15 Focal Clear bI’ve never been a Ry Cooder fan and Bop Till You Drop was not his greatest album, but I bought it because it was the first popular album to be recorded digitally. That was way out there in 1979. I listened to it repeatedly but could detect no difference.

However it set the stage. By the mid-1980s most music recordings were going through a digital stage somewhere including Invisible Touch by Genesis, which brings me to my point. Especially in rock and popular music, digital has improved the breed.

In analogue days it was unusual for producers to spend much time enhancing and refining. Maybe a couple of days. But with digital equipment the possibilities exploded. Producers now spend months in post-production, turning out terrific finished recordings of great complexity. That’s why, when you’ve become used to contemporary offerings, it can be such a shock to go back to a much loved vinyl record and hear how flat it 15 Focal Clear csounds.

And so to Focal’s $2199 Clear headphones. Invisible Touch was on the cusp of the digital revolution and I defy anyone to listen to it through these and not be excited. The Clears are good at everything but with complex productions they’re outstanding, and the old Genesis number is Exhibit A. It starts with some solid drumbeats and then the guitars crash in hard. Through the Clears it’s thrilling, with razor sharp definition and lightning responsiveness. I guess Focal called them Clear because that’s exactly how they sound; the clarity and airiness is fantastic, especially in the mids and 15 Focal Clear ahighs.

Now go to stuff recorded in the 21st century, like Allira Wilson’s Rise and Fall album put down in a nondescript studio in a back street of West Perth. This is intimate, creamy jazz; a laid back voice of vivid presence perfectly complemented by double bass, piano, sax, guitar and drums. Close your eyes and you’re there. It’s the airiness and spaciousness that makes it so involving.

The Clears love the complexity of digital production so much that with music recorded in simpler times they sometimes seem frustratingly under-utilised. And their clarity can be a two-edged sword. I found them a bit sharp on a couple of tracks, especially with the volume up. The prime example was Oscar Peterson’s Wave from Motions and Emotions where for the first time it sounded like Oscar was being just a tad heavy handed with the piano. And if you don’t like Glenn Gould’s humming during the Goldberg Variations these are not for you. And yet they put a brand new and gorgeously authentic air on Kate Ceberano’s vocals in Love Don’t Live Here Anymore, recorded back in 1985.

So this is their thing; they’re best with beautifully produced music, analogue or digital. Von Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon, Solti on Decca or just about anything on the Mercury Living Presence label sounds great even though there’s not a one or a zero in sight. It’s the same with the Verve Jazz Box.

The Clears are beautifully made and presented headphones that, with a generous leather and microfibre headband are nicely comfy despite their 450 grams. Unlike some other Focals the cups easily accommodate ears of all sizes.

They come with a hefty carry case and three braided cables; the XLR four-pin symmetrical cable and the 6.35 mm stereo jack cable are both three metres long, the cable with the 3.5 mm minijack is 1.2 metres and more convenient for commuting, although being open backed the Clears leak some sound. You may not be the most popular person on the bus.

Originally published on smh.com.au as ‘When you spend $2200 on headphones be careful what you listen to’ April 2018


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