The Focal Stellia has finally landed on my review desk, its chocolaty goodness now oozing into my ears and brain. At $2999, this closed-back, ultra-premium headphone has already gotten the astonished run-around from plebeian publications like Forbes and the Verge – where apparently one need only own an iPhone to review a headphone. The Stellia also debuted among the audiophile crowd a week ago at CanJam, where Head-Fi fans could demo the Stellia and then compare it unfavorably to the Utopia, our Lord and Saviour.
Knowing all of this, popular opinion seems stacked against the Stellia, and some questions must be answered. Is this headphone worth the price point? Does it sound like garbage? Is it a closed-back Utopia? Or a rich man’s Elegia? And how does it stack up against other premium closed-back headphones?
Review of Focal Stellia Headphones
The Stellia comes in an impressive box with some nice extras. An XLR cable, 3.5mm cable, 1/4” plug adapter, and carrying case are also included. Even the warranty card and user manual come packaged inside a luxurious leather wallet.
Removing the headphone and holding them in my hands, the Stellia feels solid but high-end. Unlike the velour-ish pads of the Clear and Utopia, Focal supplies the Stellia with leather pads that don’t breath – ostensibly to increase isolation and bass response.
Inside each earcup, Focal’s staple Beryllium driver handles audio reproduction. Alongside this driver, a frameless 100% copper voice coil keeps things clean and accurate.
Once situated on my head, the Stellia feels just as comfortable and premium as the Clear or Utopia. However, I feel more closed-off from my surroundings as a result of the thicker leather pads – something that I don’t necessarily mind on a closed-back headphone.
Frequency Range: 5-40,000 Hz
Nominal Impedance: 35 ohms
Sound Pressure Level (SPL): 106 dB
As you can see from these specifications, the Focal Stellia claims a fairly wide frequency range. Impedance remains low, however, and these headphone can make do with less amplification than other headphones in this price range. Lastly, sound pressure stands at a strong 106 dB, allowing for excellent volume in all but the most demanding listening environments.
The Stellia packs an impressive low end – something that should be apparent to anyone at first-listen. Excellent detail retrieval works in tandem with a precise and articulate bass response. With no bleed and exacting control, this low end tackles everything with pristine fidelity. On tracks like Money Trees by Kendrick Lamar or Astronomy (8th Light) by Black Star, the Stellia showcases a deep and resonant bass splashed against three dimensional vocals.
Mids lean slightly forward, with an impressive sense of intimacy that shines through on every one of my test tracks. From Chet Baker’s My Funny Valentine to Mogwai’s Tuner, the Stellia struts a fine line. Offering the most detail possible while still balancing highs and lows. The result is less a mid-forward sound than one that just seems natural. And while vocals definitely shine here, instrumentation doesn’t suffer either. All in all, this is a very rich midrange.
In the highs, the Stellia displays a smoother, less bright character than that found in the Clear or Utopia. This less exacting sound, while less engaging for classical tunes, feels more at home with other genres like pop and rock, where vocals stand in starker contrast against backing instruments. On tracks like Rihanna’s Work and Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, the Stellia displays these talents with gusto, rendering every track pure but somehow still persistently personal.
If there’s a truly weak point to the Stellia, it’s the sense of soundstage, which easily falls flat when stacked up against the Utopia or even the Clear (at half the cost). But this lackluster soundstage is pretty much par for the course for a closed-back headphone. Anyone expecting the Stellia to deliver soundstage close to the open-back Clear (or for that matter, the Utopia) is divorced from reality.
That being said, the Stellia does offer some depth to its sound – even if that sound remains fairly inside-your-head. This will never be the perfect headphone for grand, sweeping symphonies or spacious jazz ramblings. But for hip-hop, rock, pop, and electronica, as well as most other genres – the sound is roomy enough to lend a sense of realism and intimacy to anything you throw at it.
Despite its clear emphasis on the low-end, the Focal Stellia still doesn’t sound abominable with classical or jazz music. As such, it could be used as an all-around headphone for any genre – as long as folks don’t mind the warm sound signature.
With that in mind, it continues to sound better when listening to rock or electronica. But the Stellia really excels when paired with pop and hip-hop, where the vocal presence that Focal has mastered can work in tandem with a deep, powerful (and powerfully detailed) low end.
More than the Elegia ever was, I think the Stellia will end up spurned by diehard Focal fans. Its crime? In the end, it simply doesn’t sound like the Utopia or the Clear, with a warmer and more natural, laid-back sound. And yet, for this same reason, the Stellia will still appeal to listeners previously nonplussed by Focal’s ‘phones.
The Stellia sounds great and presents an interesting headphone option for those who didn’t really buy into the hype of the Utopia or Clear. Unlike the Elegia, the Stellia feels a bit more premium and confident among its competitors. While not the best headphone for jazz or classical, this baby sounds fantastic with hip-hop, rock, and pop.
If you’re a fan of Moller or Mingus, you’re better off considering the Sennheiser HD 820. At $2399, this model will run you a little less, but offers a less v-shaped sound signature without the same low end extension or three-dimensional vocals.
With an impressive sound, fantastic details, and a premium presentation, the Focal Stellia gives the French powerhouse another slam dunk. Despite unfair comparisons to Focal’s open-back headphone, the Stellia still manages to stand on its own as an impressive option at $2999 – especially where isolation and an extended low-end are must-have features.
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