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:
o A canvas clad, molded, hard-shell carrying case with zipper closure.
o A fabric, drawstring-type carrying bag.
o The aforementioned detachable signal cable.
o An airplane adapter.
o A threaded 3.5mm mini-jack plug to ¼ phone jack plug adapter.
o A 3.5mm mini-jack male-to-female adapter cable.