Since then, it has produced a string of high-quality contenders that can stand toe-to-toe with the best from the established competition. Its latest pair is the Clear Mg, high-end, open-backed models that aim to set the standard and be one of the best over-ear headphones at their price. So, are they?
Straight away, these headphones impress. They come in luxurious packaging that screams quality and feels every bit the high-priced item. They are impressively stylish, though some people may prefer a more low-key appearance.
Type Circum-aural open-back headphones
Driver 40mm ‘M’-shaped magnesium dome
Impedance 55 ohms
Frequency response 5Hz – 28kHz
Cables 1.2m cable with 6.35mm adapter, 3m 4-pin XLR cable
Even so, there’s no denying the high standard of build and finish. The quality of the materials is excellent, from the leather used on the thick, cushioned headband to the microfibre cloth on the cosseting earpads. We love the intricate hexagonal metal detailing on the open-backed earcups, not to mention the durable feel of the overall structure.
At the heart of the Clear Mg is a new full-range 40mm magnesium-coned drive unit. Magnesium has been chosen for its blend of lightness and stiffness, while the use of a carefully chosen surround helps to control damping and resonant behaviour.
You’ll find a tough carrying case along with a choice of two detachable leads in the plush packaging. There is a 1.2m option with a 3.5mm jack (and 6.3mm adaptor provided), as well as a 3m, 4-pin XLR alternative.
While the inclusion of the balanced XLR lead is commendable, we wish the company had also added a longer lead with the 3.5mm connector in the box. Many otherwise suitable headphone amplifiers don’t have a balanced output – our reference Chord Hugo TT2 is a good example – and sometimes it’s just not that convenient to sit close to the system. It’s possible to buy a longer lead from Focal but that will cost £129 ($190) more. It's a pretty hefty sum for something that should be included in the box. At least the cables are of a revised design that transmits less movement noise than before.
- Our pick of the best audiophile headphones you can buy
In use, the Clear Mg are comfortable. They are nicely shaped and inward pressure is firm but well-judged. They weigh around 450g, which is par for the course, but the wide, cushioned headband and well-designed earpads manage to spread that weight well.
A word of warning, though: these Focals are open-backed, meaning they leak quite a lot of sound. If you sit in the same room as others, they will hear what you’re playing. Equally, your listening experience could be disturbed by any noise other people make – something to keep in mind if you’re planning on taking these headphones out and about.
An open design is not all bad news, of course. In our experience, such an arrangement tends to result in greater transparency and dynamic expression thanks to the lack of an enclosure and all its innate resonances and unwanted stored energy.
Any headphones at this level are likely to be highly revealing performers, so don’t let the inclusion of a 3.5mm jack and relatively short lead tempt you into using your phone as the primary source. While the Clear Mg have a relatively gentle impedance of 55 ohms and generous 104dB/W/m sensitivity, which means they will produce decent volume levels in most set-ups, you really need quality electronics to justify their expense.
We use our reference Naim ND555/555PS DR music streamer as our main source but have a Technics SL-1000R turntable and Apple MacBook Pro serving as able back-ups. For the amplification, we use Burmester’s 088 pre-amp (equipped with dedicated headphone output) and Chord’s mighty Hugo TT2 desktop DAC. We also have Chord’s Poly/Mojo music player on hand to see how the Focals perform with a high-quality, portable source.
The answer turns out to be very well indeed. The Poly/Mojo pairing is detailed and exciting and these Focals make that clear. Initial listening shows up a slightly hard and sharp edge in the lower treble region, but this eases off in use to leave an etched but informative sound. Still, it’s best to avoid forward or aggressive electronics.
We listen to Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 set and enjoy the clarity on offer. These headphones certainly live up to their name by delivering a refined yet explicit sound that makes it easy to follow low-level instrumental strands in the busy production. There’s plenty of punch on offer and lows are rendered with grip and texture.
Rhythms are delivered in a surefooted and controlled manner rather than with overt exuberance, but there’s still enough in the way of drive to keep us entertained. The overall presentation retains an easy-going charm that makes longer listening sessions a breeze.
The Focal’s transparency is highlighted by the sizable lift in performance when we switch to our reference Naim streamer/Burmester amplifier combo. Here, we’re aware of a greater sense of control and dynamic expression. There’s clearly even more information and we’re pleased with the way the Focals arrange it with control and composure.
Tonally, they're full-bodied in a manner that eludes most rivals, and this presentation results in instruments and voices coming through in a more natural and engaging manner. The overall balance is a little on the fuller, rounded side, but not so much that it affects the Focal’s ability to convince.
We move to some large-scale classical music in the form of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection' and are pleased with the Focal’s solid and powerful rendition. It’s rare that headphones can communicate sonic authority so well.
Stereo placement is precise and stable, though still much more in the head than a typical set of speakers. The open-backed design gives the Clear Mg an openness and sense of space that every closed-back alternative we’ve tried has clearly lacked.
We enjoy the headphones' ability to communicate the orchestra's power and the way dynamics build to a crescendo without sounding restrained. There’s little obvious sense of the headphones struggling when the music becomes demanding and that speaks highly of their ability to remain poised under pressure.
Focal has done a terrific job with the Clear Mg. They’re talented performers that stay comfortable over extended listening sessions. Add excellent build and finish into the equation and we think they're right up there with the best at the price. Highly recommended.
- Sound 5
- Comfort 5
- Build 5
Read our guide to the best over-ear headphones
Read our Sennheiser HD800S review
Read our Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Gen) review
Read our Focal Utopia review