Few brands have been as busy in 2022 as Focal; the French manufacturer has continued to open new Focal Powered By Naim locations around N. America and Europe, launched an extensive range of outdoor CI loudspeakers, and created quite a stir with their award-winning Bathys ANC Wireless Headphones. Sr. Headphone Editor, W. Jennings, is currently working on a review of the updated Utopia, and I’ve been digging into the Focal Celestee over the past few weeks.
French audio manufacturers definitely have a different way of doing things; minimalist industrial design rules the day but the technology behind the faceplates and grille covers is almost always ahead of the curve.
Focal has been one of the largest audio manufacturers in Europe for a few decades and their merger with Naim Audio only helped to solidify their well-earned reputation for creating state-of-the-art products.
Some audiophiles were perplexed by the merger because the two products offer a very different sonic signature and presentation style — the reality is that both products complement the other rather well, especially at the bottom of the range when you combine a Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition Network Amplifier with any of the Focal headphones.
Focal has also invested heavily in R&D while diversifying its business; they don’t just make their own loudspeakers and drivers for home audio/video, commercial applications, and automotive — they are a huge OEM supplier and there are few companies like them in the industry.
Focal’s headphones have a very distinct look and feel and it would be fair to say that they have taken a significant slice of the high-end headphone pie because they were very strategic about each new release and did not jump into the wireless headphone pool like everyone else; the Bathys project took many years to complete and the sales results so far and wall full of trophies have proven that they did it the right way. You don’t have to be first. You just need to be the best.
Why have Focal succeeded in the headphone category in a way that other loudspeaker manufactures have not?
KEF, Sonus faber, McIntosh, PSB, Paradigm, Dynaudio, Wharfedale, Q Acoustics, Polk Audio, Monitor Audio, and ELAC — have barely made a dent.
Bowers & Wilkins and Focal have become heated rivals in the headphone category and that competition has resulted in some superb headphones.
Focal are not the only company with the resources to develop their own drivers, components, or have access to state-of-the-art testing facilities.
Marketing and retail have been a huge part of this success and as our tour of the Focal Powered by Naim Houston location made abundantly clear — Focal and Naim have a very clear strategy in regard to selling high-end headphones and system solutions to mainstream consumers who have never heard of Audeze, HiFiMAN, Dan Clark Audio, or Meze.
Having spoken to dealers in both Canada and the United States — this strategy is not only working on the headphone side, but driving a lot of non-audiophile customers into their boutiques to look at CI solutions, home theater systems, and desktop audio.
So where does the Focal Celestee fit into all of this?
At $1,000 USD, the Celestee are the foundation of Focal’s closed-back headphone range and it’s easy to understand why they are giving Bowers & Wilkins, Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Final Audio, and HiFiMAN a really competitive fight in the $600 to $1,000 price bracket.
First impressions are everything when you are spending $1,000 on a pair of headphones, and the Focal Celestee do not disappoint. They have never skimped on packaging and the new model is presented in the box like a rather fine wine; removing the top box off reveals the Celestee in a new copper-blue tweed patterned semi-hard case.
Still present is the traditional cross riveted handle in black, which accents the case with the “Listen Beyond” messaging. The silver rivets and zipper give a fresh look to the case, but one wonders how soft copper colored accents might look instead.
When you spend this much money on a pair of headphones, you expect a certain level of protection from the case and the Celestee rest inside a hard-formed protective “sleeve” that keep them rather snug. The stretch elastic keeps things rather secure including the OFC 24 AWG headphone cable with a 6.35mm plug.
The 6.35mm plug does unscrew to reveal a 3.5mm stereo connector as well, for those who will use it with their smartphone or DAP. The navy blue and soft copper work well together to make the Celestee look upscale and it never even remotely looks garish — something that is becoming a bad trend with some high-end headphones.
The Focal look and feel very expensive and wearing them in public at some local coffee shops invited a lot of questions and complements.
Soft detents on the stanchion allow for adjusting the cup to fit most heads. The leather and microfiber headband also improve long-term comfort and add a bit of cooling thanks to the microfiber on the underside.
The ear cups are fashioned from semi-aniline leather which provide excellent comfort once adjusted and a rather effective level of passive isolation.
While I could still hear the TV and the incessant pecking of my older MBP when the music played, I was able to focus on the work at hand. The cups are angled slightly forward which helps with the overall fit, but you do need to properly extend the yokes from the headband because there can be some discomfort under the ears as a result of the rather strong clamping pressure.
On the flip side, the softer ear cups help mitigate some of that and allow the material to form around your ears.
The stainless steel grille covers are finished in the same Navy blue, whilst the soft copper accented logo lends a bit of character to the overall look and finish; having listened to most of the new models with the exception of the Utopia, the Celestee might be my favorite from a design perspective.
Focal have also finished the Celestee with soft leather on the inside of the ear cup which does help with the passive isolation. A lot of closed-back headphones use a hard material to create a completely closed off seal; Focal went with leather because they felt that it improved the overall breathability of the ear cups and because it it had a positive impact in terms of reducing resonance inside the cup.
The Celestee utilize Focal’s 40mm ‘M’-shaped driver and feature trickle down technology from some of the models higher up in the lineup. The impedance (35 ohms) and rated sensitivity make the Celestee a rather comfortable load for most DAPs and specific Dongle DACs.
- Impedance: 35 Ohms
- Type: Circumaural closed-back headphones
- Sensitivity: 105dB SPL / 1 mW @ 1 kHz
- THD: 0.1% @ 1kHz/100 dB SPL
- Frequency response: 5Hz – 23kHz
- Speaker driver: 15/8″ (40mm) Aluminium/Magnesium ‘M’-shaped dome
- Weight: 0.95lb (430g)
For the majority of my review time with the Celestee, I drove the headphones with the Astell&Kern ACRO CA1000 Portable Headphone Amplifier; the $1,800 amplifier clearly has more appeal to the Head-Fi crowd than to the average consumer but it proved to be the right source to really test the capabilities of the headphone.
I used a mix of downloaded music and streaming files from TIDAL and Qobuz in my evaluation.
Closed-back headphones have never been all that successful at recreating the spaciousness of comparable open-back designs, instead focusing on resolution, timbral accuracy, and bass impact. There are some exceptional closed-back headphones currently available that offer excellent detail retrieval that might fool you into thinking that you are listening through a pair of open-back headphones.
The Focal Celestee do recreate a smaller sounding soundstage, but they do such a stellar job when it comes to transparency and detail retrieval, that I started to wonder if the French manufacturer had pulled a fast one.
While listening to Monty Alexander’s “Night Mist Blues,” I could ascertain the touch of a finger on the bass strings and was rather captivated by the energy and clarity of each note.
The treble came across as quite airy and detailed, but never thin or strident.
Monte Alexander’s “Spunky” is a rather vibrant track which includes the piano and that’s not always an instrument headphones convey that well. It’s hard to reproduce the tonal variations and body of each note. Piano notes can sound rather hollow or unnaturally sharp on lesser headphones; the Celestee was able to lock the piano down in the center of the soundstage and reproduce it rather accurately. Notes had presence, body, texture, and the right amount of warmth.
On “The Death And Resurrection Show” by Jeff Beck & Johnny Depp, the top end can be slightly piercing; which was how the track was recorded and that doesn’t necessarily make for a great listen with some headphones and IEMs. I’ve found myself turning down the volume on this track — but not with the Celestee that seemingly managed to keep everything in check and present all of the top end detail and overall presence without becoming hard.
Male vocals benefit from the Celestee’s richness and clarity in the lower midrange; Ozzie Osbourne’s performance on “Patient Number 9” which he recorded with Jeff Beck fooled me into thinking I was listening to a much younger Osbourne who came across rather cleanly and with his signature edge — not that we need that more edge from him.
Bass lines demonstrated that the Celestee have excellent pace and can keep up with any track; the aforementioned Beck and Depp recording can be slightly thin sounding but the warmer tonal balance of the Focal headphones made everything far more listenable. The added color and texture in the bass and lower midrange negates any possibility than listeners could find the Celestee to be analytical sounding.
Celestee vs Kennerton Magni V2
The Focal and Kennerton are in the same price range, but that’s where the similarities end; the Celestee comes across as being slightly warmer or richer in its tonal balance, but with a livelier sounding upper midrange. Notes have far more weight behind them when listening to the French headphones.
The Kennerton is a leaner sounding headphone that presents a lot more detail and sounds more spacious.
The Magni V2’s headband is a two-piece design that fits my specific head better than the Celestee and doesn’t offer as much clamping pressure.
The Celestee is an easier long-term listen and that will be a huge selling point for a lot of listeners. It was also very easy to drive using a Dongle DAC connected to my iPhone 13 Pro Max.
The Focal Celestee do most things exceptionally well and are certainly worth the money, but whom exactly are they for?
The build quality and industrial design are excellent making them a strong long-term investment in a headphone that will only get better as you upgrade your portable sources or headphone amplifier.
The clamping pressure might be an issue for some, but the weight is more than acceptable in a pair of full-sized closed-back over-ear headphones. I spent many nights listening to the Celestee and never felt the need to take them off because they were warm on the ear or uncomfortable.
Did Focal play it safe with the Celestee? The balanced presentation and added warmth in the upper bass and lower midrange will appeal to a lot of listeners who might not want an overly detailed or bright sounding pair of high-end headphones.
The treble isn’t rolled-off but it does lack a certain degree of airiness depending on your source or amplifier.
How do they rank in the overall category?
When you spend $1,000 on a pair of headphones, you expect a certain level of performance that is above and beyond; and that includes build quality, comfort, and usability with smartphones, Dongle DACs, and DAPs.
The Focal Celestee need to be at the very top of your audition list if your budget extends that high.