We're studio rats. We're never happy with our speakers or our headphones. It's always onto the next thing, until we sigh and go crawling back to an old favorite. Or do we sometimes find a new favorite?
Focal, the excellent French monitor/speaker company, have come out with a model of pro headphones, known as the, erm... Spirit Professional. Okay, sure, but can they earn the second part of their name? These cans take the form of typical studio headphones, with the over-the-ear (memory foam cushioned) pads and closed-back style we see a lot of. They come with two detachable, swappable cables (easy to fix!): a shorter, straight cable with a mic for use with mobile phones; and a longer, spiral cable with no mic. I sure wish Focal had included a longer, straight cable with no mic, as spiral cables always get tangled and caught, and this inline mic does affect the sound quality very slightly. Both cables terminate in 1/8'' plugs with a screw-on 1/4'' adapter, and the adapter didn't ever come loose on me. Mylar/titanium alloy transducers are inside, and given that Focal designs and builds all of their monitors from the ground up, you can imagine that some real R&D went into creating these headphones.
My initial test for these cans was sink-or-swim, and I'm kinda surprised I did this looking back. I had a session where I was recording musicians live at Portland's Ace Hotel, performing semi-acoustic (no monitoring for the players), and I was mixing live through an Allen & Heath MixWizard [Tape Op #47] onto two tracks of my Apogee Duet 2 [#89]. There was no room for misunderstanding what the headphones were telling me on this gig, and stupidly, I didn't even bring any backup cans that I was familiar with. Luckily, I didn't need any. I put my faith in Focal, and figured if these headphones failed here, I'd be able to point out any flaws with a vengeance. Instead, in a very difficult environment, I was able to attain the best mixes so far at this annual event. I could tell that the low end was working, and even with all the sound happening around me, the headphones could get really loud without crapping out. Check the sessions out for yourself: <jackpotcoversportland.com>.
Back in the studio, comparing the Spirit Professional to other headphones lying around Jackpot! didn't seem fair, as most of these are street priced between $100 and $150. But I went ahead and compared the other headphones, listening to material that I'd mixed or knew very well. Thoughts? In some cases, the high-end details seemed similar, and on the best examples, the mix depth was almost close, but in no case did the detail and quality of the low-end frequencies even compare to that of the Spirit Professional. In fact, that's one of the main qualities these headphones bring to the table; the detail and presence of sounds below 200 Hz is astounding. This isn't just some silly bass bump - it's pure clarity. Even for casual listening at home, it is stunning how much more information is being cleanly and accurately reproduced right on your ears. The main soundstage is quite amazing as well, and I've felt that I could see far deeper into mixes (my own and others') on these cans than on any other headphones I've used. Panning doesn't seem as split, if that makes any sense, and phantom center seems more solid than with other headphones somehow. (How could this be? I dunno. Just better driver design and closer matching of components, I assume.) I know we've all been told to be wary of mixing on headphones, and I know why, but when you get cans of Spirit Professional's quality, you start getting tempted - and I bet I could pull off an all-headphone mix with these, and no one would know.
For fun, I compared the Spirit Professional to some recently debuted consumer headphones. Wow. The thin, papery, blaring tones, as well as the muted high end, lack of depth, and strangely off-balance low end (50 Hz but no 100 Hz?) of the consumer headphones contrasted massively with the Focal's.
Oh yeah, another test I gave these headphones was the "no carrying case, toss in bag" run-through. During my Ace sessions, I stuffed them into a backpack full of cables and hard drives. Then I took them to sessions with me via courier bag and bicycle, again with no care about cases or what was in the bag with them (food, iPad, etc.). I also dropped them on the ground at least once per day. These headphones still look brand new after a month of solid use and abuse; nothing came loose or broke; and the bumpy black finish seems to hide or abate any nicks or scratches.
It's kinda unreal how good these are. I'm telling you that they earned the name Professional right out of the gate, and I'm buying the set I was sent.