Focal have made a strong impression in the studio monitor market. Can they do the same in the competitive world of headphones?
Fashions come and go in most aspects of studio equipment, and French makers Focal are currently studio monitor manufacturers du jour. They've now applied the spirit of innovation that characterises their active loudspeakers to the design of their first headphones. The Spirit Professionals are closed-back 'phones which employ a custom Mylar and titanium-alloy driver that is said to "combine rigidity, lightness and high damping properties”.
The Spirits ship in a very smart foam-lined box, with separate curly and straight cables, the latter incorporating a remote-control button, as well as a small microphone that allows the Spirits to be used as a hands-free kit with a smartphone. The cables attach to the left earcup using a conventional mini-jack connector, which fits very snugly and is unlikely ever to be pulled out by accident. Like most good headphone cables, the other end is fitted with a mini-jack to which a quarter-inch barrel can be added.
Focal's cosmetic design is either stylish and individual, or plain odd, depending on your point of view. The black plastic material used for the frame and earcups has been covered in a wet-look finish that makes it look as if they've just been taken out of the fridge, and the words 'left' and 'right' are printed in special writing that disappears completely unless you look from exactly the right angle. Cool. Or annoying.
Naturally, Focal claim that their headphones sound amazing, but they also make great claims for the degree of comfort and the amount of isolation from external sources the Spirit Professionals achieve. Comfort and isolation are both crucially important qualities in closed-back headphones, but in my experience they are difficult qualities to reconcile. The closer a pair of headphones comes to forming a complete air seal around the ears, the more isolation is achieved — but this usually means more pressure on or around the ears, and thus more discomfort.
Focal's blurb claims to have resolved this problem by using "large memory-foam ear cushions which surround the whole ear as well as spread and minimise the amount of pressure felt by the user”. Their design undoubtedly succeeds very well from the point of view of isolation. Sennheiser's HD25 IIs are an industry standard for location recording because of their effectiveness at screening off external noise, and until I heard the Spirit Professionals, I had not come across a pair of quality studio headphones that could rival them in this department. If you need something that will let you make reliable decisions on what's coming through your microphones ina noisy environment, these should definitely be on your list.
The flip side of this is that, for me personally, all the memory-foam ear cushions in the world couldn't make the Spirit Professionals comfortable. Like the HD25s, they exert fairly firm pressure on the outer ear, but I found their earcups neither small enough to sit comfortably on top of the ear nor large enough to enclose the ear fully. Instead, they press the top of the ear against the head. Comfort is a very subjective factor, of course, but the experience made me wonder whether anyone on the Focal development team wears glasses. As a paid-up speccy, I found this pinching pretty uncomfortable and never really succeeded in getting used to it, whereas those in the SOS office with 20-20 vision reported that the Spirits felt fine to them.
With an impedance quoted at 32Ω and a sensitivity figure of 102dB SPL/1mW at 1kHz, the Spirit Professionals are easy to drive at a decent volume even from a USB-powered headphone amp like the Focusrite VRM Box. However, moving to the Spirits from my old workhorse Sony MDR7509s was a disorienting experience at first as the designs present the mid-range in very different ways. Familiar reference tracks sounded unexpectedly fresh, sometimes to the point of seeming like new mixes.
It's possible the sound mellowed slightly once they were burned in, however, and I certainly became acclimatised. After a few days' use, I found the Spirits both enjoyable to listen to and valuable for what they reveal about a mix. To my ears, they tend slightly to emphasise the low and high extremes of the mid-range — what you might call the 'upper bass' and the high treble — and underplay slightly the 700Hz-1.5kHz area that is more prominent on my Sonys. As a result, they make it easy to pick up on issues such as ringing resonances on toms, splashy hi-hats and vocal sibilance, but you'd have to watch how hard you push things in the meat of the mid-range if you want your mixes to translate. The bass is nimble and even, without being exaggerated, and the upper-mid emphasis contributes to the Spirit's useful habit of making bass guitars and kick drums easy to pick out within a busy mix.
Closed-back headphones are never ideal as a sole monitoring source when mixing, but I'd be as happy to mix with these as with any other model I've tried. They would also make good general-purpose studio 'phones for overdubbing and so forth. However, the real attraction of the Spirit Professionals, for me, is that they combine their good audio performance with isolation which is substantially better than nearly all studio headphones. As such, they are serious competitors to the HD25 IIs for anyone who often finds themselves having to work in the same room as their sources, without a separate control room, and if you're in the market for 'phones that fulfil this role, I'd highly recommend trying them out.
There are many closed-back headphones that offer decent isolation, but the only model that comes close to the Spirit Professional in that regard is the Sennheiser HD25 II.