The bass-mid driver has benefited from two distinct areas of research. A new circuit has been designed using two neodymium magnets and a critically positioned Faraday ring for improved linearity and lower distortion, and the cone surround has been the subject of much investigation. In order to reproduce bass frequencies, the cone has to be capable of long excursion and the surround suitably flexible to achieve this. Unfortunately as a result it will tend to add unwanted colouration out of phase with the main diaphragm at higher frequencies. The solution Focal has come up with after much analysis is to add some additional mass in the form of two circular rings that oscillate out of phase with the rest of the surround to cancel out much of the unwanted vibration. It’s worth mentioning at this stage that having total control over every aspect of the fabrication of the diaphragm has enabled Focal to precisely match these components to achieve greater bandwidth and dynamic response, I believe the cone is considerably lighter than previous generations.
The cabinet is quite heavy and feels extremely rigid. It is built predominately from MDF with a 69mm front panel and gently curved sides to eliminate parallel surfaces; apparently there is some interior resonance control in the form of small Helmholtz resonators to further reduce cabinet influence. A small rectangular port at the rear serves to load the bass unit. Also at the rear is the much larger opening for the back of the tweeter, covered by a metal grille that, together with the protective plate at the front, might usefully be removed. I’m guessing that some kind of new legislation has meant that Focal now have to cover the beryllium diaphragm due to potential health hazards: in my opinion the risk of damage or poisoning is outweighed by the benefit of letting the unit breathe. Connection is via a single pair of solid 4mm/binding posts: personally, I’m glad to see the back of the bi-wiring trend as I was rarely convinced of its superiority.
Aesthetically, Focal speakers have always been striking and the Sopra is no exception. I have to admit that to begin with I wasn’t entirely convinced by the aesthetics, but the looks grew on me, and I would far rather have something that is a bit of a visual statement than the tired, drab ‘domestically acceptable’ veneer. The review pair came finished in a white lacquer; a number of other bright colours are available and I’d personally be drawn to the black or red. As for the stands, I really appreciate how practical they are with setting up, but I’m reserving judgement on their looks.
For longer than I care to remember I’ve had a certain empathy for the Focal sound: years ago, I used to use their drive units in construction projects for studio monitors at a time when the original inverted dome tweeter (then made of Kevlar) was still a bit of a novelty. The introduction of beryllium resulted in what I felt was one of the best moving coil high frequency units around. I used a pair of Micro Utopia Be’s at home for quite a while and reviewed some of the more ambitious members of the Utopia range. If I had to assign a character to those first generation of W cone/ beryllium speakers I would describe them as quite warm and generous; recent Focal models that I have heard erred toward a slightly brighter, leaner presentation. The Sopra to my ears sounds very neutral, and while I’ve heard a number of moving coil designs specifically engineered for low colouration and distortion that sound bland, lifeless, and totally uninvolving, the Sopra No. 1 is definitely not one of them.
While the considerable advantages of small loudspeakers have been well documented over the years, for some there is always the inevitable caveat of limited performance at the bottom end, whether we are talking extension or just the ability to generate satisfying levels of grunt when required. The generally preferred positioning for loudspeakers in my listening room is at the juncture of two distinct spaces, and tends to offer a little bit of reinforcement at low frequencies similar to wall placement, but not as profound and without any of the compromises. As such it often serves smaller designs well. The Sopra No. 1’s were immediately impressive in the way they drove the room, cleverly disguising a limited extension by never giving you a clue as to when it might run out, and with weight and authority when the music required it. As a self confessed bass head in another life (and someone who has spent too much time trying to engineer bass out of small boxes) the Focal’s never seemed to try too hard at this, succeeding without effort or drawing attention to themselves. A friend and session bass player staying for the weekend provided the opportunity to indulge in a little bit of nostalgia by playing quite a lot of 1970’s music: some embarrassing prog through to more sociably acceptable soul and funk, with plenty in between. All had one thing in common, by today’s standards they were well recorded and produced. The Sopra’s (particularly when driven by the 300DR) seemed to thrive on this diet whether fed from a Tangerine Karmen Linn or DCS Rossini front end, setting a wonderful sense of pace backed by solid dynamics usually laid down by kick drum and bass guitar. This was maintained at levels from late night suburban quiet through to antisocially loud; even very bass heavy recordings of the Massive Attack variety did not seem to stress the Focal’s too much.
If only to satisfy my curiosity, I substituted the Focal stands with a pair of Linn Sara open frame and relatively lightweight designs. I’m not going to suggest that the difference was night and day, but a slight ‘thickening’ or bloom that I had noticed in the upper bass was now all but banished, while the mid range sounded more open, tactile, and cleaner. To be fair (and typically I didn’t read the manual), it could be that the main column of the Sopra stand would benefit from some kind of filling, but I would be very tempted to experiment with rigid low mass stands in view of what I heard.
It could be argued that one of the shortcomings of a two-way design is that the main driver has to deliver the most crucial information and integrate with the tweeter while thrashing around trying to reproduce bass. The Sopra No. 1 maintained complete composure by delivering a lively, fast, and detailed midband that was very open and clean. Transition to high frequencies was virtually seamless, the newly engineered beryllium unit delivering some of the most tactile, believable treble I’ve heard from a moving coil design.