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Over-Ear Headphones

Focal Stellia Headphones: Review

Luxurious, superb build quality, and one of the best performing closed-back dynamic headphones we’ve heard below $4,000. The Focal Stellia are world-class.

Focal Stellia Headphones

We love headphones here at eCoustics and we review a lot of them, from entry level to high-end flagships, from in-ear monitors to over-ears designs, wireless and wired. If they go on or in your ears, the chances are good that one or more of us has spent some quality time with them. Focal, a high-end French manufacturer best known for their loudspeakers, introduced their first headphones about a decade ago, and since then, we’ve reviewed most of their offerings. This includes the Focal Clear Mg, Celestee, Bathys wireless and the flagship Utopia 2022 headphones.

Of the flagship Utopia 2022 ($4,999), William Jennings stated, “they walked out carrying the bag against the other top tier headphones.” Those words are high praise indeed for a model pushing the envelope of $5,000. But some listeners prefer a closed back model over the Utopia’s open-backed design. If for nothing else, for the privacy of being able to listen to music without the sound leaking out all around you. And while we appreciated the Meze Audio Liric closed-back headphone, at $2,000, they face some stiff competition. One of these competitors is the Focal Stellia ($2,999), the subject of this review.

The Focal Stellia was first released in 2020, to much critical acclaim. They’re marketed not necessarily as a closed-back version of the Utopia, but rather as Focal’s vision of what a top tier closed-back should sound like, especially if you are going to ask your customers to pony up $3K. Focal refers to the Stellia as “very high-end circum-aural headphones… for home and on-the-go use.” While a high quality headphone amp is always recommended for use with high-end headphones, the Stellia’s low impedance (35 ohms) and high sensitivity (106 dB SPL at 1mW @ 1KHz), allow them to be driven directly by a phone, PC, tablet or dongle DAC. In short, Focal’s goal is for the Stellia to be your only pair of headphones. Did they succeed? Let’s find out.

Wide Soundstage? Check. Exquisite Detail? Check.

Striving for a wider soundstage than current closed-back headphones are known for, along with detail that would make a world class chef blush, Focal’s ultimate sonic goals for the Stellia were obvious: make the world’s best sounding closed-back headphone. And while you’re at it, make sure they look gorgeous as well. And on that point, it’s clear that Focal nailed it.

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The Skinny

Focal began making headphones in 2012, with the first version of the Utopia flagship coming along in 2016. Sprinkled in between were models such as the Elear, the Clear and Elegia. All were strong performers, but not all led their respective categories. Learning from these models, Focal refined their design and the final result was the Stellia. With the desire to make a top tier closed-back, Focal naturally raised their game but thankfully they kept what worked from previous models.

Sharing the same 40mm M-shaped dome, pure Beryllium driver as the Utopia, the Stellia also shares a similar sonic signature. The gorgeous looks also carry over from the flagship. The Stellia’s mocha & cognac colors along with full-grain leather and combinations of sleek plastic, aluminum & stainless steel, the look is simply sumptuous, walking the line between ultra modern and ultra elegant.

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Specifications:

  • Type Circum-aural closed-back headphones
  • Impedance 35 Ohms
  • Sensitivity 106dB SPL / 1mW @ 1kHz
  • THD 0.1% @ 1kHz / 100 dB SPL
  • Frequency response 5Hz–40kHz
  • Loudspeaker 1.6″ (40mm) pure Beryllium “M” shape dome
  • Weight 0.96lb (435g)

Accessories provided

  • 1 x 4ft OFC 24 AWG cable with 1/8″ (3.5mm) TRS Jack connector
  • 1 x 10ft OFC 24 AWG cable with 4-pin XLR connector
  • 1 x Jack adapter
  • 1/8″ (3.5mm) female: 1/4″ (6.35mm) male
  • Carrying case provided: 9.8″x9.4″x4.7″ (250x240x120mm)
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Looks That Thrill

Beyond the look of the headphones themselves, Focal also excels in the whole packaging and unboxing experience. It’s like taking possession of your Lamborghini, right from the factory, instead of from a “mere” dealer. This is one of the best unboxing experiences we have seen from a pair of headphones.

The box itself is large and rectangular, colored in a mocha faux leather. Imprinted with the words “Stellia” & “Focal” on the front, you find the branches of Focal production on the back. Small half-moon cutouts on the short sides act as the lift area, and you’ll need to apply a bit of force to counter the vacuum effect – the fitment of the box is quite precise and snug.

Inside the box, the lower half has a front with an oblong cutout showcasing the Focal logo on the semi-hard case along with the woven mixed cognac/mocha coloration of said case.  The color combination is extremely elegant, echoing the top-notch fit and finish of the headphones themselves. Classy, without being garish. Simply superb.

One reason that the box and contents feel so substantial is that the back quarter from top to bottom contains another internal leather compartment, which houses the cables. A whole presentation box just for the cables. Inside that you’ll find a hard foam insert where one of the cables is mounted for viewing, while the other half hosts a leather pouch, which carries the paperwork.

Included in the pouch is the owner’s manual, warranty card, informational pamphlet and a small but persuasively written Focal brochure explaining the marque. You also get a “congratulations” card to top it off. Under the pouch is the second cable. Yep, Focal includes a second cable. You can use either the 4-pin XLR cable or a 6.35mm (1/4”) jacked cable, depending on your gear and preferences. The 6.35mm cable jack also unscrews to provide the user with the typical 3.5mm (1/8”) headphone plug.

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While the packaging is top notch, you probably won’t be travelling with it. For that, you get a semi-rigid headphone case, which is both gorgeous and functional at the same time. With a seriously solid silver-colored zipper, you know this case means business. One wonders what a soft bronze colored zipper would have looked like, (with patina of course). But I digress…

Inside the case, you’ll find a form-fitting area for the headphone itself, and two stretchy straps in center opening (one on top, one on bottom), which can be used for each cable. This gives you safe, secure storage for both the headphones and the cables. The headphones cannot be stored with the cable on. The larger open port is for the XLR (bottom), while the top is used for the “regular” cable. Focal has always had the best looking, most functional cases and packaging, and the Stellia continues that fine tradition.

But the most beautiful box in the world means nothing if the contents can’t keep up. I’m happy to report the Stellia ‘phones themselves don’t disappoint. A graceful mix of aluminum, stainless steel and leather give the Stellia phones an elegant appearance: understated and sophisticated, definitely worthy of the price range.

“Looking good, Billy Ray!” “Feeling good, Louis!”

From the cognac-colored aluminum yoke to the mocha leather inserts used to “close” the circular cup backing, the color palette & mix is exquisite. For those familiar with Focal, the shape remains the same as previous high-end models, which is quite good, with excellent fit as well. The black perforated leather on the bottom of the headband provides cushioning and air flow relief, while the mocha leather headband feels soft and luxurious. The benefits of the design are two-fold: looks good, feels good. Firm where needed, yet pliant where required.

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The design choices aren’t simply there to keep up appearances, but to benefit the sound as well. That mocha leather on the inside of the cup acts to baffle the increasing diameter holes of the skeleton stainless steel cup, while controlling resonation, which helps tune the sound. There is also plastic under the leather, which does the same, with a more rigid surface.

Precise clicks on the stanchion (yoke top) enable nine degrees of fitment. Finding a proper fit was no problem for me. There is some rotational spring to the stanchion, which is normal. This affords some movement, further accommodating fit. The cups also include internal springs, which aid in clamping pressure. I personally found these ever so slightly on the tighter side, but not to the point of discomfort or excessive pressure. But with ear pads made of leather, they could get a bit warm during extended listening sessions.

The Stellia are designed to last for years, with the parts most subject to wear easy to access and replace. The whole ear pad pops off, so changing the pads can be done easily. The two-tone color scheme carries over here as well, adding to the overall look. Those ear pads, while slightly thin, provide some of the finest coddling and fit of any headphone I have tried. Some competitive models are too thick and cushy. The Stellia pads are just right with excellent feel and just the right amount of give. The drivers can be seen under a protective screen, and orient themselves slightly forward of mid ear fore & aft. They are also angled slightly toward the back to accommodate this slight shift forward. This also contributes toward the comfort and firmness of fit.

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While I appreciate the two different cables provided, my experience with these was a bit mixed. The 10-foot (yes, 10 feet) XLR cable was my preferred choice for the majority of my listening through either the Geshelli Labs E2/J2 combo or the iFi Pro iCAN/iDSD combination. Both of these units include an XLR jack, enabling a fully balanced output to the Stellia, which I preferred over the standard unbalanced cable. But I did notice some microphonic noise (above the Y-splitter) and the cable was a bit prone to tangling. The length seemed a bit excessive as well, but this would be a good cable for sitting on your couch listening to music or watching TV across the room from your gear. The basic 3.5mm cable worked fine, and had slightly less microphonics to it, as well as being more tangle-resistant. Plus, having the 1/4-inch to 1/8-inch adapter means compatibility with more sources. That cable is slightly on the short side, but works well listening to a phone or laptop while travelling.

The cable quality on both cable options is really quite good, but correcting those niggling attributes would make them just about perfect.

The overall build of the Stellia is as expected, at or near the top of the tier. The mix of plastic, leather, aluminum, and stainless steel makes for a luxurious product; which provides the user with excellent ergonomics and quality feel. There was a small amount of creaking on the cups, but that was only with concerted pressure; something a user would most likely not do while wearing.

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Technology

The Stellia has a newly redesigned driver, modeled off the drivers used in the original flagship Utopia. The 40mm size Beryllium M-shaped diaphragm of the original has been retained but the suspension has been tweaked and the voice-coil upgraded as well. The new voice-coil is a 30% copper and 70% aluminum hybrid for improved performance while retaining low weight. According to Focal, it’s actually a touch heavier than the original and the weight was offset with the introduction of carbon fiber to keep the overall weight roughly equal.

In terms of source compatibility, The Stellia is slightly more sensitive than the Utopia (106 dBs vs. 104 dBs), with an impedance of 35 ohms vs 80 ohms so the Stellia is easier to drive.

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We’re Listening

Admittedly, the Focal Utopia 2022 (aka “Utopia Third Edition”) is a tough act to follow, but still we had high hopes for the Stellia. Those hopes were met and exceeded. The Stellia reproduces detail as well as any closed-back headphone we’ve yet reviewed. Outstanding clarity and detail are things you normally associate with an open-backed design, but Stellia has these in spades with a closed-back design.

Clarity and detail are one thing, but when the rest of the sonic characteristics fall short, you can be left with a thinner sounding headphone that can leave a listener cold. And yes, some design their headphones that way for a purpose. The Stellia exhibits a robust, full sound that avoids becoming bloated, even when driven to high levels. Low end response reaches well into the sub-bass region, while maintaining taut control. Adding more low end oomph with the Bass Boost option in the iFi Pro iCAN/iDSD allowed the Stellia to reach even deeper in the low end. That tautness and control also carries a note of slightly slower decay than attack, which aids in overall fullness of sound and helps to “hide” any lack of extension in the very lowest octave.

The midrange comes across as sumptuous without becoming drippy or slow. Speed is just right and the saxophone of Sonny Clark on “Cool Struttin’” comes to the front without becoming garish or showy. There is also a depth to the midrange, which aids in creating that full sound. The detail with which this track comes across is quite frankly, astounding. The sonic signature is slightly on the warmer side, the richness of sound pervades the senses, but without a ballooning lack of character or control that we sometimes hear on less capable headphones.

Cymbal hits come across as articulate and accurate. No digital brashness here, only realism. Trumpet notes provide a nice segue into the top end, which hits with authority, without being overwhelming. A sense of smoothness lends itself to the transition between the mids and treble, as experienced in “L-O-V-E” by Nat King Cole.

Cole’s vocal melancholy is so powerful that the exuding character lends itself perfectly moving up the scale. His reach makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Adele’s raspy voice sounds wonderful on “Oh My God,” which leads into “Hello,” which is a great gauge of the Stellia’s ability to reproduce female vocals. While her range may not be as extended as others, the fullness with which she projects her music here makes for a brilliant listen, and ties off the sound signature of the Stellia quite well.

Some headphones seem to be tuned for specific genres of music. The Stellia does not suffer from this. It carries across male & female vocals as easily as jazz and pop in Taylor Swift’s superb song, “Question…?” This particular song allows for the rumble of the bass to come through as well. Again, while not reaching too high in the vocal range, the way Swift’s voice comes across on the Focal Stellia is simply lavish.

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Comparison

Kennerton may not be as well known as Focal in the headphone world, but they carry a devout, almost rabid base of fans. The closed-back planar magnetic Kennerton Rögnir ($3,999) is another exceptional performer in this price range, but it’s a much more polarizing headphone than the Stellia. With the use of 2000 year old Bog Oak, the cost is as much a factor of the scarcity of its materials as it is of its sound quality. It also uses a larger 80mm planar driver, so the sound signature is a bit different from the Stellia.

The Rögnir has a bit “less full” sound to it, with more of a push into the upper mids than the Stellia. However, the Rögnir’s overall smoothness of sound is competitive with the Stellia. Bass also reaches a bit deeper than the Stellia, but with slightly less control. As a result, there is a slight bleed into the lower mids. Typically, planar drivers are able to reach deep into the lower registers with good control but I’d give the Stellia a slight edge here. The Kennerton does deliver an overall smoothness that is hard to beat, with a bit of vibrant character where needed, such as the vocal region. Going back to “L-O-V-E,” there is a better sense of depth to the soundstage that was not as prominent in the Stellia. Even with that upper vocal push, the sound of the Rögnir is very good. However, I did find myself reaching to turn the volume down on the Rögnir from time to time, something I did not do on the Stellia.

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The Bottom Line

As Focal’s second to top model and top closed-back model, the Stellia comes with high hopes. After listening for the past several weeks, we can all agree that Focal has hit the mark as a flagship headphone should. Superb construction and sound, provide an impeccable presentation in the unit and accessories. Some will state they could go without the luxurious presentation, but that is part of the flagship’s role, much like a Rolex doesn’t come in a Timex box. You pay for that expectation of excellence, and the Stellia meets those expectations with sophistication, class and luxury. And, most importantly, superb sound to back it up.

The Stellia provides the listener with a smoothness one does not often get with this level of clarity and detail. Combining all of those traits in one headphone is a laudable goal, and one that Focal has met beyond expectations. Finishing this review while listening to “Don’t You Forget About Me,” from Simple Minds and the seminal song from “Breakfast Club.” I certainly will not forget about the Stellia.

Where to buy: $2,999 at Amazon | Crutchfield | Headphones.com

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. James

    April 25, 2023 at 11:33 pm

    Wonderful review. Thanks for such detail.

  2. ORT

    April 26, 2023 at 2:36 am

    “Trading Places”…Well done indeed, my brother!

    As for Focal? Alas that a plebe such as I can only afford the Elegia and those when on sale. But they are beautiful. Not as freakin’ gorgeous as these (insert Marlon Brando who went to high school with a close relative of yours truly!) “STELLAAAAA…s!”

    And yes, I know they are “Stellia” headphones but Marlon was cool. So too are the “Stellia” headphones by Focal. They are stunning.

    ORT

  3. Lee Kibbler

    April 30, 2023 at 4:11 pm

    Wonderful review of a key player in the lineup of my personal favorite headphones. So far I have the wonderful Elegia’s that I picked up recently for a steal on sale and also on sale I just aquired a pair of Bathys for out and about use. I would love to see your experts like the Mr. Jennings do a Focal roundup review. I have often wondered if the Celestee, which replaced the Elgelia in the closed back segment is much of an improvement and if so in which areas? I am a fixed income retiree but willing to spend for my musical enjoyment. I bought the Elegias for the amazing price of $299 and the Celestees are currently at least $800. When reviewers look at these cans for review you need to compare things like this are the Celestees worth almost 3 times the money? I would also love to know where does the Radiance fit into the equation? And do these new Stellias just blow away all these aforementioned closed backs? How do they all compare? I also would like to find out the same type of comparison in the open back world before spending huge chunks of money on anything. This hobby is both wonderful and stressful at the same time!

    • Ian White

      April 30, 2023 at 8:44 pm

      Lee,

      Focal might agree to that but Will is dealing with a health issue right now so that’s unlikely to happen for 3-4 months.

      Best,

      Ian White

  4. Lukas

    December 2, 2023 at 7:25 pm

    As owner of this Stellia headphones . I’m really happy to have them. Needs to be support with realy good amp . In my case McIntosh d150 and very good source DSD or rips in 192khz and then you will finally find out music heaven . On albums like Strippes from Macy Gray or Liberty from Anette you will find out what are these headphonea capable off.

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