Focal Stellia Review: $3,000-worth of headphone purity

Chris Davies - Jul 1, 2021, 3:55pm CDT
Focal Stellia Review: $3,000-worth of headphone purity
Editors' Rating: 9/10
Pros
  • Incredibly broad, transparent soundstage
  • Works with both headphone amps and regular 3.5mm jacks
  • Lavish construction spares no expense
  • Comfortable enough for hours of listening
Cons
  • $2,990 price tag is considerable
  • Low-bitrate music won't suffice
  • Cables can audibly rub

The Focal Stellia are $3,000 headphones, and I fear they may have ruined me for life. I wouldn’t normally consider myself an audiophile but, like the most dangerous addictions, it only takes a sampling of the good stuff to get you well and truly hooked. While it’s an expensive rabbit hole to find yourself descending, the Stellia do at least have a surprising degree of flexibility to help you make the most of your sizable investment.

The Stellia aesthetic is not for the shy and retiring. The blend of cognac and mocha leather, stainless steel, and aluminum – complete with a perforated design reminiscent of bubbles – means they stand out even when you’re not listening to them.

Focal does not make cheap headphones, and the Stellia are a case in point. At $2,990 they’re placed legitimately in audiophile territory, the sort of ear-luxe that makes AirPods Max and Sony WH-1000XM4 look pedestrian. Despite that, the Stellia are not in fact Focal’s most expensive headphones; that crown goes to the $3,990 Utopia.

What the Stellia are, though, are the company’s flagship closed-back headphones. Where a set of Utopia rely, in part, on the room around you for their expansive soundstage, the Stellia cocoon you in your music. There’s no active noise cancellation, just good old-fashioned physical barriers to the background hubbub of the space around you. Similarly, there’s less chance of what you’re listening to being overheard.

It opens the door to taking the Stellia with you, and indeed Focal has designed the headphones that way. Honestly, the idea of dropping a set of $3k cans in my backpack as I headed to the airport filled me with not-unreasonable terror, but by leaving them behind you’re really missing out.

The key is the low impedance. You can think of that as the amount of power required to drive your headphones: lower, and the amplification inside smartphones and other mainstream electronics is sufficient to drive them. Higher impedance, meanwhile, requires higher power.

At 35 Ohms, the Stellia is unexpectedly miserly in its appetites for a set of reference headphones. It means that, while you can plug them into a headphone amp – I used Focal’s excellent but since-discontinued Arche – with the included 10 foot, 4-pin balanced XLR cable, you can also unplug that and swap in a 4 foot unbalanced cable with a standard 3.5mm jack on the end.

That can slot straight into the headphone port on your phone, should it still have one, or in my case into the Lightning to 3.5mm dongle for my iPhone 12 Pro Max. Both sets of cables are fabric-wrapped, which can result in some microphonic hiss as it rubs against itself and your clothes. There’s no in-line microphone, either, which is a pain when dealing with incoming calls, but I addressed that by simply not answering the phone.

My antisocial nature was only partly the motivation there; more significantly, I didn’t want to stop listening. Fed with TIDAL’s uncompressed tracks, the Stellia quickly upended my uncertainties about just how a set of headphones could justify such a premium price tag.

I confess, my first expectation was for a distinct sound profile: something unmistakable, which instantly says “this is why you spent three grand on these particular headphones.” Instead it’s the absence of that coloration which you realize is the star, here. There’s a purity and transparency to the Stellia that gets out of the way of the recording itself: Focal’s tuning seems more like a magnifying lens, pulling out detail that other headphones might miss.

There’s a single 40mm beryllium speaker driver in each earcup, Focal’s own design and promising 5Hz-40kHz frequency response, 106dB SPL sensitivity, and 0.1-percent THD at 1kHz. The result is a huge heaping of precision, and a soundstage that feels more like sitting in front of a set of high-end speakers.

Vocals are clear and piping, as though you’re sharing a recording booth with your artist of choice. Somehow, though, the Stellia doesn’t lose track of what’s happening around that. It’s a cliché at this point to say that good audio equipment allows you to hear elements of tracks you’d never noticed before, but the reality is that it’s the reason something like Focal’s headphones are so addictive. For every moment of rich familiarity in songs I’d listened to hundreds, thousands of times before, there was invariably something new and complex in there which the Stellia teased out.

It’s possible that, if your tastes run primarily to genres with great lashings of bass, you might wish Focal’s tuning leaned a little heavier on the low end. Then again, I think I’m happier to have that left to my own EQ adjustments. As I segued into classical, that feeling of being sat at the center of a string quartet or reverberating with each sibilant stab of a pipe organ demonstrated how adroitly the Stellia can, by turns, close in around you or spread wide.

Not every track benefits, but that’s more about the music than the headphones you’re listening with. The reality is that mediocre mixes and lackluster bitrates can be exposed with a faintly surgical cruelty. I tried my usual Spotify playlists of decent-but-not-lossless downloads, and couldn’t help but hear the hiss and crackle. The Stellia will make you fussy, and there were times I found myself jumping between albums and genres in an attempt to find music I could immerse myself in without those raw edges to frustrate me.

Focal’s comfort certainly helps that auditioning process. There’s full-grain leather on the outer cups, along with special acoustic cloth elsewhere, with the 20mm of memory foam on each side providing just the right degree of squish and separation. A matching full-grain leather headband has a perforated cloth strip underneath, where it rests on your head. The whole thing weighs in at 435 grams: heavy enough to feel premium but not so much as to be tiring for extended listening sessions.

Focal Stellia Verdict

The more time I spent with the Stellia headphones, the more ironic their lavish presentation seemed. Focal’s head-turning aesthetic – down to the leather-packaged cables and instruction leaflets, and the oversized zippered carrying-case – is impossible to ignore. In start contrast, the headphones themselves do as much as possible to get out of the way of the music, with transparency their lodestar.

$3,000 is a huge amount to spend on a set of headphones, let’s be clear. I’d say there’s an argument to be made that, for solo listening at least, you get significantly more audio quality for your money from the Stellia than you would spending the same amount on an amp and speakers. You can’t take that sort of rig with you, either.

There are good headphones – great headphones, indeed – out there for a fraction of the price of Focal’s Stellia. These French marvels are undoubtedly a luxury purchase, but they’re not a foolish one. You get what you pay for in clarity, in purity, and in sheer unadulterated love of music in all its forms. If your obsession matches that of Focal’s, then, while the Stellia may not exactly be attainable, they’re undeniably aspirational.


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