Focal Spirit Classic Headphones Review
Are you a nomad? If so, rejoice as Focal has made you some headphones.
IntroductionThose of you with an interest in Natural History will be aware of a period known rather brilliantly as the Cambrian Explosion - a great name for a band if ever there was one. 542 million years ago (give or take), life seemingly decided that being a series of squishy, shapeless creatures was a bit dull and embarked on the most radical diversification of species and genus the world has ever seen. The origin point of almost every anatomical feature in the flora and fauna of today can trace their origin to this event.
At the moment, it seems that headphones are having a bout of evolutionary enthusiasm. Such is the level of demand and growth in the headphone market, we are seeing companies exploit hitherto unseen evolutionary niches in the hope of producing something that is exactly what we all want (but up until now didn’t know we wanted). The ‘hybrid’ design - a cross between a true portable and a full size home headphone has been a major growth area over the last eighteen months but now it seems to be time to ask if there is space for headphones between hybrid and full headphone.
Focal is still best known - with considerable justification - as a loudspeaker manufacturer but moved into headphones comparatively early with the Spirit One. This is a headphone I’ve never actually reviewed for AVForums but is a well-regarded and thoughtful design that sounds more than reasonable. What you see here is the next step in Focal headphone development and something that is a slightly different twist on the hybrid headphone. The Spirit Classic is designed to be more akin to a home headphone but still retain an element of portability. Is this the first member of a new genus of headphones or an evolutionary blind alley?
DesignThe Classic is superficially very similar to the Spirit One in terms of appearance and it is only when you place the two models side by side that you see the Classic is a bigger and more substantial proposition than the smaller model. The major difference between the two models lies at a design and voicing level though. The Spirit One is voiced with a view to being used on the move. To this end it has a slightly boosted bass response and earpads that aid isolation from the world around you. The Classic has a flatter frequency response and earpads that are less geared towards keeping the outside world at bay and instead allow for a performance more in keeping with an open back design (although the Classic is still pretty good at avoiding leaking too much noise to the outside world).
Focal describes potential users of the Classic as ‘nomads’ - people who will move from one quiet location to another - hotel rooms being the classic example. To this end, the Classic will be ideal for these spaces and still offer sufficient portability for use moving between these locations if the owner wants to. Exactly how well defined this niche is might be open to question - many hybrids including the Sennheiser Momentum and NAD’s recently released HP50 work well as home headphones and seem to avoid you perceiving any significant bass hump when you listen to them in a quiet environment. Nonetheless, in a past life sat in a hotel room working out what the most exciting combination of minibar contents would be, I can see the appeal of the Classic.
As befits a company that is famous for their loudspeaker drivers, the Classic uses bespoke examples to achieve the sound that Focal are looking for. As you might expect from a company which makes use of Beryllium to make tweeters, the materials are suitably exotic. The driver in question is a 40mm double layer mylar type that is stiffened with a titanium vapour. This adds strength and stiffness to the driver as well as making it sound like something that Heston Blumenthal might consider serving after a night on meths. The surround is also mylar which makes for a very light and responsive driver that in turn aids the sensitivity of the design. The drivers themselves are set back a reasonable distance from the ear when you are wearing the Classics and this makes for a reasonably spacious presentation.
As befits a headphone that is intended to perform a dual use role, the Spirit has a detachable cord at the headphone end and two cords are supplied. The first is a conventional home headphone cord that is 4 metres long and should allow you to be comfortable in a room regardless of where your hifi might be. The other is a 1.4m portable cord that includes a remote and microphone that will work with your iDevice. Both of these will accept a screw on quarter inch jack for use with beefier headphone amplifiers as well as the 3.5mm jack they are fitted with as standard. A more peculiar decision on the part of Focal is that unlike the Spirit which is supplied with an excellent zip up hard case, the Classic - which still has one eye on portability - is only supplied with a suede bag, albeit a rather lovely one. This means that the Spirit will require slightly more careful shipping while you are off being a nomad.
There is no doubting the build and design of the Classic though. Focal has been quite clever in giving the Classic an immediate visual relationship to the smaller Spirit but at the same time giving the more expensive Classic a higher perceived sense of value. To this end the more thickly padded headband clad in real leather and the equally lovely earpads give the Classic a slightly more luxuriant feel. The hinges and swivel points all move with a genuinely solid and precise action that suggests that the bits you can’t see have had as much attention lavished on them as the bits that you can.
The Classic is currently only available in what Focal calls a ‘Hot Chocolate’ finish. I’ve no idea exactly when brown became fashionable but the Classic looks absolutely excellent. Special mention must go to the packaging as well which is packed full of nice touches- not least the spikey foam inset to the lid which is reminiscent of the Focal acoustic test room (which I am sure is not an accident). Against these positive attributes, criticisms are fairly slight. Compared to the ambidextrous NAD HP50 which can have the cable mount on either side, the Focal is right hand side only and the pressure the headband exerts on the head is a little high but neither of these things is exactly the end of the world.
SetupThe Focals went through the same listening procedure as other headphones in that they were largely used with a Lenovo T530 ThinkPad with and without a Furutech ADL Cruise headphone amplifier. I also spent some time with a Naim SuperNait integrated amplifier which has a fairly impressive headphone amp as well. Whilst being nomadic, I used the Classic with an iPhone 4 and iPad 3 and did my standard trip around Sainsburys as well as the more challenging environs of the Milton Keynes new baby ward. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC via Foobar and a Naim ND5XS streamer as well as compressed audio, principally Spotify but some general web duties as well. While adjusting to parenthood, the Classics also did a sterling job with Netflix on my iPad.
Sound QualityNeutrality means different things to different people but it doesn’t take very long with the Classic to see that Focal may have a point with their views on the voicing of many other hybrid earphones. Used in a remotely quiet environment- and to be clear this means pretty much anything except a busy street or similar, the Classic has an even handedness from top to bottom that is apparent when you listen to it next to a more mobile orientated design. If you are a big fan of monster bass- dubstep is a lifestyle rather than a means of testing driver excursion for some people- you may find that the more refined Classic lacks the skull resonating bass of some other designs but the tradeoff for me at least is more than worth it.
With Inform - Educate - Entertain, the long awaited and bloody marvellous album from Public Service Broadcasting, the Classic shows a fantastic combination of lightness and impact that unpicks the dense samples and instrumentals of the album with an assurance that is deeply impressive. The impression is that you are getting exactly what is on the recording without embellishment or augmentation. The clever bit about this is that the Focal manages this accuracy without tearing pieces to shreds. The Public Service Broadcasting album itself is a solid but not spectacular recording and the Focal manages to find the positives without making too many of the negatives apparent. If you solely listen to heavily compressed material, the Classic might prove a little forensic in terms of its presentation but equally, you probably aren’t going to be the target market for a £300 headphone.
One of the most significant differences between the Classic and the Spirit (and indeed other hybrids) is that although it is sensitive enough to be perfectly useable with mobile devices, it is less sensitive than more portable designs. I found that it needed a correspondingly higher level than most other headphones but the sensitivity is still a higher than the majority of dedicated home designs. If you do have a decent headphone amp to hand though, the Classic is very capable at making use of the extra quality available. If you are looking for a headphone to use exclusively with an iPhone though, the Classic might be too tricky a load.
If you have more capable headphone amps available though, the Focal is hugely impressive. The handling of voices and instruments is right up at the top of the category. There is a presence and realism to performances that makes for a very satisfying listen and the Classic can find and extract detail that makes the difference between a recording sounding pretty good and being genuinely convincing. There is also a real sense of space to performances that means that even when you are listening to something seriously substantial, you get a good sense of the scale of the recording. Conversely, smaller recordings can sound impressively intimate as well. Long term listening pleasure is also helped by the Focal proving comfortable for use long term.
The final attribute that the Focals have (that interestingly, I don’t feel that the Spirit has in anything like the same measure) is a sense of drive and timing that means that more up-tempo material really motors along and generally has you nodding along and enjoying the performance. Timing is a deeply subjective area but there is a sense of agility to the Classic that is really impressive. This ability is not something it solely dependent on the music being fast and upbeat either. The magnificent guitar noodling of Bjorn Berge manages to sound effortlessly clean and detailed but at the same time, the Focal doesn’t force the performance either.
Against this considerable array of talents, the Focal has commendably few limitations. Driven to very high levels, it can harden up a little and as mentioned before, it is not the most flattering performer with very compressed and edgy recordings. The inline remote works well and call quality is good but I’m at a loss why the metal remote of the Spirit has been ditched in favour of a plastic one here. Finally, while I think that the Classic looks excellent in the Hot Chocolate finish, I imagine that there will be a few potential customers who might want a black version. These are really minor downsides in what is a very well thought out headphone.
- Lively and engaging sound
- Superb build
- Useful accessories
- Hardens up a little at high volumes
- Not the most sensitive design
- Exerts fairly high pressure on the head
Focal Spirit Classic Headphones ReviewWhether the ‘nomad’ that Focal is seeking out as the buyer for the Classic exists in the numbers required to make this the opening product in a whole new genre is something that the market will decide but Focal has achieved their design intentions extremely well with the Classic. This is a headphone that happily goes toe-to-toe with home headphones at the price but still has a compact design and enough ability as a portable when you need it. This is a very impressive headphone and whether it is an evolutionary leap or not, it deserves an audition at the price.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £300.00
Ease of Use9
Design and usability7
Value For Money9
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