One of my favorite comedians is a lesser-known Canadian performer named Ron James, who has a particularly wry way of looking at the world. Like me, he’s a man in his 60s, and some of his observations have me doubled over laughing. One I particularly like is his take on trends and Western humanity’s obsession with “the new.” In a cascading series of punch lines, he notes that things like the iPhone 11 in your pocket are not “old”; the Dead Sea Scrolls are old.
That joke came to mind as I went walking, one fine fall day, wearing a pair of Focal’s new Bathys wireless headphones ($699, all prices in USD). I began reflecting on the first time I used my brand-new Sony Walkman as it was intended. It was 1981, and I had a cassette of Mink DeVille’s Le Chat Bleu in the machine. The experience—walking while listening to new music—was revelatory; so much so that I still remember it clearly.
Today, the concept of music on the go probably seems as ancient to my grandkids as those millennia-old religious writings. But, listening to these new Bathys ’phones in nature proved almost as enlightening as my first stroll with that Walkman. How could music sound this deep and fulsome while you’re out in the woods?
Leave it to Focal, the French manufacturer that seems to be on a particularly good roll, to make music sound so fabulous inside your head.
Of course, Focal makes some phenomenal headphones. Spending time with the company’s $4999 Utopia headphones is all the proof you need. But they cost seven times as much as the Bathys ’phones. When I opened the box for this matchup, I wondered if it was going to be like driving an entry-level Chevy Malibu after carving the roads in a Corvette Z06.
I’ll eliminate the tension; Focal’s Bathys headphones might lack the prestigious fabric finishes and extended sonic experience of the Utopias, but there’s no question that they share the familial lineage.
Sleek and gorgeous-looking—in Focal’s new Dune finish, which the company says was “inspired by quarry minerals, Greek landscapes and desert sands”—the ’phones have a closed-back design and employ Bluetooth 5.1 multipoint technology.
Originally released in black-and-silver trim, the sand-colored model seems to be aimed at fashionable women, judging by Focal’s marketing materials, and it looks chic, to be sure.
Inside are Focal’s own 40mm aluminum-magnesium “M-dome” drivers, which have a quoted frequency response of 15Hz to 22kHz, with total harmonic distortion of <0.2% @1kHz. The manufacturer claims a battery life of 30 hours between charges when in Bluetooth mode, 35 hours if you’re using the standard headphone jack, and 42 hours when you employ the built-in USB DAC.
The ’phones come with a stylish, rigid carrying case and cables for both 3.5mm and USB-C ports. I left the cables in the box to focus on the wireless experience.
I’ve joked in a previous column that review products and music can sometimes seem to line up magically, but I doubt there will ever be a better example of this than listening to the most recent music from composer Roger Eno through a pair of Bathys ’phones. The Skies, They Shift Like Chords (24-bit/96kHz WAV, Deutsche Grammophon 00028948652709) is ethereal music, combining electronics, piano, strings, and occasional vocals; ideal for a contemplative fall walk.
It was no surprise, then, to hear from the composer—during an hour-long Zoom conversation—that his compositions are often inspired by his own outdoor excursions near his home on the English coast, northeast of London.
“The main reason that I don’t leave Britain and go to somewhere more enlightened is because of this part of the country I absolutely adore,” he said. “It’s a cliché, I realize, but it’s where my heart is. So I’m always outside, either on my motorbike or my push-bike, walking with my wife and our dog, just thinking I live in heaven.”
Roger Eno by Bee Eno
While not as well-known globally as his older brother, Brian (who made his name onstage with Roxy Music before shifting into studio production for artists as varied as U2, Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson, as well as his own multitudinous projects), Roger has an extensive catalog of more than 30 albums, including several collaborations with his brother.
Eno considers himself a traditional composer, but one with a different approach: “Most of my music actually comes from improvisations that are then stripped down or added to, and then thought about in terms of . . . classical orchestration.”
For The Skies, They Shift Like Chords, he collaborated with the Scoring Berlin string ensemble, clarinetist Alexander Glücksmann, multi-instrumentalist Jon Goddard, electronics programmer Christian Badzura, the Vocalconsort Berlin choral ensemble, and, on one track, his daughter, vocalist and visual artist Cecily Eno.
Of Badzura’s role, the composer said: “He’s a treat to work with. I’ll finish my part, which might be playing piano or directing, and then Christian will step in with ideas for little moments of texture.”
He characterizes his own role as shaping his aural concept through a series of trial and error. “I view each album through analogies,” he said. “This one I see as a series of poems [with] a hidden depth that, given time, will be revealed. I want to illustrate an emotion, or maybe something I’ve read or a painting I love. I want to somehow turn that into a form.”
The final form only reveals itself after the instrumentation is determined. “Every instrument you use is going to be leading you somewhere. It could be the right direction or the wrong one. You very quickly know. So you are then adjusting sonic effects or instrument changes. That’s a really enchanting way of working.”
For “Strangely, I Dreamt,” the piece that includes his daughter’s vocals, he said: “That track was finished as a string piece. Right! But then I thought, ‘Well, what if you just add this tiny vocal section to it? Yeah!’ Which, you know, takes it somewhere else, doesn’t it?”
Like many of the other pieces, the track appears to define the term “minimal,” but the Bathys headphones revealed its many layers. The transparency of “Strangely, I Dreamt” led me to A/B it, switching to my standard streaming arrangement: 16-inch Apple iMac, NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier, and Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers. While the piece still shimmered and swelled emotively, it was not as all-encompassing as it was through the Focal headphones, highlighting the exceptional depth they added to the listening experience.
Transparency seems to be the operative word with these headphones. The evocative, long-decaying piano notes of the closing piece, “Where Does This Leave Us?,” were barely whispers on the floorstanders, but they had real presence and texture through the Bathys headphones. Likewise, the overtones that grace “Above and Below (Crepuscular)” were exceptionally clear, even when the layers of chordal elements began to stack up, making for an odd combination: minimalism that has audible structure.
On “Tidescape,” another blend of electronic and acoustic sounds, the layers were distinct, and had appreciable depth and grain as they rose and receded. Although I have never walked the fields and shorelines of Eno’s neighborhood, I felt I was in the setting alongside the composer.
“The harmonic changes I use and the melodies, they’re often quite melancholy,” Eno told me. “They’re not ‘fun.’ It’s not like you’re going to burst into tears and lament the tragedy of being alive, but that blend—which tells you ‘This is fading; everything is going’—is what makes it powerful.”
Because The Skies, They Shift Like Chords is such a peaceful and exceptionally detailed recording, it’s easy for the outside world to intrude if you’re using the ’phones in their normal mode. To test the active noise cancelation, I performed a simple experiment. The desk in my third-floor office sits directly above the second-floor bathroom. Despite the space and solid wood of my 130-year-old home, I can detect if the bathroom fan is running—a distant but noticeable hum. I engaged the noise cancelation, and it disappeared. The noise from the fan wasn’t even detectable when I stood in the bathroom itself wearing the ’phones. Technically, I know how noise cancelation works, but engaging noise cancelation without playing music seemed to perform its own magic trick.
It was so quiet wearing the Focal Bathys headphones that I almost wanted to get on a plane again with what the company describes as “the perfect travel companion.” Considering the aversion to commercial flights I’ve developed over the past few years, that might be the best compliment I could give these exceptional listening devices.
. . . James Hale