Focal Spirit One

Focal Spirit One ($279)
Perhaps you've seen this "Letter to Spirit One Owners" from Focal recently posted on Head-Fi. Well, here's the whole story:

This is not going to be an ordinary review...though I'll get around to reviewing the Focal Spirit One by the end of this article. This is more about how a company acts if they're trying to accomplish something difficult---like make a good pair of headphones for the first time---and have a stumble along the way. Companies struggling with product introductions happen all the time, what's a bit rarer is to have a company acknowledge the problem, own it, and vigorously work through to a good conclusion.

So, dear reader, this is not the story of how Focal made a mistake, but rather, the story of how a problem slowly rears its ugly head, and how Focal, in this case, knuckled down and fixed it.

Probably best to just tell you the story as it happened.

Problems Come to Light
March 14, 2012 - John Bevier, an old friend and National Sales Manager at Audio Plus Services, emails me a little note saying the Focal Spirit One had arrived, sounded very good to his ears, and wonders if I would like a sample to consider for review. I said yes, of course, and shortly the first unit arrived on my doorstep. I measured them, and had a first listen. They seemed okay to me, but a little uneven and grainy sounding.

When I get a headphone in that is middling good, but doesn't excite me, I have a practice of shelving it for another listen at a later date. First impressions aren't terribly reliable, so I'll often wait a bit and then give a headphone a second chance to make a good first impression.

A month or so later, I picked up the Spirit One for listening anew...and again, it didn't do it for me. Same thing: uneven and grainy. I heaved a sigh, and made a mental note to call John B. when I had a chance with the bad news. Evidently, Post-It notes don't stick to brain very well, and the call slipped my mind.

August 7, 2012 - John Bevier sends me a polite note asking whether I've had a chance to listen to the Spirit One. D'oh! I called him back and apologized for not getting back to him sooner. Then I told him I wasn't particularly impressed with the headphones, and that they just sounded kind of rough to me. There was a bit of a pause on the line, and then John asked me if I'd heard of any problems with the Spirit One. I hadn't, but I told him I'd look into it. At that point, John asked if I'd like to get a few more samples in for measurement, and I agreed to to measure a few more.

August 9, 2012 - I started scrounging around on Head-Fi for any comments on the Focal Spirit One that might indicate a problem. Woah! There sure seemed to be some type of problem with a "scratchy" sound. Here's some links to numerous posts by date in the Head-Fi Spirit One thread: 3/8/12; 3/12/12; 4/22/12; 6/25/12; and 7/1/12. Now I was getting pretty curious.

August 13, 2012 - I receive the first of three more Focal Spirit Ones. I measured them with the following result for the THD+Noise measurement:

Focal_SpiritOne_Graph_Aug15THD

Obviously, there's something going on in the left channel between 500Hz and 1kHz, and below 100Hz.

August 15, 2012 - Out of the blue, I get an email from a headphone enthusiast about the Focal Spirit One. Here's a couple of excerpts:

In mid May I purchased a pair of Focal Spirit one headphones from crutchfield. I was really excited as this was my first "Expensive" set of cans. When they arrived I was amazed at how nice looking they were. The build seemed a little cheaper than I expected but no biggie(they also smelled kinda funky). They come LOADED with accessories (hard case, carry bag, airplane adapter, detachable cable, etc...). I was severely bummed once I listened to them. There was rattle/vibration in the left ear cup and there was NO bass and I mean NO low end at all. I sent them back to Crutchfield and had them replaced. No worries....until got the new set and same thing!!

THIS IS WHERE THINGS GET WEIRD!!! > 3 weeks later. I'm contacted by the director of North america distribution for Focal. After reading my review they offer to send me a FREE set of headphones. I'm blown away!! I really love these cans(look, design and comfort). So I accept and was truly grateful for the gesture. I receive what is now my 3rd set of Spirit ones. Once again rattle/vibration in the left cup and sometimes the RIGHT as well.

3 weeks go by and distributer sends me a followup email. Asking how I like the headphones. He also mentions that sales through Crutchfield has dropped to ZERO since my review. He goes on to politely ask that if I enjoyed the headphones if I would amend my review. I felt kinda bad that he has gone through the trouble of sending me a free set of $280(retail) headphones but I relayed to him that I could not amend my posting because the free set was defective as well!! He replied that he appreciates my honesty and will forward my experience to the folks in France.

At this point I figure I'm done. I have NO money invested the headphones. I'm amazed that it ever got to the point I got free headphones(functioning or not). I'm left with a positive opinion of focal and Crutchfield. They both have gone way out of their way to please one consumer. Just when I think the whole thing had blown over I receive an email from the director of Focal's China operation!!! He offers AGAIN to send me a ANOTHER set of FREE headphones!!! I'm just FLOORED!! I have accepted his offer. So I'm now waiting for my 4th set of S1 headphones!!

I'm sure you're wondering why sharing all this with you. Well, I would like to send you my current set of Spirit ones. I know they are defective. But I'd like your opinion.

Well, that certainly sounds like the problem John B. might have been talking about. Time to measure a bunch of Spirit Ones!

August 26, 2012 - So a solid handful of Spirit Ones from Focal and the enthusiast show up, and I commence to measure. Curiosity gets the better of me and I measure the known bad ones from my enthusiast friend. Hoooo boy! Something seriously wrong; here's the THD+Noise plot.

Focal_SpiritOne_Graph_Aug26THD

Then I measured the rest. I've build a little .pdf of all the Spirit One measurements that I've done, which you can find here. Page one is "Sample A", page 2 is "Sample B" and was the second I received that had the notably poor THD plot. "Sample E" was the headphone I received from the enthusiast. The last two plots (2013 A and 2013 B) are headphones I've received since the problem has been fixed...we'll get to them in a bit.

The thing to note about plots A-F are the minor variations between the measurements. Other than B and E, the others aren't bad, but they do vary a bit. I thought the most telling thing in the plots was the impedance plots. In the region between 1kHz and about 7kHz the impedance plots get a bit noisy and random from one sample to the next. Bumps and wiggles in this area tend to show resonances right around the driver from near-by trapped air volumes resonating, but that should be fairly consistant. At the time, I was thinking something was happening to the diaphragm to cause it to move a bit and then the voice coils would start rubbing...or something like that.

Then I remembered that in one of my enthusiast friend's emails, he said I could destructively disassemble the headphones to investigate the problem. Okay...let's start stripping it down and see what we get. Once the diaphragm was out, it was pretty obvious there was a problem.

Focal_SpiritOne_Photo_CrinkledDiaphragm

The diaphragm was crinkling, but not restoring itself. If you press a pair of sealed headphones up to your ears, you can sometimes hear them crinkle. But most diaphragms are of soft enough material that they just pop back into place. The diaphragms of the Spirit One are designed to be very stiff, which make them hard to crinkle, but also prevents them from un-crinkling as well.

But why were they doing this so severely? I could see what the problem was, but I had no idea why the problem was.

There was a bigger question for me however: What was I going to do about it?

COMPANY INFO
Focal's US Distributor: Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
For support: mrousseau@audioplusservices.com
800.663.9352
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COMMENTS
Chrisknos's picture

Hi Tyll, 

I just want to know which of the 6 headphones mentioned above would you prefer the most, regardless of whether they're portable or not.

BTW You're reviews are the most accurate in my opinion.

Thanks.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

The Momentums for sound quality. MDR-1R for comfort and looks. The UE6000 gains a lot of ground due to their lower cost. The Spirit One is possibly the best suited for actual use under mobile condition, and maybe best sounding in loud environments.

Marcello's picture

I picked these up after being impressed with the Focal XS Book computer speakers and hoped the company would also make good headphones. A little naive maybe, but I was not disappointed. I like the Spirit One almost as much as the Momentums, and the Focal's superior sound isolation makes it my portable headphone of choice. I have also been testing the Sony MDR-1R for two days now. It sounds slightly boring compared to the Focal and the Sennheiser, but still very nice. The Sony sounds absolutely non-fatiguing and the headphone is almost obscenely comfortable, it feels light as a feather. This level of comfort should be a benchmark for over-ear headphones.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

..."obscenely comfortable" is a good word for it.  Flat out gorgious as well. I'm surprised how much I can forgive somewhat poorer sonic performance in light of the comfort and good looks. It's not easy to justify how one adds up all the variables that make up headphone satisfaction...in the end it's which headphones your hands grab for. At night, in bed, watching Netflix? Those MDR-1R are aweful tempting.

Guitarist9273's picture

Any plans to review the Sony MDR-1R?

It'd be interesting to know exactly how it compares to the recent crop of good & great closed heaphones, as far as sound quality is concerned. It's much lauded comfort & relative good looks are tempting.

For late nights in bed watching Netflix or listening to other streamed media, is the MDR-1R one's best bet? 

Currawong's picture

It was fascinating to read the back-story to the issue with these headphones. I think it was definitely worth writing up as an example of how much manufacturers have to go through in produding a new product.

Now if only I could justify a pair of their speakers.... ;)

paul's picture

 

Just got the site back (made exception in AdBlock)

 

"(T)he lipstick red Micros spoke to me" and "I think the Sony MDR-1R is a dead sexy looking… "

 

Winter must be long and cold in Montana.  smiley

John Grandberg's picture

Lots of companies are working on getting their first headphone product out on the market. Some of them just go to an OEM and buy an existing headphone, slap their name on it, and call it a product launch. Nothing wrong with that I guess, but it's nice to know Focal had more invested in the process.

I definitely look forward to their next few headphone models. 

Tyll Hertsens's picture

They commented more than once that they're in it for the long haul. The Spirit One is a great start---problems not withstanding---and I'm very interested to see what they do in future.

bobxxxbob's picture

How do they compare to DT-1350 considering only the sound quality?

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...my DT1350 is warmer with more rolled off highs, but I hear often that the DT1350 varies quite a bit in the nature of their sound. They're both pretty good though.

Blok's picture

First of all, I'd like to say I really enjoyed reading this article. Well done Tyll!

I'm thinking about purchasing the Focal Spirit One for portable use and would like to use them in combination with the Pico DAC/Amp. Do you think this would be a good combination?

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Love the HeadAmp Pico/DAC!

ultrabike's picture

Great article Tyll, Thanks!

10DeeQ's picture

hi Tyll

compared to V-Moda M-100

which one is better for Rnb and pop top 40 music ?
and also which one is more comfortable.

 

another thing is that have you ever tried or reviewed the Venture craft Go-Dap ?

the DAC+amp combo for iphone ?
thank you.

DanTheMan's picture

I knew these had potential to be great cans, but all the negative reviews kept me from getting them.  These are now high on my list of headphone desires.

 

Dan

yupachups's picture

Hello Tyll,

it's been a while that i follow your reviews. I just wanted to share my experience with the Focal.

I also was an owner of the Focal S1 last summer, but i kept it only 2h before returning it. The reasons are simple :

They are ssimply too small for my big head and when extended to the maximum, you see that the hoop might break by putting it on your head repeatedly. 

as comparison, i had the Grado sr80, the senn HD 497, audio thechnica, akg 242 etc.. and they fitted well. 

Focal customer relation told me that they passed the word to their engineers for their next product.... hope it's true 

funambulistic's picture

Tyll,

Love your reviews and the site! I bought these at a discounted price last year when they were offered on Touch of Modern based on some favorable professional reviews. I loved the way they sounded (which is the most important thing, of course) but was getting worried when they started getting bashed on amateur sites (are my ears that "off"?) and reports of the problems cropping up (did I buy a lemon?). It had been many, many years since I purchased a "serious" pair of 'phones (remember the 80's Sennheisers with the yellow foam?) and thought I had maybe made a mistake (still loved the way they sounded, though). I thoroughly enjoyed this in-depth review (manufacturing warts and all) and feel a bit vindicated in my decision and my ears! If this is just the start for Focal, I can't wait to see what they have in store next.

Thanks again and keep up the excellent work!

JAP

artfuldawdger's picture

Can you give me a quick idea of how to get this guy open ? Want to get a look at the drivers and the chamber. 

Thanks !

Randy's picture

Like your style. And Gratis. We can tell you're good at what you do.

I think I'll get me a Focal, The momentum are just as you said, 

Randy's picture

Like your style. And Gratis. We can tell you're good at what you do.

I think I'll get me a Focal, The momentum are just as you said, 

NMora's picture

After reading the review I located a pair of Spirit Ones at a local dealer in Miami FL.
He carries the car audio speakers and not headphones usually.
Everything was going great, properly broken in, and slowly easing into the new cans.
Out of the blue, the right side stopped working. No sound, nothing, DEAD.
I have tried talking to Focal about this, unfortunately I cannot find a copy of the sales receipt and Focal wont help with out it.
What to do?

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