Focal Elegia Review - Quiet Refined
Days after the French company Focal (Focal-JMLab) released Elegia their new closed-back headphones, a pair spent a morning on my head. Great to have friends who own an audio company (Drew and Nichole Baird at Moon Audio) because they let you play with their new toys.
How Elegia sat on my head is an excellent place to start this review. I own an older pair of Fostex TH900 purchased well before the Focal Utopia headphone sound revolution, so I am familiar with closed-back headphone tradeoffs. Closing headphone cups mean they can’t incorporate air (or noise) from the environment. Locking out chaos in favor of music, also called “noise isolation,” is why audiophiles and music lovers buy closed-back headphones.
But there’s a rub.
There is no free audio lunch. Creating new headphones means making tradeoffs. Closing headphone cups requires a powerful driver to generate warmth and soundstage or “bass” and “depth of sound.” Powerful drivers need mass, and weighty headphones cause fatigue. Elegia's coth cups connected by a lightweight aluminum yoke feel lighter than my Fostex. The lighter feel may be an illusion. According to the specs, I could find Elegia has slightly more mass (430 grams versus 400) than Fostex. However Focal achieves it lighter on your head is a good thing.
Enter The Dragon - Elegia Supporting Cast
Easy for me to take Mark Sparrow’s advice. In his Forbes Elegia review, Mark noted the need for a DAC/Amp to power Elegia. Don’t just connect to your smartphone and expect a great Elegia listening experience Sparrow explains.
I connected my Chord Hugo to my iPad using Silver Dragon USB to Apple CCK cables streaming music from Tidal. I listened to Focal’s stock cable before hearing the same music with Silver Dragon cables between my Hugo and the new Elegia cans. Hot House by Chick Corea and Gary Burton, Clean by Soccer Mommy, and Speaking In Tongues by Talking Heads helped me test Focal's new cans.
Upgrading to Silver Dragon V3 headphones cables was so stunning, revelatory, and engaging, it sounded like there was at least 30% more music with Dragons, the rest of my review assumes Silver Dragon cables. Once more musical detail is heard it is impossible to return to stock cables. Hearing more musical “there there” with Silver Dragon headphones cables is an experience I’ve had before (read my October 2014 Shure SE846 earphones review).
Elegia’s Refined Quiet Sound
I saw Chick Corea and Gary Burton in concert in the late 1980s. Listening to Hot House with Corea’s warm sustaining pedal and Burton’s vibe dexterity brought the memory back. Elegia sounds warm, full, and spacious. Can’t We Be Friends has Corea had Burton opposing then collaborating then opposing finally to fall back into a well-synchronized melody. I heard the same warmth during a brief listen to Pat Metheny’s Bright Sized Life. Jaco Pastorius’ bass sounded full, immediate, and present. Imagine what we could hear if Jaco was still with us (sad).
Speaking In Tongues
The real art here is the incorporation of disparate elements from pop, punk and R&B into a coherent, celebratory dance ethic that dissolves notions of color and genre in smiles and sweat. A new model for great party albums to come. Speaking in Tongues is likely to leave you doing just that.
David's Rolling Stone note has never sounded more accurate than listening to Elegia connected to iPad and Hugo with Silver Dragons. Wally Badarou's synthesizer on Burning Down The House was dangerous, loud, and FUNKY.
I turned the volume down on a tune I usually turn up thanks to Elegia's complete noise isolation. Even with the volume lowered conversations in the tiny windowless room where I was listening couldn't be heard. Hearing saved without de-funkifiying Burning Down the House illustrates the closed-back gift - being able to hear when I'm seventy.
I'll grant Elegia's cloth cups were new, and I was the first to wear the aluminum yoke so time will tell. Fit plays a significant role in noise isolation, but Focal's craftsmanship is $500 better than their asking price as is the case here. I bet a year from now with many hours of listening at home, and on the road, these headphones would perform well. The well-zippered case deserves mention to explain my confidence. The semi-hard shell case (included) is a well-designed accessory for audio road warriors. Now we need a single case for cans, DACs, iPads, and cables.
Clean by Soccer Mommy
Sophia Allison’s beautiful monotone created my most striking Elegia with Silver Dragon cables sound. Allison worries about her voice, “I hate my voice. When it’s crisp it sounds good, but other times it’s just a little weak,” she says. “My voice just gets weak.”
I like Allison’s voice, but she’s right. Her voice can get lost in Clean’s at times surprising quick and deep transitions. Elegia headphones equipped with Silver Dragon cables strengthed Allison’s presence. Her voice didn’t get lost in the sudden shift to mono at 3:15 on Still Clean. It was easy to follow Allison’s voice in Wild Flower’s overdubbed vocals.
Thanks to Elegia + Hugo + Silver Dragons she doesn’t fade away in Skin. Her voice isn’t overwhelmed by drums or guitar in Scorpio Rising. Hearing her breath as she breaks “park” into two syllables is worth the price of admission. Hearing Julian Powell’s fingers slide to the next chord is a huge bonus. As Allison notes, wildflowers may not grow in the city, but we hear them bloom thanks to Focal Elegia’s closed-back magic paired Chord's DAC and Drew’s mighty enter the Dragon cables.
Focal Elegia unboxing video.
Focal Elegia product page on Moon Audio
Bruce Lee image used under Creative Commons License from http://pngimg.com/imgs/celebrities/bruce_lee/