Focal (pronounced foe-kal) may not be a name consumers are familiar with, but they should be. Focal is a French maker of high-end (expensive) speakers. Their award-winning design and sound are famous among the upper-crust audiophile crowd. The Focal Grande Utopia EM speakers look like nothing else and their $180,000 per pair price looks like nothing else either. Interestingly, Focal – like many other speaker companies – have jumped on the portable bandwagon with the Spirit series of high-end, but relatively affordable (all things considered) headphones.
The first model was the Spirit One, a commuter-styled headphone that has garnered much publicity with their upscale sound. Focal didn’t stop there, though. They thought they could do better and have released two models with two very different goals: The Focal Spirit Classic and Spirit Professional.
Each model looks similar but has different qualities. The Classic looks like its name. The slight bronze coloring is as warm as the sound. The Professional has the same basic construction, but the finish has a splattered-paint texture that screams “late-night recording session.”
The Classic has a thickly padded headband and memory foam ear cushions. They feel and look like real leather, but I’m not sure about that. Even so, it feels rich. The ear cups look like aluminum, but are metallic-looking plastic. However, the construction seems first-rate with tight seams and straight stitching giving a hint to the care in the construction. Plus, the framing and hindges are metal, so the bones are solid.
The Professional is an all-business black. The ear cushions are also memory foam, but the headband is not nearly as soft. I would guess that in a studio setting the headphones are around the neck as much as on the head. This kind of headband design is easier to pull off and put on quickly.
Both the Classic and Professional have removable cords – almost a requirement these days. The Classic has a thin and flexible cord with phone call controls for office and commuting. Also included is a ridiculously long (13ft!), heavy-duty cord for home stereo use. This cord reminds me of my high-school days with my cheap 70s phones plugged into my father’s old Telefunken stereo clear across the living room. The Professional comes with an identical commuting cord, but its other cord is a collapsible, spiral cable – also 13ft. Also included is a 3.5 jack connector.
Each headphone arrives surrounded by foam inside a black box. Included in the package is a soft draw-string pouch. The Classic pouch is velvet-like, while the Professional bag is more of a light canvas style. Both the Classic and Professional are collapsable, but are still bulky when folded. Getting the headphones into their pouch requires some wiggling. The pouch should be roomier and will protect against dust only.
The Spirit Classic model is made for home enjoyment. It’s like a big, comfy couch for your head; all very soft and cushy. The over-ear (circumaural) design is quite comfortable for extended listening. This design also allows for excellent sound isolation. As I stated earlier, the bronze coloring is as inviting as the sound. It’s just about everything you could want in a headphone – they’re not called classic for nothing.
The Professional model is made for studio work – not leisurely listening – at least that’s the thinking. It’s extremely accurate, made to extract as much information as possible from any piece of music. Sometimes though, audio can be too accurate in regards to casual listening and based on that reasoning, I was convinced I would prefer the Classic over the Professional. Uh-uh. Wrong. While audio accuracy above all else is often not the best solution – at least to an average listener – I preferred the Professional model. I did not expect that.
I listened to both headphones for two months: I’d spend a few days with the Classic and then a few days with the Professional. I resisted swapping every few minutes, because I wanted to become familiar with the sound enough that I could remember it. That way, I could easily recall any differences. And there were some distinct ones.
I played many genres of music during testing and have compared the two headphones and how they differ.
So let’s begin with the Spirit Classic. As I said, the sound is warm and as smooth as melted butter. These are the kind of headphones that will never cause someone to regret buying. Right out of the box, they fit like an old shoe (a GOOD thing) and sound perfectly broken in – like you’ve had them for years. The Classic headphones manage to hit all the right notes. Their is absolutely nothing off-putting about them.
“Down by the Water” by P.J. Harvey is a dark and creepy song that unwraps like a blood-soaked package. You just dread what’s inside but you can’t help yourself and curiosity wins out. Heavy bass perfectly undercuts Harvey’s straight ahead singing before it devolves into whispering at the end. While the Spirit Classic headphones don’t mask the quiet intensity of the song, the unease that the lyrics portend is somewhat smoothed over. The added warmth gives the song a deceiving comfort level it doesn’t deserve. The Spirit Professional headphone allows a harsh edge to creep in. This edge is in the song (though not initially obvious) and the Pro model makes no effort to “pretty it up”.
“Whole Lotta Love” from the remastered second Led Zeppelin album is a kick-in-the-head opening track to a truly classic rock album. The remastering job clears up some muddiness that was apparent in earlier CD versions. It’s like a gauzy audio layer has been lifted revealing a cleaner version underneath. The Spirit Classic allows just the right amount of grunge into the mix. The uber-stereo effects in the middle of the song bounce around from ear to ear to full effect that only closed back headphones can exploit. However, the Spirit Professional works better with this song. Albums in the 60s didn’t have a whole lotta bass that modern recordings have and because of that, the Professional headphone is better able to accurately portray what the song is supposed to sound like. The Classic seems to kick up the bass to a level that dampens the energy a bit.
I am an unashamed lover of Russian choral music. There is nothing else like it. “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in C Major, Op. 41” by the USSR Ministry of Culture State Chamber Choir has an etherial quality that surrounds you with heavenly a cappella voices sung in perfect harmony. The Spirit Classic gives the song a big room feel, similar to sitting in a cavernous sanctuary as the sound bounces off stone walls. The wide dynamic range switches from quiet meditation to full-on aural assault in an instant and the Classic headphones handle it without any distortion. But then, so does the Spirit Professional. These headphones don’t quite have the spacial feel of the Classic, but I feel physically closer to the choir while listening with the Professional. The Classic places me in the back row which accounts for the more spacious, but subtle reverb effect.
Which headphone is better suited to your tastes will completely depend on what you’re after. I will say the vast majority will choose the Classic over the Professional. It’s just has that rounded, warm and friendly sound compared to the more accurate Professional.
So why then, do I prefer the Spirit Professional headphones? Maybe as I age, I get choosier, or maybe I just to feel challenged. Whatever. All I can say is that I just kept reaching for the Professional when I wasn’t in testing mode. It finally dawned on me that given a choice, the Spirit Professional is more my kind of headphone. But I truly believe that I am in the minority on this – and I can live with that.
Source: The sample for this review was provided by Focal. Visit their site for more info.