Any number of high-end loudspeaker manufacturers have entered, or contemplated entering, the high-performance headphone marketplace, and it is easy to understand why. For an entire generation of music enthusiasts, entry-level “hi-fi” systems are now more likely to be based on headphones than on speakers. Recognizing this trend the powerhouse French speaker maker Focal has now joined the ranks of latter day headphone manufacturers with its lovely new Spirit One headphone ($279)—a product that in many ways aims to embody the firm’s sonic values and overall design aesthetic.
I first saw the then-unreleased Spirit One as a design study mock-up the 2011 CEDIA show, and from the outset I felt it was a bit of a sleek, European looker. I’m pleased to report that all the little textural details and nuanced design elements that made that initial static demo model look so cool have found their way into the full production model I now hold in my hands. But more importantly, the Spirit One captures a meaningful measure of the traditional Focal sound—a sound characterized by unforced natural warmth and a certain suave, sophisticated presentation.
I won’t try to tell you that the Spirit One is the sonic equivalent of Focal’s mighty (and mighty expensive) Grande Utopia EM flagship loudspeaker, which would be an implausible stretch. But, I will tell you the Spirit One might very well be the most appealing, accessible, and cost effective “entry-level loudspeaker” that Focal makes. And that, as you’ll see in a moment, is a very fine thing to be.
•Drivers: The Spirit One features 40mm dynamic (that is, moving coil-type) drivers fitted with Mylar/titanium diaphragms.
•Elegant, Euro-Styling: The Spirit One is an unusually handsome headphone whose design plainly is the result of a great deal of careful thought. Visually, you are treated to a pleasing mix of subdued textures and colors, where the headband is finished in matte black, the frame finished in brushed silver metal, and the ear cups are finished in matte black with a combination of brushed silver trim with tastefully restrained chrome accents. The look is modern, yet inviting—not overly angular or severe.
•Comfort-first design: The Spirit One not only looks good but is also, very much by design, easy to adjust and extremely comfortable to wear. One deceptively simple but actually quite sophisticated feature involves the design of the headband and frame of the Spirit One. The center section of the headband carries a thick pad and is fitted with sliding frames you can adjust to accommodate various head sizes and shapes. At the business ends of the frames, Focal provides hinged, articulated arms that carry the headphone’s ear cups. The really clever part is that those articulated arms swivel in two axes (rotating side-to-side, and also moving inward and outward) to ensure the ear cups always align correctly with the contours/angles of the wearers’ ears—something that can’t always be said of competing headphones. The upshot is that the Spirit Ones are uncannily comfortable—not only when you first put them on, but for longer listening sessions.
•Compact, Closed-Back, Circumaural design: Focal describes the Spirit One as a “closed back, circumaural” (that is, over-the-ear) headphone, but in truth it’s not much larger than some of the on-ear ‘phones we’ve sampled. The ear cups of the Spirit One are just large enough to fit around your ears, although those with larger ears might discover there’s not an awful lot of extra room to spare. Nevertheless, the ear cups, which are fitted with padded leather ear pads are extremely comfortable and do a very good job of blocking out external noise. According to Focal, the various elements of the Spirit One’s frame, ear cup, and ear cup pad designs combine to provide 18dB of passive noise attenuation.
•Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad design: Recognizing that a very large percentage of prospective customers have adopted Apple’s ubiquitous iDevices as their source components of choice, Focal has fitted the Spirit One with a fabric clad, detachable signal cable that comes fitted with an Apple-compatible mic/remote control module (whose styling precisely matches that of the headphone).
•Smart accessories: The accessory pack for the Spirit One includes:
oA canvas clad, molded, hard-shell carrying case with zipper closure.
oA fabric, drawstring-type carrying bag.
oThe aforementioned detachable signal cable.
oAn airplane adapter.
oA threaded 3.5mm mini-jack plug to ¼ phone jack plug adapter.
oA 3.5mm mini-jack male-to-female adapter cable.
Like many Focal loudspeakers, the Spirit One enchants—even seduces—the listener with its warm, natural-sounding, and wonderfully nuanced midrange. This isn’t to suggest that midrange frequencies are the only thing the Spirit Ones do, but it is the part of the part of audio spectrum that these headphones handle with the greatest levels of refinement and panache. Some headphones suppress or “scoop” the mids to make bass and highs sound more spectacular or else press midrange frequencies forward for greater emphasis of vocals, strings, brass and wind instruments and the like, but the Spirit Ones do neither of these things. Instead, they simply present the heart of the music in a natural and unforced way, conveying as much musical subtlety as the recording has to offer—all without exaggeration or over-dramatization.
Bass is also warmly voiced, powerful, and supplies a good amount of foundation mid-bass support, though it does—on some tracks and with some amplifiers or personal digital music players—have a slightly larger-than-life quality. Still, the good news is that the Spirit One’s bass is never booming, billowy, or loose sounding. It exhibits good definition and transient speed even when driven directly from an iPod, and is capable of even higher resolution and better levels of low-frequency control when driven by a top-shelf portable amp such as the superb Ray Samuels SR-71B Blackbird.
Upper midrange frequencies and highs are reasonably clear, but may strike some headphone aficionados as being just slightly rolled off or perhaps a touch softly focused. But this, I think, is probably a wise design choice on Focal’s part in that it makes the Spirit One more forgiving (or at least tolerant) of records that are basically much too “hot” in the first place, and therefore have potentially strident treble transients and brash, harsh upper midranges sounds (a lot of modern pop recordings suffer from these problems). Happily, the Focal ‘phones can show you most of what’s right in really good records, while also exposing the flaws in lesser recordings—yet without beating you over the head with those flaws. Instead, the Spirit One has a consistently relaxed, easygoing demeanor that can work well with most any genre of music.
I should mention that one of the Spirit One’s particular strengths is its sensitivity. For the most part, these ‘phones are perfectly happy to be driven directly from an iPod. The Focals really don’t need (or even leave you wishing for) an outboard portable amp. If you do happen to choose a really good portable amp you may, on some recordings, hear small but worthwhile improvements in terms of more finely rendered textures and details, as well as better control at the frequency extremes. But surprisingly, there are also many instances where the Spirit One actually sounds better when powered directly from an iPod or other portable player, rather than through an auxiliary amplifier (a phenomenon I’ve not encountered with any other headphone to this point). Frankly, I don’t know precisely what it is about the Spirit One that enables it to perform so well when driven by a humble iPod, but there you have it.
One of the easiest ways to get a handle on the Spirit One’s formidable midrange strengths is to listen to a recording that highlights expressive female vocals—preferably vocals that feature delicate inflections, modulations, and other tonal shifts that add richness and texture. One such recording is “Pride and Joy” from Brandi Carlile’s Give Up the Ghost [Sony]. On this track we hear much of the range of Ms. Carlile’s voice in action, both in terms of pitch and dynamics. On the opening verse we hear a softer, quieter, more plaintive side of her voice, dramatized by an almost impossibly delicate vibrato, as she sings, “All in all it wasn’t bad/all in all it wasn’t good/but I still… …care.” But as the chorus arrives, Carlile seems to shifts gear, modulating her phrases upwards in pitch and suddenly stepping up dynamics to sing with considerably more force and vigor. The effect is that of seeing (and of course hearing) two different sides of the singer’s personality, and what’s impressive is that the Spirit One seems equally comfortable as it reproduces both of them is sharp juxtaposition.
Still, you can hear hints of the “relaxed, easygoing” qualities I alluded to above on “Pride and Joy.” I have noticed that through some headphones (and with some amps in play), Carlile’s vocal can exhibit traces of a certain glassy-sounding, unnatural upper midrange and treble sheen (it sounds impressive in a way, yet wrong). But with the Spirit Ones in play, that glassy quality never materializes—not even in passages where Carlile is singing at full voice and with serious gusto. This is an instance where Focal’s clever voicing choices plainly work out in the listeners’ favor, capturing delicate inflections and vibrato where desirable, but without imposing more upper midrange/treble detail than we bargained for.
But there is more to the Spirit One than suave midrange delicacy, because this is a headphone that is ready, willing, and able to handle more boisterous, full-range music should the mood strike you. A good example would be the potent, upbeat, forceful instrumental blues track “If You Love Me Like You Say” from Debbie Davies’ Holdin’ Court [Little Dipper]. Davies’ howling Stratocaster is, as you might expect, the centerpiece of this song, but to my way of thinking the engine that really drives the song forward would be the terrific rhythm section of Davies’ band. The Spirit Ones do a terrific job of reproducing the sound of the drum kit (and in particular the hard, crisp, yet surprisingly deep “pop” of the snare drum), while also giving the powerful yet also articulate voice of the electric bass guitar it’s due. Many headphones I’ve heard have tended either to underplay the power of the bass guitar (perhaps because they just don’t have enough low frequency “oomph” to do it justice), or else give the bass a loose, overblown, larger-than-life quality (perhaps because they are trading away bass quality for quantity). But the Spirit Ones are different in that they give the sound of the instrument an appropriately full measure of weight and heartiness yet also reveal the agile, bouncy, infectiously syncopated qualities of the lines being played. With foundations like these, it’s hard to listen to “If You Love Me Like You Say” through the Focal without experience a certain impulse to get up boogie in time to the music.
Consider this headphone if:
•You like a headphone that combines sleek European styling, very good fit and finish, and exceptional comfort for the wearer.
•You appreciate the benefits of the Focal “house sound,” which as a general rule places more of a premium on natural warmth and a suave, sophisticated, and even seductive presentation—especially through the heart of the midrange where most of the music really lives (this in contrast to ‘phones that attempt to impress with sizzling highs, overpowering bass, or overly prominent, “hey-look-at-me” mids).
•You want an over-the-ear headphone that is not much larger than some competing on-ear models we’ve tried.
•You like the idea of a headphone that really doesn’t need an outboard amp (at least not for playing at satisfying levels; the Spirit One sounds just fine when driven from an iPod or iPhone.
Look further if:
•You want an extremely revealing headphone—preferably one with plenty of upper midrange and high frequency resolution and detail. The Spirit One can sometimes sound just slightly rolled off and/or softly focused in these areas, although this characteristic helps to make the Focal ‘phones more tolerant of less than ideal source material (MP3 fans take note).
•You find the Spirit One ear cups a little too compact for their own good, in which case you’ll want to look at over-the-ear ‘phones with more spacious ear cups.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced headphone/headsets):
Tonal Balance: 9
Noise Isolation: 9.5
The Spirit One is a fine first headphone from Focal—a headphone that at once reaches upward toward higher-end performance, yet is sensibly (and accessibly) priced and very easy to drive. This product checks off a number of desirable “boxes” at once: it is comfortable, well made, efficient, and well balanced in a sonic sense. Perhaps most importantly, it serves up the sort of sophisticated, revealing, and natural-sounding midrange that has made Focal loudspeakers so popular among audiophiles.
SPECS & PRICING
Focal Spirit One On-Ear Headphone/Headset
Accessories: As listed under “FEATURES”, above.
Frequency Response: 6Hz – 22 kHz
Drivers: 40mm Mylar/titanium diaphragm drivers
Sensitivity: 104 dB
Impedance: 32 Ohms
Weight: 0.5 lbs. (225 grams)
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor
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