Lis­ten & Hear

PRICE $249

Sound & Vision - - HANDSON - By Steve Gut­ten­berg

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.

The two

’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.

SPECS

Type: Closed-back, over-the-ear • Driver: 40mm, my­lar/ti­ta­nium • Impedance: 32 ohms • Weight (Ounces): 9.6

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