I spent years despairing at the fact that the majority of consumers would happily spend money on a high-end digital music player, but balked at the thought of buying a decent set of headphones to go with it. You only needed to look around the average train carriage and count the number of commuters using Apple earbuds to realise just how little people cared about sound quality.
That situation has changed in recent years though, but it wasn’t driven by a desire for improved audio. The reason why so many consumers are shelling out significant amounts of cash for aftermarket headphones is to make a fashion statement – the success of Beats Audio is living proof of that fact. But whatever the reason for buying aftermarket headphones, the fact that consumers are doing it at all is definitely a good thing.
Of course there’s no reason that a set of headphones can’t make that aforementioned fashion statement and still sound great, a trick that Focal is trying to pull off with its Spirit One headphones. The Spirit Ones come in both black and white finishes, but it’s the white option that really stands out from the crowd. In fact, despite the fact that I sport a white iPhone, I think that I’d probably opt for the black, but then I’m not particularly extravert.
If you’re more adventurous with your personal audio kit, there’s a lot to like about the white Spirit One design – there’s a fusion of glossy white plastic, matte greys and brushed aluminium, creating a surprisingly cohesive look. The headband is wide and chunky with generous cushion across the top of the arc. The inside of the cups are finished in red for an added splash of colour – ideal if you’re the sort of user who prefers to pose with your headphones around your neck rather than listening to them.
The Spirit Ones employ a circumaural design, meaning that the cups completely surround your ear as opposed to sitting on top of them like the Bowers and Wilkins P3s do. This adds to the noise isolation characteristics – a big help if you’re listening on the tube, walking down the street or even in a busy, open plan office.
The ear cups are also incredibly soft and yielding, although your ears do get hot during extended use, but that’s pretty much unavoidable with circumaural headphones. That said, I didn’t find myself with sweaty patches on the side of my head after the commute home, which is always a bonus.
As far as comfort goes though, it’s fair to say that you always know that you’re wearing the Spirit Ones. They’re quite tight against your head, and even though my ears are quite small, they only just fit inside the cups. Compared to something like the Sony MDR-1Rs (review coming soon), which sit on the side of your head with the gentlest of touches, the Spirit Ones lack a degree of long-term comfort.
There’s a decent bundle with the Spirit Ones. Opening up the box reveals a hard case which houses the headphones themselves, along with two 1.2m cables. The cables have metal 3.5mm jacks on either end, with the slim end plugging into the left headphone cup. The far end jack is threaded, allowing you to screw on the supplied 6.35mm headphone jack adaptor.
While one of the cables is a simple end-to-end audio lead, the second features a metal inline remote/mic setup for iPhone users. Then three button remote allows for volume control, play/pause, skipping forwards and backwards between tracks, as well as answering and ending calls. Rounding off the bundle is an aeroplane headphone adapter and a cloth carry pouch.
Of course the key criteria with any set of headphones is sound quality, and it’s safe to say that the Focal Spirit Ones acquitted themselves reasonably well, but as is often the case the performance differs noticeably depending on the type of music you throw at them.
Kicking off with Temple of the Dog, the Spirit Ones showed a degree of talent with rock, managing to convey the urgency of Chris Cornell’s vocals in Say Hello to Heaven. The guitar interlude was also very well resolved, with the whole composition coming through beautifully balanced. In fact, the Spirit Ones put in an impressive performance throughout the album.
Changing tack completely I fired up Ghostwriter by R2DJ, and while the Spirit Ones did a sterling job with the lead guitar and vocals, the horns and heavy bass came across slightly muffled and detracted from the proceedings. Despite this track having an expansive feel to its mix, the Spirit Ones made the soundstage feel quite narrow – a problem I’ve encountered with many closed back headphones.
Anya Marina’s superb Slow and Steady Seduction: Phase II is a favourite of mine when auditioning audio kit, and the Astrud Gilberto-like Waters of March is ideal for highlighting how headphones or speakers cope with delicate, yet complex compositions. The gentle guitars and snare are well resolved, as are Marina’s angelic vocals, but once again the whole thing sounds slightly narrow and muffled, where it should sound open and light.
Throwing something a bit simpler at the Spirit Ones yielded far better results. Beyonce’s Irreplaceable had a surprisingly full-blooded, bass heavy sound to it. But this time the bass didn’t sound muffled, and the vocals and harmonies came through with crystal clarity. The narrow soundstage that reared its head with other genres also failed spoil the party this time around.
Attempting to build on that performance I cued up D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and was once again pleasantly surprised. Here, the Spirit Ones conveyed a sense of intimacy that suited the music perfectly, if I closed my eyes I could almost imagine myself in a smoke filled blues club – the bass came across smooth and mellow, the snare cut through the mix without being harsh and the vocals conveyed just the right degree of desperation and need.
There’s no doubt that the Focal Spirit Ones can turn in a fine performance, but that performance is very much dependant on the source material. The slightly narrow sound will not be to everyone’s taste, and if you’re taste runs to more delicate, acoustic fare, you might find yourself disappointed. If, however, you listen to mostly pop or R&B, the Spirit Ones are worth auditioning. Surprisingly, they also put in a better than average performance with rock, which is often a weak point with headphones in general.
The Focal Spirit Ones certainly look the part if you want your headphones to make as much of a visual impact as an aural one. They’re not the most comfortable closed-back, circumaural headphones on the market, but I couldn’t really describe them as uncomfortable either. There’s a decent bundle in the box too.
When it comes to sound quality, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The sound is a little narrow for my taste, and the overall quality is very much dependant on the genre of music you favour. As always, sound quality is very subjective, but with a price tag of £199, I expected the Spirit Ones to be a little more versatile.