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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Focal Listen Mobile On-Ear Headphones Review

Designed in France, the Listen has a closed-back design and noise isolation features. Photo: Focal.

Listen Up!

It seems like every speaker company on the planet makes headphones these days. In fact, there are even a few non-speaker companies out there making headphones. It's a crowded space already. Does the world need a new headphone line? French company Focal thinks so, and at $249, their Listen Mobile On-Ear Headphones represent the entry level into a headphone line that tops out at $4,000 a pair. Does that make the Listen 'phones a relative bargain? Read on to find out.

Back in June, Focal Headphones debuted a trio of new headphone options: the Focal Listen Mobile ($249), the Focal Elear ($999) and the Focal Utopia ($3,999). While the higher priced options promise excellent sound, they also feature an open-backed design which means you can hear almost as much sound from outside the headphones as you can on the inside. And while this gives them a nice wide-open soundstage, it also makes them less than ideal for your morning commute, or any other listening environment where you want to keep a low profile and respect those around you. As a sealed design, the Listen Mobile makes a much better choice when you want to keep your music to yourself.


"Looks Good on You, Though"
The Listen looks good, but this set of cans certainly isn't as eye-catching or flashy as a pair of Beats, Bose, or Monster/Hublot. They're not exactly ugly though, featuring two massive chrome-plated ear cups that house 40mm drivers made of a titanium-coated Mylar sheet. The company also says the set packs an "exclusive" diaphragm technology. Focal/JMLab has established itself as a pioneer in speaker driver technology so we're not surprised they've carried their innovative ideas into headphone drivers as well.

The ear cups fold up, so you can squeeze them into the soft pouch that's included with this set. While in use, the ear cups are pretty plush, but also fit my noggin pretty snugly. I don't exactly have a giant melon and I found these headphones to be a little tight; not to the point of pain or discomfort though. You'll probably want to try them on yourself to see how they feel before buying them, if that's an option (or buy them from a place that accepts returns). Also, those cushy oversized cups do serve a purpose. They block out the ambient noise really well. Someone could have been robbing my house; I never would have known. In fact, I couldn't even hear myself type while I had music playing.

That snug fit can heat things up a bit though. Focal says that the Listen's earcups are made from heat-sensitive, very high-density memory foam, but I thought this set got pretty warm just during daily use. As long as you're in a cooler climate or have decent air conditioning, you'll be fine. During my testing period, there were some crazy hot summer days. Wearing the Listen for too long seemed almost unbearable. However, during less humid, sticky days, I didn't have as much of a problem.

At 0.60 pounds (just under 10 ounces), I found them to be a heavy, but not excessively so. In fact, I took that weight to mean that they had something special inside. More on that in a bit. Helping to lighten that load is the headband, which has a soft coating that feels good against your scalp. Despite the warmth and the weight, and even the snug fit, the Listen is actually quite comfortable to wear, even after hours of use.

The biggest standout on the look is definitely the OFC (Oxygen Free Copper) cable. It has a built-in remote and a separate omnidirectional microphone slightly higher up on the cord. Push that remote once to pause/play music tracks, twice to fast-forward to the next selection, and three times if you want to go back. Even more impressive, the cord is detachable, long (almost 5 feet!), and thick. Not sure if Focal markets this cable as "tangle-free," but I think you'd have to put some serious effort in to tangle it. Despite all of those good things, know that the cord does not offer any sort of volume controls -- and there aren't any on the actual headset, either. But this does allow them to be equally at home with both Apple and Android devices, portable high-res audio players, or virtually anything else with a headphone jack.

According to Focal, the Listen is targeted at the mobile user. Photo: Focal.

Take a Listen
On the Listen's product page, there's some info about those 40mm drivers and the special cone technology involved in making them. They definitely have a little something special, because the sound on the Listen is pretty stellar, with excellent bass and the ability to produce a nicely balanced sound from top to bottom. I ran a lot of music through this set, including Nancy Sinatra, Hall and Oates, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bee Gees, Kirsty MacColl, Patsy Cline, the Beatles, Slayer, The Clash, the Pixies, Jay Z, and much more. The Listen always performed extremely well, no matter what was running through it.

For most of my testing, I used an iPhone and iPad, although I did pull out my old CD player and hook up my computer as sources as well. No matter what I threw at them, the Listens performed well. Individual instruments were reproduced accurately and both male and female vocals were reproduced cleanly without chestiness or undue sibillance. The Listen doesn't have the booming over-accentuated low end that you'll find on some of the competition, but many (including yours truly) see this as a good thing.

At one point, I plugged into my Denon receiver and Roku 3 box and ran movies through the Listen, just so there was a bit of variety. The insanity of Hot Fuzz came through quite nicely, as did the upbeat songs from Frozen and the somewhat angrier tunes featured in Straight Out Compton. Nothing ever sounded muddy, distorted, or tinny. Just pure music, as it should be.
Turn Ons
  • Excellent sound quality
  • Good bass
  • Sturdy build
  • Can block out noisy distractions
Turn Offs
  • A little hot and heavy
  • No volume controls
  • Could use a makeover (or at least a few color options)
The Listen is packaged with a soft carrying case, a 4.6-foot detachable cable, and an airplane adapter. Photo: Focal

Are You Ready to Rock?
There are so many players in the headphone market these days, it's hard to keep up. It's even harder to decide which one should get your hard-earned dollars. Focal's entry-level option is snuggly and warm, but quite stellar sounding as well. It's safe to say that the Listen are definitely worth a listen -- as well as your $250.
More Information and Specifications:
Manufacturer's Contact Information:
Focal-JMlab
108 rue de l'avenir 42353 La Talaudière cedex
France
Phone: (33) 04-77-43-57-00


Focal North America
9641-82 Avenue
Edmonton, Alberta T6C 0Z9
Canada
(888) 340-4403

On the web: www.focal.com/headphones

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