Review: Focal Stellia – Baby, You’re a Star!

Sophisticated style and sound.
Sophisticated style and sound.

Focal promises superior style and spectacular sound, but are the Stellia really stellar?

Thank you to Wendy and Focal and for providing the Stellia for review purposes.

I’ve come to a disappointing self-realization. It’s quite possible I may not be cool enough for these headphones.

The Stellia are TOTL French-made headphones that absolutely epitomize high-end style. They are the gorgeous runway model, the sublime supercar, or the imposing mansion of the headphone world. And, strangely enough, they are closed-back and efficient, so they are intended to be worn outside. Where people can see you.

I don’t own enough scarves. Or attractive enough shoes. And my jawline isn’t chiseled enough for me to stand staring into the near distance while coolly listening to something profound. But, once I broke the news to the Stellia that they were stuck with plain old me, we started to make friends.

Sophisticated style and sound.
Bottom Line

The Stellia provide a detailed and energetic listening experience. They’re engaging and resolving, and have a low-end weight and warmth that is fun and non-fatiguing. Dynamics are impactful and transients are notably quick. They are likely the most spacious closed-back pair of headphones I’ve encountered. They’re intimate without being claustrophobic, and unless you only like an exaggerated sense of space, are likely to please most listeners.

What We Like
  • Exquisite design, materials, and build quality
  • Dynamic and full sound
  • Warmth with no loss of clarity
  • Fast, controlled, tight bass
What We Don't Like
  • Somewhat intimate soundstage
  • Not the most extended high-end
  • Expensive
  • Cables not quite of the same quality as the headphones

Sporting enough gorgeous brown leather to make even the Fonz’s iconic jacket jealous, the Stellia fit right into Focal’s lust-inducing lineup. Focal has made a name for itself by producing some of the most beautiful and best-sounding headphones in the world. The open-backed Utopia epitomize everything we picture a flagship pair of headphones to be. So, when Focal announced the launch of the multi-thousand-dollar Stellia, it wasn’t immediately obvious where this pair of super-cans fit in.

What'cha doin'? Nothin' much, just hanging out with Stellia.
What’cha doin’? Nothin’ much, just hanging out with Stellia.
Can headphones be considered sexy?

Flagship headphones are more often open-backed and intended to be connected to high-end desktop systems for home use only. A closed-back design typically has sonic drawbacks with a smaller soundstage and more boosted bass than an open-backed design. However, they usually have good isolation and are easy to drive, so closed-backs are the go-to choice for folks on the move or in a noisy environment. But who uses headphones this expensive in public?

Does it make sense to wear the Stellia in anything other than a fashion magazine advert? Are the Stellia only for those who already own the Utopia and want that sort of quality outside their home? Or can the Stellia stand on their own and be the perfect pair of flexible do-it-all headphones that provide everything to the most discerning of audiophiles?

I can’t wait to find out.

Company Overview

Founded in 1979 and located in Saint-Étienne, France, Focal specializes in high-end audio loudspeakers and headphones. They develop all their products on-site and perform the majority of manufacturing in-house as well.

Focal states their ultimate goal is to reproduce the artist’s work as faithfully as possible by crafting products capable of ultimate audio fidelity. All the while, they maintain a stunning design culture that is distinctively Focal. “Flawless performance with a distinguished style.” – Focal

A huge brown faux-leather display box.
A huge brown faux-leather display box.

Technical Specifications

  • Form: Circumaural, closed-back headphones
  • Drivers: 40mm dynamic driver with pure beryllium M-shaped dome
  • Impedance (Ohm): 35 Ohms
  • Sensitivity (dB): 106dB SPL / 1mw @ 1khz
  • THD: 0.1% @ 1khz 100dB
  • Frequency Response (Hz): 5Hz – 40kHz
  • Removable Cable: Y
  • Source Jack: 3.5mm, 4-pin XLR (6.35mm adapter included)
  • Cup/Shell Jack: 2x 3.5mm
  • Weight (g): 435g
A box and a case in a box. Focal's version of Inception.
A box and a case in a box. Focal’s version of Inception.

Packaging

The Stellia packaging befits a top-tier pair of headphones. A huge 26x28x21cm brown protein leather box slides up to reveal the protective headphone case and a matching leatherette fold-out box. It’s all quite heavy and imparts a great feeling of worth and luxury. Flip open the interior box and you’ll find a leather pouch with documentation inside and both included cables nestled in laser-cut dense foam.

Yes, it’s a fancy display box rather than anything of practical use. It doesn’t matter, it’s all darn impressive and that’s what I want for headphones at this price point. Everything screams opulence and it all matches perfectly. Yum.

The hardshell zip-up travel case is terrific.
The hardshell zip-up travel case is terrific.

Focal calls the warm two-tone brown color scheme of the Stellia ‘mocha and cognac.’ I prefer brown leather over black any day, so to me, the whole package looks as rich, sensual, and delicious as it sounds.

In the box

  • Focal Stellia headphones
  • Balanced XLR cable (2x 3.5mm TS headphone plugs) – 3m
  • 3.5mm cable – 1.2m
  • 6.35mm to 3.5mm adapter
  • Hardshell travel and storage case
  • Leather documentation case
  • Documentation: user instructions, operating manual, leather instructions, beryllium use precautions, Focal pamphlet

Cable

The included rubber-coated cables are a perfect visual match for the Stellia but are slightly stiff and somewhat microphonic. They are of decent quality, but I’m not sure they’re quite on the level of this spectacular pair of headphones.

A presentation befitting a top tier pair of headphones.
A presentation befitting a top tier pair of headphones.

The connectors are metal-bodied, gold-plated, and sport the Focal name and emblem. The 4-pin XLR cable is obviously intended for home use with its cloth-wrapped 3-meter length, while the 3.5mm cable is only 1.2m long for portable use.

Design

Say it with me. LUX-UR-Y.

Focal makes WOW products. The choice of materials and stylish aesthetic never disappoints. The Stellia remind me more of designer clothes or jewelry than something as mundane as a consumer portable audio product. There is no visible plastic anywhere (the hidden ear pad clips and driver surround are black plastic), and the fit and finish of the metal cups, yokes, and sliders are superb.

A perfect marriage of form and function.
A perfect marriage of form and function.
Focal is quick to point out, with an attached leather tag and included card, that the natural leather used in the headband and ear pads will develop a worn patina with use.

Some may not appreciate the two-tone ‘mocha and cognac’ brown color scheme, but I can’t imagine anyone not being impressed by the splendid design. The Stellia slot perfectly into the Focal headphone family and share a consistent design language. Functionality is also sublime, as the cups spring smartly back into position and the sliders firmly click into place. No unwanted creaks, flex, or noise. The Stellia are inarguably a high-quality tool for music listening.

Simply flawless design.

Comfort

At under 450 grams, with well-padded earpads and headband, the Stellia are long-term comfortable. While not all-plastic lightweight-wonders, the weight isn’t too much for day-long use and they feel solid, well-constructed, and appropriate for the cost. If they were only 200-300g you’d be left wondering what you were paying for, and questioning their durability. As is, the Stellia are substantial and authoritative on the head.

Slipping them on your noggin without music playing, you will first notice the deadening and isolating effect of their closed-back construction. It’s unavoidable that this sort of design combined with leather pads will feel a bit warm for extended listening sessions. The ear pads have a lighter colored leather band and fabric strip around the interior which likely helps breathability. The bottom of the leather headphone band is perforated for this reason as well.

The primary reason for the fabric strip is to absorb the first reflection and it allows for tuning the headphone’s sound.
The comfortable real leather band will age and develop a patina over time.
The comfortable real leather band will age and develop a patina over time.

Out of the box, clamping force is a touch tighter than I desire, but this is likely to reduce with use. A snug fit is appropriate for headphones that you may use on the go. No one wants their uber-cans slipping off their head and crashing to the ground.

Internals

Focal designed new drivers specifically intended for a closed-back cup when they produced the Stellia. Pure beryllium, M-shaped, 40mm dynamic drivers change the electrical signal into sound. Beryllium has been the recent driver material-du-jour due to its low mass and high rigidity, which translates into less distortion and improved clarity in audio playback.

Stellia's beryllium driver.
Stellia’s beryllium driver.

While the Stellia driver surround is constructed in the same way and shares the same materials as the Elear, Clear, and Utopia drivers, the transducer thickness is 110 microns (vs 75 microns) and the motor structure is different than Focal’s open-backed headphones, similar to the former Elegia and current Celestee models.

Additionally, the height of the coil is reduced from 5mm to 4mm in the Stellia. This lowers the Stellia impedance to 35 Ohms and when combined with their 106dB sensitivity, further improves portability and increases the range of devices that can properly power the Stellia.

“‘M’-shaped pure Beryllium dome, former-less 100% copper voice coil, new surround… are technologies which offer exceptional dynamics for closed-back headphones and contribute to the reproduction of the tiniest sound details at both high and low frequencies. The respect of the original audio signal is unfailing and the neutrality is flawless, for voices and trebles of astonishing realism.

The Focal engineers worked to achieve the pure sound: vents are integrated to extend the speaker driver’s frequency response; an EVA foam positioned behind the speaker driver absorbs high frequencies; acoustic diffusers break up standing waves to obtain sound reproduction that is free of interference…” – Focal

The driver clips into place.
The driver clips into place.

The focus of the Stellia construction appears to be divided between the driver composition and the interior of the earcups.

Armed with my trusty screwdriver set, I’ve opened up many closed-back headphones, ranging from inexpensive to astronomically priced, and found only an empty cup. No damping. No intentional design elements. I can only imagine the design process was something along the lines of “let’s just stick this driver in the cup and hope for the best as far as sound goes.”

This is not the case with the Stellia. Remove six small screws and the driver surround plate pops out. Unexpectedly, the driver is not attached to the plate and sits in a spring-loaded cradle that positions the driver to touch a couple of gold-plated contacts. No soldering. No clips. The driver just lifts right out.

The internal cup design is reminiscent of a circular concert hall.
The internal cup design is reminiscent of a circular concert hall.

Behind the driver, the interior of the cup surface is covered in small rubber 4-sided pyramids, reminiscent of studio soundproofing, intended to disrupt and minimize unwanted reflections from the walls. There’s actual design and intent going on inside there. Bravo Focal!

The drivers are positioned slightly forward and angled backward to tune how the sound waves interact with the features of the ear.

“Also, to promote the best possible stereo image, Focal has developed a single front speaker to position the speakers as far forward as possible from the listening position. The limit here is not to have too much space between the speakers and the ears to ensure the best dynamics and an ideal tonal balance on the entire audio spectrum.” – Focal

Focal Stellia Sound

I paired the Stellia with a variety of desktop and portable devices including a Chord Mojo, Burson Conductor 3R, and Soncoz SGA1. My listening tastes run the gamut from folk to rock, pop, EDM, and lots in between. I’ve been listening to the Stellia for a couple of months before writing my impressions.

The Stellia provide a detailed and energetic listening experience. They’re engaging and resolving, and have a low-end weight and warmth that is fun and non-fatiguing. Dynamics are impactful and transients are notably quick.

Yeah. They sound great.

The grill over the driver.
The grill over the driver.

The combination of efficiency and resolution in a portable pair of headphones can set up the listener for disappointment. While I imagine that most potential Stellia owners will pair them with a high-quality source, the Stellia can be driven by almost anything with a headphone jack. Please keep in mind that the Stellia can, and will, highlight any limitations in the source hardware or file fidelity.

The Stellia reward the listener who can provide a good audio chain to power them.

The resolving nature of the Stellia can be immediately appreciated when playing music at low listening levels. There seems to be minimal volume-related loss of dynamics and range that quiet listening typically entails. This is good news for your hearing, as the Stellia are easy to enjoy at soft volumes.

The Stellia’s technical abilities shine, even though their overall tonality leans towards a low-end weighted sound profile. There is an enjoyable and well-mannered warmth imbued to the music. They aren’t ultra-airy sparkle machines, but that suits my general preferences quite well. Balanced and laid-back, they avoid both high- and low-end aggressiveness and remain clean and clear regardless of your musical tastes.

I don’t think I can classify the Stellia as truly neutral and uncolored, but their unique sonic flavor is immensely enjoyable to listen to. There’s a touch more weight to notes than what is neutral, but the low end is so controlled and quick that it only serves to reinforce the crispness and clarity delivered by the midrange and treble frequencies. Things sound natural and ‘proper’ to my ears.

Closed-back headphones are seldom expected to deliver a vast soundstage. While the Stellia don’t compete with the very best open-backed models in this regard, they are likely the most spacious closed-back pair of headphones I’ve encountered. They’re intimate without being claustrophobic, and unless you only like an exaggerated sense of space, are likely to please most listeners.

Frequency response graph of the Focal Stellia as measured on a miniDSP EARS fixture.
Frequency response graph of the Focal Stellia as measured on a miniDSP EARS fixture.

Bass

Planar-sounding bass coming from dynamic drivers? Yes, please. Fast, controlled, tight, and punchy.

The Stellia excel at precisely delivering the low notes. There’s no bloat or congestion to be found, regardless of the complexity of the music being reproduced. When the song calls for it, the Stellia deliver the goods without intruding on their impressive clarity. It’s a dynamic and exciting sound signature that should satisfy all but the most fervent bass head zealots amongst us.

Upper and sub-bass frequencies don’t obviously overshadow the other, although the sound leans towards punchy rather than subsonic. As the frequencies move up into the midrange, clarity is never lost, and the speed and precision of the beryllium driver are outstanding.

Midrange

I’m hard-pressed to say what range the Stellia excel at. That’s no slight, as they are so very good at just about everything. Midrange performance is superb. I was genuinely impressed by the clarity of the Clear, and the Stellia certainly deliver the goods as well. Voices and instruments remain distinct and easily discernible. If it is present within the music, you’ll hear it in the Stellia.

There’s no nasal harshness or half-step-back midrange presence which can often be a problem with closed-back headphones. Even though the bass response is strong, it is easily balanced by the midrange. The Stellia mids are full-bodied and detailed.

Treble

The treble may be where personal tastes divide who will appreciate the Stellia the most. The very upper frequencies seem a bit rolled off and smooth rather than exhibiting the highest levels of energy and sparkle. This makes for a wonderfully easy-to-listen-to sound profile with no high-frequency harness or sibilance.

However, some may note slightly less air and presence than what is shown by the most extended headphones. It’s a matter of preference as to what you like to listen to. I find the Stellia to have great detail and sweetness without grain or edginess, and they suit me well.

Let’s have no miscommunication here, as I can’t imagine anyone would consider the Stellia veiled or dark. It’s a matter of degrees of excellence, and it’s why we can have many TOTL, superb-sounding headphones that don’t all sound exactly alike.

Where to Buy

Conclusion

Could I be happy with only one pair of headphones? It seems that I could.

If all closed-back headphones could sound near as good as the Stellia, I’d give up on my perhaps antiquated belief that I prefer the sound of open-backed headphones.

Versatility is the superpower of closed-back headphones. Any headphone design will work great in a silent room with no one disturbing you, or in turn, being disturbed by sound leakage, and powered by an absurdly powerful desktop amplifier behemoth. However, efficient and isolating closed-back headphones promise sonic bliss and the freedom to go anywhere, powered by something that easily fits into a pocket.

Sometimes, one is enough.
Sometimes, one is enough.

Some may have spotted a trend in the superlatives I’ve sprinkled into this article. Let’s review the ‘s’ words that best describe the Stellia: splendid, superb, sublime, sexy, stylish, substantial, speed, superior, spectacular, sensual, sweet, solidity, shine.

Stellar.

Someone in the Focal office has a great talent for naming their headphones so precisely on the nose.

Yes, to us mere mortals, the Stellia are near absurdly expensive for a pair of headphones. However, they deliver the goods. I’m never going to buy a new Bentley, but I imagine the experience is the same. True luxury costs a significant amount of money, but that’s part of the experience. To be considered the very best, you can justify the price tag.

The Stellia can.

10 comments

  1. This is a great review, thank you for it. Looking forward to reading more of your reviews.
    Have you compared the Celestee to the Stellia? I would be interested in your thoughts about that. If you have any insightful you could share about the sound/tuning similarities and differences in them I would be grateful.

    1. I have not had the opportunity as of yet to try the Celestee, although that is looking to change in the new year.

  2. You’re a brave man Mr. Trav Wilson. I believe I’d have high anxiety taking those apart. I have another Focal, and have never had the urge to open them up, even in the name of science and to satisfy our readers’ curiosity – bravo! P.S. and hope you re-assembled them successfully and returned them intact. It would be awfully embarrassing to send back a box of parts. Great review my friend!

  3. Very grateful for your detailed and insightful review of the Focal Stelia. You have convinced me that these will be my final headphones investment.

    By the way, could you tell me the make and model of the headphone stand you folks used in the photos in your article. I would be a perfect addition. Thank you.

  4. Nice review, I own these and they are 100% the best in sound. But build quality although being 9/10, for $3000 you should get a top of the line cable, I had to shell out an additional $200 for cabling. They also should have engineered the ear pads better, out of the box they are not deep enough. I will also have to upgrade the ear pads. An extra mm or two of depth would have been sufficient.

    Again I wouldn’t trade them for the world, but when you spend that sort of coin that product should be perfect. When you buy a Porsche 911 you don’t have replace the tires and cover the seats as soon as you drive it off the lot!

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