Pros: Neutral Sound, Punchy and Dynamic, Aesthetically Pleasing
Cons: Headband and Swivel Construction, Didn't Pay For Itself
Introduction and Context:
On October 27th, 2013, I posted a question in the Sennheiser Amperior Appreciation Thread: (http://www.head-fi.org/t/612632/sennheiser-amperior-appreciation-thread/405#post_9926794)
I have my own question for this fantastic group of Amperior enthusiasts: can anyone recommend a circumaural (open or closed) headphone with a sound signature similar to the Amperior? I have a pair of V-Moda M-100's with XL pads and a Sennheiser HD580 (600 grills/custom cable) and while I like them both quite a bit, I still find myself going back to the Amperior around 60% of the time. Both of my other over-ears seem to lack a character that I enjoy with the Amperiors (high range presence, clarity, energy and "prat", tight bass, etc. etc.).
What I'm really looking for is an Amperior with more comfortable, over-ear pads and wider digital imaging/soundstage. If any of you have recommendations, I'd appreciate it.
With that question, I was off on a mission: replace my V-Moda M-100’s with something that had more punch, dynamics, and midrange presence. While I liked the M-100’s form factor, build quality, and aesthetics, it seemed somewhat unnatural to bump Cat Stevens for his bass. Between October 30th and last week, I bought and/or auditioned the following headphones: a Koss DJ100, a Creative Aurvana Live, a Logitech UE6000, a Sennheiser Momentum, a Shure SRH840, a Shure SRH940, a Beyerdynamic DT250-250 Ohms, a Soundmagic HP100, and a NAD Viso HP50.
My last purchase, just last week, was the Focal Spirit Professional. This is the headphone that finally ended my two and a half month search. What follows is my subjective impression of the FSPs. This is my first full headphone review here on Head-Fi, so any constructive criticism you could provide in the comments section would be appreciated.
Equipment Used for Listening:
Home: rMBP running Audirvana Plus > USB > ODAC > Leckerton UHA-6S > FSP
Portable: Galaxy Note 2 running UAPP > USB OTG > Leckerton UHA-6S > FSP
Albums Listened To (in Whole, or In Part):
Home Listening (ALAC, from 24/196 to 16/44)/Portable Listening (320kbps mp3, LAME):
2Pac, Greatest Hits; 7 Worlds Collide, Neil Finn and Friends Live at the St. James; Al Green, Greatest Hits; Athlete, Vehicles & Animals; Barenaked Ladies, Gordon; The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds; Belle & Sebastian, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant & If You’re Feeling Sinister; Bob Dylan, The Essential; Bob Seger, Greatest Hits; Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People; Busta Rhymes, When Disaster Strikes; Cat Stevens, 20th Century Masters; Eddie Vedder, Into The Wild (O.S.T.); Elephant Revival, Break In The Clouds; George Harrison, Let It Roll; Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman Masters; Johnny Cash, At Madison Square Garden; Kanye West, Yeezus; The Knife, Deep Cuts (US Reissue); Michael Jackson, Off the Wall; Neil Finn, One Nil & Dizzy Heights; New Order, The Best of New Order (International Version); The Outfield, Bangin’ & Play Deep; Outlandish, Sound of a Rebel; Paul Simon, Graceland; Pearl Jam, Twenty; Peter Paul and Mary, Platinum Edition; Pink Floyd, The Wall & Dark Side of the Moon; Queen, A Night At The Opera & The Game; The Reconnoiters, Broken Boy Soldiers; Rodriguez, Cold Fact; The Rolling Stones, Some Girls Live In Texas ’78; Sam Cooke, Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964; The Smiths, The Queen is Dead & The Smiths; Talking Heads, Remain in Light; Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes; Van Morrison, Moondance; Various Artists, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (O.S.T); The Who, The Very Best Of The Who; Zwan, Mary Star of the Sea
Aesthetics, Build Quality and Ergonomics:
This is where most, if not all, of my criticisms of the Focal Spirit Professional lay. As such, I think it’s best if I start here. First, to state the obvious: The Focal Spirit Professionals are much more fashionable than the NAD Viso HP50s. Beyond looks, I trust the gimbal/swivel mechanisms and headband's build quality more on the FSP than the HP50 as well. (I had to return my first HP50 because of defects in this area.) That being said, while I trust this area more than the HP50, I still think that the gimbal mechanism and headband on the FSP are the biggest problem area in terms of their design from a durability standpoint. As I understand it, the swivel mechanisms on Focal’s previous headphone (the Spirit One) were a problem area for the headphone. Focal appears to have done some reinforcement, as the cups no longer fold flat with the current design. This is a good improvement, but I’d like to see this area redone almost entirely in metal instead. It isn’t that isn’t possible to design a plastic swivel that is durable, it’s that their particular use of plastics here just doesn’t inspire complete confidence.
Speaking of not inspiring confidence: the headband on the FSP is creaky. As Tyll mentions in his video review of these phones on Innerfidelity, out of the box, the caliper pressure on these headphones is quite high. Because of the high caliper pressure, you might be enticed to stretch out the headband as a way of lessening the clamp. While Tyll does this with the Focal Spirit Classics in his video, I would really advise against doing this too much with the Professionals.
Focal assembled the headband on the Professionals with a series of three plastic pieces: two covered in the waterdrop finish (which is quite attractive), and one matte black with a “professional” logo on top/headband pad on bottom. Because of the way the headband is screwed together (with a pair of small Torx screws), when you bend the headband the bottom gap between the outer and inner plastic pieces open wider and the top parts push together and slightly inward.
I was curious about how this point would deal with increased stress so I opened mine up. Rather than a solid metal band through the middle of the headphone, the metal band for the adjustment mechanism starts at this attachment point and is held in place by a series of plastic pieces. When stretched, it is these small plastic pieces – not the metal band – that receive the stress from the exchange. If you put too much stress on this connection point, it will break. I really can’t estimate just how much this is, but it’s likely a lot less than what the Focal Spirit Classics can take. In my opinion, the headband is just not solid enough to risk too much stretching. If you choose to do so, please do so very carefully.
Thankfully, the high pressure seems to relieve itself on its own over a few days time. This is most likely due the softening of the memory foam pads, which are themselves very high quality. The center opening of the pads is a snug fit. The big problem with the pads seems to be that they are slightly *roundish* and slightly less oval than other pads.
This is a shot of the FSP pads next to the stock (not XL) V-Moda M-100 pads at even height. Notice how much taller the ear opening is? The FSP make up for it somewhat by being around 1.5x as deep as the M-100 pads. They are nowhere near as deep as the XL pads, however.
The HP50's pads are much roomier than the FSP's despite being roughly the same size. This is entirely due to their rectangular shape. People knock this design choice because of the way it looks, but it’s a serious advantage when comfort and fit come into play. That being said, I'm not having any significant comfort issues with the FSPs now that the pads have softened. The only headphone pads I’ve ever had a problem with were the Momentums, which just has far too narrow pads (3 mm narrower than the FSPs). As a special note for glasses wearers, since I am one, I haven't had any problems with getting a good seal. That being said, I wear a thin, metal frame so results may vary if you wear thicker frames.
I’ve made such a big deal about the headband and swivel mechanism build quality in part because the rest of the package is so near perfect. The rest of the headphone exudes quality design and craftsmanship. The packaging it comes in is great. It comes with nice cables, both a straight, short cable with a microphone and one button control and a longer coiled cable. The cable plug insertion is long and narrow. However, I was able to use both my V-Moda Audio Only cable and my NuForce Transient Cable with the FSP. That’s pretty great, as I’m a big fan of V-Moda’s cables.
The headphone also comes with a nice carry sack. Though, given what I’ve said about the headband construction, you may want to invest in a hard carry case. But enough about that, lets move on to the FSP’s sound quality.
These headphones sound very, very, very, very, very, very, very (...) good. Is that enough superlatives? I really can’t tell. The FSP’s treble isn't shelved or harsh. They don't seem to add undue coloration, which means to me that they sound great with practically every genre of music from Folk to Dubstep, from Black Metal to Baroque Pop. I’d describe them best as “genre-agnostic,” at least as far as pop music genres go. They have excellent tonality across the spectrum; I didn't hear any of the metallic sound that I seem to recall other users have mentioning on the forums. Whatever you want to call them: “neutral,” “even,” “balanced”…these are appropriate modifiers. I gave M-13 a hard time about using the word "truth" when describing these headphones, but I certainly do think the are "true" in the archery metaphor sense.
They have a very natural midrange and excellent vocal reproduction. This is in part due to the absence of coloration from the lack of a sizable midbass hump. If you’re used to this elevation being present, it might appear as if male voices and lower range reverb seem thinner than usual. I noticed/experienced this myself with two tracks in particular: Gil Scott Heron’s “Who Will Pay Reparation on My Soul?” and Neil Finn’s “Into The Sunset.” After two days of more of listening, I returned to those tracks and found that I had acclimated to the lower bass levels. That being said, I still find these two tracks more enjoyable on the NAD Viso HP50, which seems to have slightly more bass and treble. Note: I don’t think it was headphone burn in here with these two tracks as my perception change was too stark. I think it was almost entirely psychoacoustic acclimation/adaptation. It wasn’t the spoon that bent.
They isolate well and have definitely have a good, solid clamp for mobile use. Major plus: they are punchier than any other headphone that I've heard; the closest being the Sennheiser HD25 Amperior, which might be on par with it for sheer force. I can't think of another headphone that reproduces drums with the same kind of impact than these two. (For more on this, see the next section of this review.) While I was listening to the Busta Rhymes track "Turn It Up/Fire It Up (Remix)," I actually was startled by the sound of the popping ember at 1:18. Startled. That doesn't happen every day. What more, the popping ember sounded as though it came from a stoked campfire or fireplace. This is just one example of how good the timbre of the FSPs is. While I could go on about this, I’ll just use one more example: Elephant Revival’s “What is Time?” has an incredible twenty second washboard solo starting at 1:32. I find washboard to be an incredibly picky instrument to reproduce. Done badly, the instrument can sound like dull taps and a droning buzz. This is a headphone that gets washboard right.
To round out the sound quality section: the FSPs have excellent detail retrieval. These are not going to be headphones that you’ll use to find and categorize audio plankton (see: the much more expensive HD800s mentioned in Tyll’s review and enjoyed across the enthusiast community). However, you’re also not going to get false detail from them. For example, the Shure SHR840 in my experience is guilty of this. For me, the 840’s seem to produce false detail in the treble range. While other reviews have said that the HP50 has better resolution and detail especially at the high end, with my equipment – or maybe just with my ears – I can’t really hear a substantial difference in resolution between the two. I did think that the HP50 has a more expansive reproduction of space than the FSPs, but again not by that large an amount.
If you’re looking for something with a neutral presentation for work, these are it; if you’re simply looking for something to take you bouncing into Graceland, these will most certainly do that too.
Direct Comparison to the Sennheiser Amperior:
The Amperior and the FSP have quite a few commonalities. The FSPs have a forward presence region and the Amperiors have a forward upper midrange; these really contribute to their punchy-ness. They are both extremely dynamic, engaging phones with similar instrument timbre in the lows and midrange. (Not in the highs though, the Focal's are much better there as noted in the next paragraph.) They both have a very tight bass response that doesn't bleed heavily into other spectrums. They both have excellent detail retrieval.
On the other hand, the Amperiors are sibilant. The degree to which this is a problem is dependent on your source and if you listen to already sibilant recordings. With my own library, I've found it to be reasonably period/genre specific. If you like a lot of Classic Rock or Folk Rock, the Amperior's sibilance can punish you. (ex. Sixto Rodriguez’s Coming from Reality and Cold Fact are nearly unlistenable on the Amperiors. It is as though they were mastered by the Marquis de Sade himself. Seriously, audio paper cuts abound.) The Amperiors roll off a bit early on both low, low bass and high, high treble – but, in my opinion, this should be expected for their on ear form factor. They also have nearly zero soundstage. They have an average-sized midbass hump; the Amperior having a bit harsher highs than normal for a Sennheiser headphone balances this out. As such, the Amperiors don't feel particularly warm but they also aren’t dry or thin. As I mentioned before, their bass - despite the midbass elevation - is also clean and tight. I think this is what keeps them from sounding muddy despite the bass elevation. I think this bass elevation also contributes to their sense of punch, but it also colors recordings more than the FSPs.
The FSPs are the better sounding headphone by almost every metric. At three times the Amperior's current market price (you can routinely find them at $120 now), they had better be markedly better. The Amperiors are still a really good headphone though. They are definitely certainly durable than the FSPs and every piece of the headphone is user replaceable. I still wear the Amperiors over the FSPs in two situations: 1. I have to put a hat over my ears to keep them extra warm. The form factor lends itself to this type of use; 2. I'm going some place where my headphone might end up being used roughly, or when inclement weather might be a factor.
If you like the Sennheiser Amperior, I think you'll love the FSPs. For me, as mentioned in the introduction, they were the direct upgrade for said headphone. However, I think that the current line of quality closed headphones represents a little big of a sea change for the hobby. In late 2012, Tyll wrote in his Sennheiser Momentum review, "Any serious headphone audiophile will be happy to rattle off the things that are wrong with just about any 'Audiophile' headphone out there, and at some point we have to admit that being an audiophile headphone is just as much about not doing anything wrong as it is about doing particular things very right." With the FSP, the FSC, and the NAD HP50, I feel like we've finally got a series of closed phones that are not just playing a defensive game. They match up with the Olive-Welti-McMullen curve very well. They have a remarkably neutral character. Frankly, it's about damn time that the enthusiast community got a closed headphone that we could be excited about because of what it does well, not only just because it doesn't tragically fail at some part of the listening experience. Now, we have more than one of those headphones and that’s a very good place to be.
Lately, I’ve had a really tough decision to make between listening with my modified HD580s or putting on my FSPs. A good closed headphone should make this choice difficult. It should trouble the conventional wisdom that “open” unequivocally means “better,” in the way that I feel these phones do. Maybe I’ll change my tune after I hear more TOTL open headphones, but I’m not sure that I will.
The “You Were Right All Along” Award:
This special review shout out goes to Bixby, who responded to my original question in the Amperior thread right after I asked it with:
I don’t lament the journey, as it gave me considerable mid-fi closed phone experience. But, damned if you weren’t right spot on from the get go. Thanks! To everyone else still with me, thanks for reading.