Focal Clear Mg Professional Review — One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Updated: Apr 7
An audio engineer’s perspective on the latest headphones from Focal
pictured: Focal Clear Mg Professional
Focal Clear Mg Professional
I’ve been using the original Focal Clear to work just about every day since last March when the Coronavirus pandemic first hit the US. I purchased them in anticipation of many months stuck at home and they’ve truly been a saving grace for both business and pleasure. As an audio engineer, I’ve come to rely on the Clear’s neutral tonality, sharp imaging, and speaker-like dynamics. So when I saw the announcement about an update to the Clear, I was PUMPED. Since then, I’ve been looking for an honest review of the new Focal Clear Mg Professional. More specifically, I’ve been looking for comparisons between the Mg Professional and my treasured original Clear. This morning, after seeing this post on Reddit: “Focal Clear MG Pro — only two left in stock from Audio 46,” I dropped everything and went on an adventure to Manhattan so I could write the review myself.
pictured: Schiit Heresy, Motu M2, Focal Clear, Muji
Build, Design, and Comfort
The first Focal Clear Mg Professional that Audio46 gave me to listen to was broken — There was significantly more low end in the left driver than the right driver. Since I had my original Clear with me, I knew that there wasn’t anything wrong with the rest of the chain but we tried swapping cables, adapters, DACs and amps anyways just to make sure. After ruling everything else out, the manager came out with a brand new pair. The second pair seemed to be working fine…
Apart from the first pair being defective, the build, design, and comfort of the Clear Mg Pro seemed more or less the same as that of the original Clear so I’m going to copy and paste what I wrote in my Focal Clear review:
The Focal Clear, like everything Focal produces, is beautifully designed. I’ve had mine for almost a year now and they still look / feel brand new apart from the ear pads. Replacement ear pads are extremely expensive at $200 per pair. For reference, Sennheiser sells replacement pads for their HD 6-line for $50 per pair. In theory, ear pads have a substantial effect on a headphone’s sound which is how Focal justifies such a steep price. There are third-party replacement pads available for the Focal Clear but according to objective measurements and subjective impressions by Andrew Park at headphones.com, none of them sound the same as the stock Focal Clear pads. The pads on my Focal Clear do look worn but despite wearing them for 6+ hours just about every day this year, they still feel firm and sound the same as they did when I got them.
Unlike the ear pads, the headband is not replaceable. This is an unfortunate design flaw. In order to keep the headband fresh for as long as possible, I purchased this headphone headband which happens to perfectly match the Focal Clear color scheme.
The Clear is unreasonably comfortable for how heavy it is. At almost twice the weight of Sennheiser’s HD 6XX, the Clear is almost just as comfortable as the 6XX if not more comfortable in some ways. The (very expensive to replace) ear pads are perforated which probably contributes to the Clear’s breathability along with the Clear’s open-back nature. In the year that I’ve spent using the Clear for recording/mixing/mastering sessions every day, comfort has never been an issue. It isn’t as comfortable as wearing nothing, but it may be the next best thing.
Eyeglasses seem to have a noticeable effect on low end response. With glasses on, the sub frequencies sound slightly off. I avoid this issue by resting my eyeglass temples on top of headphone ear-pads like a complete maniac.
Note: These are open-back headphones. This means there is no isolation between you and your surroundings. These are useful for listening critically at home in a quiet room. They would be totally inappropriate for use in public spaces because 1. everyone would be able to hear what you’re listening to and 2. the noise of your surroundings would make it difficult for you to hear what you’re listening to.
Reference Tracks | Jake Cheriff
pictured: my reference tracks for evaluating speakers, headphones, and room acoustics
Frequency Response / Sound
pictured: Focal Clear, Focal Clear Mg Professional, Schiit Heresy, Motu M2
The Focal Clear Mg Professional has a very safe frequency response. I don’t have any measurements to reference this time because no one has posted any measurements for the Clear Mg Pro yet. So these impressions will all be purely based on my subjective experience today. It will be fun to see how those impressions line up with measurements taken in the future. In the meantime, let’s talk about what I mean by safe.
My least favorite thing about the new Clear Mg Professional is the bass. It’s hard to tell whether Focal has managed to extend the sub bass response because there’s slightly too much bass in general. If we had a graph to look at, I imagine there’d be a wide and subtle hump around 120 Hz extending as high as 200 Hz — not unlike the frequency response of the renowned Sennheiser HD 650. While that doesn’t line up with my personal preference, which leans more towards Crinacle’s neutral target, I do think it will satisfy average listeners who are less concerned about transparency and detail. I find that the increased bass does mask some detail in the low mids, slightly, compared to the transition between bass and mids on the original Clear. This low end frequency response, to me, makes for an incredibly relaxing listening experience. However, these are being marketed as mixing / mastering headphones and from a music production perspective, I don’t understand the update to the low end. I’m happy to report, at least, that the bass dynamics hit just as hard as they do on the original Clear.
The midrange of the Mg sounds sounds a little smoother than it does on the original Clear in both tonality and timbre. But like the bass, the smoothness seems like a safe choice rather than a productive choice for what should be professional headphones.
Listening to “Rolodex” by Aidan Knight:
The snare drum has more thump and less crack than it does on the original Clear.
The bass guitar and vocal seem to share more in common, tonality-wise, on the Mg than they do on the original Clear.
The instrumental interlude at 1:30, which opens up the mix beautifully on the original Clear, is less effective on the Mg. The contrast between sections in general is less significant on the MG.
The syncopated guitar and synth at 1:30 also sound less wide on the Mg.
As you’ve probably already guessed, I prefer the treble on the original Clear as well. The Mg’s treble is considerably more subdued/laid-back sacrificing a disappointing amount of clarity and detail. The original Clear’s treble isn’t perfect — There’s definitely some spiciness around 6 kHz that gives way to occasionally abrasive sibilance. But each time I switch back to the original Clear, I am reminded of how much I love that spiciness. The original Clear’s treble frequency response lives on the edge of neutrality in a way that appeals to me as a lover of detail and, more importantly, as a mixing engineer. I’d much rather overshoot in sibilance reduction, reducing slightly too much sibilance in my mixes than undershoot and leave behind some embarrassing ESSSplosions. The Mg’s treble is safe — Songs with questionable amounts of sibilance come across smooth as butter.
Listening to “Body” by Julia Jacklin:
The occasional sibilance that I hear on the original Clear is gone. The vocals are much smoother.
The increased bass sounds slightly bloated and unrefined.
The center image is less solid than it is on the original Clear.
Listening to “Come Home” by Fell Runner,
The guitars have less edge to them than they have on the original Clear.
The snare has more thud and less crack than it has on the original Clear.
The vocals are less clear.
The bass sounds slightly bloated.
pictured: Focal Clear, Focal Clear Mg Professional
Soundstage / Imaging
The Clear Mg Professional’s soundstage trades blows with the soundstage of the original Clear. The increased low end makes the soundstage sound deeper at times but the decreased high end pushes everything away slightly. In music production, you can often makes things sound closer to the front of the mix (or the listener) by adding high frequencies to a sound. So it makes sense that the front of the Mg’s soundstage is slightly less intimate than that of the original Clear. But the Mg is more intimate in other ways. Although I did not have my Sennheiser HD 6XX on hand to compare, I was reminded of the vocal intimacy exhibited by the 6XX’s meaty midrange tonality. Like the 6XX, the Mg’s lower mids seem to sometimes consume a larger portion of the overall image.
The imaging also trades blows, probably depending on the frequency content per song.
pictured: Focal Clear Mg Professional
Value / Conclusion
I was really hard on the Clear Mg Professional in this review because I was comparing it to the original Clear. On its own, the Clear Mg Professional is a fine headphone. Maybe a great headphone. But if I was at the shop today trying to decide between buying the Mg Professional and buying the original Clear, I would have had no trouble choosing the Clear and feeling confident about that decision. You should keep in mind that I’ve been listening to the original Clear religiously for about a year. It’s entirely possible that I’ve spent so much time listening to music on the original Clear that my perception of neutral headphones is skewed, mirroring the Clear’s explicit tonality. But I can only report on my own perception — I much prefer the spiciness of the original Clear to the safety of the Mg Professional. I am both relieved (financially) and saddened to report that I have no intention of adding the Focal Clear Mg Professional to my studio at this time.
Thanks for reading.
Shout-out to Audio46 for letting me hang out for several hours today.