Focal Listen Wireless Headphones Review
Like the Spirit One S, the Focal Listen Wireless is a headphone primarily intended for mobile use. If you really want to buy a good set of headphones for on the go. Also make sure they have a light and sturdy design and a closed construction with drivers that can be driven smoothly. Focal has built up quite a bit of experience in headphones anyway, so we don’t expect them to lose sight of these basics with the Focal Listen Wireless.
- Accurate amazing audio performance
- Rich bass
- Clear highs
- Removable cable with inline remote
- Remote can’t control volume.
- Not for those seeking booming bass response.
Indeed, when we unpack the Listen we see a design that meets all the expectations of that music-loving commuter. Moreover, it is immediately noticeable that the Listen looks somewhat different from the Spirit One. Striking metal-colored hinges that allowed the headband to merge are gone, as well as the plain and flat cups. For the Listen, Focal allows the headband to extend halfway through the driver cups (with brushed aluminum effect) and at the end there in a spherical hinge that allows (mostly) horizontal and (less) vertical movement. It looks and feels like a sturdy construction, even when we tug on it vigorously for a change. The headband also passes a rather disrespectful torsion test.
A little force is in order, because mobile headphones undergo a lot more than home hi-fi headphones that spend their lives mostly in a presentation box.
Thanks to the hinges there is enough flexibility to allow the ear pads to fit perfectly on your head. Because that’s what the Listen does: it is a headphone that uses its large ear pads and a certain pressure on the ears to obtain good passive insulation. Unless you opt for noise-cancelling, this is the path a manufacturer must take to make headphones usable in public places and on public transport. Some ear-browsing is actually inevitable with a fitting design like this. In the case of the Listen, fortunately, the memory foam ear cushions not only ensure a fairly comfortable fit, but also that heat buildup is not that bad.
I find the Listen more comfortable than the Spirit One S, which in turn was not bad. The ear cushions are slightly better and the padding on the inside of the headband provides good weight distribution. Weighing in at 273 grams, the Listen is a mid-range model. The more or less similarly priced Bose SoundTrue II, for example, is a champion in low weight (weighs almost 90 grams less). Unlike the Bose, you won’t immediately forget that the Listen is on your head, though there is no irritation. Anyway, the Focal looks a lot more luxurious, insulates more efficiently and just sounds better.
At this price point you don’t expect an overload of accessories, such as performance cases made from a rare tropical wood. In the box we did find exactly what we were hoping for: a soft case in which the folded Listen fits, an adapter for the airplane (which everyone forgets about when taking a flight, but that’s beside the point) and a 1.4 meter cable. We don’t usually dwell on cables, but in this case there are actually three positive things to mention. First of all, it is slightly longer (20 cm) than standard, which in turn comes in handy if you want to use the Listen after your commute to the office. In addition, the cable is replaceable, which adds to its durability. Although the included cable is equipped with a clever lock, you can also use a classic cable with a 3.5 mm jack as a replacement. And then the last positive point. The remote on the cable works with all smartphones, both Android phones and iPhones – except of course the iPhone 7, which goes through life without a 3.5 mm output. That makes the Listen an interesting purchase if you do change mobile companies from time to time. With brands like Bose and Sennheiser, you’re always stuck with separate headphone editions anyway, where the remote works with one but not the other.
Audiophile configuration with DAC and hi-res files is nice of course, but in practice the Listen will mainly be used with a smartphone and with streams from a service like Spotify. Time to connect the Focal to a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and start up the Spotify app. According to the music service, I want to start my Monday morning with ‘Morregen’ by ’90s punk band Asociality, simultaneously capitalizing on my nostalgic feelings and procrastination as only an algorithm can do, followed rather abruptly by ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie. By default, Spotify is set to ‘Extreme Quality’ (Ogg, 320 kbps), which sounds fine on the Listen, but after an initial listening session we switch it to ‘Normal Quality’ (Ogg, 96 kbps). The BA song may be loud and very removed from what counts as an audiophile recording, it is also quite tight with a staccato guitar line. Because the Listen clearly puts only a slight emphasis on the bass and is well muted, that tight feel is preserved very well. We also notice this on Bonaparte’s “Computer in Love” and the blips from Digitalisms’ “Zdarlight. There’s also no contamination from the low to the middle, so Bowie’s voice in ‘Heroes’ retains its own place and lushness.
As far as we are concerned, the Listen is an excellent all-rounder among mobile headphones, with a clear added value compared to headphones from a lower price category. Don’t forget: this type of headphone does not take on hi-fi legends like the Sennheiser HD 650 or higher, but it does take on the included in-ears or headphones of minus 100$ in the department stores. From that perspective, those 200$ is a hefty step up, but the sound quality you get in return is worth it. Also, compared to price peers, the Listen delivers good value for money.
With more expensive open headphones the detail will be richer. If we impose, say, the David Helbock Trio’s neoclassical album ‘Into the Mystic’ via Qobuz FLAC streaming, that piano in ‘Beethoven #7’ could certainly sound fresher and brighter. But for that, as mentioned, you have to reach higher. The downside, moreover, is that on the Listen you can keep listening at a lower quality. If you listen closely, you do hear that cymbals and some synth sounds sound too artificial with the low bitrate stream – ‘Hammerhead’ by A Brand, for example, can safely be called atrocious at the normal Spotify quality. At the same time, you won’t be bothered that much by that artificiality while commuting. Its all-round character may disappoint avid bassheads, but actually the Listen has just enough extra presence in the low end to keep it fun when listening in a loud environment. Good aiming from Focal.
The Listen has the DNA of the Focal Spirit One S in its body, which is a good thing. As always with descendants, some has been added. The comfort level is a touch higher and the design is a bit more luxurious (and perhaps also a bit more anonymous). Those who want to listen to contemporary music on the go or in noisy environments will find in the Focal Listen an affordable headphone with a good, enjoyable sound. The tuning puts some emphasis on the bass foundation, but without overdoing it and without becoming woolly, while the voice reproduction is very good at this price point. Don’t expect extremely high levels of detail, but because of that the Listen sounds fine when listening to lesser sources, such as Spotify.