Focal Clear Mg Headphones Review
Jay Garrett curls up with the latest headset from this talented French firm…
Clear Mg Headphones
Recently Focal has been refreshing its headphone lineup. At the start of this year, the French speaker giant announced its new premium closed-back design, the Celestee. We knew there was more to come, as the eagle-eyed amongst us spotted a quick-panned shot of a Clear Mg logo on another pair of cans. Sure enough, the open-backed Clear Mg Professional and its domestic sibling were officially outed in February and March, respectively.
The US$1,490 Focal Clear Mg you see here replaces the original and highly regarded Clear, released almost four years ago. It retains the original's overall design as an open-back, over-ear headphone and takes its place beneath the flagship Utopia. Priced the same as the outgoing model, it has been designed to be Focal's sub US$2,000 open-backed champion.
This means that the newcomer sports the St Étienne-based company's latest 40mm magnesium driver, built with an 'M' shaped profile. This is said to give it a higher level of strength and rigidity than a conventional dome. The driver is then placed in a full-size circumaural enclosure. Focal quotes a frequency response of 5Hz-28kHz; while some price rivals claim a wider bandwidth, this is still no slouch and covers the human hearing spectrum.
Focal has used magnesium in its drivers before, albeit with added aluminium, but with the Clear Mg, it has gone the whole hog. Magnesium is a third lighter than aluminium and almost as light as beryllium. While the latter is still a bit lighter than magnesium and stiffer too, it’s far more expensive. This means it’s a good working compromise, addressing Focal’s rightful quest to reduce moving mass.
This model has a quoted sensitivity of 104dB/1mW @1kHz, and a 55 ohm claimed impedance. This means these cans are reasonably easy to drive for anything from portable players and pocket-friendly DAC/amps upwards. Naturally, being open-backed, the design transmits outside noise to you, and your noise to the outside. That’s why the Clear Mg has been conceived more as a stay-at-home companion than one you'd take out on the commute or into the office.
The design of the headphones might trigger trypophobes, but I really like the honeycomb aesthetic of the earcup outers. Additionally, my earlier reservations regarding the Clear Mg's colourway totally evaporated as soon as it was out of the substantial packaging. The way the different bronzed – or 'Chestnut' as Focal has it – and chromed mixed metallic finishes catch the light is lovely, and everything feels top quality.
This pair of cans is supremely comfortable thanks to the deep memory foam-padded, microfibre-covered earcups. That’s remarkable as the enclosures are only hinged to move in the vertical plane; the rest is left to the small amount of flex offered by the sleek aluminium yoke and the luxuriously appointed earpads. I like a bit of grip from my headphones, and the headband exerts a decent amount of clamping force, so it gets a thumbs up from me there. The underside of the leather-wrapped headband is also padded and covered in breathable microfibre. Overall I found the Clear Mg to be immensely comfortable – we’re talking slippers and satin robe levels of luxury here.
Along with a decent looking protective hard case, the Clear Mg comes bundled with a brace of cables. The main event is a 3m length terminated at one end with a four-pin balanced connector. The other is a 1.2m option featuring a 3.5mm jack termination. Focal is obviously assuming that serious listening in a comfy chair will be enjoyed by someone with a system equipped with such a balanced out as offered by the manufacturer's own Arche headphone amp, for instance. Thankfully, my reference Moon 430 HA has a range of options, including such a beast. I would have liked a longer lead for the 3.5mm jacked variant, but it does work well with the likes of Chord Electronics’ Hugo 2/2go as well as my desktop system powered by an Auris Audio Euterpe amplifier.
I spent considerable time comparing the Focal Clear Mg to my pair of reference open-backed Oppo PM-1s, through various head-fi systems. It was immediately apparent that the latter needed more of a push to get a similar volume, but that's to be expected. Additionally, the Focal proved more upfront with the mix, making its rival seem more recessed by comparison. There was plenty of detail through the Clear Mg, which also had more low-end presence than my other headphones.
The Focal treated Depeche Mode's classic Personal Jesus to a spirited performance. It’s a track that sometimes comes over as a little sparse and anaemic, but here a dramatic synthesiser bassline pushed things along like an unstoppable freight train. Guitar and piano cut through nicely, showing this pair of headphones could do an excellent job in the midband – the lower mids accommodating the vocals nicely. The excellent upper range performance was also underlined by the opening acoustic strums of Fleetwood Mac's Go Your Own Way as they shimmered with harmonic content. Later on, the shakers, upper range vocals and biting snare performed an admirable task of balancing out Mick's low-frequency tub-thumping.
Subsonics proved more pronounced with the Focal’s magnesium drivers than via my reference planar magnetic phones. Hey Now by London Grammar was a case in point, with a distinctly meatier growl to the lowest frequencies through the French headphones, and more in keeping with the track's younger target demographic. The Oppo did offer a smoother, less peaky sound signature in comparison, but the Focal avoided being overly bright thanks to the warm timbre of the lower mids and upper bass.
Indeed the Focal’s elevated bass skills were conspicuous during Prokofiev's Dance of The Knights. Where the Oppo had a more even approach across the orchestration, its rival really liked to emphasise those low, ominous horns. This wasn’t to the detriment of any other instrumentation, however. Here's where personal taste and equipment matching has the final say.
The Clear Mg's love of the low notes can on occasion be its undoing if you have valve-amplified head-fi. I found that in tracks such as Lorde's Royals, the lowest notes tended to muddy the waters a little for me, especially noticeable through my Chord Qutest/Auris Euterpe office system when giving them a generous turn of the volume dial. This was less evident through the Moon head amp, which has a tighter grip on such things. However, the PM-1 had greater separation between the lower notes and so seemed to suffer less.
Open-backed headphones should give a spatial awareness beyond their closed-back counterparts, and the Clear Mg certainly achieves this. Selecting Andy's Tune from the excellent Manu Dibango Live '91 album, the track's dynamics came through wonderfully, and the Focal's talents for speed and impact were also evident. However, the sense of space that these headphones imparted is what planted a grin upon my face. Select a track with more audience in the mix, such as The Trees from Exit… Stage Left by Rush, sprinkle in a bit of cross-feed, close your eyes, and you’re immediately transported to the gig.
Some listeners would class Focal equipment as being over-analytical or even too bright, but neither characteristic was displayed here. That’s not to say that this pair of headphones can’t pick out fine details from recordings or shine a light on the particular skills of the other equipment in the chain, however. For example, David Bowie's Blackstar has a purposely compressed and oppressive ambience, yet the Clear Mg had a way of opening the track up and using its generous soundstaging to give the players more air, without ruining the slightly claustrophobic effect. The result was that the listener could home-in on panned synths, incidental effects, the half-open hi-hats, or just luxuriate in Bowie's vocals without much effort.
Focal’s new Clear Mg may not be quite as neutral as its Oppo PM-1 rival for instance, but is a highly talented performer in its own right with arguably more contemporary voicing. It’s also supremely comfortable to wear, so much so that it’s one of my lasting recollections of this design. Together, these two facets form a highly desirable package.
The original Clear was like a more attainable Utopia – and for me, the new Clear Mg is even more so. Focal's latest is a great all-rounder with impeccable timing and excellent dynamics, but its sense of space is where it really shines. I did find some untidiness in the lowest frequencies when using a tube amp, but valve warmth sometimes can add some opaqueness to the presentation. Overall it has much to shout about in the sub-£1,500 sector and will challenge many more expensive designs too.
StereoNET’s resident rock star, bass player, and gadget junkie. His passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.
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