Android Central Verdict
Made in collaboration with Drop, the Elex is an astounding headphone that showcases the best of French audio manufacturer Focal. It has a stylish design backed by robust build quality, but the reason you're buying this headphone is for the sound quality. The Elex produces a wonderfully detailed sound that works across a variety of genres, and it is among the best-sounding headphones you can buy for under $1,000.
Incredible soundstage and imaging
Powerful bass with plenty of character
Detailed mids and highs
Gorgeous design with plush ear pads
Comfortable during all-day use
No carrying case in the box
Quality control issues
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Focal is a boutique French audio manufacturer that caters to the high-end category, and it is renowned for its high-end speakers. In recent years, it has made a name for itself in the headphone segment on the back of stylish designs that deliver exquisite sound quality. Most of Focal's products start out at over $1,000, but the Focal Elex is unique in that it is made in collaboration with Drop. If you've never heard of Drop, it is a community-based ecommerce site that often collaborates with leading audio manufacturers to introduce affordable versions of popular headphones.
The Elex is based on the $999 Focal Elear and uses select parts from the $1,499 Clear, with Drop making adjustments to the overall sound and design. What's particularly noteworthy is that Drop was able to bring the cost down to a much more accessible $599. What hasn't changed is the focus on audio fidelity, and the Elex delivers a wonderfully wide soundstage that makes music come alive.
I used the Elex for over two months now — switching over from the $220 Sennheiser HD6XX — and I can confidently say that this is one of the best headphone bargains you'll find for under $1,000.
Massdrop x Focal Elex: Pricing and availability
The Focal Elex first made its debut in 2017 for $749, and it is now available at Drop for $599 (opens in new tab). Although Drop is the retailer for the Elex, the headphones — like all other Focal products — are manufactured in France. You get a standard two-year warranty that covers any manufacturing defects, and the headphone package includes two six-feet cables.
Massdrop x Focal Elex: Design and comfort
Focal has a distinct design philosophy for its headphones, and the Elex doesn't break the mold in this area. The headphone is unmistakably premium; the metal chassis gives it rigidity and ensures it doesn't flex, and the headband has exquisite padding. Like other Drop collaborations, the Elex gets an all-black color scheme that gives it a lot of added character.
The matte finish combined with the signature Focal styling immediately signifies that this is a high-end product, and it feels as such the moment you start using it. Drop made several usability tweaks to the Elear's design based on feedback from its user community, and this includes new cables, making the ear pads and headband more comfortable, and adjusting the sound signature to make the bass not as exuberant.
To that effect, the Elex features ear pads and headband that's similar to that of the $1,499 Clear, and it is extremely comfortable. Even though the Elex comes in at 450g, I didn't have any issues wearing the headphone throughout the day. The headband distributes the weight well, and features leather at the top and microfiber at the bottom, and the perforated design makes it highly breathable.
The Elex is an open-back design, and as such you'll find a wire mesh covering the outer part of both earcups. The earcups follow an angled design and feature Focal's logo in the middle, and they're connected to the headband via an aluminum yoke that swivels a little to ensure you get a great fit. At the bottom, you'll find individual 3.5mm connectors for the cable and left/right indicators. Inside, you'll find the large 40mm driver, and it is designed to sit 2 inches away from your ear. The ear cushions are big enough that even those with large ears won't have any issues here.
The ear pads have the same perforated microfiber design as the headband, and they have memory foam inserts that make them ideal for extended use on a daily basis. I wore the Elex for extended music and gaming sessions, and although they were considerably heavier than the HD6XX, I didn't feel any fatigue. The perforated ear cushions and headband make all the difference in daily use, and the breathable material adds to the overall comfort.
Now, there have been several instances in the past where Elex owners have faced issues with quality control — headband creaking, microfiber on the ear cushion wearing off — so that's something to consider here. I've had my unit for well over two months now and didn't run into any drawbacks whatsoever, and for what it's worth, it looks like Focal fixed these QC issues.
The Elex isn't particularly designed for portable use as the yokes don't fold inward and there's no carrying case in the box. On that note, the headphone package consists of the Elex and two six-feet cloth-covered cables, one with a 6.3mm connector and the other with a balanced 4-pin XLR. I would have liked longer cables, but it isn't a huge issue, and both cables are of a very high quality. On that note, the cables are unwieldy; they're stiff and don't bend that easily.
Overall, the all-black paint scheme along with the stylish design gives the Elex a unique look that stands out from Focal's portfolio of colorful products. This is a premium product that looks as good as it sounds — and it sounds incredible.
Massdrop x Focal Elex: Sound quality
Coming to the sound, the Elex has exquisite tonal balance and clarity across all frequencies, producing a natural sound that's wonderful for music sessions and gaming. The Elex features Focal's 40mm dynamic driver that's made out of an aluminum-magnesium alloy, and the thinner material allows the driver to be faster than other options in this category.
That is immediately evident in the sound, with the low-end in particular having a detailed presence. Bass is fast, accurate, and thoroughly detailed, and it manages to be highly enjoyable without being overbearing in the least. It has good rumble and definition, and the layering is absolutely spot-on — you can always hear low-end notes with clarity.
Mid-bass is clearly defined as well, and because of the positioning of the driver, you get a good sense of depth. The Elex shines in this particular area, and if you like to listen to bass-heavy music, you'll love the clarity and definition on offer here.
The Elex has excellent presence in the mid-range as well, producing a natural sound with a clear focus on vocals. There's plenty of airiness here, with good timbre and definition. Instruments are full of energy and there's good separation and clarity, with string instruments shining through with a lot of detail.
There are no issues on the treble front, with the Elex delivering a clear and enjoyable signature that isn't harsh or domineering. It has good extension with excellent detail retrieval and resolution, and there's no sibilance whatsoever. It is balanced very well, and while there is some treble roll-off, it doesn't affect the airiness of the sound too much.
The soundstage is incredibly wide and detailed, and the Elex has great presence that shines through across a variety of genres. There's never a sense of congestion, and if you're switching from the HD6XX, you'll find a lot to like here. The Elex has a high sensitivity of 104dB/mW, so it isn't particularly difficult to drive. You can use it with the best Android phones and a portable DAC like the Fiio KA3, but it truly shines with a high-end source like the Fiio M11S player or the K9 Pro DAC.
Massdrop x Focal Elex: The competition
Honestly, the Elex is among the best you'll find in this category, and if you're looking for alternatives, you should take a look at the Dan Clark Audio Aeon Open X. Like the Elex, the Aeon Open X is made in collaboration with Drop, and it retails for $449. It has planar drivers with a distinct bass-forward sound signature, so if you predominantly listen to bass-heavy music, the Aeon Open X is a good choice to consider.
Audeze's LCD-2C is another contender. It costs $799 and has large planar drivers that deliver a terrific sound, often outscoring the brand's flagship models.
Massdrop x Focal Elex: Should you buy it?
You should buy this if:
- You need an open-back headphone with exquisite sound
- You want a stylish design that's comfortable for all-day use
- You want a headphone that offers a wide soundstage
- You need a headphone that holds up just as well for gaming as it does for music
You shouldn't buy this if:
- You need headphones that you can wear outside
- You don't want to roll the dice on quality control issues
I amassed a decent collection of headphones and IEMs, and having switched to the Focal Elex, I found myself unwilling to use anything else for extended listening sessions. Drop did a fantastic job retaining Focal's signature design aesthetic, and by adding its own design flourishes, the Elex manages to stand out. The build quality is exquisite, and the perforated microfiber covering for the ear cushions and headband make the Elex very comfortable for all-day use.
I used the Elex for hours on end while playing music or gaming, and at no point did I feel any fatigue. While the design has a lot going for it, what makes the Elex truly stand out is the sound quality. A great headphone gets out of the way and puts the music front and center, and the Elex does that with aplomb. The tonal balance combined with the clarity, resolution, and wide soundstage make it one of the best headphones you'll find for under $1,000, and the fact that it is now selling for $599 makes it a downright steal.
There isn't anything here I don't like, and if you're using the Sennheiser HD650/HD6XX, Audio-Technica M50X, or any other sub-$300 headphone and are looking to upgrade to a costlier model, the Elex is the obvious choice. The Elex is a giant-killer in the same way the HD6XX demolishes anything under $500, and it is genuinely outstanding.
The Focal Elex combines elegant styling with an exquisite 40mm dynamic driver that's among the best in this category. It produces a detailed and inviting sound that is thoroughly engrossing, and it is comfortable even during extended listening sessions. If you're using the HD6XX and need to upgrade, this is the way to go.
Harish Jonnalagadda is a Senior Editor overseeing Asia at Android Central. He leads the site's coverage of Chinese phone brands, contributing to reviews, features, and buying guides. He also writes about storage servers, audio products, and the semiconductor industry. Contact him on Twitter at @chunkynerd.