Ordinary active noise-cancellation aside, Focal’s first foray into the world of wireless over-ear headphones is deeply impressive
- Open, full-scale and lucid sound
- Great standard of build and finish
- Can be used as a desktop DAC
- ANC is nothing special
- Physical controls feel a bit cheap
- Scant control app
There are high-end wireless over-ear headphones, and then there’s the Focal Bathys. No one could accuse the French audio specialist of lacking ambition with its very first pair of active noise-cancelling headphones, but the asking price is eye-widening – and it means the Bathys need to deliver on all fronts if they’re going to be called a success.
And yet, somehow, the Bathys are an unarguable success despite not quite delivering on a couple of fronts. Their active noise cancellation, for example, can be bettered by any number of alternative designs costing less than this – although, having said that, the ANC here is pretty good. Their control app is no great shakes, either, thanks to severely limited functionality. And Focal has contrived to make the physical controls – which is the area of the Bathys owners will touch the most, of course – feel a fair bit less upmarket and premium than the rest of the headphones.
It’s quite easy to park these minor grumblings, though, because the Focal Bathys sound spectacular. They’re a balanced, poised and articulate listen, absolutely wide open in terms of the soundstage they create and yet able to knit recordings into a singular, unified whole without apparent effort. They have the sort of punch and rhythmic control that makes them dancefloor contenders, but at the same time they have the sort of powers of communication that can make a vocalist sound like they’re doing it just for you.
No, they’re not cheap and no, they’re not class-leading in every respect. But where it really counts, the Focal Bathys have what it takes – and in quantity.
Focal Bathys review: What do you get for the money?
By the admittedly quite conservative standards of wireless over-ear headphones, the Focal Bathys are quite good-looking, and they’re certainly built and finished to a high standard.
The small amount of plastic they use is tactile and high-quality, and the combination of aluminium and magnesium for the majority of the frame keeps the weight low and perceived value high. Leather-covered memory-foam earcups, and a headband that’s leather on the outside but a microfibre material at the contact point, don’t do any harm where comfort or luxuriousness are concerned, either. 350g isn’t especially lightweight for a product like this, but the thoughtful hanger arrangement and well-judged clamping force mean they’re not remotely bothersome to wear.
The Focal Bathys use Bluetooth 5.1 for wireless connectivity and are compatible with the SBC, AAC, aptX and aptX Adaptive codecs. They can also be used hard-wired, either via their USB-C or 3.5mm analogue socket – there are USB-C/USB-C and 3.5mm/3.5mm cables in the Bathy’s semi-rigid travel case, each of 1.2m length.
No matter how you choose to use them, though, the Bathys need power to work – so it’s just as well they will last for around 30 hours (when used wirelessly; if they’re hard-wired you can expect between 35 and 42 hours) between charges. A 15-minute charge will hold you for a further five hours.
If you hard-wire the headphones to a source via their USB-C socket, they can be used as a digital-to-analogue converter. There’s a switch on the right earcup to instruct the Bathys to act as a DAC – and when they do so, digital audio files of up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution are catered for. But no matter how you decide to get your audio information on board, it’s delivered to your ears via a couple of 40mm aluminium/magnesium ‘M’-shaped dome drivers. Focal is claiming a frequency response of 15Hz to 22kHz.
There are four mics on each earcup, taking care of telephony, voice-assistant interaction and, of course, active noise-cancellation. Rather than offer a scale of adjustability, Focal’s gone with “Silent” (full on), “Soft” (light touch) and “Transparent” (transparent, obviously) as your available options. The right earcup also has some physical controls that handle volume adjustment, playback control and Bluetooth pairing. In addition, it has a power on/off/DAC control, a USB-C socket and a 3.5mm input, and a button for waking your source player’s voice assistant (Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri are all available). Over on the left-hand side, meanwhile, there’s a single button for cycling through those ANC options.
Control is also available via a dedicated app. It shows the remaining battery power, the type of Bluetooth codec you’re currently listening to, and lets you decide on the amount of logo illumination you’d like. The company’s stylised logo sits in the centre of each earcup and can be gently or steeply illuminated, or switched off entirely if you prefer. There’s a five-band EQ, with the ability to name and save some custom settings, and the option to choose your preferred level of ANC.
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Focal Bathys review: What did we like about them?
First and foremost: headphones as capable as this will thank you for listening to audio files of decent size and resolution. The Focal Bathys don’t quite turn their noses up at compressed stuff from the free Spotify tier, but they do their best work when given appropriate stuff to work with.
And if you do the right thing, with a 24bit/96kHz file of Weyes Blood’s Grapevine, for example, the Focal prove to be a large-scale, spacious listen of considerable clarity and muscle. The soundstage they create is big and well defined – yet while separation and focus are impressive, there’s a tangible sense of unity and wholeness to the way the Bathys deliver music. It doesn’t matter how complex a recording is or how many individual strands go into making it up, these headphones are able to knit it together and serve it up as a seamless entity.
Attention to detail is significant throughout the frequency range, so you’re never in any doubt as to whether or not you’re getting the complete picture. No matter if it’s transient, buried at the bottom of the mix or scrapping in a particularly congested part of the frequency range – if it’s part of the recording, the Focal will bring it to your attention – but not by overstating or spotlighting it, but rather by putting it in context.
The low end is full-figured, nicely shaped and lavishly textured. The opposite end of the frequency range is similarly assertive but stays just on the right side of the line dividing crisp from hard; treble sounds attack just as resolutely as bass sounds, are equally detailed and equally well-controlled.
In between, the midrange communicates in an uninhibited style. The Focal do great work with singers, giving them a little area of space in which to operate even in the densest of mixes, and they allow all the emotion, the attitude and the character of the performance full expression. And the entire frequency range is smoothly integrated and neutral from top to bottom – no part is overplayed, and no part is understated.
Rhythmic expression is convincing too, thanks in no small part to the low-frequency speed and control that’s available. And the Bathys are adept where dynamic variation is concerned – they can identify the smallest harmonic variation on a note-by-note basis from a solo instrument, and they can raise the roof when a band piles into that final chorus.
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Focal Bathys review: What could be improved?
I have a few reservations regarding usability. All the physical controls on the earcups feel rather plasticky and a bit low-rent when compared to the rest of the headphones, and using them somehow makes the Focal feel less expensive than they are. The responsiveness of the control app is questionable, too, and compared to virtually every rival it’s quite curtailed in its functionality.
And it’s fair to say that active noise cancellation could be better, too. It’s not poor, but it’s definitely good rather than great, when great is what the price point demands. “Silent” is to overstate its most assertive ANC setting – but while there’s no Bose-like elimination of all external noise, sounds are quite significantly reduced to the point they’re fairly easy to ignore. Which means you’re almost entirely free to enjoy their tremendous music-making talents.
Focal Bathys review: Should you buy them?
Remember when we were all up in arms about the price of Apple’s AirPods Max? Seems almost quaint now, doesn’t it? But the fact remains: if you’re charging £699 for a pair of wireless over-ear headphones, they’d better be pretty special.
Happily, the Focal Bathys are definitely special. Their noise cancelling doesn’t quite match the stratospheric nature of their audio performance, but unless you’re buying headphones more for their ability to shut out the outside world than for their sound quality, these headphones justify their asking price – and then some.