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Focal Sphear earphones

Focal Sphear earphones

The name is a play on words, and torture on a spell-checker. Focal’s Sphear earphones are ‘SPHerical’ in shape, they follow Focal’s ‘SPirit of Sound’ concept, you ‘HEAR’ good sounds through them, and they go in the ‘EAR’. Hence ‘Sphear’. And yes, I did play Burning Spear through them. Well, it was either that or Spear of Destiny.

Focal has been making headphones for several years, joining the steady stream of loudspeaker manufacturers putting their acoustical nous to the in-head world. But Sphear is the company’s first thrust (see what I did there?) into the universal-fit earphone market, and it has priced Sphear very aggressively, at £100. It has also recognised that universal-fit earphones at this level (as in, not custom-fit models) are more commonly used on the move, so Sphear is an easy 16Ω load and, at 103dB, efficient enough to run well from iThings and Androids. Sphear also includes an omni-directional microphone for calls.

The company is said to have spent two years developing Sphear; not simply for sound, but because Focal suggested most earphones are not built for comfort. I tend to agree – being contrary, one of my ear canals is ‘dinky’ and the other ‘kinky’, and finding off-the-shelf earphones that fit both equally well can be difficult (RHA scores well for me, here). Focal seems to have addressed this problem well, and Sphear sits comfortably in both ears without long-term stress or strain. The box comes complete with silicone and Comply-style memory foam tips for small, medium, and large ears, so it is taking care to provide a good array of options for listener sound and comfort (from personal experience, my advice here is don’t just assume your ears have the same S, M, or L fit, and you may find one lug ‘ole slightly larger than the other).

Focal also claims to have built Sphear in a manner akin to a loudspeaker, albeit one with a single, 10.8mm electrodynamic drive unit sitting in the matt-black ABS housing. It is a bass reflex design, with the port rear-firing into the stainless-steel outer ring and grille. A gloss black acoustic chamber sits in the ear, with a one-piece port that enters the ear canal (covered by an appropriate tip). There is an in-line microphone on the left channel and the two channels meet in a custom Y-connector that has touch-sensors for phone and music controls, and is shaped to look like one of Sphear’s earpieces, and there’s a metre of cable between that and 45° entry mini TRS jack. I would prefer the cables to be slightly more no-tangle than supplied. Anatomically speaking, the bulk of the outside of Sphear is designed to fit in the concha of the outer ear without resting on the crus helix, with the yoke of the cable outlet fitting between the tragus and antitragus. In other words, it is shaped to fit the ear, but doesn’t press against any of parts of the outer ear. Clever.

Along with the ear-tips, Sphear also comes with a small zip-up clamshell case, and an adaptor for double-jack in flight mode. Tellingly, it does not include a full-sized jack-plug, emphasising the ‘on the move’ aspects of the design. In sum, Sphear is an elegant and extremely comfortable design, and well executed for the money.

 

If you ever wanted to dispel the notion that earphones don’t need running in, give the sceptic a pair of new Focal Sphears, and check back after a few days of constant playtime. Their balance doesn’t change particularly, but the way that tonal balance integrates is completely different. Sphear has been designed to deliver bass that cuts through the noise of the outside world, and when new out the box, that bass is dominant and wayward. A week later, it still has a distinct ‘muscular’ bass emphasis, but now that bass is integrated, controlled, and even taut.

As described earlier, naturally this was time for some Burning Spear [Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost, Hip-O/Island]. The first play (a few hours into the run-in process) was disappointing. Where was this cornerstone of 1970s reggae? It sounded slightly like a tribute act was mangling the album. A few days later, and order was restored; the bass could be nodded along to in that lazy way you do when listening to good reggae and fine dub. The sound was deep, mean, growling, and visceral. The kind of bass you can get your teeth into. This is never going to be a bass-light earphone, but once run in, the bass doesn’t impose itself when not called upon to do so.

Away from the bass, Sphear has an extremely enjoyable tonal balance, with a distinct absence of anything hard, or harsh in the top end. Once more, the running-in process fills in a slight thinness in the midrange over the course of a day or so, and after that the overall sound becomes chocolatey rich and approachable. It’s extended, although not too extended in the top-end; this is probably a good thing, as earphones at this level can be divided into those that are too rolled off, or those that seem to have a ‘let me scream your treble detail at you’ balance at the price. Double the cost of Sphear and there are earphones that manage to add HF detail without HF brightness, but in its price range, Focal’s Sphear is at something of a Goldilocks spot. As evidence of this, and to continue to flog a dead comedy horse, I listened to Rush’ ‘The Spirit of Radio’ [Permanent Waves, Mercury]; Alex Lifeson’s guitar intro is extremely fresh and dynamic, but Sphear manages to tail off just before Geddy Lee’s vocals go into full screech mode.

It’s extremely dynamic, too. Not ‘effortlessly’ so, in the manner of a good pair of CIEMs or a decent set of loudspeakers, but in a way that makes Gregory Porter’s voice just perfect on ‘No Love Dying’ from his Liquid Spirit album [Blue Note]. His rich tonal range and his vocal articulation come through well on the Sphear, clearly delineated from the slightly close mic’d piano (which can prove claustrophobic on headphones, CIEMs, and earphones). It’s the sound of a vocalist at the top of his game, with all the subtlety and tonal shading that demands. I don’t think you are going to find better from a similarly priced earphone, and to find a loudspeaker that replicated this dynamic contrast with equal skill would buy you a lot of Sphears.

There is a nebulous term that rarely crosses the Rubicon. “It sounds so musical” is one of those terms that pops up in audio equipment reviews but rarely appears in headphonista write-ups. The cynical question is “as opposed to what?” If an earphone isn’t musical, what is it for? But there are degrees of ‘musicality’, from something that sounds tonally correct but musically drab, to the other extreme where everything sounds like a party, but its basic parameters are way off kilter. Focal’s Sphear treads an even path between these two extremes: it’s extremely engaging to listen to in a purely musical manner, and you find yourself lost in the music. However, Sphear doesn’t make that musical connection at the expense of correct objective performance. It just makes music sound enjoyable, whatever music you ultimately enjoy.

 

What I like most about Focal’s Sphear is it’s an ‘honest’ product. It’s keenly priced – if it were twice the price, it would go up against two-way designs with balanced armatures and more far-reaching treble. But rivals with two-way balanced armatures at the price of Sphear just don’t sound as good as Sphear. Bass boost aside, Sphear’s few sins are those of omission rather than commission, and that’s a rare gem at this price, whether from headphones, earphones, or loudspeakers. But most importantly, Sphere sounds enjoyable… and that’s what music is supposed to be about after all.

In a world of high-end audio, where some of the best things in life cost as much as the cost of a car multiplied by the cost of an even bigger car, it’s really, really satisfying to have something to recommend that can be bought and enjoyed by real people. Focal’s Sphear may be hard on spell-checkers, but it’s very easy on the ears. Enjoy!

Technical Specifications

Type: one-way universal-fit earphones

Drive unit: 10.8mm electrodynamic mylar

Microphone: Omnidirectional

Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz

THD+N: < 0.3% (50Hz–10kHz, at 1mW)

Impedance: 16Ω

Sensitivity: 103dB (SPL, 1mW @ 1kHz)

Weight: 15g

Price: £100

Manufactured by: Focal

URL: www.focal.com

Tel: (+33) 4 77 43 57 00

UK tel: +44(0)845 660 2680

Tags: FEATURED

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