Listen & Hear
FOCAL IS BEST KNOWN AS France’s leading speaker manufacturer, but in 2016 they turned a corner and entered the fiercely competitive high-end headphone market with two extraordinary ’phones, the Elear, which I reviewed for Sound & Vision (January 2017), and the deliriously great Utopia (Sound & Vision, July/August 2017).
This time I wanted to try Focal’s most affordable full-size headphones, the Listen, and I came away mightily impressed. They share no parts with Focal’s original, affordable Spirit headphone line—the Listen’s earcups, 40mm mylar/titanium drivers, and headband are all new.
Weighing just 9.6 ounces, the Listen is one of the lightest sets of over-the-ear headphones I’ve tested in a long while. The 4.6-foot-long, user-replaceable cable has a single-button remote and a separate mic closer to your face on the cable. The cable locks onto the left earcup.
I like that the Listen’s hinged headband folds for compact storage to fit in the included soft carry pouch. Build quality feels especially rugged, which is good news for folks who go through a lot of headphones.
Auditions started in earnest with Neil Young’s Hitchhiker album, which was recorded in 1976 but sat on the shelf until now. It’s prime stuff, with Young alone playing acoustic guitar so the tunes feel like demos, with no production sweetening, just a 30-year-old Young at the peak of his creative powers. Most of the songs are familiar because Young recorded them again on later albums, but here they feel very much more alive over the Listen. Who could ask for more?
Nicholas Britell’s stirring score for the Moonlight film soundtrack stands on its own, but it sounded a little cramped and closed in over the Listen compared with what I heard from the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 over-the-ear headphones ($350). Neither set of headphones was as spacious sounding as my open-back HiFiMan HE400S ($299). Continuing with
Randy Newman’s gorgeous Dark Matter album, the Momentum 2.0s supplied more gravitas to the sound of the lavishly arranged strings and Newman’s piano and vocal than what I heard from the Listen.
’phones also felt very different on my head. The Listens’ larger earcups and amply padded cushions put less pressure directly on my ears, but they hugged my noggin a little too much. Comfort wasn’t great on either set of headphones. I’d say the Momentum 2.0s’ was slightly better, though the Listens did a better job hushing the din on the NYC subway.
The Listens had a special affinity for jazz—at least I thought so as I listened to a handful of pianist Thelonious Monk’s albums. Monk’s music was the first jazz that stirred me, and over the Listens, it’s the way Monk’s music moves—I’m not talking about tempo, but the music’s forward momentum—that’s irresistible. That, and Monk’s touch is more percussive than most jazz pianists, and the Listens make all of that abundantly clear.
Still, these are bright-sounding headphones. With well-recorded music, the treble push didn’t bother me, though I have a feeling the Listens’ brightness may be a deal breaker for some potential buyers. With typical harsh or overcompressed music, that harshness is hard to ignore. If you prefer laid-back or mellow-sounding headphones, the Listen won’t be the best choice.
Bass is one of these ’phones’ strong points: The Listens go low without overdoing it or making bass sound monotone. There certainly was a muscular quality to the bass on the seriously deep organ passage that opens the Philip Glass score for the film Koyaanisqatsi.
Focal just introduced a new high-end model, the $1,499 Clear that at least partially fills the gap between the $999 Elear and $4,000 Utopia. The Listens are a real contender for buyers searching for an affordable headphone.
Type: Closed-back, over-the-ear • Driver: 40mm, mylar/titanium • Impedance: 32 ohms • Weight (Ounces): 9.6