Massdrop x Focal Elex Open-Back Headphones
The Massdrop x Focal Elex is an open-back over-ear dynamic driver headphone retailing for $700. It features Focal’s “M-shaped dome” driver assembly with a formerless voice coil, a design which quite closely resembles full sized speaker drivers in their construction, which has consequences for certain elements of the sound that make it distinct from the majority of open dynamic driver headphones currently on the market.
The styling of the headphones themselves is timeless, sporting a robust and uniformly black finish throughout the entirety of its build. The pads are a plush microfiber-over-memory foam construction and comfort is, subjectively, very good. They’re a tad heavy, but most should have no problems wearing these for extended periods of time.
The bass extends very well and in a linear, almost planar-like, fashion into the sub-bass, only rolling off at the lowest frequencies. There is a slight emphasis in the mid-bass, lending a full, weighty feeling to the fundamentals of vocals and most instruments. This, however, doesn’t stop the headphone from being very tight, fast, and controlled in it’s presentation of decay. Unlike most headphones where the bass shelf “bleeding” into the lower midrange is usually seen as undesirable, it’s hard not to see Elex’s elevated mid-bass bump as a feature, not a bug, due to this bump being partially responsible for enhancing the sense of punch and impact this headphone has to offer.
In fact, this element of dynamic impact is by far the most fun and engaging part about this headphone; I suspect the driver assembly being more speaker-like than most dynamic driver headphones leads to this sense of dynamic impact and punch that I’ve yet to hear on any other open-back dynamic headphone, but have heard countless times when listening/working on studio monitors.
The mid-range is tuned remarkably faithfully. The balance between fundamental and harmonic is retained well throughout the entirety of the range, the only slight deviation coming in the form of a wide elevation between 1-2kHz. However, this elevation doesn’t jump out as being strident, harsh, or out of balance. In fact, it foments a sense of vocals and guitars jutting out slightly in front of the background instruments, which helps give the headphone a compelling sense of front-to-back depth and further enhances the sense of dynamics during volume swings of vocals and drums. The upper mid-range between 2-4kHz is a crucial area of the frequency response to get right due to our sensitivity to these frequencies, and it is no exaggeration to say Elex handles this region perfectly. Absolutely nails it, in fact. It has a slight recession in the transition from upper midrange to treble, which really helps in taming vocal sibilance; S, F and T sounds never ever seem harsh or out of balance with the rest of the range
The treble proper is very smooth yet quite resolving, favoring a slightly laid-back presentation save for a peak around 10kHz. This response reminds me of the presentation of HD650’s treble; overall a tad recessed throughout, but just sparkly enough to not be tonally jarring and, importantly, still resolving. This tuning is quite pleasing, and certainly to my preference, as it avoids sibilance, but it’s especially impressive because the driver is capable enough to still provide a sense of exceptional treble detail despite the range being slightly recessed overall.
The sense of imaging is superb and individual elements are very easy to identify, even in busier passages, thanks to this particular unit’s well-matched drivers and the aforementioned decay characteristics avoiding a muddled sound. The headstage, while surprisingly deep front-to-back, isn’t particularly wide, however it feels very natural and faithful to the source recordings. Not to sound like a broken record, but the term that came to mind when trying to describe the stage was, again, “speaker-like,” more akin to a well-positioned pair of near field monitors than a pair of big PA speakers or a band playing in a room.
Plenty of my reference tracks were an absolute treat to listen to with Elex, one track in particular however was a particularly striking pairing: “Brianstorm” from Arctic Monkeys’ seminal Favourite Worst Nightmare was punchy, enveloping, dizzying, and overall an incredibly engaging and satisfying listen, and I recommend giving this song a spin if you want to experience the best parts of what this headphone has to offer.
The Elex has been touted by many as the Super HD600/HD650, and while it doesn’t beat it in every *single* aspect, (for example, the timbre of HD650 is exceedingly natural in a way Elex doesn’t quite capture) I find it to be an upgrade in most other metrics and thus find it very easy to recommend as an upgrade path from Sennheiser’s HD6x0 series, or as just an awesome all-rounder that does pretty much everything exceedingly well, especially for its price. The sound of Elex is honest, detailed, and remarkably speaker-like, and for those working in the pro audio space looking for an additional reference for monitoring, it’s hard to see how one could do better for a $700 pair of headphones.
By Griffin Silver