Focal Sphear IEMs

I have both the Focal Spirit One S headphones and the Focal Sphears earphones for review at the moment and when I reviewed the Spirit One S I was suitably impressed with their fantastic sound and design. Needless to say I had high hopes then for the next cab off the rank, the Focal Sphears. What I discovered was quite a different product in some ways, but with lots of similarities in others.

Overview

The Sphears are a $250 earphone so they’re well priced like their headphone siblings assuming they perform to the usual Focal standard (we’ll get to that). Let’s start with a look at the specifications…

Specifications

  • Impedance:  16 ohm
  • Sensitivity:  103dB SPL from 1mW at 1kHz
  • Frequency Response:  20 – 20,000Hz
  • Driver:  10.8mm dynamic

The technical design of the Sphears is nothing remarkable on paper, but as we’ve seen many times before, technical specs mean little in reality if the pieces of the puzzle aren’t put together the right way.

Design & Comfort

Focal Sphears-130045The Sphears are a great looking set of earphones. Each ear piece is a combination of high gloss black plastic and stainless steel with the Focal name and logo embossed and cut-out respectively. A compact, but effective strain relief releases the cable from the ear piece housing where it travels to a simple, circular Y-split that also contains the control button (more on that shortly).

On the left earpiece cable is a microphone in a gorgeously made and understated cylindrical housing which blends in seamlessly and is quickly and easily forgotten, just like it should be.

Beyond the Y-split and control button the cable continues as a thick, but supple rubber cable and it ends in a stylish black and chrome angled 3.5mm plug.

Aesthetically, the Sphears are marvellous. They are beautiful in an elegant and understated way with no bling, but plenty of style and wow factor, particularly the cut-away Focal logo on the earpieces showing a metal grille underneath which doubles as venting for the dynamic driver while looking super stylish.

Comfort

For many people the Sphears will be very comfortable, but they do have a relatively large and circular housing combined with a moderate sized nozzle so some people may find the fit slightly challenging. I personally found they work really well as an over-ear design (where the cable exits the top of the earpiece and wraps over and behind the ear). The Sphears aren’t designed this way (which is a shame) so it means you are reversing the left and right channels if you choose this approach. That’s not the end of the world for music listening, but can wreak havoc with your senses if you’re watching movies or playing games.

The Sphears come with a range of good quality silicone and foam tips so, unless you have teeny tiny ear canals, you should be able to find an option that fits well and is comfortable. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have slightly tricky ear anatomy, but the Sphears presented no problems with the smallest silicone tips and in either cable-up or cable-down orientation (although I preferred the “incorrect” cable-up approach).

Isolation

Focal Sphears-130042Isolation on the Sphears, like most dynamic driver earphones, is average to poor. The inherent mechanical requirements of dynamic drivers require air flow at the back of the driver so that when the driver moves it isn’t stopped by air pressure. This requires a port for air flow (often just a tiny hole in the housing behind the driver), but results in ambient sounds being able to easily reach your ears through the earphones. Sadly this is very true for the Sphears and I found them to be very ineffective at blocking out all of the various noise on my daily train commute. Of course if you’re in noisy places you can always turn up the volume, but you’ll be missing all of the wonderful fine details in your music because they’re masked by louder noises and you’ll probably also be risking your precious hearing by the time your music is loud enough to compete with traffic, train or plane noises.

In my opinion, the Sphears’ lack of isolation make them a great option for the home or office, or a quiet place where you might also want some awareness of your surroundings, but I don’t recommend them at all for commuters needing sound isolation.

Compatibility

Like their headphone siblings, the Spirit One S, the Focal Sphears provide a controller for Android, Apple and even Windows devices. The button built into the Y-split is a multi-purpose tool that can start / stop calls and media with a single press, but can also skip forwards (double press) and skip backwards (triple press). The only thing missing from the Sphears’ controls is a volume adjustment method, but I’m just thrilled to finally find a Windows-compatible earphone!!

Accessories

The Sphears arrive with a great, compact semi-hard case, an aeroplane adapter for the dual-plug connectors on flights and a range of good quality silicone and foam tips. There’s no shirt clip with the Sphears which is not something that worries me, but I know some people want a shirt clip with mobile-compatible earphones.

Sound Quality

Before I go too far here I need to make a huge qualification. The following descriptions of the Sphears’ sound are based on using silicone tips which are always my preferred option because I hate having to always replace soiled foam tips and prefer the easy-clean hygiene of silicone given that these things are going into my ears on a regular basis. The reason I clarify this is that I will add some further comments at the end about the difference a foam tip makes to the sound and it’s important to consider both if you’re thinking of buying the Sphears.

Bass

I would describe the bass from the Sphears as average in quantity, but it’s good in quality. The bass is full enough to be rich and tactile when needed, but isn’t significantly boosted overall. In fact, in isolation I would say that the bass is excellent. How it balances with other frequencies is a slightly different story, but the quality of bass from the Sphears receives my tick of approval – it’s punchy and tight, but with ample body when required. Decay seems to be on the mark for faster bass, but can hold extended bass notes for a good sense of rumble.

It’s also worth noting here that the lack of isolation I found with the Sphears also means that the bass will be masked in loud environments so, combined with the un-boosted bass, these present as an earphone for quieter spaces.

Mid-Range

Focal Sphears-130036I like the mids from the Sphears. They are well focussed and clear, but there’s a slight tilt towards emphasis in the upper mids (to my ears). It’s very minor and leads into a lifted overall treble response so it’s kind of balanced with the rest of the frequencies, but it prevents the mids from being absolutely stellar.

Male vocals lack a little bit of body and weight compared to what I expect from a lifelike representation and female vocals have added breath and texture that some people will absolutely love (FIDUE A83 fans, for example), but I would prefer a bit more weight in the lower mids.

Quality and texturing of the mids are both excellent so my only slight gripe is the tilt towards the upper frequencies.

Treble

The treble, while beautifully clean and crisp is just a little hot for my liking. The Sphears sound like a subtle J-shaped frequency response with a very slight lift in the bass and a more significant lift in the treble. Sibilance is well controlled despite the lift, but these are definitely earphones for people who prefer the enhanced detail and clarity of treble emphasis rather than those looking for a truly natural sound (i.e. representative of a live performance).

To make sure this is clear, the quality of the treble from the Sphears is just as good as the mids and bass which means it is excellent, but the balance between bass, mids and treble is slightly off for my tastes with not enough low mids and a little too much treble.

Imaging & Staging

One of the benefits of a lift in the treble is the abundance of spatial cues it can provide and the result is a sharp and accurate image in a larger-than-average stage. In fact, the very first thing that struck me when I auditioned the Sphears was their excellent stage and imaging.

The stage stretches slightly beyond each ear and projects nicely to the front with a great sense of height. Sounds are very well separated and there’s a good sense of space. They probably don’t quite match the very best presentations I’ve heard, but they’re right up there with anything in their price range and even a few rungs above.

Foam Tip Impressions

Focal Sphears-130035Given the treble emphasis from the Sphears I thought it was important to see how they fared with a set of treble-absorbing foam tips (yes, no matter what the marketing says, the foam tips will reduce the perceived level of treble energy). I didn’t want to soil the supplied tips in the demo kit so I used a pair of Monster hybrid foam tips (foam with a silicone core and tip). The results were nothing short of excellent. Suddenly the extra treble was just a slight emphasis and created more of a gentle V-shaped signature rather than the J-shape I described before. All of the positive traits of the earphones remained, but the sound became even more enjoyable (to my ears at least). The image also became slightly sharper which I love although this may be at the expense of a tiny lack of space in the stage (which still sounds large so I don’t think it’s a problem).

True foam tips like Comply tips and the tips supplied with the Sphears would probably pull the treble back a little further still and personally I’d be very happy with that. While I could gladly live with the Sphears and Monster hybrid foam tips, if these were mine I would be breaking out the foamies immediately with an expectation of absolute sonic bliss!

Overall Conclusions

Overall I’d say the Sphears are a great earphone for people who like a detailed sound with ample bass. The treble has been tuned to be the hero of the signature, but that’s not to say the mids and bass are of lesser quality, just quantity. As you’ve just read, this can be tuned slightly with the tips you choose so lovers of greater treble-mid-bass balance can opt for foam tips. The fit, finish and functionality are excellent and it’s a huge bonus to finally see earphones with controls that work with any type of mobile device (Apple, Android and Windows).

If you have a warmer sounding device (like my Lumia 930) or if you like a slight treble emphasis from your earphones then the Sphears are absolutely worth a listen. Just remember that they’re not going to isolate as well as a fully sealed, balanced armature earphone which is fantastic for home, the office or going for a walk, but not so good on trains and planes.

Lachlan Fennen Written by:

Facilitator, training design consultant, blogger / writer and amateur photographer

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