Headfonia: Focal Radiance Review

Mar 23, 2021 | News & Reviews



Today we’ll be taking a look at the new Focal Radiance, a $1,290 USD closed-back headphone from Focal.

Note: The Radiance – made in collaboration with high-end automotive manufacturer Bentley – was kindly loaned to Headfonia for this review by Busisoft AV, Focal’s local Australian distributor. Our thanks go out to them as always for their support.

Audio meets Automotive
I’ll freely admit that while I spend a great deal of attention putting together a first-rate audio system for both my home and desktop, my car has always very much an afterthought in the sound-stakes. Perhaps it’s simply a ‘priority’ thing – driving is something of a functional experience to me, but I also see the open road as a fairly compromised listening environment. Between engine noise, the roar of your tires on Sydney’s notoriously poor roads, and the passive-aggressive honking of other drivers, it’s hardly a relaxing place. However, I do acknowledge that people get way more passionate about cars than they do about headphones (c’mon, it is a kinda niche in the hobby stakes…), and car audio is an industry unto itself.

Collaborations between audio and auto brands aren’t new and they also make a great deal of sense. A high-end sound-system on-board can be a great selling point for auto manufacturers who are eager to prove the premium credentials of their onboard sensory experience. Lexus has long partnered with high-end US manufacturer Mark Levinson, and the British Naim (Salisbury, England) has been responsible for crafting the audio systems inside each uber-luxury vehicle that rolls off the Bentley assembly line since 2008. Naim and Focal share the same parent company, VerVent Audio. Focal is proudly French, and the Radiance headphones are made in France. And of course, we have covered Focal’s products in depth over the years here at Headfonia.

Behold the Radiance
And so courtesy of their corporate association, Focal has released a brand-new closed-back headphone built together in collaboration with Bentley – the $1,290 USD Radiance. Headfonia readers might recall that I reviewed Focal’s closed-back flagship in 2020, the $3,000 USD Stellia. And in that review, I also happened to compare the Stellia to another car from the Volkswagen Group stable – the Bugatti Veyron. So, it seems fitting going into this review to compare the two closed-back Focals through the lens of the relative performance, luxury, and price difference between the two car brands.

So what do we have on our hands with this latest luxury Focal? Like their Stellia and less expensive Elegia closed-back headphones, the Radiance follows a similar form-factor. The Radiance’s layout and profile make them immediately recognizable as a member of Focal’s audiophile headphone line-up, however with some striking and interesting differences. Under the earcups lay a 50mm aluminum ‘M-dome’ driver (whereas the Stellia and Utopia flagships sport a Beryllium driver) which seems identical to that of the Elegia on paper, but a quick listen will tell you immediately that the Radiance is a differently-tuned beast to its older, less expensive sibling. More on this later.

The Radiance arrives in a rather dramatic and high-end monolithic storage box. This case sports both the Focal and Bentley logos and gives more than a hint of the luxury intent behind the Radiance. The case is bound in a leather-like material and honestly feels appropriate for the transportation of a Fabergé egg.

Onto the headphones themselves, the first thing one notices is the winged Bentley logo that is proudly emblazoned on the aluminum headband yokes in a ‘radiant’ copper color, a motif that is set-off against the predominantly black design of the Radiance. This copper highlight is carried across in subtle flourishes on the Radiance’s cable, as well as on the zipper and Focal logo on the rather brilliant hard clamshell carrying case that is a luxury experience unto itself – it could almost double in duties as a high-end handbag (if you told me that it was, I’d probably believe you). The Radiance’s headband and earcups are ensconced in sumptuous black Pittards leather, which is both unbelievably soft and reminiscent of a pair of luxury driving gloves. No doubt the luxury automotive vibe that Focal was aiming for when they decided to buddy-up with Bentley.

The only accessory provided with the Radiance is a rather short, single-ended cable terminated with a 3.5mm stereo plug plus a screw-on 6.3mm adapter. It’s adjoined to each of the Radiance’s earcups via a 3.5mm mono plug, meaning that the cables from its siblings (barring the Utopia) can be borrowed, as well as a host of aftermarket options. Which you will probably need to consider, as I’ll point out later.

Focal Radiance tech specs:

Type: Circum-aural closed-back headphones
Impedance: 35Ω
Sensitivity: 101dB SPL / 1mW @ 1 kHz
THD: 0,1% @ 1kHz / 100dB SPL
Frequency response: 5Hz – 23kHz
Speaker driver: 50mm Aluminium/Magnesium “M” shape dome
Weight: 435g
Cable: 1.2m) OFC 24 AWG cable with 3.5 mm TRS jack connector
Hard-shell carry case: 250 x 240 x 120 mm

The Radiance might forgo the beryllium driver of the flagship Stellia, but at a glance, it seems every bit the luxury match for its flagship big brother yet with a more subdued, less showy aesthetic. It certainly seems every bit the built and design upgrade over the much less expensive Elegia (which are seemingly-discontinued and heavily discounted at the time of writing), but it’s hard to gauge where exactly it sits in the Focal line-up until we’ve given it a proper listen and have had some time to live with it.

So, is the Focal Radiance all show and no ‘go’? Or, does it land right in the sweet spot of high-end closed-back headphones in terms of value and performance? Let’s take a look.

Design, build, and comfort
Out of the box, the Radiance feels entirely reminiscent of the Stellia – a headphone I’m extremely familiar with – in terms of form-factor, build-quality, and overall design. Thankfully, I happen to have the Stellia with me for comparison during this review so I was able to compare them closely in this regard. At 435 grams, the Radiance isn’t exactly a featherweight, but it does give you a reassuring sense of substance and that Focal has built it with high-quality materials.

In terms of the overall aesthetic, I think Focal has absolutely knocked it out of the park with the Radiance. While the Stellia has more of a ‘look at me’ kinda vibe, the Radiance has a far more subtle and toned-down look with its mostly black construction, and yet gives a hint of luxury thanks to its sparing flashes of copper and the flawless leather of the large, padded headband.

The Pittards leather used in the Radiance is much finer and softer than the mocha/cognac colored leather used on the Stellia, which feels more like the leather used on a luxury lounge, by comparison, than that of a pair of luxury gloves.18:57:28 While the Stellia uses leather for the underside of the headband and earpads, the Radiance employs a crisscrossed Alcantara material, perhaps a little ‘nod’ to its automotive origins.

While the headband and yoke assembly are aluminum, a close inspection of the earcups and tells that they are made of plastic, albeit a high- quality one. I guess it can’t be all metal and leather when you’re coming in $1,700 cheaper than the Stellia. Holding the Radiance in your hands and articulating them around gives you a sense of their quality and craftsmanship. The Radiance is devoid of creaks and groans that can befall some high-end headphones, and the click-adjustment of the headphone sliders is both accurate and satisfying to use.

The earcups on the Radiance are spring-loaded, which aids in providing an absolutely snug fit on this reviewer’s head. The clamp-force on the Radiance is absolutely perfect in that it neither squeezes your head nor ever feels like it will slip off, even when tipping your head right back. In addition to their snug fit, the Radiance provides a genuinely impressive level of passive noise isolation from the outside world. Unlike the Stellia, there are no bass ports built into the Focal logos adorning the outside of the earcups (as far as I can tell). If you’re eschewing the open-air benefits (and negatives) of open-backed headphones, then you want them to give you a real sense of intimacy and isolation, and this the Radiance delivers in spades. Without reservation, they’re the most snug and closed-in (in a good way) pair of closed-back headphones that I’ve encountered, and this makes them a very versatile proposition indeed.

The Radiance, along with its carrying case isn’t (overly) huge, and so does make for a genuine on-the-go listening option. Perhaps not while exercising or stuffing into a briefcase, but certainly for packing into a suitcase and enjoying in a hotel while travelling. In fact, I can genuinely see the being used for airline travel (if that ever becomes a thing again, I muse as I write this in January 2021). The Radiance is certainly a brilliant home hifi-listening pair of headphones, and it did a brilliant job of blocking out the noise of the TV from other rooms in my house as well as nearby construction. Its superb isolation combined with a terrific sense of imaging and dynamics (more on this later) makes the Radiance a first-rate choice for gaming, an application that I really enjoyed. The one thing that lets it down in terms of its useability, however, is its cable.

The provided cable with the Radiance is four feet in length, with 3.5mm mono connections at each earcup and a 3.5mm single-ended termination at the other end (along with a provided 6.3mm screw-on adapter). Four feet is simply too short for home hifi listening. It’s too short for desktop listening, for that matter. Unless you’re right next to the source of your music, you’re going to want to find yourself an extension cable or a new cable altogether. This is a curious choice from Focal, who is normally quite generous in terms of their supplied cables. The Stellia, on the other hand, has a rather long four-pin XLR cable supplied along with a shorter single-ended cable, and the Focal Clear has two longer cables (XLR and single-ended) in addition to a shorter ‘mobile’ one. Presumably, Focal thinks that automotive-minded people (and Bentley drivers) are more likely to buy the Radiance than your average audiophile, but this is a little disappointing if you’re looking to use the Radiance with anything other than a phone or digital audio player. On the other hand, Focal has thankfully decided not to coat the Radiance’s cable in the fabric sheathing used on the Stellia and Clear that is seemingly identical to that used on IKEA lamp cords. Instead, the Radiance cable is plastic-coated and while far less microphonic, it does tend to kink and not straighten-out. While I did test the Radiance with its supplied cable for the most part I used an after-market balanced cable while listening to the Radiance for enjoyment.

Keeping things French-themed, we’re going to go with Daft Punk’s excellent 2013 album ‘Random Access Memories’ for today’s listening tests. Not only is the music awesome and varied across each track, but it’s also brilliantly recorded and mastered. It’s a classic, and it can really reveal a headphone’s capabilities.

From the first couple of bars of ‘Give Life Back to Music’ it’s clear that we have a wonderfully-tuned set of cans on our hands in the Radiance. Its voicing is warm, coherent, and absolutely pleasant in every regard. The Radiance sounds pretty closely matched to the Harman target – the average consumer’s benchmark in terms of approachable tuning – with a slight elevation in sub-bass and mid-bass that contributes to the Radiance’s sense of warmth, plus a gently relaxed treble.

Moving onto track #2, ‘The Game of Love’, we get a real sense of the bass performance of the Radiance. Kick-drums hit with authority and impact in a speaker-like kind of way – it feels like those 50mm aluminum drivers are really moving a lot of air, and reminds you of being in the front few rows of an intimate rock gig. The bass guitar part is quick and articulate with a nice sense of texture. It’s been a while since I listened to the Focal Elegia, but despite having drivers of the same diameter and aluminium construction, the Radiance is tuned far differently to it. I found the Elegia lacking in low-end, but bass-heads certainly won’t be disappointed with the Radiance. It kicks in a controlled, refined, yet impactful way.

The Radiance’s mid-range is just about spot-on in terms of both linearity and instrument/vocal presentation. ‘Instant Crush’ shows-off the Radiance’s ability to present a lifelike and present vocal performance from Julian Casanblancas without a hint of mid-bass interference, and the tonality of the string-section from 5:17 onwards in ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ has a wonderful organic, believable texture.

Hands-down the greatest characteristic of the Radiance is its dynamic ability. Like many of Focal’s high-end cans, it creates a speaker-like sense of impact in a way that is not only heard but felt. I believe that a headphone’s ability to make drums sound lifelike is a telling sign of their technical abilities, and the Radiance gets absolute full-marks in this sense. The drum parts in the outro of ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ from 5:50 onwards is a visceral treat with the Radiance.

Adding the speaker-like characteristics of the Radiance is their wonderful sense of imaging. I mentioned earlier that they are superb for gaming due to their ability to pin-point individual sounds in a 3D ‘environment’, but for a realistic music experience, they take it to the next level. The Radiance cannot defy physics and has a fairly intimate soundstage (about on par with the Stellia, and perhaps the Sennheiser HD650, for reference), but they do something magical within that intimate space. The initial percussion ‘shimmer’ of and left/right-panned back-up vocals of ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ are incredibly immersive.

I mentioned that the Radiance has a somewhat relaxed treble, but I need to be clear that this should not be misread that I think that the Radiance is a dark, or non-detailed headphone. It is neither. Rather, there is simply a complete absence of harshness and strident-ness. Every iota of guitar, hi-hat, and synth detail is evident in ‘Get Lucky’, and the Radiance manages to resolve this detail speedily and adroitly while managing to eke-out a quick and thumping bass. It’s a 10/10 ‘fun’ pair of headphones that never once feels like it’s venturing into fatigue-territory.

Radiance vs Stellia
After spending a good couple of weeks listening solely to the Radiance, I thought that they sounded pretty close to the tuning and performance of the Stellia and really ought to give them a solid run for their money. However, playing them back-to-back on a volume-matched rig, again I’m blown away by the sheer technical abilities of the Focal closed-back flagship. While the Radiance sounds rich and detailed, the Stellia takes the same track and is simply able to extract more out of it in every way. The Stellia reaches deeper in bass, hits even harder in terms of dynamics, and somehow manages to take each individual treble track, pull them apart, and create an individual pocket of ‘air’ around them. While the Radiance is certainly no slouch, it just sounds far less layered and brilliant than the Stellia, whose Beryllium drivers are detail and dynamic monsters.

Radiance vs Audio Technica ATH-WP900
I enthusiastically reviewed the high-end portable closed backs from Audio Technica late last year, and I greatly looked forward to pitting these cans head-to-head. And they couldn’t be more different. The lightweight Audio Technica simply disappears on your head compared to the more substantive Focal, but it doesn’t have the same sense of envelopment as the Radiance. Sonically, they’re chalk and cheese as well. ‘Beyond’ show the WP900 to have near comical levels of elevated sub-bass versus the restrained, yet still impressive capabilities of the Radiance. The scooped mid-range of the WP900 does make instrumentalists and vocalists take three steps backward compared to the Radiance, but then again, it’s intentionally a V-shaped headphone. The Audio Technica has a slightly brighter, more metallic tone compared to the Focal, with a bit more brightness and ‘tizz’ in the treble.

Amping and powering
At only 35 ohms and 101/dB sensitivity, the Radiance is a breeze to power and will happily work with mobile devices and discrete headphone amplifiers alike. My Samsung Galaxy S9+ gets the Radiance quite loud at 70% on the volume dial, and actually sounds respectable, but pairing the Radiance with a mere smartphone comes at the cost of dynamics, tonal mass, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to do that with your shiny new ‘Bentley’-emblazoned headphones now, would you?

Moving over the SE200 from Astell&Kern rewards you with a far greater sense of immersion in ‘Fragments of Time’, and a more sure-footed, impactful bass-line. This pairing makes for an incredibly silky listen, and one I’d be more than happy to take on the road, or on the plane with me.

Despite loving the performance of the Radiance with a dedicated DAP, there’s simply no substitute for a discrete headphone amplifier, and the Radiance will reward in turn with incremental performance when paired with one. It’s not an overly ‘picky’ headphone in terms of amp pairings, and the Radiance certainly enjoyed oodles of clean, dynamic power on-tap from page 3. I found that the Radiance really doesn’t benefit much sonically from the use of balance cables, and ought to be fine with most well-implemented single-ended amplifiers. My favorite pairing with the Radiance was the $199 Schiit Asgard 3, whose 5 watts of single-ended Class A/B power turned-out to be quite the sonic match for the Focal. The slight hint of warmth and dynamic capabilities of the Asgard 3 suits the Radiance’s rich characteristics and makes for an entire musical and enjoyable pairing. Highly recommended.

Final Thoughts
I was concerned that we may have had a one-off ‘gimmick’ on our hands in the Focal-meets-Bentley Radiance, but I am happy to report that underneath the shiny logos this pair of headphones is the Real Deal. The Radiance is exquisitely packaged and tuned masterfully with a dynamic and engaging rich voicing. Focal has managed to create what I honestly believe is the price-to-performance champion in the high-end closed-back headphone category. While the Stellia remains on top of its perch in the performance stakes, for a fraction of the cost, the Radiance is actually a better-packaged product and gets you most of the way there sonically. The Radiance really does ‘shine’ and as a result gets our strong recommendation for anyone looking for a closed-back headphone with a little bit of luxury ‘flair’. You might not be able to afford a Bentley, but you can get yourself a fraction of the experience for $1,290.

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