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Focal Stellia Headphones

01-04-2021 | By John Hoffman | Issue 113

As a lifelong two-channel audio listener I had my doubts that I could appreciate listening to music through headphones. A good friend of mine extolls the benefits of the personal listening experience, but I never could come around to seeing his point of view. Sure, I have inexpensive ear buds and in ear monitors for portable listening, but this was always casual listening at best. Yet there are times I could see the advantages of having a headphone system, as there are certain genres of music other household members do not appreciate late at night. The question I had in the back of my mind is, "Could a die-hard audiophile appreciate a set of cans? Would I find long-term listening satisfaction with high-performance headphones?" After a careful evaluation of my needs and preferences for personal listening, I decided to reach out and obtain a pair of Focal Stellia closed back headphones for review. Since I use a pair of JBL 4365 studio monitors in my main system, I suspected a high-quality set of phones offered the greatest chance of a positive outcome.

Focal Stellia Headphones

Image courtesy of Focal

The astute reader can already surmise that I will bring a different perspective to this headphone review, as my evaluation will not be a blow-by-blow comparison to every iconic set of headphones produced since the early 2000s. Instead, my decades long association with high quality two channel audio equipment, and the current gear contained in my reference system, will provide an alternate type of measuring stick to evaluate the Stellia. It is obvious that these Focal headphones provide a different type of presentation than my JBL do, however the strength of these cans are that music is detailed and layered in a way that a traditional loudspeaker cannot emulate. In essence you are hearing music from two different vantage points, and while each will have a strong suit, the soul and emotion of these recordings can be experienced in distinctive but equal ways. However, this can only occur when you choose high performance audio reproducers, such as the Focal Stellia phones and the JBL 4365 speakers.

The act of listening to music through headphones is a tactile experience that a conventional two channel system cannot match. For instance, speakers and turntables can have a visual attraction, while quality headphones appeal not only to the eye, but since you wear them there is a physical element to their appeal. The Stellia offer a unique experience at the very beginning of the ownership process, as Focal has scripted an outstanding presentation from the moment you open the box. The outer hard case is sturdy, attractive, and yet sensible in construction. There is a substantial hard cased binder that keeps both sets of cables secure and neatly organized. Finally, there is a leather folder that holds the manual and associated documents. The headphone carrying case has an attractive cloth covered shell, with sturdy zipper and handles, and is adept at protecting a topflight set of cans while projecting a stylish form. Even putting these headphones on is a luxurious experience, as they are firm and comfortable in their fit. The memory foam ear pads have a supple leather covering that caresses your skin. The headband has a firm yet comfortable grip that supports the weight of these somewhat large cups and allows for the donning of the Stellia to be relatively effortless. The driver enclosures have a perforated aluminum exoskeleton over a layer of leather, and this provides dampening to the enclosures and projects a refined appearance. The Stellia exude an aura of artisan level craftsmanship to anyone who takes the time to look carefully at these beautiful headphones, yet these graceful visual cues also provide a foreshadowing of the remarkable technology and materials contained in these striking speaker enclosures.  

The driver diaphragms used in the Stellia are 40 mm beryllium domes that have remarkable mass and rigidity characteristics. There is a variable density architecture employed in the diaphragm that combats resonances and reduces distortion levels. Within, the framework of the speaker enclosure vents are located behind the diaphragm to control the back wave and redirect it to ensure smooth bass response. There are also damping materials placed inside of the cup to remove standing waves and minimize other resonances that are inherent in a closed back design. The result is a headphone with a frequency response from 5Hz to 40kHz (±3dB). Sensitivity is 106dB and THD of .01%. Impedance of the Stellia is 35 ohms, so these are capable of being driven by many different amps, and even portable devices.

I freely admit the headphone amplifier I currently use is modest compared to many of the choices available to the hardcore headphone hobbyists. Yet that is the beauty of the Stellia, as its benign impedance load means that the Channel Islands VHP2 headphone amp and VAC1 power supply combination is more than capable of driving these high-performance cans. Source components are the Audio Magic Kukama DAC along with a Mac computer server providing digital files or streaming Qobuz sourced material. A TLP TF130 power conditioner feeds clean AC power to amplification and source components. I chose to use the Focal cabling for this review, one is a 3-foot cable with 3.5 mm plug and ¼" screw on adapter, while the second set is a 10-foot cable using a 4 pin DIN termination arrangement. Since the Channel Islands amplifier uses a quarter inch headphone jack, I experimented with an adapter to use the longer cable. Unfortunately, I found the adapter noticeably altered the presentation. For sake of accuracy, my listening sessions were conducted with the shorter OEM cable.

From an intellectual viewpoint I have always understood that listening to music through headphones would have a fundamentally different presentation, however, I never fully grasped the unique perspective that is presented by high performance cans. From my experiences with high end two channel audio systems the soundstage is projected in front of the listener, and the combination of aural and visual cues create a soundscape that replicates what can be heard in a venue. Listening to the Focal Stellia offers a different perspective, as it allows me slide into the music and pick out and observe every element of the recording that I chose to focus on. I will not say the Stellia are more detailed than my JBL 4365 speakers, although the expression of that detail is inherently unique. On "Ma Benz" by Bridgette (Et Vouis Tu M'aimes; 3eme Bureau CD 2074 11) I heard every delicate phrasing from the vocalists, with each drawn breath, every extended phrase carefully drawn out, and the lovely harmonizing between Sylvie and Aurélie. This song essentially became a tactile experience with the music directly caressing my ears. The bass guitar line has weight and texture, and the percussion has power and force that also reaches out and touches you with an immediacy that is intriguing to experience. Sure, headphones do not create the physical soundstage like a quality set of loudspeakers can, yet there is a precise and stable image that is far more expressive than what you get out many lesser headphones, whether they be open or sealed back designs. The Stellia have remarkable imaging capabilities, and when you couple this with the traditional strengths of a seal back design you end up with a truly excellent set of headphones.

Another aspect closely tied to the detail retrieval that the Stellia offer is the stunning level of clarity and purity of sound that is achieved. The total harmonic distortion specification quantifies this attribute, yet you must experience it to fully appreciate this characteristic that number represents. When listening to Cocteau Twins' album Otherness (Fontana COCC5OT57266) the Stellia allows the music to cascade over you with such a solid and substantial feel that lesser headphones cannot approach. Otherworldly vocals shimmer from the upper levels of the soundstage, the bass notes almost grip your ears, and the various instruments and sounds reach out and figuratively touch you. These elements essentially create a surrealistic listening experience. With this album I feel that I am not listening to the performers through the Stellia, but rather that I am within the music itself.

Bass response and dynamic swings are also strong points of the Stellia headphones. These are powerful and dynamic cans, and I appreciate the ability to create the power and force within a song. "Shaolin Buddha Finger" by Depth Charge (Nine Deadly Venoms; EFA CD 17017 26) has a relentless bass line that reaches deep into the audio spectrum, and the Stellia reproduce all the power, fury, and drive of this song. The song weaves between quieter passages and then continues to high energy crescendos, and these cans do a fantastic job of tracking the dynamic demands of this song. Coupled with the remarkable clarity of the Stellia, I found I had to pay attention to how far I twisted the volume knob. I like my electronic music loud, and with these headphones its easy to get carried away and lose track of how high my listening levels have gotten. The Stellia are all around great performers, capable of being detailed and refined, and can transform into a force of nature when the music calls for it.

The Focal Stellia are one of the finest closed back headphones available on the market. These cans are the total package, with stunning looks, artisan level build quality, and cutting-edge engineering and materials. The Stellia transcend the stereotypical limitations of sealed headphones by having an expansive and refined soundstage. The level of detail and resolution is truly breathtaking! As an example, these headphones essentially match the intimate presentation of my Stax Lambda Pro electrostatic earspeakers that I also have on hand. Sure, these two sets of cans sound different, but when you compare the overall level of sound quality the Stellia give up nothing in terms or resolution to an iconic pair of high-end electrostatic headphones. That is quite an achievement, as the Lambda Pro set a high-water mark for headphones to measure up to. The Stellia also build on the traditional strengths of close back phones, as the bass region is powerful, tight, and transparent. Furthermore, these headphones have a primal aspect to its makeup, capable of channeling the ever-changing eddies of energy and dynamic contrasts within a song. If you are seriously considering a pair of top of the line closed back headphones you should give the Stellia a serious audition. Every aspect of these phones has been carefully designed, and you appreciate this attention to detail when you first slip them on your head. When the music starts, I do believe you will get lost in some incredible sound.

Stellia Headphones

Retail: $2990