It’s only a matter of personal physiology that prevents these award-winning headphones from getting very close to Kramer’s top rating
SO FOCAL MAKES headphones? I was well aware of the French company’s extensive range of loudspeakers, but this revelation came as a surprise to me, as did the announcement that the new Spirit One model had won the EISA Best Mobile Headphone Award for 2012-2013. That’s not necessarily an automatic indicator of greatness, any more than a Car Of The Year award makes for a great car, but still… I was intrigued. Needless to say, I wanted to hear them, and with a new and highly energised Focal distributor on the scene, I had no trouble getting hold of a review set.
Features & Construction
Focal has paid real attention to matching buyer expectations to this product’s price tag, and at four hundred smackers, those expectations are quite high. Buyers will be well satisfied though, because the visual presentation is exceptional.
Things start off very well from the first impression with the sturdy and classy looking box, which opens to reveal a neat hard carry case, which then zips open to reveal a soft case, along with some of the best looking ‘phones on the market.
With their brushed aluminium headband and side fittings, the silver on black design, and even the red inside the earcups, the Spirit One’s look like they’re worth every single cent of the price. In truth, they look like they’d be able to carry a far more substantial asking rate. They feel solidly built, with metal in critical areas to ensure durability. The level of finish and detailing is exceptional, and from the deep engraving on the side of the phones to Focal’s subtle “the spirit of sound” payoff line embossed into the headband, it’s obvious that these ‘phones were designed by people with a sense of style. The in-line microphone and remote for Apple products is a lovely chunk of aluminium, replete with metal buttons, while even the beefy 3.5mm jack is threaded for a 6.35mm adapter and covered with a solid piece of circular aluminium.
The thick detachable cable is fabric covered, which looks and feels classy but it’s a touch that I’m not in favour of because the friction of the fabric means that the cable can tie itself into knots when it’s stashed away in the box (even though it’s billed as being “tangle-free”). There are also 3.5mm to 6.35mm and airline adapters in the box, along with a short 20cm extension cable.
The drivers are 40mm Mylar/Titanium numbers in a closed back design. They’re easy to drive, with the Spirit One’s having no trouble being pushed to high playback levels from an iPhone.
Wearing The Spirit One’s
In use, the Spirit One’s are pretty much a pleasure bar two specific areas. First up the looks. Hang on, didn’t I just say that their appearance was a high point, all suave classiness and French style? Well yes, absolutely, until you put them on and catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror or a shop window, which is when you’ll do a double take. Why? Because these ‘phones look quite strange when they’re on a head, especially on a big cue ball shaped number like mine.
The headband attaches to the outer part of the earcups, which leaves over an inch between the band and my skull at ear level. The headband is attached using hefty circular metal swivels, which are very distinctive, adding further to the somewhat peculiar appearance. You’ve got to see them on your head to really get what I’m saying, but there’s just something a little out of whack with the industrial design here. Then again, that’s always been a bit of a French thing (take the Citroen DS for example).
This Gallic styling eccentricity doesn’t affect the comfort or functionality of the Spirit One’s in any way, and much in the way no one worries about owning an odd looking car while they’re actually driving it, no one will really worry about the looks of these ‘phones while they’re wearing them. Some might even think the unusual on-head appearance is a good thing (vive la difference). At any rate, anyone with hair, or a head smaller than mine might not even notice the odd looks. So while it’s worth mentioning, I’m certainly not going to mark them down because of this phenomenon. [Photos of this phenomenon, please! – Editor of Personal Aesthetics].
The second area that’s worthy of discussion is the comfort. Unlike a number of headphones I’ve tried recently, the Spirit One’s have a decently high-density grade of foam in the earpads. So the headband’s pressure never pushes the driver cover firmly onto the ear, which is great for overall comfort. However, the size of the around-the-ear cups was too small for my ears, so no matter how I tweaked the fit, there was always some contact – I prefer ‘phones with cups that are big enough to miss my ear completely.
A centimetre of extra space here would make a big difference to the comfort, but this is a minor issue related to personal taste and individual physiology. It’s certainly less annoying than having a hard plastic driver cover pushing on your ears. Also it’s worth noting that some folk may have smaller ears than me, or may not care about a bit of ear-to-cup contact. The headband itself is also a touch short, and even at maximum extension, I still had a little too much contact at the top of my head.
As the wise men say, your mileage may vary, so try them on if at all possible and if not, rest assured that they’re still more comfortable than quite a few compact headphones. If you want truly big ear cups, then you need big ‘phones, which can be a bit of a pain to lug around compared to the Focal’s, especially considering the big ones often don’t fold.
The Spirit One’s offer a fair amount of isolation from external noise, thanks to the tight seal they form around the ears, and being a closed design, they don’t leak too much noise to the people around you.
Brand new and out of the box, the Focal’s impress with a brisk and well-balanced sound. There was a sense of a slightly congested midrange and restrained dynamics that didn’t quite stack up as expected, but after a few hours on repeat with the volume of my iPod Classic at 90 percent, these ‘phones loosened up substantially.
That initial sensation of being well balanced still held true though – while there’s a bit of a lift in the lower bass, this isn’t exaggerated and is far less obvious than many similar ‘phones. For compact ‘phones, the soundstage is quite broad, so you don’t feel as if you’re hearing everything in a very narrow two inch plane in the centre of your head.
Listening to ‘Ballantines’ from Aimee Mann’s @#%&*! Smilers CD on the Focal’s via Arcam’s neat little rPac USB DAC/headamp and my MacBook Pro showed that these ‘phones were absolutely happy to have good-quality amplification powering them. They definitely sounded better than they did plugged into a portable player; not that they’re any kind of slouch with an iPod on the end though. The textures of the instruments via the Arcam were beautifully rendered, with the horns sounding deep and raspy (even the cool “human horn” solo).
The Focal’s are dynamic ‘phones, and while they’re not the most exciting on the planet, they’re by no means overly smooth or polite. They’re entirely capable of conveying a realistic impression of hard drum strikes and of making powerful music sound appropriately punchy, while resolving enough detail to leave the listener in no doubt that these ‘phones are a cut above any budget models.
I cranked up ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ from RATM’s The Battle Of Los Angeles and was very impressed with not just the power of the bass notes but also the detail I was hearing in the drums and the bass guitar. This sound is far removed from the dreaded one note bass, and that same detail is present through the mids all the way to the very top, which has the cymbals starkly showcased in the background of the track. Recent Skullcandy ‘phones I’ve heard drive that bass right into your head with immense force, almost as if it was powered by a rocket, but arguably, the Focal’s are more accurate and closer to neutral, and some listeners will prefer their sound.
There’s more than enough clarity and extension in the treble range, but the Focal’s certainly don’t suffer from any serious brightness issues; this is more evidence of that well-balanced overall sonic character. If the music is sibilant or harsh, then the ‘phones won’t hide it but nor will they exacerbate it. For example, in addition to deep rumbling bass notes and high-impact slam, AwolNation’s ‘Sail’ from Megalithic Symphony has unforgiving vocals and instruments that can be harsh in the extreme through the wrong transducers. On the Focal’s it’s not easy to listen to at high volume, but then again, it never is, however the harshness is tolerable and the track’s strong points are so well handled that all in all, it’s a fabulous experience.
Lifting things up a notch, I tried out a few 24/96 tracks from HD Tracks (again via the Arcam rPac/MBP) and the Focal’s easily offered enough insight into the music to make moving to high-res audio worthwhile. These ‘phones allow the listener to hear things in these excellent recordings that aren’t quite there on lesser models, and in this regard, they categorically do show the sheer depth of expertise in Focal’s design and engineering teams.
As a small scale head-fi solution, the Spirit One’s and an rPac or similar USB DAC/headamp would be all most listeners could ask for. The fact that they’re also compact and sound great on the end of a phone or portable player is a bonus, as is their stellar build quality and overall finish. They really do offer a great deal of bang for the money, and if it wasn’t for a couple of comfort related issues, they’d be very close to being five star ‘phones. As it stands, they good enough to be a solid recommendation – in fact, try on a set at a Focal retailer and if they’re perfectly comfortable, then you may just have found your new ‘phones. ASHLEY KRAMER