Your eyes are looking at the Focal Bathys, the kind of headphones which make it harder to take the rise out of Apple for charging so much cash for its AirPods Max. We should have known, really, that where the Cupertino company leads others will surely follow - and in this instance it’s entirely legitimised the idea of ‘premium wireless over-ear headphones' for those with fat wallets. From Bowers & Wilkins to Mark Levinson, now plenty of the best wireless headphones around are priced to make the Apple pair look a bit of a bargain.
Naturally enough, Focal fancies a piece of this action. After all, the French manufacturer is no stranger to uber-pricey wired headphones - so why not cut the cord and join the party? Can’t be that difficult, can it? Apparently not, as the very accomplished Focal Bathys makes clear...
Focal Bathys: Price & Availability
The Focal Bathys are on sale now, and in the United Kingdom they’re priced at a not-inconsiderable £699. They’ll set you back a similarly hefty $799 in the United States, while in Australia you’ll have to be prepared to part with AUD$1199.
That’s a chunk of money in anyone’s language (or currency), especially when you consider we’ve only just heard (and deeply admired) the £599 Px8 by Bowers & Wilkins. Still, at least it compares favourably with the £999 Mark Levinson wants for its (admittedly excellent) No. 5909 wireless headphones…
Focal Bathys review: Features & What's New?
The Focal Bathys use Bluetooth 5.1 for wireless connectivity, and are compatible with SBC, AAC, aptX and aptX adaptive codecs. They can also be used hard-wired, either via their USB-C or 3.5mm analogue socket - Focal provides USB-C/USB-C and 3.5mm/3.5mm cables in the Bathy’s travel case, each of 1.2m length.
They need power to work in any configuration, though - so it’s just as well the Bathys will last for around 30 hours when used wirelessly, or between 35-to-42 hours when hard-wired, between charges. A 15-minute charge will hold you for a further five hours.
Wire the Focal to a source via its USB-C socket and it’s possible to use the headphones as a digital-to-analogue convertor. There’s a switch on the right earcup to instruct the Bathys to act as a DAC - and when they do so, digital audio files of up to 24bit/192kHz resolution are catered for.
No matter how you decide to get your audio information on board, though, once it’s there it’s served to your ears via a couple 40mm aluminium/magnesium ‘M’-shaped dome drivers. Focal is claiming frequency response of 15Hz to 22kHz.
There are four mics on each earcup, taking care of telephony, voice-assistant interaction and, of course, active noise-cancellation (ANC). Rather than offer a stack of adjustability, Focal’s gone with ‘silent’ (full on), ‘soft’ (lighter touch) and ‘transparent’ (take a wild guess) as your available options.
Focal Bathys review: Performance
The more capable your wireless headphones, the more important the standard of audio information they get given becomes. During this test the Focal Bathys were connected to an Apple iPhone (using AAC codec), a Nothing Phone (1) (using aptX Adaptive) and a MacBook Pro (via USB-C, with the headphones acting as DAC and with 24bit/192kHz content incoming) - and while the quality of their sound improves with every step, their overall characteristics don’t alter in the slightest.
In every circumstance, the Focal are a big, spacious listen of considerable clarity and heft. The soundstage they create is wide and well-defined, and though separation and focus is strong there’s an equally tangible sense of unity and togetherness in the way the Bathys deliver music. No matter how complex a recording or how numerous its participants, these headphones are able to knit it together and serve it up as a consolidated whole.
Throughout the frequency range, attention to detail is significant, and consequently you’re never in any doubt as to whether you’re getting the full picture. No matter if it’s fleeting, buried deep in the mix or competing in a particularly congested part of the frequency range, if it’s part of the recording the Focal will alert you to it - but not by overstating or spotlighting it, but rather by putting it in proper context.
Low frequencies are full-figured, solidly shaped and properly textured. The opposite end of the frequency range has similarly assertive presence, but stays in the lane marked ‘crisp’ without straying into ‘hard’ - treble sounds attack just as determinedly as bass sounds, and are equally detailed and equally well controlled.
In between, the midrange communicates in an almost indiscreet manner. The Bathys do tremendous work with vocalists, giving them a little pocket of space in which to work, even in the densest mixes, and allowing all the emotion, all the attitude and all the character they invested in their performance complete expression. For better or worse, the technique and control (or lack of) your favourite singer has will be made absolutely plain. And the entire frequency range is smoothly integrated and even-handed from top to bottom - no area is overplayed and no area is understated.
Thanks in large part to the low-frequency speed and control that’s available, rhythmic expression is convincing too. And the Focal are equally adept where dynamic variation is concerned - they can identify the smallest harmonic disparity on a note-by-note basis from a solo instrument, and they can make the fur fly when a massed symphony orchestra piles into the final crescendo.
As far as ANC is concerned, it’s fair to say the Bathys are in the ‘good’ rather than ‘great’ category. ‘Silent’ is a rather optimistic description of its most assertive ANC setting - but while there’s no Bose-like elimination of all external sounds, they are significantly reduced to the point they’re fairly easy to ignore. Certainly the Focal will take most of the background drone of an aircraft out of the equation, leaving you almost entirely free to enjoy their prodigious music-making talents.
Focal Bathys review: Design & Usability
You’ll make your own mind up where aesthetics are concerned, of course, but for our money the Focal Bathys are a good-looking pair of headphones. The balance the design strikes between ‘sophisticated’ and ‘elaborate’ is beautifully judged, especially when considered alongside the Bowers & Wilkins PX8 (‘self-conscious good taste’) and Mark Levinson No. 5909 (‘inexplicably bland’) alternatives. There’s just one true design flourish: the company’s stylised ‘flame’ logo in the centre of each earcup. It can be gently or quite assertively illuminated, or the lighting switched off if you prefer.
The small amount of plastic used in the construction of the Bathys is high-quality, tactile and flawlessly deployed. Elsewhere, a combination of aluminium and magnesium keeps weight down and perceived value high, and the leather-covered memory-foam earcups look and feel good too. There’s a similarly generous amount of padding to the headband (which is leather on top but microfibre material at the contact point, which helps long-haul comfort as well).
The earcups are hinged to fold flat, but the headphones don’t fold in on themselves - so their semi-rigid travel case isn’t the most compact you ever saw. At 350g these are far from the lightest headphones around, but their hanger arrangement and clamping force is so astute the Bathys never feel any kind of burden to wear.
Control of the Bathys is a success of the slightly more qualified kind. There are no capacitive touch-controls here - instead, a three-button strip on the right earcup deals with ‘volume up/down’, ‘play/pause’, ‘skip forwards/backwards’ and Bluetooth pairing. This earcup also has a ‘power on/off/DAC’ control, a USB-C socket and a 3.5mm input, and a button for summoning your source player’s voice assistant (Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are all available). Over on the left-hand side, meanwhile, there’s a single button for cycling through your ANC options. All these controls are slightly at odds with the feel of the rest of the Focal, insomuch as they’re overtly plasticky and (relatively speaking) rather low-rent.
There’s also a control app, the responsiveness of which is questionable and the functionality of which is curtailed. Here’s where you can get an indication of remaining battery power, the type of Bluetooth codec you’re currently listening to, and where you can decide on the amount of logo illumination you’d like. There’s a five-band EQ, with the ability to name and save some custom settings, and the option to choose your preferred level of ANC. There’s no playback control, though, no facility to adjust volume - and when you interact with the app, its responses are not exactly instantaneous.
Focal Bathys review: Verdict
If you want to charge this much for a pair of wireless over-ear headphones, they’d better be something special - so it’s with a mixture of pleasure and relief we’re able to say the Focal Bathys are definitely special.
Their noise-cancelling doesn’t quite match the stellar nature of their audio performance, but unless you’re buying headphones less for their sound quality and more for their ability to shut out the outside world, then the Bathys - remarkably - turn out to justify their asking price and then some.
It’s a brave or foolhardy customer who overlooks the Bowers & Wilkins PX8 and instead gives their money straight to Focal. The PX8, in their own way, just as good-looking as the Bathys, and in their own way they’re just as accomplished a listen - they may not have quite the sense of space or scale the Focal deliver, but they create a well-defined soundstage and load it with detail. As far as the battle for supremacy when it comes to posing in the Business Class lounge, the Bowers & Wilkins are definitely up for the fight.