If booming bass is what you want, finding headphones that deliver all the rumbling you can handle isn’t hard. Finding something that treats the audio spectrum more equitably at a good price seems to be less obvious, but good options are out there.
Focal is a brand better known by audiophiles, which makes the new Listen, available at a relatively affordable $250 price point, something of an anomaly. Even so, the Listen’s effortless ability to make music sound consistently clear and balanced is what makes these headphones a worthy option for those looking for great sound on a budget.
Out of the box
There are no real surprises to unearth here. The headphones come with a basic carrying case that includes the main audio cable, a two-pronged airport adapter, and a small user manual outlining the features and controls.
Features and design
The Listen are a little bulkier, and perhaps a little heavier, than many headphones in the same class. Everything about them looks and feels like Focal focused on comfort for the design. The ear cups protrude from the ears a good deal and the padding is very plush, with a slightly larger opening that seems to isolate the sound. Focal’s efforts paid off here, as our ears were never pinched or squeezed during longer listening sessions.
The headband is an interesting design. The words “Listen Beyond” are etched into the top, while the bottom is lined with a rubberized cushion that is clearly made of a different material than the padding on the ear cups. There’s less give on the upper pad, partially because the plastic frame holding it peels inward, which could make the Listen uncomfortable for certain heads over time. We were mostly fine, though we did have spurts of discomfort because the plastic started making contact along with the rubber.
The headband itself has some flexibility, with enough lateral give to easily take them on or off. While foldable, the cups can also turn inward to reduce the overall footprint and make the Listen small enough to fit in the included carrying case. The left earcup has the jack for the removable audio cable, representing the only port or connection on the headphones themselves. A short clockwise spin locks it into place to keep it from coming free inadvertently.
The detachable cable adds to some of the heft, partly due to the weighted standalone microphone situated just below the chin. Further down lies a single-button inline control piece for controlling audio playback, fielding phone calls, and skipping tracks. Holding it down will also trigger Siri, Google Now or Cortana. The one that’s missing is volume, a somewhat odd omission for a headphone at this price.
The key here is balance. The Listen never veer too far away from one end or the other. Highs and mids are warm, with distinct spatial separation between them, while the bass flows out with enough verve to treat musical genres equally. The Beats crowd will likely feel underwhelmed, but that’s not who the Listen are aiming for anyway.
The Listen’s design looks and feels like it’s focused squarely on comfort
That said, hip hop and R&B tracks sound great. Drake’s Take Care is anything but a complex recording, but the vocals come through nicely overtop the bass-heavy drum and piano melody. A re-recorded version of Set Adrift on Memory Bliss by P.M. Dawn also resonates well, despite the lack of any bass-boosting. Crisp highs complement a strong, but not overpowering sound signature from the low end, making bass-heavy songs sound more like a relaxed studio setting than a thumping nightclub.
The same sound carries across genres, ensuring tracks don’t go off the rails. You Make Me Feel Good by Satin Jackets is a nice house track that’s easy to enjoy with the Listen. Prince’s Scandalous carries a haunting depth here, sharpening the late singer’s vocals, while the snare drum and synth never feel muffled throughout. Joe Cocker’s You Can Leave Your Hat On is easy to appreciate for the warmth and zest the track provides throughout, punctuating the detail in his raspy voice with an equal dose of the famous guitar and saxophone riffs.
The beauty of such an approach is that complex orchestral recordings benefit, too, including movie scores. We love how The Thin Red Line and Gladiator soundtracks sound with the Listen: Rich, and with plenty of flair, no track in either album sound weighted down or like it’s missing something significant. The instrumental arrangements feel distinct enough to escape into, which is just what you’d expect from an audiophile-oriented brand.
The lack of volume control on the inline button can be a little annoying, but we got over it after a while. Phone calls sound fine on both ends, though callers are immediately aware you’re speaking into a microphone rather than holding your phone itself.
Focal does offer a two-year warranty on its products, however the logistics are handled by the dealer for each country rather than the company directly.
The DT Accessory Pack
The lack of boosted bass in the Focal Listen is actually addition by subtraction. Some listeners will probably feel the lows don’t pulsate enough, whereas others, especially audiophiles, will feel the balance is more in tune with what the artists intended. We’re in the latter camp, given that bass-boosting cans don’t acclimate well to all music genres. The Listen are better suited for those who have more eclectic tastes, rather than those who stick to the stuff that is loaded with bass.
That said, being an audiophile isn’t a prerequisite for the Listen. At $250, Focal is competing in a crowded price point, but for anyone seeking a balanced and satisfying audio experience, these headphones deliver.