The Focal Clear Mg headphones are the latest (as at mid-March 2020) from the French manufacturer. There are really two kinds of Focal headphones: those made in France in Focal’s factory, and those made elsewhere. Like the flagship Focal Utopia headphones, these ones are made in France.
- Full sized, over ear, open backed
- Finished in tan and bronze colours
- Employ 40mm magnesium alloy drivers, formed as an “M”-shaped dome
- Aluminium headband yoke
- Earpads finished in perforated microfibre
- Leather and microfibre headband
- Nominal impedance: 55 ohms
- Sensitivity: 104dB SPL for 1mW at 1kHz
- Rated frequency response: 5 to 28,000 hertz
- Rated THD: 0.25% @1kHz @100dB SPL
- Included cables: 3 metre 4-pin balanced XLR to 2 x 3.5mm TS; 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 Clear MG headphones are serious, sometimes penetrating headphones. If you lean towards unlimited bass and excellent dynamic responsiveness you’ll likely enjoy them. But if you prefer headphones with a light touch, they may not have quite the sparkle you’re after.
- Very uneven impedance across tonal range makes them not suitable for low quality headphone outputs, such as those in most home theatre receivers
- Price: $2,199
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division here
About the Focal Clear Mg headphones
You can think of the Focal Clear Mg headphones as the domestic version of the Focal Clear Professional Mg headphones. The most obvious difference is the colour scheme. The Pro goes for black and red. The Clear Mg has a more restrained tan and brown for the soft surfaces, a deep bronze for the headband yoke and a lighter, almost silver, colour for the grilles over the front and back of each of the drivers. I think it looks classy. Check out the photos – I took them in my front yard – and see what you think.
Focal is keen on low-density metals for its driver cones – that’s tweeters in its loudspeakers, and full-range drivers in its headphones. It’s extreme top-end units use beryllium as their material. With an atomic number of 4, it manages a density of less than double that of water. Magnesium is the next step down in Focal’s materials of choice, and even though its atomic number is 12, it is actually less dense – lighter for a given volume – than beryllium. And it’s only about two thirds the density of aluminium. (Of course, the strength of the material has to be taken into account too.) As is Focal’s practice, the profile of the drivers is an “M” shaped dome.
The “yoke” or the core of the headband band is made of aluminium, while the pad over it is covered in leather on top, and perforated microfibre on the face that comes into contact with your head. The grip on my head was middling. I spent many hours wearing these headphones and they remained comfortable throughout.
Inside the earcups are a metal gr0illes, fashioned into the same “M” shaped domes. They are perforated by large hexagonal holes in a honeycomb pattern. There is no layer cloth layer between the drivers and your ears. The grilles on the outside of this open-backed design also use a honeycomb pattern of holes.
Each earcup has a 3.5mm mono socket for the signal feed.
The Pro comes with two cables, as does the Focal Clear MG. They both get a 1.2 metre cable terminated with a 3.5mm stereo plug, although of course they are colour matched to their respective headphones. A gold-plated 3.5mm to 6.35mm screw-on adaptor plug is included. The Pro also gets a 5-metre long studio-suitable cable with a 6.35mm plug on the end. The new Clear Mg headphones get a three metre balanced cable with a 4-pin XLR connector. This is suitable for use with balanced headphone amps, such as the Focal Arche, along with plenty of others which used this connection.
I used the Focal Clear Mg headphones with both of those cables in different devices (including the Arche), and also with a balanced Cardas Parsec headphone cable terminated in a 4.4mm TRRRS with the iFi ZEN CAN headphone amplifier. And thence, a few times, via a 4.4mm to 2.5mm TRRS adaptor with a portable digital audio player.
I was able to spend a couple of weeks using these headphones intensively before launch date.
Much of the time I spent with these headphones on my head was doing something I don’t think I have done since the 1980s. With one partial exception, I have not once since then donned headphones to listen to music on vinyl. (The exception was just six months ago, when I checked that the Bluetooth connectivity of a turntable worked. It did. And, yes, there is such a turntable!)
But I had the Thorens TD402 DD turntable sitting on my desk right next to me, plugged into my analogue to digital converter so I could measure some stuff. On a whim I grabbed 1979 pop album Get the Knack from the one-hit wonder band The Knack, span it up and plugged the Focal Clear MG headphones into the ADC. The ADC makes a mean DAC as well – it’s an RME ADI-2 PRO FS Black Edition – but in this case it was simply running in analogue mode to its very high-power outputs. This was in unbalanced mode.
And, wow. It took me way back to when I bought that black disk, all those decades ago. At least in terms of excitement. Sound quality? Our modern stuff kills what we had available back then.
Of course I started with Side 2, which opens with that lonely hit, “My Sharona”. The Focal Clear MG headphones delivered the track was a strong bass line – a real dynamic punch – and a great rhythmic intensity. And there was a surprisingly modest amount of surface noise, given that this was a forty-plus year-old chunk of vinyl that I was spinning.
That turned out to be the sound signature of the Focal Clear MG headphones: strong, almost limitless bass, and a fairly soft-touch on the upper frequencies.
Take, for example, what I take to be the pseudo string accompaniment on Marillion’s “Pseudo Silk Kimino” from Misplaced Childhood. I played this a couple of times, both times from TIDAL, but once from a Mac through a Topping E30 DAC and the ifi ZEN CAN headphone amp, and then again, later, to check my impressions, via the magnificent Astell&Kern &Futura SE200 digital audio player. It made no difference. This sounded silky smooth. It was luscious and delighting, and seemed to be without a loss of clarity, but I do wonder if the omission of the slightly rougher delivery from some other output devices might have been more accurate.
And then, as the album rolled onto the next track, “Kayleigh”, there was nicely defined and delivered reverberation and air around the deeper drums at several points within.
If you read into the writings of King Crimson enthusiasts, they generally consign the 1971 album Islands to the yes-they-did-that-between-the-masterpieces pile. Unaccountably (apart from the forgettable string instrumental). Consider the second track, “Sailor’s Tale”. This opens with a piercing motif on cymbals, followed shortly by the whole kit kicking in with authority. Well, with the Focal Clear MG headphones it was certainly delivered with authority. Then there’s development with Philip Glass-like repetition of a short phrase, subtlely altered on each iteration, but unlike Glass it’s resolved. Then a sax and drum section had the kick drum – delivered by these headphones – more powerfully than is the norm. This is followed by Fripp doing some angular guitar work that he never, I think, repeated elsewhere, nor has it been replicated by anyone else. And then, again, the drum kit kicks in, a little to the right of centre.
Again, the overall balance has things leaning somewhat towards the bass. Yet I hear the tick of the cymbals undiminished as this track nears its end.
That bass-leaning tonal balanced worked particularly well with brighter recordings, such as Prince’s Purple Rain. I had gone back to a new pressing on vinyl for this one – with the harsher edges softened without losing much in the way of detail. Some of the unusual percussive effects in “Take Me with U” – plus several of the other tracks – were rendered in a revealing way, allowing me to hear them distinctly and cleanly, with nice air around them despite the rest of the music. When Prince overdrives his voice in “The Beautiful Ones”, the rawness and emotion is retained, while the hard-on-the-ears screechiness was held in check.
They weren’t quite so well suited to the debut Roxy Music album on vinyl. The drums and bass were excellent, but the recent pressing I have is a little on the dull side. It’s adequate with sparkly headphones and speakers, but otherwise the digital remaster provides better tone. The Focal Clear MG were good with that digital version, not so good with the vinyl.
The various devices I used – even an Apple Lightning to headphone adaptor on an iPhone – had plenty of power to drive these headphones to quite extreme levels. That 104dB for 1mW sensitivity would not be out of place in many in-ear listening gear.
However, the impedance was quite variable, with a significant peak at 50 hertz. I measured the affect that had on the signal being fed to them via an inline 470 ohms resistance – which is the situation for the headphone output of many home theatre receivers.
With the headphones sitting free, the 50 hertz boost was more than 13dB over 1kHz. Placing the headphones on a head-sized cardboard box changes the resonances since the cone now must contend with a more-or less sealed chamber at their front. This is closer to what happens when you’re wearing them. That reduced the signal ranges to less than 7dB, still a wide range of frequency variance. Using the Focal Clear Mg headphones with high impedance sources will add additional bass emphasis. Remember, their nominal impedance of 55 ohms is fairly low, too, so that enhances the impact of high impedance sources.
Look for headphone amplifiers with an output impedance of only a few ohms, tops. (Even the iPhone dongle is only 1.5 ohms. The iFi ZEN CAN only puts around half an ohm in line with its output.) See here for a full explanation of the effect on sound of high-resistance headphone outputs.
The Focal Clear MG headphones are serious, sometimes penetrating headphones. If you lean towards unlimited bass and excellent dynamic responsiveness, you’ll likely enjoy them. But if you prefer headphones with a light touch, they may not have quite the sparkle you’re after.
Do give them a listen and see what you think.