Focal Elex Review: The Super HD600


A couple years ago, I had the chance to try out the Focal Utopia. From my short listening session, I immediately understood why they're generally considered the world's greatest headphone. But the four thousand dollar or so price tag was not for me. Enter the Focal Elex. At a much more reasonable asking price of $700 and bearing similar drivers to its siblings, the Elex has gained a reputation as a "baby Utopia" or a "super HD600". I knew it was only a matter of time before I got my hands on one to hear it for myself. And though the hype train has mostly come and gone for this headphone, here are my thoughts on the Focal Elex with comparison to the venerable Sennheiser HD600.

What's in the Box?

Inside the black box is the headphones themselves, nestled in foam. You'll find a couple of booklets for product info and a promo brochure for Focal as a company. Other than that are two fabric-sleeved cables, one XLR and the other with a 6.5 mm jack (1/4" for you Americans). These cables are atrocious. It has an ungodly amount of cable memory and awkwardly kinks because of that. I'd highly recommend getting some better cables to replace this.

As for the Elex itself, the build quality is rather nice. It's a handsome black and feels substantial. That said, I intrinsically handle my Elex a lot more gingerly than the HD600. Weight wise, it's significantly heavier than my HD600. Yet despite my initial fears of it being too heavy for regular use, I found I could go a couple hours before needing to take the off and stretch a bit. Comfort was quite good. I actually prefer it to the HD600 except for the weight. The clamp force wasn't too tight and the pads molds nicely onto my head, even on top of my glasses. The pads are surprisingly pliable and conform at the lightest touch. I get the sense that a seal has formed around my ears. It also doesn't get a bit warm like the HD600 does. I don't really feel a pressure point on the top of my head thanks to the thick headband.


To my ears, the Focal Elex is less the "baby Utopia" and more the "super HD600". While Elex retains a lot of the dynamism found in the Utopia, the level of resolution and sheer nuance of the Utopia is on a category of its own. As such, I didn't get the same sense of wonder from my first listen to the Elex that I was expecting from my memories of the Utopia. But shifting perspectives, it is an excellent upgrade to the HD600. 

So what makes it a "super HD600"? Tuning wise, the Elex is a lean neutral with a bright touch. Its mids are similar to the HD600 but cuts down slightly on the lower mids. It introduces a treble forwardness that was absent on the HD600. On a technical level, resolution, layering, and staging take a confident step forward. The biggest advancement the Elex makes over the HD600 is its sense of dynamics and clarity. To use a tired analogy, listening to the Elex is like removing a veil off the HD600. And I don't mean the so-called Sennheiser veil (that I don't even believe in!). On the Elex, recordings feel immediately cleaner. Songs effortlessly adopt another layer of musicality and liveliness.


For all it's greatness, I think it's no secret that the biggest weakness of the HD600 is its bass (well, maybe aside from its soundstage). It's nowhere near bad but the lack of subbass and bluntness of its bass response had always left me wanting a little bit more. Well, the Elex easily resolves both of those complaints with a tradeoff in midbass presence. 

The bass on the Elex is tight. The transient response is superb and lets the Elex easily slam. While it can't compete with the Utopia, the Elex is by no means a slouch when it comes to dynamism and resolution. Even in busy passages, bass notes possess a great sense of definition and cut right through the mix. With the Elex, the subtle variations in how the drummer attacks the kick in each consecutive note comes to life. Grooving bass guitar lines are simply delicious as they flit in and out effortlessly. In comparison, the HD600 sounds downright flat and compressed next to the Elex. Simply put, the Elex's bass response is high quality. That unidentifiable sense of longing I felt when listening to the HD600 is met here.

Quality aside, what about quantity? The Elex's bass takes the reference route. Though it extends nicely down with plenty of presence in the subbass region, it isn't particularly elevated. The same can be said for its midbass. This gives the Elex a rather lean appearance. It's far from anemic but doesn't sound huge. While the toms and kick are meaty, it doesn't always fill the room so to speak. Personally, it's a bit of a shame because for bass this high quality, I want to hear more. I find myself turning up the Elex just to soak in that goodness. I've tried to EQ it lightly but wasn't satisfied with the results.


To my ears, the mids of the Elex and HD600 are rather similar in tone but with a distinctly different presentation to each. Where the HD600 has a warmer, smoothed over sound, the Elex is leaner and more engaging. Vocals have superb placement without ever being too forward or recessed regardless of male or female. I find vocals also blend better into the mix with the Elex than on the HD600. Electric guitars have a cleaner grit to them while acoustic guitars sound sharper on plucked strings. As a whole, instruments feel more spaced out and open on the Elex than on the HD600. In a vacuum, I think I slightly prefer the tonality of the HD600 but the overall technical advancements on the Elex makes me lean heavily in its favor. Oftentimes, when it comes to rhetoric on the HD600, it inevitably circles around its excellent timbre that few other headphones can match. And undoubtedly, the HD600 sounds phenomenal. But I don't think the Elex lags behind in anyway. Its equally pleasing to me as the HD600. Perhaps its presentation is less relaxed to compared to the HD600 but I have no complaints here.


The Elex is noticeably brighter than the HD600 with a treble forwardness that brings out the brilliance of the upper harmonics. If you're used to the relatively laid back treble of the HD600, the Elex may sound fatiguing for the first half hour or so. Hats and cymbals are crisp. Bell-like instruments and the upper notes of a xylophone have a delicate crystalline clarity to them. The Elex brings to life the treble of a lot of tracks that were previously smoothed over on the HD600. The tradeoff is a bit of a shorter decay that hides the last trailing ring of the crash. If you're a regular reader of my reviews on AD, you'll know I'm not treble shy. As such, the treble of the Elex falls closely in line with my preferences. I don't hear any problematic spikes or dips that adversely colors the treble. 

One complaint I've heard with the Elex's treble timbre in comparison to the HD600 was it sounds metallic. Truth be told, I was a little apprehensive of this as well when I first bought it. But I don't really hear it for the most part. I concede that in some poorly recorded tracks where the cymbals sound incoherent to start, the brightness of the Elex does add a metallic glint as it amplifies the already discordant sound. Otherwise, it's not a concern at all. I'm very pleased with the treble of the Elex.


The soundstage of the Elex is less intimate than the HD600, but not by much. I'd say there's about 20% more height, width, and depth. Where the HD600 constantly feels closed in, the Elex opens up just enough to curb that sensation. Imaging is noticeably better with nuanced placements in the soundstage thanks to how distinct each note is. I think the leanness of the Elex's tuning contributes to how much more open it is compared to the HD600. Instruments really feel like they have a space to breathe and play in where on the HD600 it feels like they're corralled into a narrow space. I find that this sense of space on the Elex adds a lot to my enjoyment. 

Resolution is also a step up on the Elex, though it isn't immediately noticeable when comparing side by side. Instrument separation and layering are significantly better, taking advantage of the openness the Elex provides. I touched on how dynamic the Elex is in the bass section, but it really is the cornerstone of this headphone. Tracks gain a layer of energy and liveliness that I never knew was missing. Comparing them side by side, it's truly like a layer of compression was applied on the HD600 and removed on the Elex. It's an impressive step up as the HD600 is hardly poor in dynamics itself. Words really don't it justice; I find descriptions about dynamics fall flat without a chance to hear it yourself. 

Should You Buy It?

Clearly, I love the Elex. For the first few months that I had it, I didn't even bother to A/B it with the HD600 I had lying around. While it didn't live up to the "baby Utopia" dream I had, it did fulfill the "super HD600" promise. It was only as I began writing this review and spent a few afternoons directly comparing them did I come to appreciate just how much better the Elex was. Pretty much everything about the sound of the Elex was a step up in the right direction from the HD600 I was used to. It's a headphone that I've come to appreciate the more I listen to it. The Elex lines up closely with my preferences and I would be content if I were to declare this as my endgame.

If a headphone was nothing more than its sound, the Focal Elex would have my highest recommendation. For $700, it's well worth every penny. Its value proposition is on the level of a $200 HD600. But there are a few external catches that make hold it back. For those familiar with the Elex story, there is a big elephant in the room: quality control. I won't go too heavily into the details here as I don't know all of it myself but suffice it to say that on some units, its drivers have a propensity to die. While it does have a two-year warranty when new, I'd hate to be on the receiving end of Drop's customer service, especially as Focal seems to have taken a hands off approach to the Elex. To exacerbate the issue, getting new pads for the Elex down the road isn't be very easy and Focal pads in general are painfully expensive. 

At the end of the day, perhaps the Elex was too good to be true. I wish with all my heart that I could confidently recommend it but I can't in good conscience. Instead, it gets a cautious recommendation. I'm sure that there are plenty of problem-free Elexes out there and failures are inevitable for any product. If you can stomach the low risk that comes with buying the Drop x Focal Elex, I can think of nothing else I would buy for the price. As we move into 2021, I can only hope the headphone space receives a new challenger, one that further refines on the Elex and brings a more customer friendly experience at an equally affordable price.

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