– DAC: Holo Audio May and dCS Bartok
– Amp: Benchmark AHB2, Singxer SA-1, and Woo Audio WA33
– Changes from stock: Pads replaced with Clear Pro pads (due to stock pads being worn out), cable replaced with Apos Flow Cable due to being MUCH more flexible than stock cable.
This might be on the cheaper side in Focal’s lineup, but so far it’s actually my favourite and I’ve been quite surprised how much I enjoyed it given my…..well…less than ideal experiences with the Clear and Clear MG.
The two clear variants were to my ears far too boxy sounding with awful timbre and only redeemed by their macrodynamic impact. Additionally the Clear MG seemed to have an upper treble resonance that fatigued me very quickly.
But the Elex I put on, and smiled! These sound great and there’s a lot to love.
If all you want to know is if these are worth buying: Yes, they are, they’re great for the money, a good all-rounder, and I much preferred them to the Clear and Clear MG. They might not be trading blows with the flagship Utopia, but of course that’s a much more expensive can and it’d likely be unfair to expect them to do so.
Build and Comfort:
The Focal lineup follows a very similar design philosophy throughout, and the Elex does not deviate from it. The headband itself is nicely padded and houses the adjustment and swivel mechanism, which rather than being at the yokes of the headphone like most, is instead in the headband itself.
I appreciate this design choice as it allows for the headphones to swivel, whilst using a single piece of metal for the yokes rather than incorporating a joint, which results in an exceptionally premium look and feel.
The cups themselves feature a black Focal logo embedded in a solid wire mesh. These are very much open back headphones and so noise isolation should not be expected, but they feel quite robust and sturdy.
The use of a wire mesh instead of fabric or other more delicate material (such as the plastic on the HD800) means these are much less likely to be damaged or wear.
The only parts of the headphones I’d have some concerns about longevity would be the pads, which are easily changed if they do happen to wear, and the headband, as faux-leather does tend to crack and peel after extended use.
The cup tilt is spring-loaded, and so they will not shake or turn whilst you are holding the headphones or packing them into a case. This also helps to create a more effective seal on most heads.
Overall, the comfort on the Elex is fantastic. I could quite happily wear them for extended sessions and my ears never felt hot either. The build of the Elex, along with most of Focal’s headphones, is excellent.
The only part I have some gripe with is the cable. The stock cable is simply too stiff with too much shape memory. Leading to it being both microphonic and often hard to keep from folding over my hands when typing as it simply would not stay where I put it.
Luckily though the connections are standard 3.5mm with a wide hole for the connector so there will be no trouble sourcing a replacement or custom cable if desired. I personally used the Apos Flow cable as it was not microphonic at all and much more flexible and comfortable than the stock cable. Would recommend planning to get some sort of replacement cable for these if possible.
(For full transparency, Apos did send me the flow cable for free, but I would not be recommending it if I did not feel it wasn’t a good product. It’s genuinely a very nice, affordable, flexible and good looking cable.)
Power and sources:
The Elex are 80ohm headphones with a relatively high sensitivity of 104dB/mW, meaning they are not particularly tricky to drive. They worked just fine with comfortable volume control range on all amplifiers I tried and even dongles or DAPs such as the Lotoo S2 and L&P P6 Pro.
You do need an amplifier to get the best out of them, but don’t need anything with crazy power, focus attention more on the sound signature of the amp not the power if the Elex are likely to be your main cans.
I particularly enjoyed them on the Singxer SA-1 as it offered a very detailed, smooth (but not too smooth) and spacious presentation. They did not seem to pair too well with more clinical amplifiers such as the SMSL SH8S. Something with a tasteful hint of warmth is ideal in my opinion.
The overall signature of the Elex can’t really be summed up easily with blanket descriptions such as ‘warm’, ‘bright’ or ‘v-shaped’.
It’s actually a bit analytical in nature but with some lowend impact that says ‘I know how to have fun too’.
Perhaps the closest description would actually be ‘M’ shaped, and it’s not one that I’ve really heard on many other headphones. But it’s a sound that I quite enjoyed for many tracks. It wasn’t trying too hard to be ‘warm and natural’ and missing the mark like the clear MG, but it also wasn’t trying to force apparent detail by being overtly bright like some other headphones. It offers a midbass boost to give a sense of impact and ‘fun’, and backs it up with articulate and technically capable treble.
Immediately upon listening I was enjoying them a lot with several different genres and the only thing that I found myself wanting a bit more of was some subbass extension.
Coming from the Clear MG the Elex sound immediately more spacious, lose the offensive ‘boxy-ness’, and just sound a lot more normal overall.
The Elex are not neutral headphones, but they ARE an all-rounder, both in genres they suit and source gear you can pair them with. I struggled to find anything that sounded ‘wrong’ when used with or played on the Elex and they simply offered slightly different presentations with different source gear. They were not source picky, though I did lean towards warmer gear as a preference with them for reasons discussed further on.
Focals have a bit of a reputation, and a well deserved one at that for being ‘punchy’ or ‘slammy’.
Listening to ‘Instinct’ by Kayliox the impact of kick drum synths was fast, forceful and had me unable to sit still. The energy and speed that the Elex can present in the lowend is excellent and great fun for many electronic genres.
But whilst this is great, it’s unfortunately slightly let down by a somewhat mediocre subbass extension. Bass punch was fantastic but then when listening to a track intended to give a deep, continuous rumble like “Bittersweet” by Louis the Child, it left me feeling a little bit disappointed. The impact of the kick is still great, but the synth that follows just was not present enough.
This effect is not really helped by a gentle ‘U’ shaped dip in the midrange which takes away some feeling of body and fullness to the sound. Not to any problematic extent, as listening to something such as ‘TrusT’ by Half-Alive does still sound excellent all around, with forceful and controlled transients, plenty of resolution, and whilst the midrange elements such as the piano and synth organs sound a little thinner in presentation than other headphones, they’re still present enough and what I’d call ‘fine’.
So if the Elex has a flaw, it’s that it can be a little lightweight in presentation, though it retains plenty of speed and impact for both synthetic elements, and acoustic elements such as kick drums.
Vocals are somewhat unique in presentation on the Elex. The lower ‘body’ of the vocals is somewhat recessed whilst the upper articulation area is quite prominent. Vocals are intimate and don’t stage as far as many other instruments do but this is a presentation that a lot of listeners will enjoy, as the vocalist is in most cases the focus of the track and so having them put up-front and centre even somewhat artificially is very enjoyable to many.
Timbre is overall slightly thin which does often leave male vocals needing a bit more body, but resolution and separation from the rest of the mix is excellent for the price.
A track such as ‘Puma’ by Andrew Bird displays this quite well as a lot of Andrew Bird’s voice sits around the 500hz region, which on the Elex is a little recessed. However the rest of the mix, the guitars, strings and drums, sound full of energy, detail, and are all completely separated from eachother with very little congestion or lack of coherence.
Other headphones may have a similar midrange dip to the Elex, but typically come with a stronger bass/midbass boost that leaves the presentation much more veiled or muddy in nature. The fact that the Elex does NOT go too far with the midbass emphasis means elements in higher frequencies are able to shine through much more easily.
Treble itself is more prominent in the 3-5k region but drops down after, leading to quite an ‘articulate’ feel not too bright or airy. It reminded me of a slightly tamed Sendy Aiva.
Guitar plucks, snares, vocal consonants, and many electronic synth elements sound clear and quick without being aggressive or sharp, spacious but not diffused. It’s overall a very enjoyable treble presentation and I cannot really point out any major issues, it’s very good.
It does have a slightly more than is realistic emphasis on the 3-5khz region, but again, this is not a can that’s trying to be strictly neutral, it’s trying to be a little bit analytical, without being fatiguing or sibilant, and the added midbass energy gives it a little bit more fun than other headphones with similar resolving capabilities in this pricepoint.
The Focal Elex are an excellent pair of headphones for the money and a great all-rounder that will suit many tastes. They’re an easy recommendation for anyone looking for something comfortable, well built, that looks good, and will work with just about any genre.
If you’re a bass-head they might not have that deep rumble you’re looking for but will certainly deliver on slam and impact, and if you’re an opera lover then you might find yourself wanting a bit more weight in Andrea Bocelli’s voice, but you’ll certainly have all the resolution, articulation, and clarity of not just vocals but every instrument in the venue to make up for it.
And whilst it might be heresy to some, a touch of EQ really makes these headphones shine and likely one of the best options available without spending considerably more.