Headphone prices can get outrages these days. It’s not unreasonable to pay more for quality but then past that point can get questionable. Case in point are the top-end headphones from the high-end French audio company, Focal. Its closed-back and open-back over-ear flagships run a contentious $3,000 and $4,000, respectively. In this synopsis, we’re testing the former, curious if it at all can be justified.
There are plentiful general impressions/reviews out there for the Focal Stellia, so our focus here is on getting to the point of this purchase decision. This synopsis fires through key particularities and criticism that are likely to go unaddressed. Let’s get right to it…
*This synopsis of the Focal Stellia was made possible by the loaner unit generously provided by Todd the Vinyl Junky (ttyj.com). Big thanks to Todd! As a side note, make sure to check out ttyj.com for great audio selections and deals.
> High-end headphones too often follow a more-is-less ideal when it comes to packaging. To us, when you pay this much dough, it better feel like it from every corner. Focal is one of the few that understands that presentation and design is important alongside performance. Suffice to say, unboxing the Stellia is an experience. All the packaging is covered in the same leather theme as the headphones themselves.
> When it gets to the main star of the show, the build turns out awe-inspiring. It’s another thing to see these headphones in person. It shines like a million bucks, and feels just like the luxury item that it is. For the first time, we can say that a high-end headphone looks/feels its high price of admission. We can understand that this cognac theme will not be everyones’ cup of tea, but know that the color isn’t as gaudy-orange as some promo pics make it seem. In person, it’s a darker/more muted tone (much like copper) and sophisticated/tasteful rather than loud.
> Our loaner unit has been passed around quite a bit before this point, which makes for a good assessment on durability. Despite all the handling, the build still feels tough and uncompromised. However, there’s an unflattering creaking when moving the right end of the band. It feels cosmetic, though, and nothing like it’s broken or about to break. Still, for something so expensive, it must be a consideration.
> The leather looks like has held up well overall, but shows worn (slight discoloring) just as expected of real leather (or as Focal labels on the headphones “Cuir pleine fleur”, French for “Full grain leather”). None of it shows peeling, fortunately, and the pads feel as cushion-y as they should.
> The on-the-head fit/feel is terrific. Despite all the metal and stout build, this isn’t a heavy headphone (but nor is it lightweight). The ear pads and head cushion all tightly wrap around the head (holes of the ear pads completely covered our ears without contact), making the whole thing feel like a pillow. Unlike many over-ears that we try, the Stellia’s design surprisingly remains comfortable through long listening sessions. There’s some weight-distribution magic that Focal worked out. For instance, we didn’t notice that top-of-the-head fatigue that’s so common. Additionally, ours ears didn’t get too hot with the leather ear cups either. We love that the headphone’s design isn’t just a result of fashion but function too.
> The only knock on the fit (and unfortunately a pretty critical one) is that the clamp force on our unit was looser than it should be. For instance, we could feel the pads wanting to shift with just a little head movement. More clamp force would also improve sound isolation (more on this next), more tightly sealing the leather around the ears. A test of this is a slightly deeper sound when giving a slight push on the ear cups against our heads.
> So the reason the Stellia exists in a world where there’s the Utopia is for isolated listening. Utopia is open-back (completely leaks sound in and out), where the Stellia is a closed-back version of it (same driver). However, we found that the Stellia isn’t as isolating as closed-backs typically are. Some of that may be attributed to the looser fit, or it may be the ear pad materials. For instance, a person next to us could too easily tell what we were listening to, and that’s not even listening loud. Likewise, sound too easily leaks in as well. Fortunately, music can easily drown most of it out unless it’s a really noisy environment.
> One other note (minor but mention-able) is the noticeable, constant feel of more contact/pressure from the bottom points of the ear cups than the top. Because of the headphone’s strictly circular shape, the bottom of the head is the first contact, then the cups rotate from there to fit around the sides. We could notice slight pressure reaching to the back of our teeth as a result. It’s in no way fatiguing, fortunately, but may annoying/distracting to some users.
> There’s a bit to say about the included cables (the balanced XLR and unbalanced 3.5mm have the same construction). Focusing on the 3.5mm-terminated cable, its shortness is curious. Also, if this headphone can be used with any player (it’s only 35 ohm impedance), the cable shouldn’t be so thick (and notably stiff as a result). It’s a bit overbearing. That said, I totally appreciate the aesthetic, built from super tightly wound fabrics (seemingly seamless) that alternates between black and the signature cognac color. Only minor contention we see is little “hairs” of the fabric throughout that have popped up over the time that interrupt the clean look (third picture above).
> A positive of the thick cable and materials is that microphonics are practically negligible.
> We like that the ear cups use a simple 3.5mm connect. There’s no weird, proprietary design that would limit users if they desired a different, third-party cable. It’s just a simple plug in, like it should be.
> Onto the sound, the bass response is one of our favorite qualities. Where the Focal Utopia can be seen as bass-light, the result of closing the ear cups off with the Stellia is as expected – more air pressure gets contained, leading a warmer signature and oomph to the low end. However, it’s no where near overly so. Focal didn’t just cap the ends and call it a day. For instance, hidden within the logo on the outside of each ear cup is actually a pressure-relieving opening. Within the cups is a resonance-damping and acoustic diffusing topography. The mindful engineering gives something powerful but controlled. We can’t see anyone calling the Stellia’s bass bloated or loose despite its warmth.
> The bass stays uniformly strong from the sub-bass through mid-bass, and never lacking body. We found that its impact is really determined by the track; if you’re wanted to feel deep rumble or vigorous jabs, you certainly will with complete authority and layered detail. And even in moments of bustle, it won’t spill over and affect or outshine any other sounds. The bass as a whole is just exquisite.
> This excellence extends up through the lower mid-range, which continues to be bodied, clean, natural in tone, and articulated. The region stays full and impactful, with excellent vocal presence (can almost be called “forward”), so certainly no recessed V-shaped signature here.
> Unfortunately, as we move along we found the upper mids to be a bit thin/distant. There’s a slight metallic/unnatural hint to the region, which in stark contrast with the immaculate lower half of the spectrum, spotlights the deficiency. We want to say it’s a similar defect in the RHA CL2’s signature, though not nearly as prominent and distracting and is certainly passable. The right source might in fact “correct” it. However, we still technically see it as a “flaw” that’s a result of trying to close off an open-back design (Utopia). Focal made a valiant effort correcting acoustic anomalies due to the sound waves no longer being able to escape (and resulting reflection), succeeding for the most part but not completely in our opinion.
> Furthermore, one of the biggest consequences to the point just made is that female vocal tend to sound thin and slightly recessed. Same goes for instruments in this region. It’s a slight hit (and distraction) to the Stellia’s otherwise terrifically full and engaging sonics. Mind you, it’s a “YMMV” thing and it’s best to try the Stellia with your ears and your setup before committing to this being a concern to you.
> Focal’s flagship headphone drivers are really something. At more focused listening, one can pick up on details that most other headphones don’t quite deliver, at least to this refined and effortless level, and certainly for a dynamic driver headphone. I’m not talking about notes themselves but nuisances in between. Bass notes have this pleasing, lingering (naturally) decay and you can here vocals’ tones and breaths fade. In other words, on the Stellia, it’s much easier to notice the “finishings” of sounds, which may not sound like much in words, but once your brain is used to locking on to these details, it does a lot to the listening experience and immersion. This also goes for the upper treble extension, which is top-notch detailed without being overly-so into fatiguing territory.
> One of the biggest points we can make about the sound, despite the Stellia’s price and technology, is that one should not expect anywhere near the wide/large soundstage of the Utopia. It’s not like the HD 820 to the HD 800 (or HD 800 S). This is a “closed” experience like most closed-back headphones out there, which can be disappointing to people that may expect everything for $3,000.
> That said, the sounds are above-averagely open and airy for a closed-back. I’d say height and width are about equal, and the whole presentation is super refined. The dynamics do well to fill the space that there is. Despite the shallow soundstage, you get a surprising amount of dimensional play. Notes and their placements are effortlessly distinguishable. That also means that separation is top-notch. This rigid beryllium dynamic driver is a fantastic performer.
- Stupendous design and build
- Very comfortable
- Easy to drive
- Super refined and resolving sound
- Loose clamping force
- Super thick cables, which cosmetically fray
- Noticeably thin/metallic upper mids
- Overly expensive
It’s no doubt that the Stellia is a gorgeous, exquisite, refined, and detailed piece of audio equipment. But is it worth $3K? Certainly not. For $3K, a headphone needs to be dang-near perfect, but the Stellia has clear flaws. Deal-breaking flaws? Most likely not for many people. But these things become unforgiving at such an impacting cost. If Focal can iron out the upper-mids shortcoming and figure out a way to open up the “closed-in” acoustics (like the innovation that Sennheiser did with the HD 820), then we’d probably change our tune.
Unless you’re that into the Stellia’s design (and we don’t blame you, this is personally the best looking headphone we’ve ever seen), we’d say hold-off until you can grab it on a sale or find a good used one. It’s significantly overpriced at $3K. It just is.