Focal Spirit One Page 2

Don't be an Asshole.
I think a responsibility of good journalism is to tell a story well. Simply shouting out, "Hey look, these guys made a mistake!" is not telling much of a story. Much better to tap a smart buncha guys from France on the shoulder and ask them what's up. Makes for a way better conversation, and a way better story in the end. You do have to be patient and wait until the end though. And not be an...well, you get the idea.

I do have a responsibility to my readers, however, so I did drop a couple of succinct and quite straight forward posts about the Spirit One as having problems in a couple of strategic forums. And I did say I wasn't going to review them due to problems on a couple of YouTube posts. So I got the word out, but my primary motive was to be patient and tell the story of what Focal did in light of the problem. Turns out to be a pretty good story.

What's Up With That?
I accumulated all my photos and graphs, and made an email much like the front page of this article to send off to Focal. Here's the good bits:

Sept 16, 2012

Dear John and Focal Management Team,

Thank you for sending me some Focal Spirit One headphones for review consideration.

(here I snipped bunch of words pointing to posts of headphones buzzing, an analysis of my measurements, and comments from my enthusiast friend.)

My measurements, anecdotal evidence from Head-Fi posts, and emails from hobbyists have me strongly believing you have some manufacturing quality issues. My guess is that the diaphragms are not being reliably manufactured and you are having problems with voice coils rubbing. Just a guess, at the moment, but I will be taking headphone E apart (by permission of the owner) for inspection.

I don't want to be completely discouraging, I did think headphone "CG" sounded pretty good, but the variability has me very concerned. I wanted to communicate these issues to you to give you a chance to comment before I posted my findings. I really hope you are doing something about this issue as the product does seem promising. But here's the problem: I have an obligation to my readers to warn them if something seems amiss with a product. For example: here's my article on some problems Audeze had with their initial release of the Audeze LCD-3.

The reason I have to do these things is that the hobby is quite astute these days, and I feel the need to confirm or deny their findings. For example, there's a new forum called changstar.com where one of the members (Purrin) has a rather sophisticated headphone measurement system, and is able to ferret out problems like this. Bottom line, folks will come to a conclusion with or without my posts, I'd rather make sure to properly frame the nature and magnitude of the problem then have them wildly speculating.

Another note: Once Audeze fixed their problem, folks in the hobby were glad to embrace the subsequent product. Why? Because Audeze did the right thing. They allowed anyone who thought their headphones might have a problem to return them for an exchange, and they extended the warranty on all their products to three years. My point is that you will likely be forgiven for problems if you own the problem and fix it.

I look forward to your timely response.

Tyll Hertsens
Editor in Chief, InnerFidelity

Now a letter like that from someone like me is rather like kicking a bees nest, it's bound to get a response. Some of the cynical among you might say the Focal's hand was likely forced by my letter and they simply had to do something. But I'll remind you that they had already been responding strongly. My enthusiast friend had four pairs of Spirit Ones from all over the world, and numerous communications with the Focal team who were trying to figure out what was going on. And it was Focal that first mentioned to possibility of a problem to me, and were subsequently quite helpful in getting more samples to measure in an effort to get more feedback from me. Focal's response to my letter above was essentially more of the same behavior I'd already seen...which is to say vigorous, proactive, and transparent action with the intent to fix the problem rapidly.

Within a few days of sending my letter I got word back from John that Focal was digging into the problem and I would be first to know when actionable information had surfaced.

November 12, 2012 - I received a letter from Focal's CEO Christophe Sicaud. It's a private conversation, and somewhat technical, so I'll not quote it broadly. Basically, he said that they had found a "sporadic weakness within our fabrication process that could deform membranes after a series of shocks or pressures." He also highlighted a couple of other changes to some of the headphone's mechanics and the carry case.

Now that's pretty cool to get a letter from Focal's CEO going into significant detail on the problems they found, but it was their next step that really floored me. I got a phone call from Jean-Philipe Fontaine, Focal's Export Sales Manager asking if I would host a visit from himself, John Bevier from Audio Plus, and Ludovic Uhring-Cadart, Focal's Lead Engineer and Project Manager for headphones. They wanted to give me a full rundown of the problem and solutions, and bring a couple more Spirit One headphones for me to measure. I, of course, said, "Sure!"

December 6, 2012 - Jean-Phillipe, Ludovic, and John come for a visit. I wasn't quite sure what to expect. After a bit of coffee and chit-chat, JP suggested I sit down for their presentation.

"Presentation? What, have you got a Power Point to show me or something?" I asked half jokingly.

JP placed his laptop on the table and said matter of factly, "Yes. Yes we do."

For the next hour or so, as JP and Ludovic traded off between the technical and marketing aspects of the material, I was told the whole story of the Spirit One headphone: what it's design goals were; what market space it was intended for; what the diaphragm problem was; how it was fixed; what manufacturing and QC changes were made; and how they were going to help their customers who already owned the Spirit One. It was a really cool experience. Ludovic had some fascinating animations of various diaphragm designs, and I got to have an in-depth dialog about some of the acoustic design features of the headphones. Here's the bottom line:

  • The problem with the diaphragms was essentially that the manufacturer was reworking parts that had flaws in them. There's not a lot of detail on this point because the solution doesn't really require it.
  • The solution to the problem is to simply insist that the OEM manufacturer can not use reworked diaphragms. It's important to be very clear here: there was no design problem or design changes made. The problem was a poor manufacturing practice, and the solution was to get the manufacture to improve their work. The diaphragm of the Spirit one is quite complex having multiple layers of material. One can easily imagine that the manufacturer was simply not accustom to working with this type of part.
  • Focal did have numerous quality assurance testing procedures in place, and all headphones manufactured during the period in question did pass the QA tests. What was found, however, was that when the Spirit One is in its case, the earpads seal to the bottom surface of the case. If they are dropped in the case and land flat, the earcups will over pressure the headphone diaphragm, and, in the case of some of these re-worked parts, will crinkle at weak point of the diaphragm, and will remain crinkled. So the headphones that left the factory were up to spec, but later, sometimes in shipping and/or sometimes while in the possession of the end user, the headphones would fail.
  • Once the full nature of the problem was understood, Focal went back to the manufacturer and added a step to the beginning of the manufacturing quality assurance procedures in which the headphone is laid flat on a table with the cups sealed against the table and repeatedly pressed against the table so as to over-pressure the diaphragms. The intention of this test is to put some stress on the diaphragm to trigger any problems before the remaining QA tests.
  • Focal also changed the design of the case, making the stand-offs in the center of the earpieces taller so that the earcups wouldn't seal while in the case. In addition, they created some self-adhesive stand-offs that could be used to modify existing cases to prevent the headphones from sealing in the case.
  • The number of Focal Spirit One headphones that have this problem is unknown. The number of customer complaints is fairly small; on the order of a percent or two. It's suspected that the number of Spirit One headphones that have problematic diaphragms is likewise fairly small. My personal guess is substantially less than ten percent. The majority of Spirit One headphones previously manufactured meet all current design specs, and the currently manufactured headphone is identical to all previous production runs with the exception of problematic diaphragms. This is not a recall.

Summary of the Problems
Focal designs it's first headphone from scratch, including an innovative stiff, light diaphragm. Pre-production shows the resulting headphone meets design goals. Spirit One goes into production, but manufacturer, possibly having troubles with new and unusual diaphragm, ends up reworking diaphragm parts rather than throwing them out. Problematic parts pass final QA, but problems arise in field due to a secondary issue of headphones being over-pressured in their carry case during shipment or subsequent use. Focal insists manufacturer must reject imperfect parts, and adds some additional QA steps. Focal redesigns case and develops a retrofit solution to case problems, and puts into place hardware and policies to serve their customers.

I have to tell you that it's my experience that things like this happen all the time. Skullcandy had big problems with their Mix Master Mike headband breaking when first produced. Audeze had consistency problems with their LCD-3 diaphragms at first. At appears from numerous enthusiast accounts and their measurements that the Beyerdynamic DT 1350 has performance variation issues. The HiFiMAN HE-400 has undergone a number of changes. The list goes on and on. Manufacturers have always had, and will always have, problems from time to time. The thing that separates the really good companies from the mediocre ones is what they do about problems when they arrise.

I would say Focal's response to the manufacturing glitch in their Spirit One headphone is a shining example of how a company should respond to problems. Own it, fix it, go out and satisfy your customers. Just outstanding! Thank you Focal!

Instructions for Current Focal Spirit One Owners
First, chances are your Spirit One headphones are just fine. Most users first experience the problem as a "buzzing sound" in one earpiece. The way to check if you have the problem for sure is to place the headphones on your head normally, then repeatedly and vigorously press the earcups inwards against your ears. If you hear a "crinkling" sound, your headphones may have the problem. (You can expect some noise as you do this, maybe a gentle clicking sound. If you have the problem, the crinkling sound will be quite obvious.) If so, and you're in the U.S., simply call Audio Plus Services tech support personel (numbers on this page), Focal's U.S. distributor, and they will arrange for a replacement pair. If you are in another country, you can go to this page for guidance.

Current Focal Spirit One owners, regardless of whether your headphones are exhibiting the problem or not, may call to request the retrofit adhesive stand-offs in order to modify your case. My personal feeling is that if your headphones are not exhibiting the problem, then modifications to the case won't make much difference as the diaphragms, when properly manufactured, seem quite sturdy. None-the-less, Focal is being extraordinarily conscientious, and I applaud their attention to detail in these offerings to their customers.

Well, now that we know the story of this little glitch and it's all well and good, I suppose all that's left to do is review the headphones for you.

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
ARTICLE CONTENTS

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.

hannakimmi's picture

I had read a lot of information and it gives me a lot of ideas and knowledge. Thank you for taking the time and effort to put this article together. Keep up writing!
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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?

t3rrorbl4d3's picture

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CJ2418's picture

White!
I want to have one
thanks for the information
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One Dam's picture

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MarkoPolo's picture

great job, your reviews are very clear and straight to the point!

would you mind telling us if you have compared Beyerdynamic CustomOnePro vs Focal Spirit One and what is your opinion (choice)?

thx in advance!

denny's picture

As the technology enhancing there are many changes happens in head phones and all. This is the best example for that. The video which you posted here was very helpful for me to understand its use. Hope it provides a new experience to the users.

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