What kind of money would you have to make to spend $900 on headphones? Six digits? Seven? I like fancy headphones and when I look at the pricetag hanging off the Focal Elegia headphones, I physically cringe. That’s multiple car payments! That’s a PlayStation and an Xbox One – the fancy kind, too. But there’s a market for this, because just about every audio company has headphones at this level and higher. Focal sent me a pair of its nearly-one-grand Elegias to check out. I’ve worn expensive headphones before, but the Elegias took that to a new level. Can a pair of headphones possibly sound like it costs this much? Get out your q-tips.
Build and Style
The Elegia headphones are simple and elegant, and definitely at the very top of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn. Inside the box, you’ll find a rigid carrying case for the headphones, the detachable headphones cable, a 3.5mm to ¼” stereo adapter, and the headphones themselves.
When I first moved up from cheap eyeglasses to ones worth wearing all day, the optician gave me a simple rule: in the case or on your face. That’s how I feel about these headphones. Not once while I was reviewing them did they sit on my desk unattended. The rigid case is an absolute necessity with these.
Not that they feel fragile. Let’s talk about the headphones themselves. These things feel like they’re built to last as long as you treat them properly. The headband seems to be plastic but has a nice layer of microfiber-encased memory foam that means I can wear these for hours and hours without fatigue. The aluminum yokes that hold the ear cups are strong and sturdy and good looking. The earcups themselves have that same memory foam and microfiber and, at least for my relatively large head they never felt like they were clamping too hard. My one point of disappointment with the headphones themselves is that the outer cover of these closed-back headphones appears to be plastic. That’s not the worst thing on earth, and I appreciate that they went with a matte plastic with a nice texture – rather than something glossy. But at this price I would’ve expected something that feels a bit more “premium.” These things cost as much as my phone, after all.
My biggest quibble with the Elegias, though, is the cord. The included cord has nice-feeling aluminum endcaps, but the cord itself is this super-thick braided nylon deal that doesn’t so much hang as it does snake, curling in midair and twistingaround at weird angles. The kinks never fully disappear from the cord, making it look ugly and kind of cheap. It also causes microphonics – that sound you hear when you rub a headphone cord on a zipper or your jacket – on a level I’d usually associate specifically with earbuds.
On the upside, the cord is short enough for mobile use, and the 3.5mm plug is the default, which makes these much more accessible for everyday listening.
This is the toughest thing about these – right out of the gate, I’m left frustrated with the cord and a little unsatisfied with the materials, and I keep looking back at that pricetag. Then I remember that I’m wearing headphones again, because these things are so comfortable that they disappear into my head.
I spent my time with these listening on a combination of my FiiO E10K Amp/DAC and my Google Pixel 3XL via the included USB Type-C dongle. And to say I enjoyed my time listening to these would be an understatement. They sound really good.
The overall sound profile feels pretty flat to me, meaning that it doesn’t overemphasize bass or treble very much. Because these are closed-back headphones, the soundstage is necessarily somewhat limited, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded, either. When I would close my eyes and listen, I could frequently place instruments in relation to my current location. Toto’s “Africa” sounds bigger than I’m used to on these.
Picking out elements of particular songs, I loved the way the bass guitar on Metallica’s “Of Wolf and Man” sounds on these. It comes across more clearly than in many other headphones, as do all the other instruments, but the bass plays more of a backup role in this song, so being able to pick it out so clearly when I want to listen for it is nice. The bass cello in Miles Davis’ Blue in Green is so deep that, even wearing headphones I could swear I feel it down in my chest.
I chalk a lot of that up not to sweetened bass but to excellen instrument separation. The ability to pick out the different instruments in any given track was amplified across the board with the Elegias. Everything from Led Zeppelin to the DOOM soundtrack to hip-hop like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock sounded more lively than I’m used to. I loved picking out things like the the back-up sings in Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.”
Switching over to Kyuss, the guitar during the opening of “Space Cadet” has extra-crisp sounding strings. I feel like I’m listening to the instrument rather than a recording instrument. That song has butt-rocking bass from end to end that tends to expose weaknesses in speakers, but even at maximum volume I couldn’t hear any distortion to speak of.
At higher volumes, some of the treble is a little bright, but this was at a volume that I wouldn’t be able to comfortably listen to these at, so it’s hard to knock them for it.
One of the few knocks I would make against these is that they don’t have very good inward isolation. Sound doesn’t leak out very much, but sound does leak in. If you’re planning to listen to quiet music in loud environments, the Elegias are not going to measure up. If you get some rock going though, background noise gets pushed out just fine.
At the price these go for, it’s hard not to look at them with that pricetag in mind. They sound really good – that absolutely is not up for debate. They sound amazingly clear and clean, and they’re absurdly comfortable.
But do they sound $900 good? I don’t know. It’s hard to recommend these with that in mind. If money is not a concern for you, or if you wear suits after after 5 p.m. because you’re not a farmer or whatever? These are great headphones. But if you don’t laugh when you hear the word budget, it’s hard to recommend these over headphones that cost half the price. If you pick up Sony’s 1000xm3 headphones, for example, you get supremely comfortable, great-sounding, ultra-light headphones that lean a little on the bass while offering noise cancelling and supreme isolation even without said feature enabled. And those are only $350 at the top end.
Most listeners aren’t going to put them on and say, yeah these cost almost $1000. Someone who listens to more common headphones might put these on and then try on, say, Audio Technica’s ATH-M50x headphones and point to the latter as the better-sounding pair – though that might be up to the flat sound signature of the Elegias, or the fact that Elegias make everything sound so clear that any flaws in a song’s compression are immediately ultra apparent. I’m thinking about re-ripping a few of my albums into FLAC or 320Kbit because of these guys.
If you have the kind of money that lets you blow $900 on headphones, you won’t be disappointed. If you don’t, though, it’s hard for me to say that you’re missing out. They’re very good headphones, but your socks are still going to be on after listening to these for the first time.
Disclaimer: The manufacturer sent us a loaner set of the Focal Elegias to review and we spent about 30 hours listening to them before writing this review.