French audio brand Focal is known for its super-high-end luxury headphones, with prices to match, and its latest model, the Focal Stellias, are no exception.
Given their eye-watering price tag you'd have to be a hardcore audiophile to consider purchasing these closed-back, over-ear headphones.
We had the chance to test the headphones for a couple of weeks, and we were blown away by the quality of both the sound and the craftsmanship. But are they worth the high asking price? Here’s what we thought…
[Update: There's a new pair of Focal headphones on the scene; created in collaboration with British car manufacturer Bentley, the new Radiance headphones take Bentley design elements including copper accents, and recurring diamond lattice design. You can preorder them now for £1,199 (about $1,430 / AU$1,980) from the Bentley website.]
Price and availability
First things first: the Focal Stellias are a very expensive pair of headphones, and will set you back $3,000 / £2,799.
That works out at around AU$4,200 based on current conversion rates, although at the time of writing this review we've yet to learn when the Stellias will be available in Australia.
For comparison, our current favorite headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM3s, are around 10 times cheaper at $349 / £300 / AU$499, which begs the question: are the Focal Stellias 10 times as good?
The Focal Stellias certainly have a striking design, with a luxurious 'cognac and mocha' color scheme with brushed aluminum accents.
That luxurious look is matched by the build quality – the headband and cups are full-grain leather, and the cups have memory foam cushions that are designed to mold to shape of your ears. (The use of leather does mean these cans may not appeal to vegans or those who object to using animal products.)
The design of the headphones probably won't appeal to people who prefer a more minimalist look for their audio devices – the Focal Stellias are made to be looked at – while their large size could make them a bit too unwieldy for listening on a packed commuter train.
That aside, we found them to be extremely comfortable to wear, even while listening for long periods of time.
According to Focal, the aluminum yoke is also designed to mold to your head shape. It’s hard to say whether the yoke does actually change very much after long periods of use, but it certainly felt very comfortable, thanks partly to the generous and breathable padding.
Even the cables look luxurious – they're woven in the same color scheme as the headphones, and they felt sturdy and well made.
In fact, every aspect of the Stellias just screams opulence, right down to the leather-effect box they come in. Inside you’ll find a sturdy woven carrying case that could easily pass as a designer handbag, as well as a leather-style wallet containing user manuals.
It’s this attention to detail that makes the $3,000 price tag almost feel justified… almost.
There's a lot of high-end audio tech packed into these headphones, with pure 40mm Beryllium dome-style drivers that contain copper voice coils.
They have an extensive frequency response of 5Hz-40kHz (most headphones have a frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz), an impedance of 35 Ohms and a sensitivity of 106dB.
A new and-improved transducer enables the headphones to maintain extreme clarity, even when listening at low volume levels, according to a white paper released by Focal discussing the development of the headphones.
The Focal Stellias come with a few connection options – in the box you’ll an XLR lead, a TRS jack lead, and a jack to mini-jack adapter. All the cables feature an attractive woven design that makes them feel sturdy and well made.
So, how does all that audio tech actually sound? In short, the Focal Stellias are an absolutely joy to listen with.
They have an impressively wide soundstage, which makes you feel as though you're in the same room as the musicians you're listening to, as opposed to the rather closed off, ‘inside your head’ sound that some over-ear headphones can create.
While testing the Stellias, we listened to pretty much every musical genre we could think of to see how they handled different timbres and frequencies, and we were impressed by everything we played.
We started by listening to The Doors' Riders On The Storm. The cascading organ melodies sounded sweet and sonorous, while the electric guitar felt gutsy and full of detail.
However, where the Stellias really shone was in their replication of the vocals. We were blown away by Jim Morrison's voice; resonant and precise, it sat confidently at the front of the mix. Percussion was treated with a similar level of precision and delicacy.
Choral vocals also sound brilliant; we played Edward Elgar’s The Snow, Op.26, No.1, and the different harmonies sounded well-blended without being indistinguishable.
Wanting to try something a little more bass-heavy, we listened to artists like Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Janelle Monáe and Billie Eilish, and were similarly impressed.
In Monáe's Django Jane, the bass frequencies were warm and punchy, and her attacking vocal sounded clear and defined.
Snare drum hits were enjoyably grainy, while the violin and violas had a stunning analogue quality before melting into sweeping synths and digital disturbance.
Excited by the taste of strings on that track, we also listened to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major.
There was a depth and warmth to the lower strings, while the higher violins had a sweet and clear tone. We could really hear every squeak and brush of the bow against the strings, and it was wonderful.
The Focal Stellias sound absolutely fantastic. Their wide-open soundstage and detailed, accurate sound treatment means they make any genre of music sound brilliant.
If you listen to songs you think you know inside out, the Stellias' precise separation of the frequencies means that you will probably hear details you’ve never noticed before.
If you like to keep things minimal in the headphones department, you probably won’t like the showy, opulent design of the Focal Stellias, and they can feel a little chunky for wearing on the commute into work.
But if luxury is your thing, the full-grain leather cups, woven cables, brushed copper accents, and matching carrying case are likely to appeal.
That luxury feel is translated right down to the presentation of the user manuals in a neat little leather-style wallet – and you may well expect to find this level of detail in exchange for parting with $3,000.
And therein lies the problem: the Focal Stellias are prohibitively expensive for most people, at 10 times the price of our current favorite headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM3s.
While the audio sounds exceptionally good, we can’t say for certain that the Stellias are 10 times as sonically proficient as the WH-1000XM3s – but you do probably get 10 times the luxury for your money.
Whether that’s something you’re willing to pay for is largely down to your lifestyle – and your bank balance – but if you ever find yourself with $3,000 burning a hole in your pocket, the Focal Stellias could well be a sound investment.