Armed with a DAC built into the headphones and active noise cancellation tech, the Focal Bathys aren’t your ordinary pair of wireless cans, and that’s a good thing.
As much as we love headphones, and love opening a new pair and listening to what’s on offer, some headphones are more exciting than others. That’s true with any product type, because some devices just stand out. It might come from an exciting design or a feature set aimed at delivering just that much more.
Some gadgets stand out more than others, and going off of what we’ve seen about Focal’s Bathys headphones, that’s definitely true. HiFi makers aren’t known for jumping into the world of active noise cancellation or wireless headphones, but that’s exactly what French audio specialists Focal have done, and they’ve not been shy.
The Focal Bathys more than just wireless and noise cancelling tech going for them, as the headphone aims to make audiophiles happy listeners, too.
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Design and features
Designed like no other pair of wireless headphones you’ve seen before, the Focal Bathys are different, and that’s a good thing. While simple and black (or beige) tends to be the general vibe for most headphone makers, Focal has gone a totally different way, opting for a spray of circles in a spiral pattern on each ear, with a large Focal logo on the inside that can light up, but also be controlled from the app Focal and Naim make for Android and iPhone.
It’s a look that is unmistakably different from every other pair of headphones out there, and that helps to make these stand out. Granted, it’s not totally out of kilter from the Focal Celeste, but somehow these look better to our eyes.
Really, they’re like no other headphone you’ve seen, and will get glances from people who see you. The Focal Bathys look premium, certainly more so than any other pair of wireless headphones I’ve worn before.
Inside, you can expect to find 40mm patented drivers made in France crafted with aluminium and magnesium, connected to technology to talk to your phone, tablet, and computer using Bluetooth 5.1 multipoint. The headphones are circumaural fitting around your ears with a plush ear piece, and use eight microphones — four on each ear — to handle the sound matching for its approach for active noise cancellation.
Like other pairs of headphones, there are controls on the headphones and support for voice assistant, covering Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, whichever you prefer, and there’s also both a 3.5mm connection and a Type C USB port for turning the Bathys into wired headphones.
However, Focal has gone a little bit beyond this, adding something extra to the package: a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC).
Often one of those things that you’ll plug into a sound source as an extra, the DAC can be switched on separate from the noise cancellation mode once it’s plugged in via a Type C cable, essentially turning these headphones into a DAC already plugged into high-end headphones. Focal’s DAC supports up to 192kHz at 24-bit, which means it should cover the assortment of high-res 24-bit tracks available on lossless at Apple Music, as well as what you can find on Tidal HiFi.
All of that is wrapped into one pair of headphones, which also arrives in a fabric-lined hard case, complete with two cables, one with a 3.5mm jack and the other with a Type C port.
Throw the headphones on and your ears will be treated to a delightful level of comfort. Circumaural and spacious, we’ve been wearing the Bathys for hours and hours, barely giving our ears a break as we jammed in these headphones, all without sweating.
Once worn, using the Bathys is just like any other pair of wireless headphones, with a bunch of controls on the side, plus an app.
For the physical controls, Focal has opted for physical controls without a whole lot of naming or instructions, so it’ll come down to your memory. On the left cup is one button for noise cancellation modes, which will notify you with a rather nondescript sound. It doesn’t tell you much about the cancellation mode you’ve selected, but you’ll get the feeling when the sound gets tighter and less noise gets in, or the other way around when transparency kicks in.
More controls can be found on the right side, and again it’ll largely be about memory. There’s a volume rocker with a controller button in between, and that’ll pause and play, while double and triple presses will skip tracks.
Next to this is a physical switch for turning the headphones on and off, with a DAC switch in between. Choose DAC when you’re plugging in a source over Type C USB, and choose on when you’re going for 3.5mm wired or wireless and noise cancelling. Off is just the power being off.
Finally, there’s a small button next to the power switch for triggering your voice assistant of choice.
There’s also that app, but it’s not that big of a deal if we’re honest. The most useful thing it can do is turn down the brightness of the light-up Focal logo on the side, but everything else is about playing with the EQ and a few presets, changing the noise cancellation mode between full, transparency, and off, and generally just setting up which voice assistant of choice you want to use.
All of this is pretty much normal for an ordinary pair of headphones.
The Bathys aren’t your ordinary headphones, though, because they actually come with two ways of listening to your tunes: wireless with noise cancellation switched on, and then wired using a DAC. That makes them special, and it means we can’t just simply test these cans the same way we would normally.
Rather, it means we need to break up the test into two sections, specifically looking at performance for each.
Performance in wireless ANC
That starts with the way most people will opt to use the Bathys, which is without the cords and with the active cancellation switched on. If you’ve been waiting for a generation of Focal that does away with cords, we’re with you, and this is one clearly made with that in mind.
And tested with the Pickr Sound Test, which you can listen to for yourself, our ears were treated with a delivery set in balance, but with an expansive sound stage, to be sure.
It started with electronic from Tycho and Daft Punk, both of which provided a clear and wide sound, with a spacious sound that wasn’t exaggerated in delivery, but just more the Goldilocks feeling of “just right”. Detailed and friendly, these were already doing our ears well.
In the pop and R&B sounds delivered by Carly Rae Jepsen, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, and Charlie Puth, the sound opened in a way to make the headphones breathe that much more, with solid snap on the lows, and detail everywhere.
During our time listening to Rage Against The Machine and the Deftones, there were sounds we’re not sure we’d heard before. The delivery was just that encompassing, allowing us to re-hear all that music we love, experiencing it again for the first time.
Performance with wired DAC
There’s also another side to the Focal Bathys, and this makes them stand out in the headphone world. And it’s really quite cool.
While it’s not unusual to see audio specialists jump into active noise cancelling headphones, it’s a little unusual to see one packing a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) built directly in, and then allow you to plug that into a media source and use it directly in the headphones.
Normally we’d rely on a Type C option from Astell & Kern, or grab the THX Onyx which works with an iPhone, but armed with the Bathys, we don’t need to. We can plug these headphones straight in and jam with a DAC inside.
Grab the Type C cable and plug it into both the headphones and your source, and then switch the headphones into the middle option on the switch marked “DAC”. Do that, and the DAC will switch on, powering a converter that can handle up to 24/192, handy if you have sources that do that.
For our testing, we used it with Apple Music’s high-res lossless on Android and iPad Air over a Type C connector (which only works when you plug in a DAC, anyway), and also took the time to plug the Bathys into a MacBook Pro, configuring the headphone’s on-board DAC for the highest setting we could in the Audio MIDI setting, triggering a max of 192/24. We have some high-res source files for that, including a lovely 24/192 of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”, so that was the obvious thing to plug in for.
The good news is that plugging in and testing both the Pickr playlist and extra high-res tracks meant our ears were treated with some beautifully clear and delicious tunes.
You won’t see noise cancellation switched on when the DAC mode is turned on, but that’s also not the point. Rather, you’ll get a pristine music rendition the way a DAC and pair of wired headphones aims to deliver, using that magnesium-aluminium driver and built-in DAC to amp up the sound and give you the best that high-res source has to work with.
With the right media, the result is a bigger sound with more detail, and it’s a joy. You won’t get spatial audio with head tracking in the Focal Bathys, but that’s fine: the big sound offered by cord and the DAC is big enough to keep you happy.
And for folks who have used both gadgets for music listening — big headphones and a DAC — Focal’s combination in the Bathys isn’t just great for sound, but also for convenience.
Simply put, the Bathys make being an audiophile easier with a pair of headphones that does it all.
The combination of technologies actually grants the Bathys some decent battery life, though it’s different dependent on how you use them.
If you’re using the Bathys as wireless noise cancelling headphones, you’ll find up to 30 hours on offer, while the wired DAC mode apparently supports closer to 42. We’ve not pushed it as far, but expect this bigger runtime for the wired mode could come from the headphones being supplemented by the power from the original device.
Oh, and they charge from that same Type C connector, though when the headphones are set to off. You know, the way most headphones work.
Priced at $1199, the Bathys can seem like they’re expensive because they are. These are high priced headphones, but they’re also not made for everyone. Much like how we think the AirPods Max are focused on audiophiles, so too are these.
Focal isn’t a name most people know (which is a shame), but lovers of high-res sound will probably be aware of what those French artisans are doing with drivers regularly, not to mention the stuff its sister company Naim does outside of headphones.
Given that the target of those products is invariable audiophiles, the $1199 price isn’t actually as dire as you might think. Yes, it’s pricey, but everything built for audiophiles and the world of high-res tends to be pricey, and noise cancelling headphones from high-end headphone brands are always pricey, though few seem to exist. There’s a pair from Dali, the H95 from Bang & Olufsen plus a few others, an option or two from Bowers & Wilkins… and that’s roughly it.
Wireless noise cancellation typically doesn’t go hand-in-hand with HiFi, but at $1199, Focal isn’t pitching too high. It’s a serious price and could be a little less, but the $1200 price isn’t too terrible given what’s inside.
What needs work?
Beyond that serious price, the issues may not be what you’d expect from such a high-end pair of headphones.
For instance, there’s none of that delightful spatial audio head tracking we like from Apple’s earphones, but our understanding is this is an issue all manufacturers are dealing with, so we can’t complain much there.
However, the noise cancellation isn’t at the top of the game, and won’t beat the likes of what Sony offers in the WH-1000XM5. Likewise, Apple’s excellent AirPods Pro second-gen use algorithms for noise cancellation in a way that makes them superior, though the sound from the Focal Bathys is certainly solid enough to be comparable. It’s a different sort of sound, even if the noise cancellation isn’t the best in class.
We’re not making exceptions or excuses, mind you. The ANC on offer in the Bathys should handle the repeatable hum of a flight or the background drone of a train engine, and may even flatten some of the choir of human traffic as you go for a walk in these high-priced headphones. But they’re not going to silence individual cars, people nearby, or the sound of babies. They’re good, but the active noise cancellation isn’t in the brilliant category we’re seeing from newer earphones.
You may find it’s a similar situation with Bluetooth range, which is mostly solid and reliable, but occasionally sees a patchy sound dependent on the file and how close you are. We found the Bathys delivered great sound when our phone was connected wirelessly and within arm’s reach, but that could change when it was a little further. By and large the Bathys are reliable, but sometimes things can get patchy.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
Minor niggles aside, the Focal Bathys are lovely and a pair audio lovers can fall in love with. My, it’s so easy to fall for these headphones. I love these headphones.
This is ANC for audiophiles with a little bit more thrown in. It’s exactly what I loved about the Focal Celeste sans cable, with extra technology thrown in. You don’t even need the extra external DAC you might normally rely on, and can leave them in the drawer to gather dust.
The Bathys are a replacement for both in a pair of headphones that does double duty. While they may lack head tracking and picture perfect ANC as good as what Sony, Bose, and Apple deliver, that focus on HiFi with ANC extra makes the Focal Bathys worth owning for people who consume hi-res. We know we’re not alone, but if you’re someone who lives in a world of 24-bit and wants noise cancellation bundled in, the Focal Bathys is a pair worth listening to. Recommended.