo Downmix]”, the choice was obvious. The first was clearly from the first CD version I purchased, perhaps in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The second was clearly from a mix prepared in 2013, obviously the best. The third was from a high resolution – 24-bit, 96kHz – DVD Audio I purchased back in the early 2000s. Potentially better in the sense of being high resolution, but this was a DVD Audio without a separate two-channel track. If you wanted two channels, it was created on the fly from the 5.1 channel mix.

Focal Celestee headphones 3.5mm plug and converter

But the 40th Anniversary mix was strangely hollow, distant on the vocals, and had a nasty peak emphasising, ear-piercingly, the second or third harmonic of the vocal “s”s around 3:15 into “Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression, Part 2”. So I started going through the other versions of the recording.  It turned out that the original early 90s, late 80s CD had a better sound balance than the 2013 remastered version. And the early 2000s DVD Audio stereo downmix was clearly the best of all. It had all the detail, but a luscious tonal balance.

We now live in wonderful times where the same music by the same performers is often available in different mixes, and different masters, some much better than others.

Now, back to those drums. I find this kind of thing indicative of a particular liveliness in audio gear. Presentation of the sound in a way in which you can easily focus on each instrument and element, in a way in which the most dynamic elements stand out from the mix appropriately, is a large part of high-end enjoyment. And that’s what the Focal Celestee headphones delivered.

Okay, enough of the prog rock. How about some pop?

Focal Celestee headphones in case

George Ezra has reintroduced the baritone voice into popular music. His Wanted on Voyage from 2014 was solidly delivered, although occasionally with a squeaky high frequency peak. Album? Headphones? I move to the Laura Marling album Once I Was an Eagle with which I am very familiar. The slight vocal sibilance on the opening track was, if anything, a little less apparent than usual. But what was that about six seconds into the second track? A bird tweeting in the distance off to the right? I found myself hearing more things through the Focal Celestee headphones than usual. I’d never before heard that, even though I frequently listen closely to Laura Marling to assess equipment.

Finally, I should note that the Focal Celestee provide a comfortable listen. These aren’t challenging headphones. They provide an attractive tonal balance, sufficient detail so that you don’t feel that you’re missing anything, a liveliness and presence that makes the music seem kind of real, but without the strange frequency balance that can make listening with some equipment a chore.

Focal Celestee headphones with case

A measurement

Have you ever looked at frequency response measurements of headphones? There are plenty around and, by comparison with speaker measurements, they seem pretty insane. Quality headphones show massive drops in the treble … well massive drops and zig zags and an apparently complete lack of relationship to what you actually hear. You see, the problem is that if you fed a perfectly accurate signal directly into your ears with headphones or, worse, IEMs, the sound would be unbearably bad. The sound we hear in real life is mediated by the world around us, the listening environment, the shapes of our heads, and it’s further treated by the air between us and the source.

I find the bass-end elements of those measurements useful in terms of real-world sound, the rest not so much.

Speaker designers can aim for a flat frequency response. Headphone designers have to attempt to artfully engineer their devices to produce a weird, wobbly, frequency response which sounds the same as a flat response from a loudspeaker.

Why this mini-rant in the middle of a review? It’s because while I love measuring the performance of things, I haven’t bothered to try to do this with headphones, even though I could purchase the necessary gear. It would reveal little that is of interest.

What does reveal interesting information is whether the impedance of a set of headphones is even across the audio band, or whether it varies. That can affect which devices you should use them with. It turns out that the Focal Celestee headphones do vary in their impedance across the audio band to a significant amount. Here’s the level of the signal sent by an amplifier with 470 ohms of output resistance – there are a lot of those – to the Focal Celestee headphones:

Focal Celestee headphones input signal with 470 ohm inline resistance

The white trace is with the headphones sitting on my desk during the measurement. The green one is with them placed over a gently stuffed cardboard box during the measurement. Open and closed changes the behaviour of the air in front of the driver and, consequently, the movement of the driver itself. And, consequently, the impedance presented to the source. The green trace is closer to what would happen when you’re wearing them than the white trace.

As you can see, should you use these headphones with the headphone outputs on a lot of home theatre receivers, you’ll experience a noticeably boosted mid-bass, up by around 3.2dB. That’s a modest variation for headphones with a fairly low nominal impedance. They should be pretty neutral with any source with an output impedance under around 50 ohms.

Conclusion

Perhaps one time in twenty I am genuinely sad at having to return the review product. And I’d estimate I’ve reviewed around three thousand products over the years, so the possibility of buying that five percent wasn’t really an option. The Focal Celestee headphones are headphones that I will be genuinely sad to part with. Find a retailer who sells the Focal Celestee headphones and check them out for yourself. Don’t forget to take your favourite music with you, and all the better if you have a quality digital audio player to use.

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