As much as I love wireless mice and keyboards, there are certain things I'm still a little wary of cord-cutting with. Headphones are one of them. I still groan when I see handset makers dropping my headphone jack. With wireless cans, I'm often finding myself frustrated with short battery life and subpar audio on a headset with confusing controls. That's a lot of compromise to cut the cord. Once in awhile, though, a wireless set crosses my desk that has me reconsidering. Enter the Listen Wireless headphones from French audio company Focal. At $299 these are pricey headphones to say the least, but sometimes the phrase 'you get what you pay for' works.
Build and Style
I don't have many complaints about the Listen headphones, I'll say that right up front. One of my biggest complaints, though, is that the pair the company lent me for this review are simple black headphones. The Listen headphones come in a few other colors, including a really great-looking green that I would love to have gotten a closer look at. That's not a ding against either Focal or the headphones themselves, other than to say that the black model is just a bit conservative and boring in appearance when there are these other stunning-looking headphones out there. Green headphones are cool.
In black, though, the Listen headphones feel as if they're meant to blend in, despite their initially bulky appearance. They have a simple, clean design that combines matte and glossy black plastic, interrupted only by the company's name and logo. The logo is chrome, but it's small enough that it doesn't interrupt the elegance of the black look.
The only real gripe I have against the look of the headphones is that the glossy black used on the ear cups picks up prints pretty quickly, and because the glossy black is on the ear cups, it's going to be impossible to avoid. The headbands are made of a matte black material that doesn't pick up prints and even resists hand oil pretty well, and I have to question why they switch up the material – especially when those other colors all seem to use a matte material on the ears:
Even so, the headphones look good and manage to fade into the background – a good thing for wearable tech of any kind.
The Listen headphones also feel sturdy, like they're meant to travel. Nothing about the headphones feels fragile or like it would be easy to break. They fold down into a small, travel-able handful that fits inside the neoprene case that accompanies the set, and that folding mechanism feels like it should work for a long time – though only time will tell if that's the case.
The on-board controls are good and feel solid, too. All the controls are located on the right ear-cup in a band that goes around the ear. The buttons are encased in soft-touch rubber. The Play-Pause-Answer button raised above the others and is easy to find, and the Bluetooth connectivity button is separated from the others. The other controls are placed naturally enough that they don't require any memorization. Volume is on the back, with the button for increasing the volume above the one for lowering, and the track-switching buttons are on either side of the Play button. In other words, I didn't have to think about how to control these – I just did it.
Battery Life and Charging
What good is a pair of wireless headphones that you constantly have to plug in?
The Focal Listen Wireless headphones promise about 20 hours of battery life, and that checks out with my use. I was happy with the amount of use I got out of a charge. It seems, though, like the headphones don't accurately report or monitor their battery life. Android phones with newer firmware now have a battery indicator that shows up in the quick bar. Until the headphones gave me a "low battery" voice warning, the indicator showed them at 100% battery. After that, they dropped to 90%, and then 70% about 20 minutes later. Huh?
Plugging the headphones in revealed an LED indicator that clearly shows you whether your headphones are charging or fully charged. The charging port is a USB Micro port, which is a little disappointing. New equipment in this, the year 2018, should use USB Type-C charging ports. Manufacturers' insistence on using Micro ports is just going to make the eventual switch to USB Type-C take that much longer. At this point, I really want all my devices to be USB Type-C, and when they're not, it's something I notice.
With that said, you can listen to the Listen Wireless headphones while they're charging, putting them a step above the last pair of headphones I looked at.
The headphones blend into the background when wearing them in public, and they disappear on my head when I wear them for a long time. The Listen headphones are some of the most comfortable headphones I've worn, well, ever.
The ear cups are padded with some ultra-soft foam covered in a leatherette-type material that feels good to wear and feels comfortable to wear for long periods in a room-temperature environment. If you're in the middle of a heatwave, these closed-back headphones might not be the best choice, but that isn't that different from other closed-back headphones. They're definitely not designed for a heavy workout. But hey – those of you who live up in the arctic north like me, you might want to give these a look.
While the Listen headphones are a good bit heavier than some other models – 300g compared to the Beats Solo 3 Wireless' 216g, for example – they don't feel heavy when i'm wearing them. They clamp down firmly without being too firm, and stay in place, and this helps keep them from feeling heavier. You'd have to move around a lot to shake them off.
All of this comes together to make a pair of headphones that are about as comfortable to wear as a pair of over-ear, closed-back headphones can be. I'm going to miss these when I package them up.
I had no problem initiating calls through my phone's assistant, and the people I talked to had no difficulties hearing me throughout the call – voice quality is solid. It's worth mentioning that the signal broke up a few times throughout these calls and the peopel at the other end sometimes had a tough time hearing me. This happened both when I was down the hallway from the phone, where I would expect it to break up, and also when I was close to the phone, within line of sight of it and just a few feet away. This could be my phone (a Huawei Nexus 6P), but it's worth mentioning.
The Listen Wireless headphones are one of the best pairs of wireless headphones I've listened to – no question.
The headphones lean a little bit toward the treble side of the spectrum, but not so much that it's distracting. The sound overall is well-defined. I can pick out the things like the maracas and acoustic guitar in Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" with excellent clarity, and the deep guitar in songs like Kyuss' "Space Cadet" sounds clean and clear. The drums on Metallica's "Of Wolf and Man" punch with all the power you'd expect.
But then the bass on "Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em" by Eric B. & Rakim leans a bit weaker than I'd like. "Misrlou" by Dick Dale doesn't have the force that makes it such a fun track to listen to, and the horns and piano on that track are a little overly bright. I experienced that over-brightness on a few different tracks that was bad enough that I ended up turning the volume down despite the rest of the track sounding good. Some of the keys and strings on Mr. Bungle's "Sweet Charity" had a similar effect of overpowering the rest of the song in a way that I don't tend to experience.
The Listen Wireless headphones do come with a 3.5mm cord for passive wired listening, but I'd call it a back-up solution at best. The headphones get louder and sound better in wireless mode, with punchier bass and more detailed sound. Listening wired just isn't as much fun. Further, the cord is semi-proprietary, with a locking pattern on the headphone end. The pattern is there to make sure the cord doesn't get pulled out of the the headphone jack accidentally, but it also means that you couldn't just grab a cord and plug it in. The fit is also very tight, and I felt like I had to pull a little too hard to get the cord out of the jack.
Despite the $299 price tag, the Listen Wireless headphones are not noise-cancelling headphones. That makes that sticker a little more shocking, but it also means that the headphones don't suffer from the muffled sound that comes with noise cancelling.
That means isolation is the only way to keep outside sound out. Sitting in a cafe directly under a speaker, I found the isolation to be about as good as I would expect from closed-back headphones. Without any music playing, sound was heavily muffled but audible through the headphones, while most music easily overpowered surrounding noise.
Despite a few minor issues, the Focal Listen Wireless headphones are really good. They're comfortable to wear for a long time – I'm going on about 5 hours of near-continuous wear as I type this. They're sturdy and good looking and have enough battery life to make it through a long trip. They sound great, too. The few shortcomings aren't going to stick out unless you really dig for them.
The biggest sticking point with the Focal Listen headphones is going to be that $299 sticker on the box. If that doesn't put you off, these headphones are worth checking out as a set of high-quality wireless headphones that should be able to take a beating while offering superior sound and comfort. This is my first experience with Focal headphones, and they've earned a spot on my map.
DISCLAIMER: We received a loaner review unit from Focal for review purposes and spent a few weeks with these as our primary headphones before starting this review.
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