Like many Focal loudspeakers, the Spirit One enchants—even seduces—the listener with its warm, natural-sounding, and wonderfully nuanced midrange. This isn’t to suggest that midrange frequencies are the only thing the Spirit Ones do, but it is the part of the part of audio spectrum that these headphones handle with the greatest levels of refinement and panache. Some headphones suppress or “scoop” the mids to make bass and highs sound more spectacular or else press midrange frequencies forward for greater emphasis of vocals, strings, brass and wind instruments and the like, but the Spirit Ones do neither of these things. Instead, they simply present the heart of the music in a natural and unforced way, conveying as much musical subtlety as the recording has to offer—all without exaggeration or over-dramatization.
Bass is also warmly voiced, powerful, and supplies a good amount of foundation mid-bass support, though it does—on some tracks and with some amplifiers or personal digital music players—have a slightly larger-than-life quality. Still, the good news is that the Spirit One’s bass is never booming, billowy, or loose sounding. It exhibits good definition and transient speed even when driven directly from an iPod, and is capable of even higher resolution and better levels of low-frequency control when driven by a top-shelf portable amp such as the superb Ray Samuels SR-71B Blackbird.
Upper midrange frequencies and highs are reasonably clear, but may strike some headphone aficionados as being just slightly rolled off or perhaps a touch softly focused. But this, I think, is probably a wise design choice on Focal’s part in that it makes the Spirit One more forgiving (or at least tolerant) of records that are basically much too “hot” in the first place, and therefore have potentially strident treble transients and brash, harsh upper midranges sounds (a lot of modern pop recordings suffer from these problems). Happily, the Focal ‘phones can show you most of what’s right in really good records, while also exposing the flaws in lesser recordings—yet without beating you over the head with those flaws. Instead, the Spirit One has a consistently relaxed, easygoing demeanor that can work well with most any genre of music.
I should mention that one of the Spirit One’s particular strengths is its sensitivity. For the most part, these ‘phones are perfectly happy to be driven directly from an iPod. The Focals really don’t need (or even leave you wishing for) an outboard portable amp. If you do happen to choose a really good portable amp you may, on some recordings, hear small but worthwhile improvements in terms of more finely rendered textures and details, as well as better control at the frequency extremes. But surprisingly, there are also many instances where the Spirit One actually sounds better when powered directly from an iPod or other portable player, rather than through an auxiliary amplifier (a phenomenon I’ve not encountered with any other headphone to this point). Frankly, I don’t know precisely what it is about the Spirit One that enables it to perform so well when driven by a humble iPod, but there you have it.
One of the easiest ways to get a handle on the Spirit One’s formidable midrange strengths is to listen to a recording that highlights expressive female vocals—preferably vocals that feature delicate inflections, modulations, and other tonal shifts that add richness and texture. One such recording is “Pride and Joy” from Brandi Carlile’s Give Up the Ghost [Sony]. On this track we hear much of the range of Ms. Carlile’s voice in action, both in terms of pitch and dynamics. On the opening verse we hear a softer, quieter, more plaintive side of her voice, dramatized by an almost impossibly delicate vibrato, as she sings, “All in all it wasn’t bad/all in all it wasn’t good/but I still… …care.” But as the chorus arrives, Carlile seems to shifts gear, modulating her phrases upwards in pitch and suddenly stepping up dynamics to sing with considerably more force and vigor. The effect is that of seeing (and of course hearing) two different sides of the singer’s personality, and what’s impressive is that the Spirit One seems equally comfortable as it reproduces both of them is sharp juxtaposition.