The Last Focal Elegia Headphone Review: Royal Rumble! - Part 1
Which Closed Back Headphone is Best?
In 2016, Focal took the audiophile world by storm when it released its flagship headphone model, the Utopia. Since then, the roster of audiophile headphones Focal offers has grown. Fast forward to 2018, the Elegia enters the high-end wired closed back headphone market as Focal’s most affordable true audiophile headphone. At $899, the Elegia is priced rightfully in the middle between the Stellia ($2999) and the Listen($249). The Focal Elegia closed back headphone even won an Expert Imaging and Sound Association (EISA) headphone award for the "Best Product" of 2019-2020.
For me, the most exciting selling point for the Elegia is that it shares a lot in common with Focal’s top of the line open-back designs, including the critically acclaimed Utopia. Essentially, this means the Elegia shares not only the design aesthetic, but it also inherits some of the research and development that went into Focal’s most expensive premium audiophile headphones. For an audiophile closed headphone priced reasonably in the mid-range category, it’s a bargain.
For music lovers wanting to get more acquainted with true high-performance headphones, the Elegia represents a tremendous value for the money. And for audiophiles in the community awaiting (with great expectations) the arrival of the next great reference headphone, the Elegia has potential. But how well does it integrate into the seasoned audiophile’s lifestyle, and how does it stack up compared to some of its competition?
In terms of fit, the Elegia reminded me of the Focal Stellia. While the Elegia is a relatively medium-weight design, it feels light on my head and comfortable around my ears. At the end of several hours of wearing the Elegia, the level of comfort was as satisfying at the end of the session as it was at the beginning. After 3 hours of listening, I never experienced any build-up of perspiration or “clamminess” around the ears. For me, this means the Elegia can absolutely help me sustain my longer listening sessions, comfortably.
The Elegia’s build quality also feels exceptionally well crafted. It’s sturdy and solid in the hands. Weighing in at approximately 0.95 lbs (430 g), the Elegia is not the lightest over-ear closed-back headphone on the market. It’s also not the heaviest. But compare the Elegia to the Sony MDR-Z1R, and the Elegia is noticeably sturdier in the hands and heavier on the head. But, for me, the Elegia’s slight extra weight translates into what feels like a higher build quality compared to a lighter headphone design like the Sony.
Despite the Elegia’s medium-weight design, I didn’t experience any of the usual discomforts I sometimes experience with other headphones of similar weight. Compare this to the much heavier Fostex TH900 MK2 or for extended listening sessions, and the Elegia is like a breath of fresh air. For me, the Elegia is more like a high-performance race car designed to perform at high levels for long distances compared to heavier closed back designs like the Audeze LCD-2C or the Fostex TH900 MK2.
Even during extended listening sessions, I experienced neither neck strain, nor pressure point pains around my ears or cranial areas supported by the Elegia’s leather and perforated microfiber headband. I attributed this level of comfort to the Elegia’s solid but flexible aluminum yoke, which Focal designed to conform and yield to the unique shapes of its users’ heads.
When comparing the Elegia to the Audeze LCD-2C or even the Fostex TH900 MK2, you might even consider the Focal Elegia to be a more portable reference headphone that users can actually travel with. While the Elegia doesn’t offer a foldable design that would optimize it for travel, the Elegia does come with the same thermo-formed rigid carrying case that’s bundled with the Focal Stellia and Elear. With the Elegia, the included carrying case matches the Elegia’s soft charcoal gray color theme and offers some basic protection. I wouldn’t rely on the included carrying case for anything exceeding just casual travel.
Compared to a lighter headphone like the Sony MDR-Z1R, the Elegia’s mostly aluminum construction does have a more durable build quality that feels able to withstand certain types of limited abuse. Given its price-point, and aluminum band construction, I would still handle the Elegia with extreme care and use the included carrying case wherever possible for traveling. The Focal Elegia is not a cheap consumer headphone designed for teenagers to carelessly toss into a backpack between classes. As I’ll detail in a moment, the Elegia is designed for next-level critical listening. Having said that, the Elegia is able to negotiate different ergonomic scenarios quite comfortably without sacrificing superior sound.
For me, the Elegia’s slightly heavier medium-weight is a direct reflection of Focal’s exceptional craftsmanship and attention to detail. I can easily look past the Elegia’s slightly heavier weight for the added first-rate quality that obviously went into the development of this headphone.
Additionally, the Elegia’s 20mm memory foam ear cushions are covered by a perforated microfiber fabric that provides a snug fit around the ears and creates an excellent seal. The Elegia’s comfort and seal instantly reminded me of the Stellia’s sealing condition. While the Stellia’s ear cushions are covered with luxurious full-grain leather, helping the ears stay cooler, the Elegia’s ear cushions provide the identical sealing condition; just not quite as luxuriously.
Observations and Comparisons
Even though the Sony MDR-Z1R is the lightest headphone in my A/B comparisons, the Elegia actually wins over the Sony MDR-Z1R in terms of comfort and ear cushion sealing condition. I think this says a lot about the Elegia’s level of comfort. Having said that, even though my experience with the Elegia’s comfort and sealing condition was satisfactory, if I had to choose one as the most comfortable for use at home, I preferred the comfort provided by the ear cushions and sealing condition of the Audeze LCD-2C, the Fostex TH900 MK2, the Sennheiser HD820, and the Focal Stellia (in that order) over the Elegia.
Again, that’s not to say the Elegia isn’t comfortable. On the contrary, the Elegia is really comfortable! For reference, I actually found Focal’s ear cushions in both the Elegia and the Stellia to be more snug and comfortable fitting than the Sony MDR-Z1R. However, since the bar is set so high when comparing it to the competition, it was simply not the most comfortable of the bunch. Nevertheless, for this price point, the Elegia’s ear cushions provide a soft comfortable sealing condition that effectively locks in sound and provides an incredibly immersive experience for the user.
The Focal Design
"While the materials used in the drivers for each do differ, Focal designed both headphones to have the same 35 ohms impedance, so almost any music player, including smartphones, can conveniently drive both the Elegia and the Stellia."
Like many of the headphones in Focal’s expanding roster of audiophile headphones, the Elegia’s enclosures have a similar design philosophy as the Stellia’s. Like the Focal Stellia, the Elegia’s enclosures are identical in shape and size, featuring a design that angles the driver to better direct sound into the user’s ears. The drivers in the Elegia are placed at an angle sympathetic to the geometry of a user’s ears to widen the soundstage and to simulate a more loudspeaker-sounding experience, while also maintaining “depth” in the stereo image.
For comparison, the way Focal angles the drivers to direct sound toward the user’s ears is similar to the designs found in the Sennheiser HD 820 and the Sony MDR-Z1R. However, this angled driver design is absent and differs substantially in the Fostex TH900 MK 2 and the Audeze LCD-2C. For the Fostex TH900 MK 2 and the Audeze LCD-2C, the ear cushions around the user’s head, themselves, are used to slightly angle the driver’s directional output instead. Angling the cushions helps siphon the sound waves produced by the driver and into the ear canal, though the actual driver, itself, is not angled inside of the ear cups for these headphones. This is how headphones like the Fostex TH900 MK 2 and the Audeze LCD-2C differ the most from Focal’s approach to presenting a soundstage to a listener.
According to Focal, the reason for angling the drivers inside the ear cup is for optimizing the space between the speakers and the wearer’s ears. The main idea behind the angled design implemented in both the Elegia and the Stellia is simply to improve the dynamic range of the overall sense of presentation and the tonal balance over a fuller frequency spectrum. Both the Stellia and Elegia share this feature in common.
The materials implemented into each design’s driver are where the Stellia and the Elegia diverge the most. For the Elegia, Focal implemented an m-shape aluminum/magnesium dome full-range dynamic speaker driver that has an impedance of 35 ohms whereas the engineers opted for a pure beryllium dynamic driver in the Stellia. While the materials used in the drivers for each do differ, Focal designed both headphones to have the same 35 ohms impedance, so almost any music player, including smartphones, can conveniently drive both the Elegia and the Stellia.
It should be noted that drivers exert sound waves backward (away from the listener’s ears) just as much as drivers exert that same energy forward (to the listener’s ear). Unlike in an open-back design, which naturally vents out sound waves from reverberating back into the ear cup, a closed back headphone can potentially trap the energy being produced by the driver inside of the ear cup’s enclosed vacuum.
Consequently, acoustical engineers find different ways to deal with the pressure of the energy created from standing back waves when they are exerted backward (away from the listener’s ears) and reflected back to the driver cone again. When these “standing back waves” return back to the driver cone, they can disrupt a closed-back headphone’s sense of presentation, so they have to be diffused properly, in order to dampen and vent out the reverberating waves occurring inside of the enclosure.
When this phenomenon occurs, we call this undesirable effect “compression,” and Focal deals with the phenomenon the same way in both the Elegia and the Stellia. To deal with compression, Focal incorporates a triangular designed dampening system that breaks up the standing waves and distributes the energy evenly throughout the enclosure via the driver’s rear venting port.
In both the Elegia and the Stellia, an additional venting port is viewable on the outside of each ear cup to ventilate the excess energy. The outer port ventilates the excess energy being exerted by the driver’s momentum and prevents any back waves from reflecting back to the driver cone. Thus, this dampening system prevents an additional unwanted sound signal (compression) from dominating the soundstage. For Focal’s sound signature, this results in a more controlled bass response and minimizes leakage due to the small size of the venting ports.
Closed back Headphone Leakage Test
What's headphone leakage? Headphone leakage is the undesirable effect that occurs when an over-ear or circumaural headphone’s sealing condition loosens around the ears and allows enough space for sound waves to escape outside of the headphone. When the sealing condition around the ear is broken, the sound waves being produced by the headphone’s driver escapes, and these escaping sound waves result in a headphone’s soundstage becoming compromised.
In terms of leakage, on the other hand, both the Elegia and the Stellia performed the worst at preventing leakage in this A/B comparison. In our testing, we compared the audible leakage heard from 1 ft and 5 ft away while driving all the headphone drivers in our list with an iPhone 6 Plus playing heavy rock music at 50%, 75% and then 100% maximum volumes, consecutively. The Sennheiser HD 820 and Fostex TH900 MK2 are omitted from this portion of the A/B comparison since these headphones were not available at the time of conducting this test.
To view the results from our headphone leakage tests, stay tuned for Part 2. We'll provide more in-depth A/B sound signature comparisons of all the headphones reviewed in Part 2 of this review.
Since the sealing condition was nothing short of excellent in both Focal headphones, my guess is that the increased leakage from the Elegia and the Stellia was probably caused less by the cushion’s sealing condition, but actually more so by the venting port design that Focal uses in both headphones to deal with the issue of compression.
The venting ports in both the Elegia and the Stellia allow Focal to present an immersive soundstage to the end-user, but the trade-off here for this incredible stereo image may be that both will cause slightly more leakage to escape through the venting port. Even though nearly all closed back headphones present some degree of leakage at maximum volume, for the Elegia and the Stellia, the trade-off here means that both will be slightly more limited in terms of the ergonomic scenarios they might be able to fit into.
For example, using the Elegia and the Stellia in quieter environments such as a library at maximum volume will present more leakage to people sitting nearby compared to any of the headphones in this comparison. However, listening to music at less than 75% will present leakage that’s in the audible to barely audible range depending on the volume level and how close someone is to you. This is still much better ergonomically than an open-back headphone. If you don’t need to listen to music at maximum volume in quieter public spaces where others could be potentially disturbed, then the Elegia has many other advantages to be considered.
It should be noted the Elegia and Stellia’s increased leakage from the venting port compared to other closed-back headphones in this comparison is not a design flaw as this is an integral part of Focal’s intended design for dealing with the problem of compression, and for setting a superb soundstage. Since this is important for audiophile product shoppers, however, it is noted to help you decide whether or not the Elegia closed headphone fits into your ergonomic scenario.
"It should be noted the Elegia and Stellia’s increased leakage from the venting port compared to other closed-back headphones in this comparison is not a design flaw as this is an integral part of Focal’s intended design for dealing with the problem of compression, and for setting a superb soundstage. Since this is important for audiophile product shoppers, however, it's noted to help you decide whether or not the Elegia closed headphone fits into your ergonomic scenario."
All this seems impressive on paper, but since all closed back headphones essentially deal with the issue of compression differently, how does the Elegia actually perform at presenting the soundstage in an A/B comparison to some of it’s biggest competitors?
Continue reading to find out more!
- Roon Remote app via iPad streaming AIFF files in 24 bit/44.1 kHz
- Bricasti M3 Direct Stream DAC with optional network player card
- Custom Black Dragon headphone cable
- Custom Silver Dragon headphone cable
- Price: $899.00
- Driver: Aluminum/magnesium Dynamic driver
- Frequency Response: 5Hz - 23kHz
- Cable: Silver Dragon
- Price: $2,999.00
- Driver: Beryllium Dynamic driver
- Frequency Response: 5Hz - 40kHz
- Cable: Black Dragon
- Electronic: “Strobe” - Deadmau5
- Natural: “Giant Steps” - John Coltrane
- Bass forward: “Jam” - Michael Jackson
- Vocal forward: “My Mistake” - Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross
Focal Elegia's Sound Signature
According to Focal, the Elegia’s have a 105 dB and 35-Ohm impedance, which means the Elegia can be driven conveniently by a smartphone without having to rely on an external amplifier to boost an audio signal’s amplitude. My iPhone 6 Plus, for example, was able to drive the Elegia’s to a comfortable volume level of about 75% maximum output.
The Elegia really came alive, however, when tethered to a Bricasti Design M3 DAC through a custom Silver Dragon headphone cable. Since the Elegia tends to favor the bottom-end in terms of the resolution it presents, adding a Silver Dragon lifts the Elegia’s veil beyond just the bottom-end. This exposed more of the music’s characterful detail hiding in the mid to high end of the headphone’s frequency response.
When listening, I was especially impressed by the enhancement to the Elegia’s highly controlled and resolute bass response. The bottom end was incredibly detailed and clear. Transients in the kick drums and bass-lines were especially rich with tonal characteristics and harmonic overtones I’ve never experienced before. I find these overtones difficult to bring forward in other headphones. But, combined with a Silver Dragon, the Elegia manages to bring forth the bottom end's tonal features with enhanced clarity, effortlessly.
For example, in John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” the Elegia presented the resolution of the Sax playing very much “in your face.” The entire presentation is “cerebral,” and it may actually be the less musical headphone in this case. However, there’s just so much glorious detail brought forward that my left brain can’t help but indulge. My ears are spoiled in all the details served to me on a silver platter of both “good” and “bad;" it does not matter, my ears insatiably enjoy all of it.
If you want to really hone in and focus in on the particular playing style or the ability of an artist’s performance like Coltrane with microscopic insight into the production tools used in the recording process, then look no further. The Elegia combined with a Silver Dragon
I can hear more of the “hiss” tempered onto the analog tape that was used during the recording of Coltrane’s performance. The hi-hats are presented more forward in the mix too. The bass impact is more resolute and forward as well. I can really appreciate the bold honesty that the Elegia headphones present to my ears. There isn’t much that can hide from the Focal Elegia combined with a Silver Dragon, and I’m liking all of it.
The Elegia’s soundstage is so forward and focused in the “center” of the forehead that the best way to describe the sound signature is “cerebral.” For me, this created incredibly thought-provoking, immersive and deeply introspective listening sessions. In comparison, the Elegia is not quite as good at isolation as the large, fat cushions the Audeze LCD-2C provides, but the Elegia is impressive, nonetheless.
As you might expect, isolation was noticeably much better than an open-back headphone. Compared to an open-back design like the HIFIMAN HE-1000 V2 headphone, the Elegia was excellent at locking in the music and keeping outside noise from encroaching on the listening session. In fact, the Elegia’s ear cushions were so good at isolation that I barely noticed background chatter in the office with the volume cranked to comfortable levels.
Interestingly, the bottom-end resolution is what stands out the most. The bass is extremely tight and resolute in every song I listened too. With the Elegia, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to more funkier and complex music where I could hone in on all the instruments, clearly. Songs that I enjoyed the most while listening to the Elegia were “Working Day and Night” and “Dirty Diana” by Michael Jackson.
The bass response is so clear in the Elegia that it’s tempting to call it a “reference headphone,” or even a more affordable alternative to the Fostex TH900 MK 2. If overtones and “colors” imparted from the artist’s creative use of compressors, transistors, boutique tube amplifiers, the sound of tape smear and other production trade-secrets is your end-game, then the Elegia combined with a custom Silver Dragon headphone cable is truly a winning combination: a sound engineer’s dream team.
Like everything in life, this brings some pros and cons to be considered as well. Higher frequencies were a little too resonant for my tastes, causing me some slight ear fatigue during certain songs. At times, I found that I needed to reach for the volume control to save my ears from the harsher frequencies. For example, listening to the hard-hitting EDM snare on “Strobe” by Deadmau5, I really needed to dial back the volume to save my ears from the snare’s overstimulating frequency.
Even though I experienced some issues with harsher frequencies in the top-end at louder volumes, the Elegia does a really nice job of fitting in comfortably with almost all music genres especially Jazz, Classical and EDM. I personally think this is a winning combination for anyone interested in a reference headphone where details are presented up-close and in your face.
The Elegia will allow you to hear tonalities you wouldn’t normally be able to experience with other headphones. This may be a good thing for many listeners, but I can see how some might not appreciate the extra detail; especially when it can become slightly “harsh” in the top end. For these listeners, I would recommend pairing the Elegia with a Black Dragon headphone cable instead. The Black Dragon dialed back the resolution of the top-end sizzle a bit, while smoothing out the transients in the top-end as well. This really helped warm up those “harsher” frequencies for my own listening sessions.
Overall, in terms of value, the Elegia really lives up to the Focal name and delivers tremendous value to the user. So what’s my final verdict? For the music lover wanting to get more acquainted with true high-end headphones, the Elegia represents a tremendous value for the money in terms of both performance and ergonomics. It suits a wide variety of music genres from Bluegrass, Classical, Electronic, Folk, Funk, Jazz, Pop, Rock, and more. And for the analytical audiophiles in the community, the Focal Elegia is a very interesting reference headphone. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know it. Will it replace the Fostex TH900 MK2 as the next great reference headphone of legendary status? Probably not, but it does offer something unique that I believe stands out compared to its competition. For any audiophile that listens analytically, you really should check out the Focal Elegia, and experience it for yourself. Out of all the headphones I compared to write this review, the Focal Elegia paired with a Silver Dragon headphone cable is almost my favorite combo. For me, the Focal Stellia paired with a Black Dragon headphone cable is number one. Ultimately, the Focal Elegia came extremely close to the Stellia at 2nd place, but for the way I want to listen to music, the Stellia and the Black Dragon helps me get lost in the music the best. If getting lost in the music is your end-game, then buy the Focal Stellia and a Black Dragon Premium headphone cable, and never look back.
When I need to listen more analytically, the Focal Elegia combined with a Silver Dragon headphone cable is my new go-to secret weapon to get the job done. For certain cinematic recordings, the Sony MDR-Z1R is third, and the Audeze LCD2C came in strong at fourth place. If you're serious about critical listening sessions with your music, then add the Focal Elegia and a Silver Dragon headphone cable to your collection, and never let a single detail fly past your musical radar again. After all, when your favorite artist recorded an album, they didn't allow any detail to escape their ears; why would you?