I’ve been to a lot of audio meets in my time, probably a number in the dozens somewhere. I’ve never seen Focal headphones at a single one of these meets, yet I’ve heard of Focal headphones often and read about them often enough on various other audio related websites. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t expect these to be this good, a blessing in disguise for sure.
The Techno Babble
Before beginning I want to thank Simon for allowing me the ability to review all three of the Focal headphones at once: the Classic, the Professional and the One-S.
Focal is a French company that I’d previously had not known had actually produced headphones up until about a year ago, in fact I was very interested in a potential purchase of a Focal speaker just a few months ago and after reading positive reviews of one of their specific models. From there, I was introduced to Focal and what they are all about. I think this company is on the rise. If they are capable of making portable closed back headphones sound this good at this price range, surely this company is capable of monumental things in the future.
The Focal Spirit Professional is a $300 headphone that offers a unique exterior texture. Funny and very true story, when the package was delivered, it was delivered in the rain, box a bit soggy and a little dogeared. Upon opening up the box and finding each of the three headphones still sealed in the plastic casing, I’d first chosen the Professional model and gently cut open the box to reveal the headphone inside. Despite knowing full well that the headphone was protectively encased in plastic wrapping…I remove the headphone and almost immediately wanted to scream and attack the delivery man who dropped off the package. It appeared like the headphones were wet, water droplets adorning the entire exterior of this headphone. My anger boiled and humorously enough, it took a few moments for me to realize that this is simply the texture that normally came with the headphone. It is an odd choice indeed with regard to visual appeal, however it is also very appreciated from the standpoint of an actual sound engineer. These headphones are likely to be used and abused, the shock and scratch resistant exterior materials are well suited for the task of protecting the headphone for years to come. The leatherette pads and headband are plenty soft and very comfortable, they also offer a great deal of give and plushness due to a thick cut of memory foam used underneath.
I found the headphones to be a bit clamp heavy, but actually that is to be expected for something with a headband design like this. As most of your know, I positively hate headband designs that employ a half-moon shape instead of a normal human head shape to the angle and approach of the headband itself. Focal has use the shape similar to Shure’s headphones and I find it positively annoying beyond reason. There simply is no need for a design like this especially in headphone designs this light and comfortable to begin with. Is it a big deal? Not really. Just a personal gripe. In this case the Focal headphones are extremely comfortable and clamp factor is moderate. Thankfully, the headphones don’t cause pain and can be worn for hours at a time, I just simply find the width and general space between the headband and the side of your head to be too large, too cumbersome and un-conforming to my head. If I had my way, I would ask Focal to redesign this line to utilize an Oppo or Sony style headband: something that is extremely simplistic and elegant. That type of design seems to mesh better with the exterior traits of the classic, at least in my opinion. The professional model offers a typical studio monitor appeal, whereas the classic model offers a more Ultrasone, higher end flair to their design and I would expect something more elegant and simple to be used for the headband.
Focal offers a typical 3.5 mm cable which is rubber encased, something I am not really okay with anymore beyond the $300 price mark. At this price point I believe every cable should be fabric laced, but the cable sounds, feels and acts fine and there is nothing wrong with it despite that. This becomes a bit of a higher-end flair problem with the classic model, again for the same reasons that I found the headband to not fully match and make much sense with the design of the Classic model. A headband that is thick cut really doesn’t match up with a slick, portable design of the Classic headphone… The Classic headphone really screams high quality and the headband thickness seems out of place, in turn so too does the cable’s generic feel and presentation. I can give the Professional and One-S model a pass on this, but not the classic. That headphone should definitely offer a higher quality cable, something tougher and more elegant, something beautiful and memorable that fits with the silver color scheme of the headphone.
I’ve read a lot of reviews of this headphone during my research and of the product up to this point of me penning this review, I’ve not read of any comparisons between this headphone and the Audeze LCDXC…which is a headphone that happens the sound near identical to the Focal classic both in tone and set up. True, the XC is noticeably better in clarity but if there was ever a proper sibling to Audeze’s $2000 wooden closed back, it is certainly this Focal Classic. I am positively shocked by the differences between this model and the Professional version, but more on this later. For now let’s stick with the sonic qualities of the Classic version. Focal is selling this headphone at $350 and I personally believe that it might be one of the most underrated headphones that I’ve ever reviewed. This headphone is everything I wanted the Ultrasone Edition 8 to be, yet this minuscule price range by comparison…the classic outperforms the Edition 8 ( roughly $1600 ) in every way. Clarity across the board is actually superior on the Focal at a cost of roughly 5 times less. Ultrasone is being schooled by Focal.
This headphone is all about warmth, gentle coloration and high musicality. There is a noticeable exaggeration occurring on low end as well as the upper end, I find it to be tonally beautiful and one of the most well tuned and enjoyable musical experiences that I’ve had a long while. I very much enjoyed my LCD XC because it is a Summit level headphone that really sounded like it was tailored for high musicality instead of the reference, analytic type of presentation. In the case of the Focal Classic, the experience is very much the same: high Fidelity meets high musicality, high fun factor meets reference clarity. This headphone is unlike most other headphones that I’ve heard in its price tier. The only other headphone sub $500 that I am aware of that sounds similar is AKG’s K267…which happens to be one of my favorite headphones and also one that no other headphone has been able to dethrone in this price tier.
The upper end of this headphone is well accentuated, anti-sibilant and offers a gorgeous luster very similar to Hifiman headphones: something bright, but not overly so, something plentiful but never harsh. It has a very nice sheen and appeal to it that is very similar to the way the K267 from AKG portrayed its treble. It is definitely highly musical, especially rare to find in this price range for portable closed back headphones. Beyond this, the general clarity factor of the upper end is without question the best I’ve ever heard sub $500 in a closed back headphone. I find this very appealing, something that is sorely neglected by most headphones released recently that seem to be leaning towards a more analytic tonality, something flat and boring but also highly accurate. Such is not the case with this headphone, despite offering a noticeably accentuated upper end experience, the general clarity is prime. Definitely top-tier clarity offered through this Classic model.
I found myself enjoying the likes of screaming guitars and violin work more than usual. As most of you may know I’m a fusion guitar enthusiast and have been playing for some time, I enjoy the works of Guthrie Govan and most other genius level guitar players, all of which sounds phenomenally musical through this Classic model. In fact, this headphone noticeably outperforms the Fostex TH600’s treble in nearly every way. There is a hefty solidity factor occurring that is absent in most other sub $500 headphones, yet is very abundant in this model specifically. I highly recommend you download (legally) a track called The Outsider by Guthrie Govan. You should be able to purchase this track from Amazon or any number of other websites for roughly $.99. The track is very well set up for treble heads, highly engaging guitar work, Mr. Govan at his peak without a doubt. This track in particular highlights the potential that this Focal Classic is capable of…which not only extends higher than most other headphones in this tier, but also lower and deeper than almost any other closed back headphone I’ve ever tested.
With the exception of the Fostex/Denon series of headphones, as well as the Sony 950BT, this Focal classic reaches deeper in bass than any other portable headphone I’ve ever experienced…and I think I’ve reviewed most of them, if not every single popular model that is available outside of the Sony 950BT. When running this headphone via testing through Foobar2000’s realbassexciter ( which is a third-party freeware dsp equalizer for the software ), I am able to achieve a level of bass authority that is near unrivaled. I have my Sennheiser HD 800 here, it doesn’t reach anywhere near as low as this Focal Classic headphone . The texture is very Hifiman, solid center with soft edges. You can certainly feel the center point of the experience and the outer most areas lose solidity by comparison. Despite that, the Classic can reach incredibly deep and retain that solidity exceptionally well. At +3dB, you can achieve a noticeable increase in bass quantity without losing any quality…emphasis on “any”. It isn’t until we reach +6dB, which is a ridiculously unrealistic level of bass boosting, that this headphone actually begins to falter. Once you near that +6dB threshold, you’ll notice the headphone begins to feel shaky with bass quantity, dipping noticeably more and more in quality and muddiness beyond +5dB.
What Is Interesting here Is that the headphone is very linear sounding, it is not bass-omni present: my headphone sounds like there is a lot of bass at all times. This Classic model is able to dip down and achieve levels of unprecedented bass quantity without sacrificing quality. When there is hefty low-end in the track, you’ll feel it. When there is omnipresent bass recorded directly into the track, you’ll feel it even though you can switch up to the previous track that is bass moderate and feel a tonal difference in quantity. Summed up, this headphone is extremely responsive to both treble and bass equalization. I found it very impressive in this something I’ve hunted for a very long time for that no other portable in this price tier could offer thus far. It is quite shocking how headphone can be so musical and enjoyable, yet also responsive to the way the track was recorded with regard to quantity levels of any specific area of the audio spectrum.
As for the midrange, much like the AKG K267, there is a gentle forwardness that I find highly attractive. I consider this headphone very engaging, very fun. If you’re into the vocal thing, you might be a little disappointed due to the linear field this headphone offers with regard to stage presentation shape. Despite the treble and bass potential, which again is excellent, the midrange generally feels like it plays hand-in-hand with both. No one major quality (bass, mids and treble ) vies for attention unless the track calls for it. There isn’t much midrange bloom and for that reason I wouldn’t consider this a vocalists dream product, as it will be accurate to the way the track was recorded and will not push forward vocals on tracks that you might feel to be recessed in setup. As for the soundstage, I would consider it relatively above average, but also wonderfully complete and lacking nowhere on an objective level. Subjectively, I feel as though there is a lacking sense of width and height, generally only because I’m a soundstage nutbar and prefer extremely vast sound. Of course you can never compare the Focal headphones to something like the D series or Fostex TH-series headphones, but I feel they do fairly well in stage depth and offer a solid sense of separation between instruments. I don’t really feel a lacking quality in the stereo imaging prowess of the Focal headphones. On a side note, the Classic version has a noticeably brighter background that is almost identical to the way the Audeze LCD XC is set up, something that is noticeably less darkened in backdrop than the Focal Professional.