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:
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.
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.
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?