In this post, I just wanted to share some impressions based on my time spent with the following headphones: the Audeze LCD-2, Audeze LCD-X, Sennheiser HD800S, Beyer T1.1, Focal Elear, and Focal Utopia during live audition. I’ll also include snippets regarding the Fostex TH-900 (not tested directly against the Focals) that I own and have a good amount of experience with. I felt the inclusion of the TH-900 was necessary in order to better frame the lower frequency performance of the Focal Elear and Utopia. Before I go further, I’d also like to thank Zeppelin & Co. for letting me try these headphones and hogging a significant amount of desk space for quite a while. It’s not often that you get the chance to audition such new and exciting pieces of equipment for extended periods of time.
I’ll start by saying that I went about this testing because I was very, very curious. There was a lot of excitement regarding the release of the Focal headphones – almost to the point where it seemed like a figurative miracle of sound. Naturally, I needed to hear these headphones for myself -and also to sort out my list of possible future purchases and upgrades. So, kind of a selfish reason really. I’ll cut to the chase -the Focal Utopia has joined the SR-009 in my endgame category (not that I’ll be headed there any time soon), while the Elear has been shortlisted for consideration as a future purchase along with the MDR-Z1R (awaiting review) and the Ether C Flow (haven’t heard it yet). Some of the source equipment used include the Chord Dave, Questyle CMA-800i, and Chord Hugo.
Quick Organizational Tip
I’ve tried to group the comparisons in a meaningful manner. My choice of comparisons were done based on whether I felt that they were competitive (or at least would be perceived as being as such). However, organizational skills aren’t my strongest suite and so I hope at least some of this makes sense. In comparing these headphones, I’ve without a doubt considered the price. I think with the Utopia especially, this is one factor that a potential buyer simply cannot ignore. Similarly, the Elear to me represents a excellent price-performance value. Some of the music I’ve used for the auditions are from the Eagles, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Pink Martini, Vangelis (and a couple of others that I can’t remember). I’ll elaborate on specific instances later in the comparisons.
I feel it’s important to mention that these do not constitute full reviews of the headphones. I’d need far more time with each for me to put up a formal review. So take it with a pinch of salt. For me though, what I’ve gathered in my notes so far is enough to help me make a general purchase decision.
Elear At A Glance
To me, the Elear is indeed somewhat like an “upgraded HD-650” (if that crude description can be used). It’s got a bass section that features a very unique, physical impact. It’s like the air is literally brushing against the listener’s ears. This sounds incredibly clumsy but I haven’t found a better way to describe it yet. The physicality is very real and the sound is indeed palpable. I’m thinking that there is a slight reverb that helps the headphone achieve this. Mid-range is very nice -smooth and somewhat mellow. Highs are nondescript, and do not stand out as being particularly poor or impressive. They fit into the general tonality of this headphone fairly well. Technicality wise the Elear isn’t the best, and I’ll talk more about this later. The resultant signature is one that is very rich, enjoyable, and ultimately musical.
Beyer T1.1 ($700) Vs Focal Elear ($1000)
I ran the T1 out of the Chord Hugo, which while being a good sound, wasn’t the most optimized for the T1. I do think that the Elear did benefit from the Hugo’s signature though. However, in the interest of maintaining a fair playing field, I won’t deviate too far into the depths of optimizing a T1 setup (though it is one of my favorite discussions). For the record, I use an excellent late serial T1 that more or less represents what the T1 should sound like in my opinion (i.e. not piercing treble). Alright, let’s talk bass. The Elear out of this setup took the cake, with more of that physical response that the restrained T1 could not match. Perhaps if you threw a couple of tubes into the mix with the T1 you could have a different story. The T1, however, was able to maintain a very solid control over the bass and a tight punch that did indeed at times make the Elear feel slower! Mid-range wise, there was more energy on the T1, especially in the upper mids where things sound clearer (but arguably more strident too). The Elear on the other hand had a much richer midrange that came through with more body. Highs are a clear win for the T1. At least on this pair of T1’s, the liquid highs had an articulation that was not matched by the less detailed and smoothed out upper frequency response of the Elear. Generally speaking, the Elear is smoother than the T1. Moving on to the technicals, soundstage is bigger on the T1. The amount of air that the T1 has is immediately apparent. Do not take this the wrong way, as the Elear’s more intimate presentation does, to a certain extent, fit its sound sig. However, I found the imaging to be a little bit off. While playing the “good” version of Tao Of Love (from the Themes album by Vangelis), I noticed that the Elear really had trouble placing the instruments properly. It seemed like the lack of bass and mids on the track kind of threw the headphone off balance.
Audeze LCD-2 ($1000) Vs Focal Elear ($1000)
This was a bit of a sweep in my opinion. The LCD-2 could not really compete with the Elear on some key fronts. Starting with the bass, the LCD-2 is very competitive with the Elear. While the Elear has that encompassing feeling and slightly better sub bass extension, the LCD-2 does have slightly more punch and tautness to the sound. I thoroughly enjoyed Please Come Home For Christmas by the Eagles on both of these headphones. The mids of the LCD-2 vs Elear are in fact rather close. The LCD-2 mids have more grain than the Focal Elear, and aren’t quite as smooth or as refined sounding. However, the upside is that it also has more energy, which makes for a better listen. LCD-2 didn’t fare so well in the highs compared to the Elear. Really, just kind of dull and not very articulate. Soundstage was far larger with the Elear. There was a significant improvement in terms of width, depth, and height. Imaging performance is similar. However, the separation and air on the Elear was much better in my opinion and especially on some more complex compositions the limitations of the LCD-2 did begin to show. Comfort on the Elear is the biggest win for me though. LCD 2 was very heavy in comparison.
Audeze LCD-X ($2000) vs Focal Elear ($1000)
Audeze strikes back with this one. I’d first like to say that these two headphones have more in common than they have in difference. But at the end of the day, the LCD-X does better in most respects. I think we started seeing hints of this with the first Beyer T1 comparison, but listening to the bass section of the LCD-X, I felt that the Elear was almost a tad less controlled and a bit billowy in the lower frequencies. The LCD-X punched fairly hard and the initial wow factor of the Elear’s bass started wearing off as the technical performance of the LCD-X in the lower frequencies came through. Mids are similar to the previous comparison. The LCD-X has slightly more energy and more texture than the Elear. The highs are what really changed the whole game though. With the improved upper frequency response of the LCD-X, I found that it was much more articulate and present than that of the Elear. It seemed that the Elear’s higher frequencies weren’t very well-defined and a little flat. The lack of positive texture on the Elear became apparent. Soundstage wise, things changed a bit. The Focal still maintained a lead in depth, but the Audeze was now competitive in both height and width. Imaging on the LCD-X is better than the Elear. I did not experience weird placements with the Vangelis track. Separation and air is roughly tied. General detail retrieval on the LCD-X is better than the Elear. It’s clear that there is more resolution. Overall, I’m also going to be putting the LCD-X on my possible purchase list, but it’s really heavy and also much more expensive than the Elear.
HD 800S ($1700) vs Focal Elear ($1000)
This was a bit of a wildcard comparison and frankly it plays out pretty much as you’d expect it to. Bass wise the Elear takes the cake hands down. Even with an optimized HD 800S setup I don’t think it’s going to be able to come head-to-head with the capabilities of the Elear in this sound segment. Mids are more interesting. The HD800S has cleaner mids with less coloration and more energy. The Elear on the other hand as that lush and rich signature with just a tad of mushiness that makes for easier listening. I think it will be heavily dependent on how one enjoys his or her mids in this sense. Highs on the HD 800S are a clear step up from the Elear, as should be the same for the rest of the technicalities which I won’t go into again.
Utopia At A Glance
I like the Utopia. It’s somewhere between the HD-800 sound and the Audeze sound. In terms of bass, it is rather tame when compared to the Focal Elear. While still being impactful and fairly punchy, it doesn’t have that same visceral feeling that makes the Elear bass quite special (or sometimes compromised). Mids are nice and energetic, and are clearer than those on the Elear. Significantly more articulate highs on the Utopia resolve one of my main gripes with the Elear. Overall the Utopia is a much faster headphone with better technicalities. It’s odd, but I really do not think that the Utopia and Elear share much in common at all. Two very different tunings in my opinion. The greatest strength of the Utopia is perhaps its ability to achieve critical listening criteria while still sounding incredibly natural. It’s very simply the best that a dynamic driver can offer at this current point in time.
HD 800S ($1700) vs Utopia ($4000)
This was bound to happen. Starting with the bass section, it is very immediate that the HD 800S does not have as impactful a bass. Even though the Utopia bass has been “toned” down from the Elear, it still hits harder with more directness and physicality than the HD 800S. The mids are different. I’d say that the HD 800S is still clearer with more texture. However, the Utopia found the right spot in terms of combining body, presence and a general richness of sound while maintaining a bite that ensures that it isn’t overly euphonic or anything of the like. Highs are still a tad better on the HD800s, though there isn’t much to complain about with the Utopia either. Sound staging and imaging wise, the HD 800S maintains its technical edge. It also features more air and better separation. However, the Utopia is a far more cohesive and natural sound, and doesn’t feel at all unnatural in its presentation (like the HD 800S can, occasionally). I’m actually surprised that the HD 800S put up such a good fight in terms of technical capability. It’s still going toe to toe with a headphone that is more than twice its price. However, if we’re going to deal with the general tonality and continuity of sound, Utopia is my choice by far.
Kennerton Odin ($2500) vs Utopia ($4000)
Upon recommendation, I tried the Kennerton Odin. Was rather impressed for that matter by what Kennerton had achieved. I feel that the Utopia and Odin have fairly similar presentations. Bass wise, the Odin is more impactful and engaging. Mids have more texture, but also have an edgier, sometimes etched characteristic that becomes apparent on certain tracks. Highs are more articulate and present on the Odin too. Soundstage wise, both perform similarly. However, Odin does have a slight edge in terms of layering. Why is Odin not my new favorite then? It’s not as refined or as pleasant to listen to as the Utopia. This may seem like a small thing, but I can assure you it is not. Also, it’s too heavy and I do not like the fit. Really, it’s kind of uncomfortable.
TH-900 (all over the place pricing) vs Utopia/ Elear
The TH-900 is still the king of dynamic driver bass (we’ll need to see about the MDR-Z1R), and this can partially be attributed to its closed back design. At any rate, I felt that while the Elear has that physicality of bass that is indeed very impressive for open headphones (and even closed to a certain extent), its extension simply did not rival that of the TH-900. The TH-900 isn’t simply about quantity – it’s greatest strength lies in quality, extension, and the ability to deliver that “under-the-skin” feeling when needed. Compared to the Elear, the TH-900 has better control over the bass and exerts itself in a more consistent manner. Of the three, the Utopia has the most refined and, correspondingly, restrained bass. It’s not attempting to compete in the same league as the Elear or TH-900.
Overall, two very intriguing headphones. Hope this has been a good read. Cheers and signing out! It’s really late now.