I don’t listen to headphones like the Focal Stellia (website). Okay, let me back up—I listen to headphones all the time, just not for pleasure, but rather to check my work in the studio and occasionally to make eq decisions on a master.
Words by Dave McNair and Nan Pincus
When Eric Franklin Shook asked me if I wanted to review some headphones, I said “Uh, I don’t think so.”
“Wait, these are special ‘phones—the Focal Stellia AND their killer headamp the Arche,” he says. “Okay, I’ll give it a shot,” I reply since I know Eric to be the best at deciphering the fake news you can trust.
Dave McNair’s Take
So here I am with these gorgeous, French-made beauties. The Focal Stellia headphones look like they’d be at home on location at the season’s showing of the new Chanel or YSL line. Not too blingy but a certain unmistakable French elegance in fit and finish.
After I whipped up a batch of Coq au Vin and got out a bottle of vintage Bordeaux, I sat down to listen to some Serge Gainsbourg.
Tonight, the headphones will deliver you the words I can’t say
The first thing I did was take the stuff to my studio and plug in the Focal Stellia to my mastering rig. I use an old Grace M902 headamp fed by the analog outs from my console. Right away, I noticed a very appealing linear response to the Stellia. Then I let ’em cook for a few days with a CD on repeat. The sound didn’t seem to change much, but now I was more confident to spend time exploring.
During the initial process of listening, I was in the middle of my workday. I couldn’t resist trying some mastering while listening to the Focal Stellia. WHAT? You can’t master on headphones! Oh yeah? Watch me. Switching between my B&W N801s with a pair of Classe CTM 600’s, the Stellia/Grace combo and my reference Audeze LCD-X ‘phones I was able to rapidly trust what I heard from the Stellia. The two full albums I eq’d that day and double-checked the next day, held up very well. I think I slightly changed the bottom end on a few tunes after the speaker check with the N801s.
Next up, I burned in the Focal Arche headamp (with the Stellia) for a few days, then commenced to explore this understated, attractive, heavy black box and its virtues.
Plug your headphones straight into my heart
Before taking this combo rig back home to run some laps in my living room system, I tried the many options afforded to Focal Stellia and Arche users. Installing the Focal driver software on my studio PC was a breeze. I could now come out of the rig digitally and hear the DAC portion of the Arche. Clean, but not the low end I heard when feeding it analog.
Okay. What about the cord options supplied with the Focal Stellia? I liked the multipin balanced, separated grounds cord, a little bit better than the ¼” common ground single-ended cable. And the ¼” single-ended cable length is absurdly short, almost relegating it exclusively to use with personal mobile devices.
The balanced multi-pin connection seemed to give the sound a hair more sense of space. Not really wider, but a more clearly defined stereo picture. It was subtle but noticeable. I also heard a smidgen more energy at the very lowest frequencies when using the multi-pin option.
The Arche menus were easy and intuitive. Choices include several different amplifier styles including voltage, or a hybrid mix of voltage and current drive AND dedicated dsp settings for seven different Focal headphone models. A high or low gain setting and an absolute phase reverse plus some display options round out the settings. I didn’t see the choice to add pomme frites to my order, but hopefully this will addressed in future software upgrades that are available on a separate, rear-panel USB input.
I don’t have a strong opinion of the dsp but I will confess to getting the feels after selecting the “Stellia” option in the amp mode menu. It’s like giving someone a charm bracelet with their name on it.
I feel invincible with my headphones on
So what do these things sound like? Shockingly great.
Right outta the box I heard a classy high mid and top end with the Focal Stellia. It’s smooth AND present. Powerful but not forward or edgy. The Marie Antoinette of high mid/treble (minus the guillotine). In fact the overall frequency response may be the flattest I’ve ever heard in a headphone. Making direct comparisons to my Audeze LCD-Xs, low-end slam was greater on the Audeze. Micro dynamic contrasts were a tiny bit smoothed over on the Stellia vs. the LCD-X but just slightly, since the Stellia never felt compressed sounding. There was a greater sense of air pressure when the LCD-X played big low end, but I’ll confess to the Stellia making the LCD-X feel a bit lumpy and closed-in sounding when making side by side comparisons.
As far as the Arche headamp, I think it’s a super solid product with plenty of power and finesse. It brought out the best in any phones I plugged in, including some Sennheiser HD-650s that I use for QC’ing masters cause they’re muy comfy to wear. Speaking of comfy, I found the Stellia to fit my big ole bald head perfectly. The fit and lightness were welcome after the more substantial feel of the Audeze. Also, the Arche comes with this neat little curved piece that attaches to the top of the amp so you have a place to hang your phones. Whoa. Cool.
I tested the built-in DAC by coming out of my CD transport digitally and going into the Arche and my BorderPatrol SE-i DAC then feeding the analog inputs on the Arche. This way, I was able to compare DACs by switching the input select in the Arche menu.
The DAC in the Arche is not reference quality, but it’s not a fallen souffle, either. A little thin, a tiny bit bright (but not edgy) compared to the BorderPatrol, which was a sumptuous feast of sound. I also felt like the DAC in my Dangerous Monitor had a more fleshed out sound, but without a side by side comparison to a high-end stand-alone DAC, I doubt many users would find serious fault with the Arche DAC. I’ll simply say I found the amp section to be its strong point.
Let Them Eat Cake (Dave’s Conclusion)
The Focal Stellia and Arche at $2,990 and $2,490, respectively, will appeal to the serious head-fi aficionados that demand low coloration, high accuracy, advanced usability options, AND expect to pay for it.
I’m confident that pro music production people will find these to be a valuable tool, in addition to their gorgeous sonics. The sound is sumptuous and inviting while displaying every detail of a recording. If I owned these, I might even listen to some music on headphones. Imagine that. Highly recommended.
Nan Pincus’ Take
Unlike Dave, when Eric asked if I wanted to review headphones, I said, “why yes, I do” without hesitation. Then I readjusted my bun from the top of my head to the back in anticipation of pulling some fantastic cans right over my head. (Of course, regardless of Dave’s initial enthusiasm, he wouldn’t be able to do any such adjustment.)
Then when I heard they were the Focal Stellia, I switched my answer to “Oui, bien sûr.”
With food they say we eat with our eyes first, and if that’s true of headphones too, these were a powerful sonic experience before they got near my ears. The case has an androgynous appeal with a rounded hard carrier and a leather half-curve handle. Then, once you look at the headphones themselves, it’s like looking in the mirror because you immediately “C” “u” you’re looking at so much copper color.
It’s not a color I would have chosen (although I suppose it would have been since it’s the only color the Focal Stellia comes), but, and maybe it’s because it’s just after the NBA playoffs, they have an enticing NBA-esque appeal. They’re not quite the color of a basketball, but their close and with a pattern of tiny circles milled into the aluminum, and leather cups, they converse with sneaker and basketball aesthetic. (For what it’s worth, Focal describes the colorway as “cognac and mocha.”)
Prrr me a glass, boy, I like my water wet
Knowing Dave was going to master with the Focal Stellia and do all sorts of hyper-focused listening with them I was faced with the dilemma: do I get technical at all, or do I just listen to Esther Perel’s “Where Do We Begin?” podcast with them and sob to give a more nuanced review on which parts are waterproof?
Ultimately, I decided to do something in between and listen closely through a few different sources with a focus on music with water effects. I wanted to hear how the incredible detailing of the Focal Stellia and Arche combo would capture them.
I listened with the Meridian Explorer 2 to high-fidelity digital recordings, the Schiit Modi 3 to high fidelity digital recordings, and the Focal Arche DAC and headphone amp to the high fidelity digital recordings and then to a mix of vintage and new release records on the Rega Planar 3 and Cambridge Audio amp.
My digital playlist was Young Thug’s “Wyclef Jean,” Lizzo’s “Tempo,” and Junglepussy’s “Trader Joe,” and then for vinyl, I did Martha Argerich playing Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”
The Schiit Modi 3 did the least for the headphones, no surprise there. The Meridian Explorer 2 did good work, but the Arche sounded incredible. This thing may take up some rack space–I found myself grateful that the included headphone stand was removable–but its designed to combine your headphone amp and DAC into one streamlined device and, “amplify your songs and emotions.” This goal is sometimes hindered by a half-clunky interface that had me occasionally wishing for a remote, but it does indeed deliver. The master quality albums off Tidal were crystal, and plugging in the Rega made me reach for the clean 180g record pressings even faster than usual.
But who are we kidding? Even plugging the Focal Stellia headphones directly into my computer, the Beryllium dome full-range drivers are all-stars–deep lows, crisp highs, and plenty of definition in-between. If you’ve gotten someone to rinse your ears, perhaps after a long afternoon of lake swimming, then you’ve heard a fraction of what the liquid sounded like on the Stellias. In short, they sounded wet.
Poetry in a pear tree, sweet tone like a hummingbird (Nan’s Conclusion)
The Focal Stellia sound is oh so detailed and the vocals are pulled to the front like an encouraging chorus teacher gesturing to the shy girl in the back with the incredible pipes to come forward for a solo.
I personally wouldn’t mind the bass being kept in check a little bit less and the vocals not quite so crisp, but there was no denying that the capture was incredible. I had to give my records and needle a full-on clean because I could hear every piece of dust, and after that I started looking at de-static guns.
After the water exploration, I listened to Carter V and for the first time ever was able to tell which Lil Wayne song was the ringtone of the female character that Kendrick Lamar is flaming in “Mona Lisa.” That sample is less than three seconds and is layered under two other vocals in the track, but with the Stellias on, I could instantly tell the sample was “Lollipop.” That’s the level of detail you’re getting with these. From a piece of dust to a hidden sample, these headphones will find what you’ve been missing and bring it to the front.
I’m not surprised Dave liked them as much as he did because they are incredible. For my taste, they were precision over interpretation, but while that sounds like I’m not convinced, I actually am. Because since I’ve gotten them when I hear a piece of music, I think “I wonder what that will sound like on the Stellias,” and that’s because like Esther Perel’s, I trust they’ll tell me where to begin.
Agreed with Dave, the Focal Stellia and Arche are worth their weight.
For more insight on the Focal Arche check out Grover Neville’s review of the Focal Utopia and Arche (link).