Massdrop x Focal Elex

Great news for people who are interested in Focal headphones, as Massdrop has announced the Massdrop x Focal Elex, a variation on the Elear based on feedback from members. 

Will from Massdrop contacted me and asked if I’d like to be part of the launch of the Elex. His pitch was that with feedback from the Massdrop community, the Elear was good, but the bass was a bit strong, the earpads and headband could get a bit uncomfortable, and the cable was unwieldy.

To that end, they’ve taken the ear pads, headband and cable from the Clear, which makes them very comfortable to wear. I’m the kind of person who will decide to buy a bag or a jacket, be unable to decide on the colour, and just go with black. For the Elex, Massdrop have done something similar to my thinking, and made the whole headphone a Sony-esque matte black, including using a darker version of the cable from the Clear.

Two cables are included, one with a 6.5mm plug and one with 4-pin XLR, allowing an easy match-up with the variety of desktop amps Massdrop and others make. They are long cables, but given the headphone-end termination uses 3.5mm jacks, it will be readily easy to get, say, a shorter cable with a 3.5mm, 4.4mm or 2.5mm termination, either one for other headphones, or custom made.

My first impression of the Elex was of a “baby” Utopia. I could simply say that they are a less resolving pair of Utopias and be done. Going through my recent playlists, I hear the same things, just the micro, and ultra-micro detail is missing compared to the Utopias. However what’s left is punchy and enjoyable and more open-sounding.

Their tonality comes across as a bit light of neutral overall, but a significant amount of this may be more a factor of the precision of their presentation and quality of their bass.

For example, if you found the Elear a bit muffled and bass-strong and want more air and punch, then these may be just what you are after. Out of the Hugo 2, every part of the music seems to jump out — vocals emote strongly, guitars pluck and twang and bass notes punch fast with detail. The soundstage seems wider, with sounds on good stereo recordings seeming to come from way outside the headphones.

The treble is very present — not overdone, but clean and clear enough even when modern, brighter music comes on. It doesn’t become irritating, at least at my moderate listening levels, as can easily happen with cheaper headphones.

The subtle sounds on high-quality recordings don’t have the finesse I get from the Utopias on my system. While I can hear instrument notes decay and echo, those sounds disappear faster and are more “one note” than from the Utopias, which reveal layer upon layer of detail. Despite that, once or twice I ended up looking up from my computer thinking I’d heard a sound from elsewhere in the house when it was a sound coming from within the studio on the recording.

The bass, despite being a bit on the light side on some tracks, is where the Elex totally nails things. There is an absolutely delicious precision with excellent amount of detail for headphones in this price range. This allowed me to enjoy listening with the Elex, even though I have better headphones on hand.

I tried the Elex out of a variety of gear I have hear and they drove readily easily and consistently out of everything. Switching from, say, a Chord Mojo to my main rig, I could make out an increase in clarity, suggesting to me that at the $799 price Massdrop are asking, they are going to give other headphones in this price range a very serious challenge.

The only negatives I can find are that the treble, at least to my ears, can come across as a tiny bit metallic (irony not intended) and the very low bass doesn’t come out with quite the strength that would be ideal (see music impressions). In all other areas, the Elex makes the music I listen to highly enjoyable.

I reckon these are excellent “entry level high-end” headphones that can give one a taste of what the hobby is all about, without demanding a huge outlay in equipment.

Standard bass test tracks:

Angel – Massive Attack
The bass was so punchy that I had to check I hadn’t left the speakers on when listening. It doesn’t have the quantity of deep thump that would make the best match with this kind of track, but then because it is totally the opposite of “boomy” it makes the track quite an experience to listen to anyway.

Hey Lion – Sofi Tukker
The (mid-)bass is likewise very punchy from this dance track, and deliciously precise while all the other parts of the track remain distinctly clear.

When I Get My Hands on You – The New Basement Tapes
The deep rumble of the low bass notes is distinctly rolled off. On good planars you can really feel those very low notes but not with the Elex.

Other tracks:

Rickover’s Dream – Michael Hedges
This is where I compared the detail in note decay. Guitar plucks are beautiful and precise, and this is where you enjoy the emotion of the playing the Elex delivers and are careful NOT to compare to anything better, because this recording has a whole world inside of it.

Gentle Storm – Elbow
If there’s a track that was made for the Elex, then this is it. The song itself focusses around the vocals, with a mix of light percussion and piano backing them — no heavy-sounding instruments, Guy Garvey’s vocals reaching right out to you as the other instruments tap and thunk away, each clearly delineated.

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