Introduction- what is the Focal Celestee?
The Celestee is a closed back, over ear headphone. It is the latest arrival from Focal and joins a complex range that contains both closed and open back designs in a near overlapping fashion. Focal's idea being that customers have the choice of pure home headphones that offer performance advantages when used in this fashion but struggle in noisier spaces, or more versatile devices that might not hit the same heights in a quiet room but have the scope to work in noisier and more demanding spaces too.
You will note that the Celestee arrives in this overlapping range at a cost one pound shy of a grand. Take a look and consider where this actually puts it in the range and it further cements the notion that Focal was one of the only audio companies to climb aboard the great headphone boom roughly a decade ago and successfully join the ranks of established high end headphone brands. Many of the brands who made the move into headphones at the same time continue to produce them as specific (and frequently very successful) parts of their range but Focal has managed to become a company that customers consider when spending anything up to many thousands of pounds. The suggestion is that they’re doing something right.
This flexibility of use is something that has some interesting potential for the future though. Right now (mid Feb 2021 is when this is being written), the scope for your headphone use is very much focused on the home (although, as we shall cover, this does not preclude the benefit of closed back) but there’s the just the faintest hint that, in the not too distant, future, something approaching normality might return. Is the Celestee the answer to all those needs?
Design and Specification
One of the reasons why Focal has managed to gain such a successful foothold in the headphone world is that some of the things they’ve been doing in their speakers for many years made the move into headphones with little in the way of disruption. As a company, Focal is one that doesn’t tend to put much credence in ‘good enough.’ Their drivers in particular are engineered with a near obsessive attention to detail and, what has been effective for a 25mm dome tweeter, has in many cases been transferable to 40mm headphone drivers.
The Celestee makes use of one of these recent moves. Historically, Focal made aluminium tweeters and beryllium tweeters. It had experimented with other metals both on their own and in combination and had never been truly happy with any of them. This changed relatively recently with the arrival of an aluminium and magnesium alloy. Chemistry is not and never has been my strong suit but the argument goes that the addition of magnesium to the aluminium doesn’t alter the fundamental characteristics of the latter but does reduce mass and add stiffness. The drivers in the Celestee have an M shaped profile that further augments this rigidity and delays cone breakup. It features in a significant number of Focal headphones.
This driver gives the Celestee a claimed frequency response of 5Hz-23kHz, the latter figure, while still well and truly in excess of anything but the most newborn of ears might get anywhere near detecting, being surprisingly low in the context of headphones at this price point. There are some more notable figures though. Sensitivity is claimed as being 105dB on 1mW at 1kHz (or ‘quite a lot’ for the less measurement based individuals reading this) and impedance is claimed at 35 ohms. This is not a hard headphone to drive and that augers well for the sort of multi role use pattern that Focal has intended for it.
Then, to ensure that the closed back element is a blessing rather than a curse, the Focal has been designed with a view to avoiding the main drawbacks of this configuration. If care is not taken with closed back headphones, the sound you hear from the driver can be mixed with reflections from the back of the enclosure. This will affect phase and generally sound unwelcome, so Focal has gone to considerable lengths to make the back of the enclosure as absorbent as possible with a view to ensuring that what you hear is solely the primary output of the driver itself. Focal has built closed back designs before, the Elegia - which the Celestee replaces - and the Stellia which is effectively a closed back Utopia and both good and rather spendy. It is not clear as to whether there are further refinements to the process for the Celestee but it is fair to say that things worked fairly well beforehand.
The Celestee also doesn’t make significant differences to the external design that Focal has been working on for some years now. There are good reasons for this. The first is that, if you are looking to create a range of headphones (or in fact, most things) with some high end credibility, you don’t go changing the styling every 20 minutes. The second is that this is a comfortable pair of headphones to wear and use. The basic design is fairly conventional. An aluminium yoke is used to mount the enclosures and does so via a hinged mount. This allows vertical but not horizontal movement of the enclosures but the yoke itself has enough flex to ensure that the housings will adjust to your head.
Any feedback on comfort has to be seen as a fairly personal and subjective one but I’ve found wearing the Celestee for multi hour sessions to be easy. What is fairly notable about this is that it hasn’t been achieved at the expense of this being a viable headphone to move around wearing. The tractive force on the head is enough to keep the Celestee in place in ‘normal’ use (your reminder at this point that my existence is a fairly gentle one and I’ve not popped out for some parkour wearing them). It’s a very well struck balance.
At this point though, we need to talk about Doris Bölck. A styling and industrial design consultant of considerable repute (and I’m not damning with faint praise here, her portfolio is full of significant involvement in major products). Ms Bölck is the person who has decided on the Celestee’s blue and copper colour scheme. Her comments in the press materials are quoted directly below;
“Navy is the new Black’. Dark blue is a versatile and timeless colour that has been increasing in popularity. By choosing Navy Blue, we are adding a sophisticated, sumptuous feel to the headphones. The combination of this blue with copper and bronze accents is a trend influenced by interior and accessory design, and has become popular in watchmaking and consumer electronics sectors. These shades offer a very interesting and elegant alternative to more traditional chrome and silver parts.”
And, do you know what? She’s absolutely right. In combination, the colours on the Celestee work extremely well. The issue as I see it - and you will have to take as read that I have not carved out a successful reputation as a styling and industrial consultant - is that they have been applied to the wrong headphone. If we assume that a majority (I won’t say ‘most’, I’ll stick with ‘a majority’) of the customers for this headphone are male, the elegant colour scheme runs headfirst into the determinedly monochromatic nature of male wardrobes. At home, this is neither here nor there. On the move, it's more of an issue because it tends to be the only example of that shade you have on you at the time. Within days of the Celestee being announced, the Clear MG Professional broke cover and - while the open back nature of the latter would be useless for use on the move - the black design with the use of colour on the details (in this case the pads) would be the perfect colour scheme for the Celestee (and very possibly vice versa).
I might be overthinking this though - it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve pontificated like a pound shop Kevin McCloud and been roundly ignored. The Celestee goes on to get more of the basics right too. Build quality, even judged at a thousand pounds, is top notch and there is an excellent carry case for them too. You might argue that the supplied cable is too short for home use but it's sufficiently short that you could add an extension and not find the resulting combo cable too much of an issue to use.
Any feedback on comfort has to be seen as a fairly personal and subjective one but I’ve found wearing the Celestee for multi hour sessions to be easy
How was the Celestee tested?
The bulk of listening on the Focal has been undertaken on a Chord Electronics Hugo2 and 2Go wireless module running as a Roon Endpoint. The mobile capability has been tested on a Chord Electronics Mojo and Poly combination accessing content on a micro SD card. Some limited additional testing took place with a Cambridge Audio Edge A integrated amp taking a feed from a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage connected to a Rega Planar 10 Turntable. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF, DSD, Tidal, Qobuz and some vinyl.
More: Audio Formats
First of all, some basic housekeeping. Nothing I have connected the Celestee to under testing has been seriously challenged by it. I think it might be a stretch to truly enjoy what it can do connected to a phone (if, indeed your phone has such connectivity in this day and age) but the Mojo and Poly have easily had the measure of it. No less usefully, while it isn’t the most leak proof headphone I’ve ever tested, you could use the Focal in the same room as someone else attended to another task without it degenerating into a brawl. For those of you aware that working from home, in the same house as others, might be going on for a while yet, this could be a very handy attribute.
This is because beyond the basic technical attributes, the Celestee is a good listen. It has been a while since I listened to the outgoing Elegia but that represented something of a step change in what I felt a closed back headphone was capable of. The Celestee isn’t a drastic step forward but it doesn’t need to be. This is still a headphone you can listen to the flowing and beautiful Ignorance by The Weather Station and not feel that it is in any way constrained or impeded by the drivers not breathing as they do on an open back headphone. If you immediately swap to an open back design and A/B the experience, the Celestee, quite naturally, loses out but used in isolation it never feels constrained by those sealed enclosures.
Without that readily perceivable constraint, it ensures that the other attributes of the Focal can be more easily appreciated. Many of these skills are shared with the company’s box speakers. The tonality on offer here, through the very ‘down the line’ Chord devices in particular, feels unfailingly accurate and believable. Where a degree of cleverness is present is that this never comes at the expense of tearing poorer recordings to pieces. You can enjoy veterans of the worst excesses of the loudness wars or even the feed from compressed services and they keep things together.
Give them something worth celebrating though like Poppy Ackroyd’s Escapement and the Celestee is a genuine delight. Ackroyd’s use of the piano extends to bits other musicians generally consider to be structural rather than performative and the Focal makes sense of this flurry of noise and effect. It’s consistently easy to follow and make sense of what is going on. Perform the cliché (a useful cliché but a cliché nonetheless) of closing your eyes and listening and the Celestee is generating a consistently understandable soundstage. This can be augmented by careful use of devices with crossfeed but it is fundamentally sound from the off. It’s a constant of the performance that other attributes then serve to bolster.
There’s something else too. The Celestee is well and truly able to have fun. It tears into the genre defying Little Maggie by Robert Plant in a way that positively fizzles with energy. My notes are packed with the relevant words; ‘lively’, ‘boisterous’, ‘immediate’, they’re all here. The manner in which this scrupulously accurate headphone manages to be fun though is worthy of note. The Focal is fun because it is able to get out of the way and deliver fast material with absolutely no trace of bloat or overhang. What you hear is what you hear, just delivered without an ounce of fat on it. It is free of colouration but also admirably free of hesitation too.
Neither has this been bought at the expense of impact either. The Celestee is not truly seismic in its bass extension in the manner of the Sennheiser HD800S or even the larger members of the Focal family (although all of these still use a 40mm driver) but it extends down cleanly and unfailingly to a subsonic point. Wielded with the speed that the Focal possesses, it’s deeply impressive. Furthermore, walk around wearing the Celestee (making sure you note your diminished awareness of your surroundings and ignoring the people looking at the man wearing a giant blue pair of headphones in a manner that suggests they think you are doing so for a bet) and it keeps this level of performance up. This genuinely is a device able to do what it does seemingly regardless of the location.
The Focal is fun because it is able to get out of the way and deliver fast material with absolutely no trace of bloat or overhang. What you hear is what you hear, just delivered without an ounce of fat on it
- Outstanding performance at home and on the move
- Exquisite build
- Forgiving and easy to drive
- Colour won't appeal to everyone
- Has to concede ground to dedicated open back designs
- Cable a bit short
Focal Celestee Over Ear Headphone Review
So; what’s the catch? This hinges on two things, one simple, one more imponderable. The first is that, I’ve tried to love the colour scheme of the Celestee and, in abstract I sort of do. Plonked on a brown leather sofa or nonchalantly leaning against one of the turntables here, it looks good. I have simply not had the experience extend to looking at myself wearing them though. I admire the attempt to bring a little colour to the audio world but I’m not completely sold on the result, sorry.
The second is that, while this is an exceptionally talented device, it is nevertheless a compromise. The Celestee is a high end headphone that doesn’t leak noise and can be taken with you and used offsite, It’s hugely impressive that it does both these things so well but it faces competition from open back headphones (some of which are Focal models) when at home and, when it comes to walking about with sound, self conscious to the last, I’d be looking at the Campfire Andromeda to do it.
The thing is though, neither of these things are actual negatives. The Celestee hasn’t displaced an open back headphone to exist and if you’re reading this looking for a headphone that does everything you would expect a fairly high end device to do without leaking appreciable noise, this is a sensational place to start looking. Focal’s grip on the headphone market, already a good one has become that little bit stronger and the Celestee come Highly Recommended.
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