Back when I first ventured into the wonderful world of high quality audio, one of the brands I first fell in love with was Focal. Back then it was Focal speakers that caught my attention, but I remember them fondly still and was thrilled when I was contacted by one of Focal’s local representatives to review their Spirit One S headphones.
The Spirit One S (SOS from here forward) are a new addition to the existing Focal Spirit line-up. Focal already have the Spirit Classic and the Professional, each with different tuning, so the Spirit One S adds another style of sound to the mix while keeping the overall physical design quite similar.
By all accounts, the SOS fit somewhere between the musicality of the Classic and the accuracy of the Professional, but with a slight boost to the bass tuned in specifically for portable use where outside noise tends to mask the lower frequencies of your music. The SOS are priced at around $350 here in Australia which puts them in the same ballpark as offerings from Sennheiser, Sony, NAD, beyerdynamic, Audio Technica and various other well-known names in the industry.
- Impedance: 32 ohms
- Sensitivity: 104dB / 1mW @ 1kHz
- Frequency response: 5 – 22,000Hz
- Driver: 40mm Mylar / Titanium
- Weight: 280g
- Cable: 1.4m (3.5mm w screw-on 6.3mm adapter)
Focal also publish a THD (total harmonic distortion figure), but I’m choosing to not include it here because it’s quite irrelevant when measured at 1kHz. A headphone can be tuned to perform incredibly at some frequencies while being dreadful at others so I’ve left out the potentially misleading data. That’s not to say that the SOS sound like they have bad distortion – quite the contrary in fact – I just prefer focussing on meaningful data in the context available.
Design & Comfort
The SOS are very similar in design to the other Focal headphones. In the case of the SOS, they are a tasteful combination of black, dark grey and silver finishes with cosmetic touches of metal on what is effectively a plastic headphone. The plastics are high quality so don’t be turned off. I’m guessing the use of plastic also significantly reduces weight which you’ll be glad of if you’re wearing these for an extended commute. The metal flourishes are nicely placed to make the SOS look very high quality and well made and creates a great looking headphone overall.
The SOS are a circumaural design meaning that they fully enclose your ears with nice, soft pads to nestle against your head. The inside of the cups are finished with a layer of red cloth between your ears and the housing so everything feels very plush and comfortable. The pads are nice and thick, but the opening for your ears might be a little tight for those with larger ears. My ears are just average and the SOS fit me perfectly, but snugly.
The ear cups are attached with a simple tilt and swivel system that allows some angle adjustment at the top and bottom and front and back so getting a good fit should be easy. Clamping force once on the head is slightly higher than average, but so far has caused me no significant discomfort.
The cable provided is a good length at 1.4m and allows enough slack to connect to a player in your pocket or on your desk with a bit of room to move, but without creating an unwieldy tangle of excess cable. The cable attaches to the left earpiece with a 3.5mm plug that needs to be pushed in securely. I didn’t push it in far enough the first time and had all kinds of issues with the sound until a friendly Head-Fier pointed out my error. A little extra push on the plug brought the sound back to life and allowed me to hear what the SOS are really capable of.
The cable is a nice thickness and seems generally tangle resistant. The 3.5mm jack is also high quality (one of the best I’ve seen), should be compact enough to fit most devices (including phones in cases) and has a thread to screw on the provided 6.3mm adapter.
Finally, the cable also features a microphone and single button remote that works with all smartphones (including Windows phones!) and features a simple multi-press system where one press is play / pause / answer / end call, two presses skips forwards and three presses skips backwards. It’s a neat system that works flawlessly once you get the speed of the multiple presses right (it’s not quite as fast as you might think).
As a portable headphone, you might expect the SOS to collapse into a tight or flat package, but they really don’t. Much like the Sennheiser Urbanites that I reviewed a while ago, the SOS offer a slight reduction in overall size by having the ear cups tilt up into the arch of the headband, but it realistically makes almost no difference and the provided carry case (which is very nice) doesn’t even hold them in a collapsed position, but rather is molded for a standard headphone shape.
Although there are lots of headphones around that don’t collapse fully, particularly circumaural models, it means you need significant bag space to tote a pair of headphones like the SOS. For me, the SOS would only travel with me on my head as I rarely have sufficient spare bag space to add in headphones that don’t collapse. This is very personal though so, once again, don’t let this turn you off if you’re good carrying headphones in a bag or on your head.
Coming from a love of Focal’s speakers I had high hopes for the SOS and I’m pleased to say they delivered in full! The sound from the SOS is tasteful, dynamic, engaging and enjoyable. There’s plenty of fidelity and plenty of energy. I’d say that Focal have perfectly balanced audio quality and portable tuning with that little bit of extra bass.
The treble from the SOS is almost perfect. It is well extended and nicely detailed without ever becoming sibilant. The only reason I say it’s almost perfect is because there is a very slight metallic edge to some treble notes that prevents it from being perfectly smooth and flawless, but I can’t stress how minor this edge is.
To my ears, the treble from the SOS is the absolute best I’ve heard from a portable headphone. Compared to my reference portable, the Thinksound On1, the On1s sound a little bit brighter, but also a tiny bit edgier in the treble. Those who crave treble might feel like the SOS are a little laid back, but I find them to be very accurate with no added brightness in the treble to make the music sound more detailed or more dynamic and it allows the mid-range to really sing and shine through while also not becoming rolled-off or lacking in the treble. It’s a tough balance to strike, but I think Focal have managed it very well.
Thanks to the gloriously understated treble of the SOS, the mid-range is simply gorgeous. It’s lush, liquid, and lifelike with appropriate weight behind each sound, but without any thickness or bloat. Vocals are smooth, creamy and well-balanced with other frequencies and details like guitars, keyboards, and drums have texture and detail that’s never emphasised, but always present. The result is a sound that’s endlessly enjoyable in the best possible ways.
It’s worth noting that there is a very slight spike in the uppermost mids (or perhaps lowest treble) that lends a certain sound to the SOS on some tracks, but it’s very slight and more of an identifying trait in the SOS’ overall sound rather than a flaw.
Enhanced bass is always a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s fun and exciting until it gets old. Other times it’s all punch and no body. Other times still it is incredible extension and sub bass that you hear once every now and then with just the right track, but miss it the rest of the time.
I’m pleased to say that the SOS represents none of these. The bass enhancement on the SOS is so good that it’s easy to miss. Sure, there’s a definite fullness to the bass, but it doesn’t come in the form of a spike at certain frequencies so much as what sounds like a gentle uphill slope from the mids to the lowest registers of bass. This means that you don’t get an artificial mid-bass punch or a noticeably heavy bottom end. Instead you get a wonderfully full sound that’s equally as at home with classical and jazz as it is with rap or electronica.
Sub bass performance is very good and extension is excellent, but will only show up on tracks that demand it thanks to the tasteful tuning I just described and the rest of the bass is just as good – full and solid without becoming bloated. In fact the only thing that prevents me from writing another sweeping proclamation of perfection here is that the bass occasionally comes off as just a tiny bit slower than it should be, but let’s put this in perspective… If these were a desktop, audiophile headphone I would probably criticise this extra body and its (very minimal) side effects, but in a portable headphone it is exactly what I want. I would choose this tuning every time over the Sennheiser mid-bass punch that’s prominent in a lot of their models. I like the Sennheisers (Momentums, Urbanites, etc.), but the SOS are just better on every level, including their bass tuning. As a portable headphone, I think Focal have nailed bass tuning on the SOS.
Staging & Imaging
The staging and imaging from the SOS are very good for a closed headphone. As you might expect, the sound isn’t huge and expansive like an open headphone might be, but the stage feels open and spacious despite not being huge. Each sound is well placed and separated appropriately from other sounds, but the finished product is coherent and lifelike in its presentation.
The stage is a well-formed oval shape that stretches between the ears and extends slightly out in front with a predictable and smooth curvature between the sides and the middle. Some headphones / earphones create 3 blobs of sound: one at each ear and one in the middle, but the SOS do a great job of placing sounds evenly throughout the stage (assuming the recording has captured the sounds well).
Summary & Conclusion
The simplest expression of this I can offer is this: if I needed portable headphones I would be buying a pair of these instantly. As it is (and as I’ve already described) my bag space is already limited by CIEM cases, a laptop, sometimes a camera, and various other electronic goodies so full-size portables like the Spirit One S are just not for me, but if you’re not like me and happily carry or wear portable headphones when you’re out and about I implore you to give the SOS a serious go. They look great, they are beautifully made, very comfortable and their sound quality and signature is just the tiniest of margins behind my all-time favourite headphone, the AudioQuest Nighthawk and that is a huge recommendation in itself!!