Focal Clear MG review: officially the best wired headphones at the T3 Awards 2021

The Focal Clear MG headphones are about as good as it gets for luxurious home hi-fi

T3 Platinum Award
Focal Clear MG review
(Image credit: Focal)
T3 Verdict

The Focal Clear MG headphones offer simply fantastic audio quality, and a comfortable design for long periods of listening. And they can even be driven by portable devices, though are at their best with a great hi-fi setup.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Gorgeously rich and realistic sound

  • +

    Premium build quality

  • +

    Easy to drive

  • +

    Very comfortable

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Open-backed has disadvantages

  • -

    Maybe not totally neutral

Testing for this Focal Clear MG headphones review has not been a very taxing time. These are luxurious headphones, made for a luxurious listening experience, and they hit that mark dead on. For my money, these are absolutely the best wired headphones on the planet, and have been crowned as such in the Headphones category of the T3 Awards 2021.

They're open-backed headphones built mainly for listening to an audiophile-friendly setup – ie, with a dedicated headphone amp – yet they're also unfussy enough to drivable by portable devices, so you don't have to be tethered to your shelves.

Being open-backed means they're capable of a natural and expansive sound, but that sound leaks both in and out something rotten. That's fine – it's by design – but it means they're explicitly not for taking on the train or, really, to the office. They're for listening at home, in an environment where you control how much outside noise there is.

Microfibre earpads and headband material feels like sinking into a sofa when you put them on, and they held firmly in place on my head without being uncomfortable or warming up too much over a long period of listening. They're both soft and firm at the same time, like the ideal hug.

The aluminium frame and honeycomb design on the outside of the earcups feel eminently premium too, and a look inside the microfibre pads reveals the same honeycomb in an M-shape, protecting the unusual M-shaped magnesium drivers inside.

Focal Clear MG review

(Image credit: Focal)

Focal Clear MG review: Price and release date

The Focal Clear MG cost £1,499/$1490/AU$2,199, which is a bit more than the Focal Clear that they're supplanting, and is roughly the same as the Sennheiser HD 800 S that are their single biggest competition. 

This is actually at the lower-end of Focal's range – its cheapest headphones are the £999/$990/$AU1,399 Celestee – and it's about half of what you'd pay for Focal's wonderful closed-back headphones, the Stellia, which are more or less on a par for audio quality, in my opinion.

So in the scheme of audiophile headphones, they're pretty well-priced, even if they make the cost of Apple AirPods Max look like pocket change in comparison. These are for a difference audience.

This is clear before you even try them, just from the box. It's a fancy affair, all pristine black cardboard that slides apart to reveal the high-quality hard case that the Clear MG come with.

A separate section opens out to reveal the two cables it comes with: one has a 3.5mm headphone jack on the end, with a screw-on 6.5mm attachment; the other is a four-pin XLR. On the other end are easy-to-connect twin cables for the two earcups of the headphones.

The cables are a soft-touch plastic, which means they don't snag, and don't make any noise at all rubbing over clothes.

Focal Clear MG review

(Image credit: Focal)

Focal Clear MG review: Performance

I mostly tested the Focal Clear MG with the Naim Uniti Headphone Edition, which is a natural pairing, since Focal and Naim are part of the same company. I also tested it with the tiny EarMen Sparrow USB-C DAC. My source was mostly Qobuz for Hi-Res and CD quality tracks, with some Apple Music thrown in too.

In these setups, the Clear MG are so comforting and enveloping, and give you exactly the kind of natural and infinitely detailed sound you want.

From the inhalation of the singer to every vibration of a bass string, you're unquestionably getting the full picture of the music. When asked, the Clear MG has a deep and guttural well of bass power to draw on, but it's precisely controlled, and never overblown… unless the song asks it to be.

You also get a sense of the dynamic range of the headphones from the bass, which can resonate strongly in the mix still even if the rest of the song suddenly brings in high vocals and instruments. 

Similarly, at the top end you can hear the accidental pop of a singer's lips sticking together, even while instruments bounce under it. The headphones just eat up as much detail as you can give them, and present it back to you with impeccable manners.

Even in songs that build to an intentional cacophony of clashing sounds, the Focal's just seem to crack their knuckles, like John Wick ready to take on a dozen men at once. You get to hear the individual instruments even in the busiest tracks, not just the mix overall.

It feels really true to the music as a result. If a song wants to be smooth, the Clear MG will spread it like Nutella. If a song wants to be crisp and hard, it turns to diamond.

I wouldn't say the resulting sound is quite what you'd call truly neutral. I think it takes a little shuffle towards some warmth in the mid and bass, and you'll get no complaints from me about that.

In terms of the open-backedness, sounds absolutely leaks in and out significantly. On the day I'm writing this, it's especially blustery, and when the wind really picks up it sneaks into the background. Again, that's no problem – if you choose the expansive and dynamic sound of open-back cans, that's the flip side.

And anyway, you can always turn the volume up further. Mostly, the Clear MG handle being cranked up without any complaint, though when playing through the Naim Uniti in particular, we noticed that non-Hi-Res tracks were more likely to hit a ceiling where they became harsh, whereas Hi-Res tracks still sounded great up to the point where the volume was just too much.

Focal Clear MG review

(Image credit: Focal)

Focal Clear MG review: Verdict

I don't really have any complaints about the Focal Clear MG. The price is unquestionably high, but as I mentioned further up, it's right in line with equivalent audiophile headphones, and looks quite reasonable compared to some of Focal's even more extravagant options. The cables could maybe be longer. That'd be kind of useful…

Otherwise, I've just found them to be glorious. Paired with a suitably high-quality audio source and DAC and/or amp, they're headphones that just let you revel in sound, packing detail and definition in waves. And they're comfortable and pretty stylish while doing it. Very few headphones make it so enjoyable to get lost in your music.

Focal Clear MG review: Also consider

The big competitor here is Sennheiser's HD 800 S, which are generally considered to be about as neutral as headphones get, and packing all the same kind of advantages of impact, detail and natural sound reproduction that you get from the Focal Clear MG. They're nowhere near as good-looking as the Clear MG. Really, you can pick either of these and be happy – I'd take the more stylish and marginally warmer Focal's, but that's just my taste.

If you'd like this kind of audio experience, but with a lower price tag, our more affordable open-back headphones of choice are the Grado SR325e. Their design could be described more as "functional" than anything else (though they look quite charming because of it), but their audio quality is stunning for the price. It's really remarkably close to what you get from the Clear MG considering the price difference, though the extra cost does give you a noticeable step up. They're nowhere near as comfortable as the Clear MG either, though a new version – the SR325x – is coming soon, which promises a more comfortable headband.

Matthew Bolton
Matthew Bolton

Matthew runs T3's magazine side putting the best gadgets in ink every month, having worked across on many tech mags over the last decade. He's also our resident Apple expert, and you absolutely should not get him started about Lego or board games unless you have a free afternoon and endless patience.