I took some time today to listen to a selection of music with a few of my headphones now that I’ve added the FT3 and Clear OG to the mix. The list:
Focal Clear OG
Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro
Hifiman HE-R7DX (a closed back that doesn’t know that it is)
Audeze Maxwell (yes, I know, another closed back- primarily tested on “72 Seasons” that I preferred it for before my Clear and FT3 arrived).
(most comparisons done with the SMSL 8s stack, with some Zen DAC V2 for bass boost on certain headphones to compare)
Some of the tracks-
Machu Picchu- The Strokes
72 Seasons- Metallica
Celebrants- Nickel Creek
Familiarity- Punch Brothers
Moonshiner- Punch Brothers
Speed Limit, A Night Ride- Ezio Bosso
So, I won’t go into every detail, but my overall preference is as follows (of course, these have different strengths and weeknesses, so this order doesn’t apply to every track I listed, just the list as a whole). Gaming was not a consideration here. Some of the headsets I didn’t prefer for music would probably do quite well for gaming (DT990, K702):
Focal Clear OG
When listening to the above tracks, I started with the DT990 Pro, and rather enjoyed it at first. It has good bass extension, and is technically pretty solid, with its soundstage feeling larger than many of the above headphones (to my ears, the K702 was larger, and perhaps the Poseidon?). After a fair amount of listening, I decided that the highs were giving the appearance of detail, whereas some of the other headphones listed give detail without “faking” anything. (Clear, especially. K702 has detail and some sibilance, FT3 and Poseidon were both reasonably detailed without resorting to “trickery” in the highs). I can still see their value for mixing and, despite my criticism that they are “faking” it a little bit, they still have a respectable amount of detail and separation, but I would not choose them for listening enjoyment. “72 Season” was included specifically due to the crazy amount of cymbal hits. DT990 did not do well in handling those. If I had to pick a favorite thing about these, it would be their soundstage. They’re very open headphones, and there was a better sense of space compared to some of the other ones I used.
K702 had some problems that were very similar to the DT990 Pro, and suffers from it’s lack of bass. The bass is there, mind you, and quite healthy, but it needs some eq. I generally don’t eq, but I see this one being significantly better with some eq. For an open back, it really has decent impact, and the detail and separation are very good. It doesn’t feel like it’s trying as hard as the Beyerdynamic to use its highs to give that sense of increased detail. The soundstage is quite large. These are the opposite of warm. Again, I can see their value in mixing. Aside from the extra emphasis in the highs, they don’t color the music much at all.
The Hifiman HE400SE and the Maxwell both had the same trait that ended up with me preferring them less than the others where there were any vocals involved- the timbre just seemed a bit “off” or “unnatural.” I felt like the voices were just a little less realistic as I was perceiving them in space. The HE400SE is good for its price, but outside of being really neutral, their soundstage was strangely narrow and “in my head” (they’re REALLY open, though. Probably my most open headphones). The Maxwells are really good in a lot of ways. The technical performance (especially detail/separation) is really good, but the timbre thing got me again. When I compared them using the “72 Seasons” track against the HE-R7DX initially for a post I did on Reddit, I preferred the Maxwell, but as I listened more to my dynamic driver headphones, I came to enjoy the natural vocals over the added detail and separation.
This brings me to my favorites:
The Harmonicdyne Poseidon (with stock “suede-style” pads) is a very warm, but still detailed headphone with a good soundstage and sense of space. I felt like these were very nice for “Celebrants” and “Speed Limit, A Night Ride.” There’s a spot in “Celebrants” near the beginning where a choral group briefly joins in the background, and the sense of space was very good. They were OK for “Machu Picchu” and “72 Season” (the guitar was very full bodied), but the over-emphasis on the upper lows into the mids takes away from the rest of the mids and treble on some of the tracks. I keep these ones far, far away from the Zen DAC, because the last thing they need is extra warmth. They don’t extend very deep, either. Out of the open backs, the FT3, DT990 Pro and Clear were much better in that respect. I can definitely see why reviewers tend to like these for recorded live music, because I would say that their soundstage with warmth is the real charm of these, as others have said.
So, we come to the FT3. At $300, I don’t imagine that there’s anything I would take over these. These are good for… everything. The extend very well, they’re not super open (I would almost call them semi-open), but their soundstage still feels very accurate, with good imaging. Their detail isn’t at the same level as the Clear OG, but still good. These sound great for vocals. There’s not much else to say. I really felt that these had a very natural sound, with a touch of warmth and nothing sounds bad. They weren’t the best at anything among the ones that I tested, aside from maybe timbre and having just the right touch of warmth for vocals. They don’t have an amazing amount of punch with the suede pads (the ones I prefer), but respectable, and the bass extension is very good, but not overemphasized. To me, these are a “must recommend” for someone looking for an all around headphone that doesn’t break the bank, has excellent build quality, good tonal balance and very respectable technical performance. That’s not even considering the presentation- premium case, very good (but too long) cable, 4.4 balance WITH a 4 pin XLR adapter (!), switchable ends (as in, you can switch from 3.5 to 4.4 balanced without changing out the cable). They are very comfortable also (maybe not to the level of the DT990 or the K702, but close), but they might not be your cup of tea if you have massive ears.
Lastly, the Clear. The best thing about these was the detail, detail, detail, separation, separation, and separation. Seriously, the detail and separation are intoxicating on these. There’s not much else to say. They don’t overly color the music (which isn’t to say that there isn’t some coloration- they’re not as neutral some of the headphones I listed above). They’re not as wide as the K702, DT990 Pro or Poseidon to my ears, but things are very well placed in a somewhat closer stage. They extend very well in the bass. I felt like they were fairly close to the FT3 in extension (at least on the tracks I used- clearly there aren’t any with sections of extreme bass in what I tried them on). Ezio Bosso and Punch Brothers were probably my favorites to listen to with these, but everything was good.
An honorable mention: The HE-R7DX. I didn’t listen to all of the tracks this time around with this headphone, but it consistently is relatively neutral, with good impact and technical abilities, particularly for the price. I like it better than its open back planar cousin, the HE400SE. As crazy as it sounds, I think the soundstage is larger on the R7DX. It must be said, however, that this fits my head with the stock headband, and that makes a huge difference. At the $68 I paid for an open box pair, it is amazing value for your money, and a great starting point for someone who wants good sound, but doesn’t have much cash, and has a big head (Size-wise, not ego-wise. I’m not sure if ego impacts sound quality. Probably at least as much as a balanced connection does when you’re sitting two and a half feet from your source…)
If I had to pick one of these headphones to listen to all the time, day in and day out, it would be the FT3. The Clear is amazing, but I think the FT3 is a more relaxing listen. There are certain times when I’d like to listen to the Clear more than anything, but when things are so detailed, sometimes it’s harder to have a relaxing listen, if that makes sense. I find myself straining to hear every detail, instead of just bobbing my head to the music and doing whatever else I’m doing. Also, my Clear had a driver problem out of the box that I was luckily able to sort, but I don’t have faith that it will hold up to the day in and day out use. I’m careful with my headphones, so maybe it won’t be an issue, but the Fiio feels like a headphone that will hold up to use (time may make a fool out of me). Please don’t let this paragraph give you the impression that I think that the FT3 is a “better” headphone. It doesn’t impress on the level of the Clear, it just makes more sense, especially if you’re someone who is only going to spend money a single headphone.
So, I’ve written a book above. If you got this far, then I’m kind of impressed. I know a lot of what I’m saying in this post has been said about these (and probably with more style). I don’t have the authority that comes with experience in reviewing headphones, and I’m sure some of my observations will be strongly disagreed with by some people. A-B-ing tracks is a tricky thing, especially when you have to swap out cords and sometimes change sources without losing that mental image of what you just heard. A-B-C-D-ing (and so on) is even harder, and keeping a mental image of what you listened to is even more of a challenge (I also have the tendency to get to a certain track and go, “Oooo, I wonder what X sounds like on this one!”, which can take me off the rails a bit in my comparisons). Finally, my main point of this post was to give a point of reference for someone as clueless as I am who is looking to make a purchase. We rural-type folks don’t always have access to a dealer of Hi-Fi equipment, so finding a comparison is almost essential. Hope it helps someone (and that my opinions don’t point someone in a disastrous direction!!).
A disclaimer: I know there are a lot of other amazing headphones out there, so of course this “roundup” isn’t meant to say anything about them, postive or negative.