Dark or Light
logo
Logo

Golden Ears: Massdrop x Focal Elex Headphones Review

So Transparent They're Nearly Invisible

Christopher Coke Updated: Posted:
Category:
Hardware Reviews 0

Focal is one of the most esteemed brands in the audiophile world, and its Elex headphones are one of the best ways to see what the buzz is about. Partnered with Drop, the Elex are one of the company’s most accessible headphones, but offer one of the most effortlessly natural sound profiles we’ve ever heard. You might forget you’re even wearing headphones. That makes them a tremendous pick for music but a stellar choice for gaming too. 

Specifications

  • Current Price: $599 (Drop
  • Open-back circumaural design
  • 40mm full-range dynamic driver with aluminum-magnesium “M”-shaped dome
  • 20mm-thick perforated microfiber memory foam ear pads
  • Perforated microfiber headband with length adjustment and cup rotation
  • Aluminum yoke
  • Impedance: 80 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 104 dB SPL / 1 mW at 1 kHz
  • THD: < 0.3% at 1 kHz / 100 dB SPL
  • Frequency response: 5 Hz–23 kHz
  • Cable length: 6 ft (1.8 m)
  • Product weight: 15.9 oz (450 g)
  • Storage box dimensions: 12.8 x 10.2 x 6.5 in (32.6 x 26 x 16.4 cm)
  • Individually serialized on sticker under right ear pad
  • Handmade in France
  • Included in the Box
    • 6 ft (1.8 m) cloth-wrapped single-ended cable with ¼ in (6.35 mm) plug
    • 6 ft (1.8 m) cloth-wrapped balanced cable with 4-pin XLR plug
    • Storage box with magnetic closure
    • Manufacturer’s 2-year warranty

Massdrop x Focal Elex - What Is It?

The Massdrop X Focal Elex is a unique headphone produced in partnership between Drop and Focal. It’s based on the Focal Elear, a headphone that first launched to Amazon in 2016. The Elex released within a couple years of that timeframe, so it’s not a new headphone, but remains and excellent pick even today.

Like the best of Drop’s collaborations, the Elex takes elements from the Elear and combines them with user feedback to deliver an end product that’s a refinement and advancement of an already popular original concept. As was the case with the HD6XX, K7XX, HD58X, and most of Drop’s other collaborations, the changes are minor, preserving what made the originals popular in the first place but selling for a reduced price. At the time the Elex launched, the Elears were still around $1000. Today, you can find them used for $700 to $800. The Elex is in stock now for $599 and is worth every penny.

Before getting into the refinements, let’s take a closer look at the headphone itself and the company behind it. Focal is based out of France. It was first known for its excellent speakers, but it’s become one of the most esteemed headphone brands in production today. Its products are eminently boutique. The drivers are custom-engineered and hand-assembled in its facility in Saint-Étienne. 

Its headphones are easily some of the most stylish and fashionable you’ll find in audiophile hobby. The earcups are embellished with stylized grills and Focal iconography. They’re color coordinated and designed to fit into the world of high fashion, if such a thing existed for headphones. The Elex is no exception. Focal’s headphones look fancy and they look good

The Elex is Focal’s blacked-out model. It’s sleek but looks so darn good up close. The earcups are ovular with open-back grilles that span the entire exterior surface. In the middle of each is a smaller, tighter grille with the Focal logo. It uses u-shaped matte black yokes that allow each headphone to angle and create a proper seal. Tilt them and you’ll reveal small glossy rings for a little shine when caught from the right angle. The headband is perforated microfiber on the bottom and leather on the top. The cushions are trimmed in matching perforated microfiber but are supple memory foam underneath. The look isn’t as “stop and stare” as the colorized models but is no less eye-catching than any other headphones Focal has released. This company has style on lock.

For this release, it was Drop that opted for the blacked-out finish to give the Elex a unique identity from the Elear, but the changes didn’t stop there. Both the headband and perforated ear cushions are also part of the updates, dropping the bass from the Elear’s 5-10dB to a less overpowering 3dB above neutral. Drop also includes a balanced cable in the box, along with the 3.5mm (with 6.35mm adapter). 

Small changes to refine the look, sound, and comfort. Blacking out the finish for a unique, sleek look. Adding in an extra cable so it can easily connect to a wider range of gear. Oh, and a much cheaper price. While the Elear was still $1000, the Elex launched for $749. As time has gone on, that price has dropped, bringing us to the current $599 price point.

Under the hood, the Elex uses Focal’s “M-Shaped” 40mm dynamic driver. The driver is made from an aluminum-magnesium alloy and is the key to the Elex’s unique sound signature. The use of extremely thin metal in the driver design (only 80 microns thick) allows the Elex’s driver to operate extremely fast compared to other synthetic drivers. Detail and resolution are outstanding, and transients (the leading edges of notes), hit with realism. 

The driver is only one part of the equation. It’s designed to work specifically within the earcups of the Elex and Focal’s pads. It’s carefully positioned to be two inches away from the ear, which allows it to have one of the most natural sounds I’ve heard from a dynamic headphone. The Elex is expensive, but it’s a carefully engineered, handmade, repeatedly tested, boutique product that instantly enhances your listening experience. 

They’re also very comfortable to wear. At 450 grams, they’re not especially light, but if you had asked me, I would have guessed they weighed much less. The headband distributes the weight very well, so there are no hotspots or areas of fatigue to worry about — and I’m usually the first to complain about such things. The grip force is also perfect for my medium-sized build. They seal well and don’t move around much at all once they’re in place, but are gentle enough to avoid jaw pain and soreness around the ears. 

The only concern, then, is about the long-term life of the headphones. Users have reported issues with the headband breaking and pads wearing out over time and being difficult to replace due to the use of glue. The use of plastic throughout the headband is obviously concerning and should cause anyone a moment of pause to consider how well they treat their headphones and if the risk is worthwhile. There’s no way to guarantee whether you’ll have issues, so I can only recommend any potential buyers treat the headband with care.

Massdrop x Focal Elex - Listening Impressions 

The Elex is the most effortlessly natural sounding headphone I’ve ever heard. I had never heard a Focal headphone before, and when I hit play it didn’t sound like I was even wearing headphones. There’s no veil, no separation between you and your music or game. It’s as if you’re there. That’s a terrible cliche but it’s true. At the same time, singers and vocal cues manage to sound close. The staging is tremendous and enrapturing. The Elex is fun and that is what they hype is about. 

On the product page, Drop describes their goal with the Elex as creating a “Super HD650” (that’s Sennheiser HD650). That headphone was very well regarded for its neutrality and balance, and the Elex, while more colored, amplifies many of the HD6XX’s best qualities and is much more fun to listen to overall.

One of the criticisms of the HD6XX (Drop’s HD650) was that it was too neutral with bass. The HD58X stepped in to fill that gap, but the Elex does an even better job. The bass is fast and incredibly tight. The magnesium driver does wonders here. Kick drums have tangible punch, which brings rock and hip hop to life. At the same time, different elements operating in that space (like bass guitars and synths) layer on top of it and are rich with texture and realistic attack. 

This is outstanding for music but is also great for gaming where you’re going to have a lot of intense sounds layered on top of one another. You’ll have all of the cinematic impact and scope without sacrificing clarity and detail in the higher registers.

Vocals and mid-range instruments are especially interesting on this set. While the sound is very wide and speaker-like, singers definitely seem to come forward. There are times when it genuinely sounds like the vocalists are physically closer to you. Instrumentation in this range has bite, which is great for guitars and makes them stand out more, building on the already impressive layering. 

The treble performance is tuned to make details like cymbal strikes — particularly when the stick strikes the cymbal — and acoustic guitars cut through. It creates a sound that feels particularly clear and detailed but never sharp. There’s a bit of a treble roll-off that removes some of the airiness you might expect for an audiophile-centric headphone, but it lacks nothing in clarity. There’s a shimmery brightness that really makes what you’re listening to sound lively.

Finally, a note on driving them. The Elex aren’t difficult headphones to power, but I would recommend using them with some kind of amplifier. It features an impedance of 80 ohms and sensitivity of 104dB, so smartphone and PC headphone jacks may struggle to provide it with enough headroom. For my listening, I connected it to my Rodecaster Pro 2 interface (which is remarkably good for headphones!), as well as my Questyle M15, iFi Go Bar, and THX Onyx. 

Overall Impressions and Final Thoughts

The overwhelming impression I’m left with is that these headphones punch above their class in spaciousness, resolution, and detail. At $599, they are expensive but offer a listening experience that competes with more expensive headphones that have a tighter fit for music and games. The Elex aren’t neutral like the HD6XX, but they’re more fun to listen to no matter what genre you enjoy most. That spaciousness and excellent imaging/positionality also makes them an excellent choice for gaming. 

For the money, the Elex can easily be the one headphone you use for all of your listening. It’s elevating, even if you’re coming from another well-regarded headphone like the HD6XX or HD58X. This was my first time hearing a Focal headphone, and it appears that the Elex was the perfect place to begin. These headphones are outstanding.

The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.

9.0Amazing
Pros
  • Wide, deep soundstage
  • Excellent, punchy bass and plentiful detail in the mids and highs
  • Natural, lifelike sound
  • Beautiful design
Cons
  • Headphones don’t rotate to lie flat
  • Potential issues with durability/replacement parts


GameByNight

Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight