Introduction - What is the Focal Clear MG?
The Focal Clear MG is an open back, over ear headphone that replaces the Focal Clear as the more affordable dedicated home headphone to sit under the flagship Utopia. The original Clear was an extremely good home headphone. I never tested it for AVForums but I did elsewhere and I found it to be an excellent performer. It did suffer one misfortune though. It was exactly the same price as the Sennheiser HD800S and the HD800S, while not as elegant a piece of industrial design as the Focal, is the Best in Class of the field below £2,000.
Focal hasn’t got to where they are today by accepting that they will play second fiddle though and here is their considered take on how to make the Clear a better headphone. The price of this new model is the same as the outgoing one and many aspects of the basic design are carried over as we shall cover in depth. Many aspects are all new though, not simply for this segment but for Focal as a company. The intent is clear - Focal wants the Clear MG to be a category killer and has put the legwork into trying to achieve it. Is this the new pick of the pack sub £2K? Let’s find out.
Specification and Design
Focal headphones are noteworthy because, from the £999 Celestee all the way to the £3,699 Utopia, they all share some key characteristics. They all have a 40mm driver which is built with an ‘M’ shaped profile in cutaway that gives it a higher level of strength and rigidity than a conventional dome. This driver is then placed in a full size, ‘circumaural’ size enclosure. This enclosure varies depending on whether it is closed or open back but the basic size and pattern of the headphone doesn’t change. It does help to make Focal headphones extremely recognisable and also ensures that if you find one of them comfortable, you’ll find them all comfortable.
There are some interesting side effects of this though. At the price that the Clear MG pitches in at, 40mm is fairly small for a home headphone driver. The 56mm driver in the HD800S for example is 40% bigger than the Focal and that’s a pretty meaningful margin. The amount of difference this seems to make in reality (or at least on paper) is less significant though. Focal quotes a frequency response of 5Hz - 28KHz for the Clear MG and, while this is a smaller bandwidth than some rivals at the price, it still completely and utterly covers off what the human ear can do.
Focal maintains that 40mm is the sweet spot for balancing frequency response for stiffness and lightness and historically has used an aluminium and magnesium alloy for the more affordable designs and beryllium for the flagships (and only for the flagships on account of beryllium being very expensive indeed). The Clear MG (as the name will suggest for anyone who stayed awake in Chemistry classes) breaks with this tradition as the driver is made wholly of magnesium. Magnesium is 33% lighter than aluminium and gets usefully close to the lightness of beryllium (although the latter is still a lot stiffer) which means that Focal’s ongoing concern with the reduction in moving mass can be addressed.
Some other Focal design priorities are also a key part of the Clear MG’s overall design too. It has been designed as a home headphone but the sensitivity of 104dB SPL / 1 mW @ 1kHz and 55 ohm impedance means that you can drive them fairly easily from portable players and smaller headphone type DACs which is something you might struggle to do with some rivals. What you can’t do (or at least, I would strongly recommend against it) is take them and that portable source out and about. The Clear MG is a completely open back headphone. The rear of the enclosure is a mesh type structure and they leak significant amounts of energy into the space you are in. They also provide little in the way of insulation from outside noises. This is a headphone that is designed for use at home and, ideally with nobody else in the same room as you.
The good news is that the Clear MG makes use of the same design thinking as the rest of the Focal family and this means that it is exceptionally comfortable. The manner in which full size Focal headphones are designed is unusual because - on paper at least - it doesn’t sound like a recipe for a truly comfortable fitment. The enclosures are hinged to move only in the vertical plane and even then, not by a huge amount. A solid aluminium yoke holds these hinges and offers no horizontal movement beyond the (small) amount of flex in the yoke itself. It shouldn’t work and yet it does. The deep padding combines with this minimal flex to be exceptionally comfortable in use. The Clear MG exerts enough force to ensure that it won’t go anywhere but never so much that it feels uncomfortable or that it is pressing against the side of your head. I’ve done a number of four to five hour stints with them on with no discomfort at all.
It is also beautifully made. Focal doesn’t ‘do’ insubstantial and the Clear MG is another example of their careful use of lightweight materials to create something that feels solid and worth that not inconsequential asking price. The microfibre earpads and combination leather and microfibre headband works well too. I can’t 100% guarantee that the Clear MG won’t leave you feeling a bit sweaty on very hot days because there haven’t been any while it has been here but I don’t think that it will. You also get a substantial case to store them in as well, which is welcome because I’ve tested this extensively and I can confirm that dust still adheres to home headphones as much as travel ones.
Of course, as the Clear MG follows Focal’s existing design pattern, some quirks remain. Two cables are supplied. One is a 1.2m unit with a 3.5mm socket that can have a 6.35mm adapter added to it. There is then also a 3m cable absolutely ideal for the task of sitting and listening to a system that is some distance from your chair… except that this cable is only supplied as a four pin balanced type connector (Focal is rather hoping you’ll stump up for their Arche headphone amp to power your Clear MGs which you won’t be surprised is equipped with just such a socket). What there isn’t is a long 6.35mm connection (let alone something more niche like a 4.4mm connector for the other balanced connector type although adapters do exist). If you have a single ended headphone amp, more than a metre away from your seating position, you’ll need an extension lead.
I’m prepared to forgive the Clear MG a fair bit though because the other area where Focal has put the legwork in is the aesthetics. The original Clear was a good looking device; a combination of design and materials that gelled well to create a smart and practical headphone. Its successor though is one of the most utterly lovely objects I’ve reviewed in any category or price point. The samples arrived well before any information had been given as to pricing and my gut reaction when I unpacked them for the first time was that they cost somewhere between £2,000 and £2,500 rather than the £1,400 they actually are.
They feel exquisite and while I feel that Focal’s design team hasn’t quite got the colour scheme of the Celestee (that, slightly confusingly, has been written up before the Clear MG but will appear on the site after) exactly right, I regard this as pretty much perfection. Even though they are £1,400 rather than over £2k as I first thought, that’s still a lot of money for a headphone but every single time I’ve handled them before putting them on my head, I’ve lingered just holding and looking at them. The honeycomb effect on the enclosures might not appeal to trypophobes but, for everyone else, this is a simply stunning piece of industrial design. Equipment at this sort of price is about making you feel that you made the right decision after you've put your money down and are left holding the box and this is one of the most effortlessly effective devices I’ve ever seen for doing that.
The original Clear was a good looking device; a combination of design and materials that gelled well to create a smart and practical headphone. Its successor though is one of the most utterly lovely objects I’ve reviewed in any category or price point.
How Was the Clear MG Tested?
The Focal has been used with both the Chord Electronics Hugo2 and 2Go as well as the larger Hugo TT2 and Mscaler, both running as Roon Endpoints, the latter on the end of an SOtM SMS-200 Neo. Some additional testing has taken place with the dCS Bartók over the balanced connector as well as a small amount of running with the Rotel Michi X3 integrated amplifier, taking a USB feed in and connected to an AVID Ingenium Twin, Rega RB330 and Goldring 2500 cartridge. Material used has been FLAC, AIFF and DSD, Tidal and Qobuz, a small amount of on demand TV and some vinyl.
More: Audio Formats
When I tested the original Focal Clear, it was in a group test that included the HD800S. As such, there was plenty of A/B testing and quick changes across the pair of them and the Sennheiser won out. It did so because it leveraged its open back design to simply disappear out of the signal path. You might find the phrase ‘window on the music’ to be trite but the HD800S is just that and the original Clear left a perception - a small perception but a perceivable one nonetheless - of itself in the performance.
Fast forward to 2021 and I’ll cut to the chase. The Clear MG now pulls the same vanishing act that the HD800S does (and Grado too in fairness, although the price that Grado’s design philosophy asks of owners in day to day use is somewhat higher). Using a Hugo2 as before, and listening to the magnificent Hall of Mirrors by Neil Cowley, the Clear MG is something you are aware of only as a pressure on the side of the head. That new driver simply delivers his piano and the sparse supporting electronica with little or no tangible feeling of its character. Like all open back designs, the noise leakage is considerable but even compared to Focal’s own exactingly designed closed back models, it is effortless in a way that they cannot match. It’s very nearly as sensitive as the Celestee too which points to it being able to work without huge amounts of power being available.
There’s something else too. Most of those fearsome speakers simply cannot move like this 40mm driver can. Gregory Porter’s Revival is as big and convincing as it needs to be but it moves with the effortless snap of something like an Eclipse TD speaker. Not for the first time, I am compelled to point out that by the time you reach a price point like this, headphones are not simply a convenience item for use when it is impractical to use your speakers. They have capabilities that are simply beyond what most of us mere mortals will ever get near with a box loudspeaker.
All this speed and impact doesn’t come at the expense of the qualities needed elsewhere either. Listening to the audiophile cliché (a glorious cliché but a cliché nonetheless) of Hugh Masekela’s Stimela (Coal Train), the Focal delivers this utterly wonderful recording in the manner you would hope. Tonality is superb with both Masekela’s superb vocals and the exceptional supporting band sounding as they should. With a moderate amount of cross feed selected, there is a real perception of the venue too as the Focal successfully pushes information in front of you.
I’m not done there either. The Clear MG has two further talents; one shared with the HD800S and one rather more singular. Listening to the Focal through the Hugo2 and 2Go is a sensational experience but if you want to go further down the rabbit hole, it’s happy to enable it. Used with the TT2 and Mscaler, it reflects the astonishing three dimensionality and imperious realism of the more expensive duo. Turn everything up to eleven and use the dCS Bartók via the balanced connection and it still has the clarity and scope to show what the dCS is capable of doing. To put a sense of perspective to that, there are not many £1,400 speakers that could pull off the same feat on a similar ladder of source and amplification. The HD800S can also perform this trick too - it’s rare but not unheard of.
What the Sennheiser cannot do though is be connected to something as effortlessly revealing and play Oasis’ D’You Know What I Mean without you wanting to nudge the volume down. It’s a big angry mess of a recording and it is obligated to point out the issues with it. By hook or by crook, the Clear MG doesn’t need that volume adjustment. It’s still pointing out that this recording is riddled with flaws but somehow doing so in a way where those faults are less egregious. It is one of the neatest balancing acts I have ever seen a headphone perform and, for people like myself where our music libraries are home to indispensable music that is not and never will be audiophile, it’s a star turn. In motoring circles, it’s ‘tractable;’ a device able to behave like a thoroughbred when the opportunity is there but take the kids to school in bumper to bumper traffic when you can’t.
Not for the first time, I am compelled to point out that by the time you reach a price point like this, headphones are not simply a convenience item for use when it is impractical to use your speakers. They have capabilities that are simply beyond what most of us mere mortals will ever get near with a box loudspeaker
- Exceptionally spacious, accurate and involving performance
- Extremely comfortable
- Beautiful and extremely solid industrial design
- Unbalanced cable is too short
Focal Clear MG Headphone Review
Let’s not beat around the bush on this one. In 2,300 words, the most significant criticism I have made stick to the Clear MG is that it really could do with a longer cable with a conventional jack connection. That’s it. In the Clear MG, Focal has taken a headphone that was already very, very good and ironed out everything that passed for a criticism. Then, because why not?, they’ve also tweaked it into one of the most effortlessly beautiful bits of audio equipment I can remember testing. The Clear MG surpasses the Sennheiser HD800S and indeed anything else I can think of under £1,500 and keeps most things under £2,000 entirely honest. It is a truly stupendous combination of performance and design and takes its place as the new Best in Class.
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