Focal • Spirit Classic Headphones

by Dennis Davis | July 28, 2014


Headphones may be the hottest product in high fidelity, as the market stretches beyond the limited home-audio community and encompasses anyone with a smartphone looking for something a bit more revealing than a pair of earbuds. Ten years ago, you could attend any audio show in the land and see barely a ripple of headphones or related gear on display. A few years ago, headphone fanatics started taking over a few tables here and there. That turned into such an explosion that headphone equipment now takes up major show acreage and accounts for significant numbers of show attendees. Indeed, one wonders what attendance figures might have looked like without audiophiles who now come primarily to enjoy the headphones area. Trending down, no doubt. Unlike with other gear displayed at shows, the poor acoustics of hotel rooms don’t affect headphones. Bring your portable source and you can hear a huge cross-section of the greatest new equipment on offer, and it will sound just the same as in your own home.

Given all of this, what better market is there for one of the world’s largest speaker manufacturers than the exploding category of high-end headphones? With its vast array of home speakers both small and large and a broad range of OEM automobile speakers, Focal was poised to enter the headphone market equipped to offer a high-value product, given its ability to offer the advantages of economy of scale. Focal entered the headphone market with an entry-level product: the Spirit One, intended for listening on the go with no more than a smartphone as a source. The Spirit One was excellent, but no one expected a company as accomplished as Focal to limit itself to the low end of the market.

Encouraged by the success of the Spirit One, Focal introduced two new and more ambitious models this year: the Spirit Classic and Spirit Professional. The Spirit One was aimed at the broadest market -- portable ’phones to use with your iPhone and listen to away from home. At $279, it competed head to head with the Bowers & Wilkins P5, another very portable pair of headphones that don’t sacrifice performance to style; and Beats by Dr. Dre, a line of headphones that does sacrifice performance, but with so much style that the buying public doesn’t seem to notice. Focal chose a stylistic ground between B&W’s Museum of Modern Art look and Beats Electronics’ hip, clean, plastic design. Focal stuck with a classic recording-studio concept, updated to incorporate modern lightweight materials and manufacturing technology.

Focal’s two new Spirit models build on the strengths of the One in both design and performance. The Classic and Professional have somewhat different frequency balances, and some design variations that are more fashion statements than functional revisions. The Spirit Professional has a coiled cable, a more Spartan-looking (and -feeling) headband, and a textured black finish, all intended to suggest a more rugged product that can be knocked about the studio without damage.

The Spirit Classic, on the other hand, exudes elegance -- it looks as if you’ve wrapped a pair of Stella Utopias around your ears when, truth be told, you’ve not broken the bank. When I first saw these headphones, at the 2013 Munich High End Show, I was impressed with how attractive and comfortable they were. The ear cushions and leather-covered headband sit lightly on the head, securely held in place without the vise-grip feel of many headphones. The ear cushions are covered with butter-soft glove leather that encloses pads of memory foam, which means they give way easily but bounce back on release. The fit and finish are as good as I’ve seen in the under-$500 price range, and the detachable, OFC-standard cord is long enough (4 meters) to comfortably stretch from my equipment rack to my computer desk without strain.

Rather than go with a color scheme that appeals to hipsters who want headphones to match their shoelaces or iPhones, Focal has opted for a less flashy, more upscale color scheme -- a mix of what they call "hot chocolate" and bronze; the colors merge easily. A shorter (1.4 meters), lightweight cable with miniplug is supplied for use on the go and hookup directly to a smartphone, along with the ubiquitous mini-to-standard jack. The earpieces each fold up at 90 degrees for portability, and the entire set of goodies comes packaged in a very-high-quality box. The 40mm Mylar/titanium drivers are set back sufficiently from the ears to provide a sense of spaciousness not always delivered by closed-back headphones. The Classic’s impedance is 32 ohms, and it’s rated as having a sensitivity of 102dB, so it should be easy to drive with any source.

I listened to the Spirit Classic through a Ray Samuels Emmeline HR-2, a high-quality headphone amplifier at a price ($699) that makes sense with headphones costing $399. I also tested it direct out of my iPhone, using the lighter, shorter cable. I compared it to the PSB M4U-2 ($399), my longtime reference Grado RS-1 ($695 when still available) with hardwired Moon Black Dragon cable ($300), and, just for fun, with Audeze’s LCD-3 ($1945). Well, not really just for fun. The Audeze costs five times as much as the Focal and set the mark for how good a pair of headphones can sound for under $2000 -- and even considerably more. Like the Grado, the Audeze is an open-back design; and like the Focal and PSB, it’s circumaural, fully enclosing the ears. Circumaural ’phones generally can’t match the spacious sound of the best open-back ’phones, so the acid test is to what degree closed ’phones can create an "out-of-the-head" image while still being usable in public without irritating the hell out of innocent bystanders.

I was immediately struck by the amount and the quality of bass produced by the Spirit Classic. In "Tears in Heaven," from the new boxed set of Eric Clapton’s Unplugged [Reprise R2 536565], Nathan East’s bass-guitar sound is as full as you could ask from any headphones. While not as well defined as with the five-times-as-expensive Audeze, it performs well outside its price range. The "Tuba mirum" of Verdi’s Requiem, with the Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Antonio Pappano [EMI 6 98936 2], can and does tend to congeal into muddy sound through anything short of the Audeze, because of the sheer amount of brass and percussion sound. The Spirit Classic reproduced the wall of bass and brass without falling apart, and made it possible to separate out the brass and percussion sections.

In the Maestoso movement of Saint-SaŽns’s Symphony No.3, "Organ," with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra [Ondine ONE 1094-5], the Focal not only reproduced the deep bass of the organ, but also did an admirable job of presenting a reasonable facsimile of an out-of-head experience. This movement opens with a sustained C-major chord on the organ, alternating with orchestral sections. The Focal’s warmish balance was well suited to this music, making the Grado sound a bit thin in the midrange. The PSB and Focal were neck and neck with this recording, due largely to what I suspect are very similar voicings. I can’t say that the Focal reaches down to its rated 5Hz low end (which would be more felt than heard anyway), but it dug in quite well with the organ’s low registers.

With recordings of solo acoustic piano, such as Matthew Shipp’s excellent Piano Sutras [Thirsty Ear THI57207.2], the Focal got the timbre of the piano spot on, giving up very little to the Audeze. What it did give up was mostly attributable to the usual difference between open- and closed-back headphones: the Focal could not quite match the spacious imaging of the Audeze.

Stripped down to its lightweight cable, the Spirit Classic was efficient enough to be driven directly by an Apple iPhone. Couple it to something like the Centrance M8 or Cypher Labs Theorem, and the Classic will make a great traveling headset. Compared to the PSB, the Classic had a slightly warmer sound and a bit more extension at both extremes of the audioband. While it gives up the noise-canceling capability of the PSB, its lower profile means it can be worn in public outside an airplane seat without its wearer looking like a total geek.

I briefly compared the Classic to Focal’s other two Spirit models and found that the company’s literature fairly describes their differences in frequency balance. The Spirit One has a definite bass boost to compensate for intrusions from the outside world (say, when they’re used on the bus or in busy traffic). The Spirit Professional is balanced for a somewhat leaner sound than the Classic. Your mileage may vary, but I preferred the somewhat lusher sound and look of the Classic, finding it more neutral in the midrange. I also preferred the standard cable of the Classic to the coiled cable of the Professional.

How much headphone do you need? For $12,000, you can pick up a top-tier Stax or Abyss model and an equally capable headphone amplifier. If you don’t have that much change rattling around your pocket, for half that amount you can hook up with a nice combination of Audeze headphones and amplification. But until they win the lottery, or wait a couple of decades for their salary to climb above the living wage, most music lovers can enter the high-end headphone market for under a grand with a pair of these beautiful Focal headphones and a comparable amplifier.

Are the Spirit Classic the reasonably priced high-end headphones for you? They're as comfortable as anything on the market, and they will still look good long after B&W’s current designs look dated. Unlike the PSB M4U-2, they lack noise canceling, but make up for it with a slightly more robust sound and more solid bass. And although they have all the bells and whistles of high-end desktop headphones, they're light enough and can fold up small enough to be taken on the road, where they can be easily driven from your portable source of choice. On top of that, the Spirit Classics are as comfortable as any headphones on the market. I can’t think of any headphones in this price range that equal the Spirit Classic's combination of good looks, good sound, and comfort.

Price: $399.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

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Associated Equipment

Analog: Spiral Grove SG1.1 turntable, Lyra Atlas cartridge, Audio Research Reference Phono 2 SE phono stage.

Digital: Audio Research Reference CD7 CD player, Apple iPhone.

Headphone amplifiers: Ray Samuels Emmeline HR-2, Cavalli Liquid Gold, Cypher Labs Theorem 720.

Headphones: PSB M4U-2, Grado RS-1 (with Moon Black Dragon cable), Audeze LCD-3.

Interconnects: Nordost Valhalla 2.