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Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
160GB iPod Classic loaded with AIFF files, 256GB SSD iMod loaded with AIFF files, 27" iMac (3.4GHz quad-core IntelCore i7, 16GB 1.333MHz RAM, 2TB hard disc, 256GB SSD drive, ADM Radeon HD 6970M with 2GB of GDDR5 memory); PureMusic 1.85 in hybrid memory play with pre-allocated RAM and AIFF files up to 24/192; Amarra 2.3; April Music Eximus DP1; Antelope Audio Zodiac Gold & Voltikus; Weiss DAC2; Esoteric/APL Hifi UX1/NWO-M; Audiophilleo 2; April Music Stello U3; QAT MS5 music server [on review]
Headphone amps: ModWright LS-100 with Psvane CV-181T tubes, April Music Eximus DP1, Burson Audio HA160, ALO Audio RxMkII, ALO Audio The Continental
hones: Ortofon e-Q7, Beyerdynamic T5p and AKG K702rewired by ALO
Review Component Retail: €199

Focal's Pierre Maillard: "We are launching our first headphone set. It is a consumer-oriented model. It includes a remote for the iPhone. The retail will be €199. All of the design and tuning work took place at Saint-Etienne in France like all Focal speakers. The product itself is being manufactured in China. The Spirit One is the first of a whole new line of headphones. It's not just another one-shot deal because all manufacturers do that now. Neither is it an off-the-shelf Chinese headphone with a Focal logo stuck on. We kick off our new line with the most affordable consumer model which will also be available in white. After that we will add audiophile and pro-audio models and move upmarket step by step (perhaps all the way to Utopia level - who knows?)."

That France's biggest speaker house—after B&W probably the largest in the world—is entering headfi is a clear sign of the times. Unlike the majority of newcomers to headphonia however, the engineering-driven vertically integrated Focal giant promised to play to performance rather than fashion.

Based solely on raw resources and scale of engineering, manufacturing and distribution, here was an entrenched player who—though new to the sector but given the right circumstances—could take on Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, AKG & Co. at their own game to perhaps shake things up at the bottom and top. In that light the affordable Spirit One was a very important proof of concept. Would such presumed ambitions stand any chance? On looks and quality of materials alone, the sealed Spirit One certainly made quite an impression on paper and pixels.

The design goal during the Spirit One's 2-year development cycle was a closed alignment to keep external noise out and music in. Those are most vital qualities for mobile applications after all. Focal thus claims highly effective >18dB passive noise insulation. That's based on optimized coupling of the ear pads to the skull. And that's a function of properly applied headband pressure plus form-fitting foam pads for a good even seal around the ears. The Spirit One's double-jointed aluminum headband thus applies the necessary pressure laterally and directly atop the entire surface of the pads rather than clamp the skull from above (which would be an uncomfortable and uneven squeeze).

The first headphone from speaker house PSB is another 32-ohm sealed 102dB design. This skull hugger is made from both polycarbonate and ABS and adds active noise cancellation.

The Spirit One incorporates five differently sized and shaped aperture-connected and precisely tuned inner chambers to control low frequencies via an acoustic 8th-order function. The voicing accounts for a "very slight" but deliberate bass rise to offset the lack of physical full-body impact low frequencies suffer with headphones versus conventional speakers.

The diaphragm is a 40mm Mylar/Titanium affair. To assure tight match consistency, each driver is individually measured against a reference set of curves, not just QC'd for operational fitness. Impedance is 32Ω like my beyerdynamic T5p, sensitivity a high 104dB (1mW/1kHz) to hopefully produce sufficient output from low-gain iDevices. Weight is 225g. The nicely textile-sheathed cord is 1.2m and unplugs via a solid mini stereo jack on the left ear pad. THD is claimed to remain beneath 0.3% at 100dB SPL (relative to 1kHz), frequency response is given as an ambitious 6Hz to 22kHz. Because the Spirit One is designed for on the go, smartphones can be controlled with that inline remote built into the one-sided cord. The 6.3mm plug screws atop the 3.5mm mini underneath to offer both flavors. The ear pads swivel to lay flat. The storage case is rigid. And an airline adaptor and jack adaptor cord compatible with any smartphone are standard issue.

Card-carrying elitists will sneer at the inline controls and wait for Focal's upmarket models. The Spirit One pursues the iNation. That's sensible. In any pyramid scheme the base enjoys the largest numbers. Traction in that high-volume sector might finance R&D for models which will eventually eclipse the $1.000 mark as do all of today's statement 'phones. Those simply appeal to fewer and fewer buyers. Focal's launch is a deliberate ground-floor thing.

Even so, compare the exploded images of this €199 model to a boutique $1.500 Grado for example. Scale of operations, sophisticated engineering departments and Sino production can make all the difference. What has everyone spirited about this one is the obvious question: Did the speaker designers at Focal knock one out of the park on their very first swing? Double-jointed or not, much would seem to hinge on that.