A little over a year ago, the French brand Focal, well-known for its range of speakers, introduced its first pair of headphones: Spirit One. Although portable and fairly nice, they weren't really apt for use in a home studio. Fortunately, Focal has come back with a model proudly sporting the "Professional" tag that promises to deliver a neutral sound for mixing. So, how do they actually perform?
At first glance, it’s impossible to ignore its affiliation with the Spirit One — the Spirit Professional faithfully retakes the shape of its sibling.
However, several details caught our attention: the size of the ear cups has indeed changed, those of the Professional are bigger. According to the manufacturer, it provides a more linear and deep low end, even if the size of the transducers hasn’t changed (40 mm, Mylar/Titane). The memory-foam ear cushions adapt better to the user’s ear shape and provide better isolation. In practice, we really liked this foam, they are very comfortable to use (a bit less with glasses), but unfortunately non exchangeable. Further, the headphones don’t exert too much pressure on the head, which is a great plus for professional headphones destined for long hours of use. The finish of the cups also changed and, even if we have our doubts about their “wet-effect” finish, we must also admit that the shell is highly scratch-resistant and promises to age well. Plus, their black color will make them pass unnoticed.
On the other hand, the swivel angle of the Pro’s ear cups (a couple dozen degrees) isn’t as wide as on the One (almost 120 degrees). This makes the One take less space in their case, which is important for someone on the move, but not as much for pro headphones that don’t get moved around a lot. And now that we mention it, the compact case of the One gave way to a lovely big black box, which won’t find it’s place easily inside a suitcase. We like that the Professional comes with two detachable cables (and a 1/4" screw-on jack adapter): a 4m coiled cable to be used in a home studio, and a straight 1.4m cable for a more portable use. The latter includes a remote/mic to take calls on a smartphone, a handy feature. However, it doesn’t include two volume controls like on the One, which is a pity.
The Spirit Professional’s impedance is 32 ohms, which will allow us to use a personal music player or a smartphone without problems. They weigh 280 grams, which is decent enough, even though you can feel the difference with the AKG K 702 (235 g), which are more bulky.
It’s time to lend them an ear…
To test Focal’s new headphones I compared them with my favorite ones in this price range, the AKG K 702. Their price is almost the same, but they have different designs: the AKG are open, which makes it impossible to make vocal recordings with them, and their use in public transport is compromised (plus, they are very bulky and don’t fold…). So, if mobility is important to you, the Focal headphones are more apt, because they are more compact. Just like the One, the Professional isolates us very well from the external world, its impedance is low enough, and the 1.4m cable with integrated mic will be your smartphone’s best buddy.
But let’s focus now exclusively on the audio aspect of the Spirit Professional. We connected the headphones to our Metric Halo ULN-8 interface to listen to some songs in lossless format and at 96kHz / 24bit, too.
Melody Gardot — Mira
It’s obvious right from the start that we are well beyond the Spirit One in sound quality, and that this Pro version lives up to its promises. The low end is controlled, accurate and clear. It isn’t disproportionate as on many portable headphones we have reviewed. The vocals have a good presence and the dynamics of the song are respected. On the other hand, they are a notch below in terms of spatiality and instrument separation in comparison to the K 702. When it comes to the highest frequencies, which give air and space to the song, the Focal lags a bit behind the AKG, as well. The different percussion instruments are slightly less brilliant, which some might prefer, but I personally incline toward the K 702, which make us forget at times that we have any headphones on (their open design, comfort and light weight also play a role in that…). With the Focal, due to their closed design, we are inevitably more cut off from the external world, which in certain cases can be a great advantage. It’s up to you to decide what’s better for your needs.
Metallica – Enter Sandman
The Spirit Professional definitely offers an analytical listening experience, albeit with a boxier and less open sound that the AKG. That’s mainly due to its weaker high end. The low frequencies are clear, the different guitar layers are well apart and the voice is intelligible. The cymbals are a bit different, less brilliant with the Focal, which focuses everything on the mid frequencies. A characteristic we can also find in the speakers of the brand. The reverb on the toms in the intro is less audible on the Focal than with AKG, so you need to be careful when dealing with reverbs during mixdown — you must know your headphones!
Strauss — Also sprach Zarathustra
The AKG better reproduced the space of this recording: the trumpets were less brilliant with the Spirit Professional, and the difference in the high end was a bit more evident. The sound was a bit muffled with the Pro and the instruments were more easily made out with the K 702, which sounded better for this piece of music.
In sum, the Focal Spirit Professional are quite different from the Spirit One. They have a more faithful low end, better dynamics and very present mids that yield a pretty analytical sound. In relation to the AKG K 702, the high frequencies are fainter, which results in a more boxy sound, less air, smaller spaces and, at times, instruments that can’t be clearly separated from each other.
The Spirit Professional mark Focal’s entrance into the world of monitoring headphones. Don’t let appearances mislead you, the sound delivered by this “Pro” model is very different than that of the Spirit One we tested a year ago. They have a well-defined and faithful low end and the mids allow us to work properly. The difference with the K 702 has to do mainly with the high frequencies, with a bit less air and reverb in the mixes. Its closed design might prove to be an advantage in certain situations — tracking, for example — where external noise or mic bleed are an issue. The foam ear cups on the Pro are quite comfortable and give you good isolation. Give them a try if you are looking for closed monitoring headphones and you have about $350 in your bank account.