The Focal Spirit Professional – Accurate/Natural Sounding Closed Back Headphones

 

The Textured Finish of the Spirit Pro

The Textured Finish of the Spirit Pro

The bottom line for most field recording engineers goes something like this: “what I hear, better be what I get on this recording.” While great microphones are responsible for the actual pick-up of sound, an accurate pair of headphones is the key ingredient to making sound judgements. Whether one intends to record dialogue or stereophonic information, truly hearing the microphone(s) is essential for quality recording. Strapping headphones over your ears is always a compromise when compared to listening over speakers/monitors, but in some environments it is just unavoidable.

Enter the Spirit Professional headphones from Focal:

Over the past several years Focal has introduced several headphones, and their latest offering is aimed at the professional audio market. These cans sport a textured black spackle-paint for durability and memory foam headband/earpads. The speaker drivers are made of a mylar/titanium material which claims to have a balance of rigidity/lightness and high damping properties. All this engineering is to ensure the transducers are capable of delivering dynamic natural sound reproduction.

Fit and Comfort:

The shape of the ear pads are circumaural, that is, they are designed to rest around the ear. After using these headphones for weeks in the field, I have to say they offer excellent passive noise isolation, but the ear pads tend to press on the outer edges of my ear more than say the Sennheiser HD-600 circumaural design. While the foam used is comfortable , I find the pressure coupled with the slightly smaller pads to limit my use to 45 min- before removing them for relief. This is not a complete deal breaker, as I don’t wear headphone all day and often remove them when between recording takes. Still, if maximum long term comfort are your goals in a sealed headphone, you may want to investigate other options.

Listening:

My first test for these headphones involved using direction microphones. Both Schoeps cardiod and shotgun mics were employed to record a variety of male and female voices in various acoustic environments. Schoeps are know for having an even frequency response across the polar patern. Even so, I was impressed with the Focal Spirit Pro’s ability to translate the slightest of off-axis positions to the human voice being picked up. Yes, the Schoeps have a wider sweet spot than most directional condensers, but getting the best position was aided with use of the Focal headphones.

The Spirit Pro’s also held up well when making stereo microphone adjustments. When I found myself without speakers to monitor, the Focal’s presented enough front-to-back depth and imaging to make appropriate balance adjustments. I certainly still prefer to do this type of balancing with speakers, but to my surprise the Focal’s closed-back design permitted me to hear into a recording, rather than just being a completely flat soundstage, or blob of sound. These headphones also have an excellent frequency response. Even though they are strapped close to your ear, I could hear problematic rumble from infrasound and wind more easily than my previous Sony 7509/7510. With Sound effect recording, these cans reproduces all the nuance that I so often find glossed over with professional headphones.

Focal Spirit Professional-circumaural, memory foam, detachable cable

Focal Spirit Professional-circumaural, memory foam, detachable cable

Listening to Music: 

For the audiophile or music lover that insists on headphone listening, the Spirit Pro’s tell the truth. That is, flaws in recordings stick out, and well engineered recordings sound gorgeous. The comfort of these headphones will prevent most users from wearing them for long periods, and the precise nature of the Focal’s means that most details are more upfront than cans like the Sennheiser HD-600( I know the HD-600 is an open back design, but still a reference from my orchestral recording). As an engineer I don’t mind that the Spirit Pro’s aren’t as gentle or sexy as the HD-600’s. Rather, I’ll take sheer resolution over a laid back sound.

Aside from my own recordings, I chose some familiar recordings such as Buena Vista Social Club, Karajan Beethoven. For Modern recordings I used tracks from Beach House and Stereolab. Listening to orchestral recordings made in halls with lovely acoustics sounded fantastic on the Focal Spirit Pro. Where as modern pop recordings could sometimes benefit from the gentler presentation of the HD-600’s.  While engineering decisions could be made with the Sennheisers, I felt the Focals’s allowed me to more readily hear any issues going on with a recording. For pure listening pleasure, I might look elsewhere as the Focals are more a tool than a pure pleasure listening headphone.

Included Cables; coiled, straight w/ smartphone mic, 1/4 screw on adapter

Included Cables; coiled, straight w/ smartphone mic, 1/4 screw on adapter

If you are looking for a headphone that will help you make decisions about mic placement and EQ adjustments, then the Focal Spirit Pro ranks high in my book. In addition to being solid and neutral in sound, they also do a superb job with passive noise isolation. On the other hand if you are more interested in long term comfort I would look at other models. Even though I have been disappointed with headphones for making sonic decisions in the past, I can clearly say the Spirit Pro gives me an assured even response that allow me to work effectively and efficiently.

 

Associated Equipment:

Sound Devices 744t

Great River MP-2NV

Benchmark Media ADC1

Crane Song Avocet

Meridian Explorer

 

 

Morning Phase by Beck and Quality Control

Beck's New Album Morning Phase

Beck’s New Album Morning Phase

Beck Hansen’s new album is said to be a sequel to Sea Change (2002). Released at the end of February 2014, Morning Phase brings the confessional and  slowly building song style that first appeared on the Sea Change album.

It certainly follows in the same instrumentation and song writing style of Sea Change, but I also noticed a bit more Country or Americana influences on Beck’s latest offering. Pulling you in slowly but steadily, this gentle album is masterfully constructed and begs to be listened to from start to end.

I would like to tip my hat to Michael Lavorgna over at Audiostream for investigating the HD Tracks 24/96 version of Morning Phase. You can read more about it here.

This brings up a couple of points. Firstly, releasing an album in 24 bits with heavy limiting and compression just doesn’t make much sense. This is mainly because the available dynamic range is not being used. Also noted was that many of the tracks were upsampled from 48Khz to 96Khz SR.

I understand that Beck and other artists presumably choose to release their albums with the sonic signature that they feel represents the style and sound they want. It just makes me wonder if the artists, producers, and engineers enjoy the distorted artifacts that heavy limiting produces.

There is a device called a Distressor (Emperical Labs) that is used to produce a compressed and harmonically related sound while mixing drums and other instruments. This type of sonic coloring is a choice and can be used in a very musical way. On the other hand, artifacts introduced by digital limiting are harsh and in my opinion sonically unrelated to the fundamental note.

While I have yet to hear the vinyl, consensus is that it is the superior format. Records must be mastered differently and for physical limitations of the medium (Vinyl) cannot be compressed or limited like a digital format. Anyone heard the vinyl of this yet?

Always Listening,

-HiFiQC

Benchmark’s ADC-1 Still Going Strong

Benchmark ADC 1 analog to digital converter

Benchmark ADC 1 analog to digital converter

I’ve been encountering Benchmark Media systems for years. From the earlier days of the modular System 1000 (distributed audio, mic preamps and AD/DA converters) to more recent products like the ADC 1 and DAC1/DAC 2. The DAC 1 made huge impact on the Pro Audio and computer audiophile scene, and now the DAC 2 is providing DSD conversion over USB for even greater file compatibility.

Not quite as popular, but equally impressive is the ADC 1 analog-to-digital converter. And Guess what? The editor over at Stereophile recently revisited the Benchmark unit and sang its praise. He compared it to an Ayre QA-9, and you can read the details here. I’m unsure why he did not compare the two units with the same sample rate, but overall you get the impression that he has appreciated the ADC-1’s  clarity and accuracy.

In my experience, the ADC 1 provided a solid and clear image of my stereo ORTF mics and Omni Flank mics. When paired with a clean mic preamp (Grace, Crane Song Flamingo) you can rest assured that what you hear is what you get.  From Orchestral Recording to Sound Effects, the Benchmark Media ADC 1 provides a sure fire way to get a jitter-free recording, not to mention a great dynamic range.

-HIFIQC

Introducing Moon Professional 3500MP

You may be familiar with Canada’s Sim Audio, they’ve been producing top quality audiophile equipment since the 80’s.  And if my phono preamp is any indication, this new offering in the form of a microphone preamplifier should be interesting. The headroom is very high, 32dBu! No overload indicator or level meters are provided. Take a closer look at the Moon Professional 3500MP:

Moon Professional 3500MP

Moon Professional 3500MP

  • A “purist design” for optimal sonic performance and lowest possible noise floor.
  • AC-coupled transformerless design for increased bandwidth and more accurate sonic reproduction.
  • Wide gain range of 8.0 to 66dB with -3.5dB of variable output trim.
  • Metal film resistors and polypropylene film capacitors.
  • 2 fully independent audio channels, each on separate printed circuit boards.
  • No electrolytic capacitors in the signal path (non-phantom mode).
  • Built-in Power supply using 2 ultra-low noise toroidal transformers (1 for the audio signal circuits; 1 for 48V phantom and control circuitry).
  • Housed in an isolated enclosure constructed from satin coated 14-gauge steel, designed to eliminate all traces of AC artifacts.
  • Swiss-made 24-position gain potentiometers featuring gold-plated contacts and thinsurface-mounted film resistors with 1% tolerances.
  • High-reliability sealed relays and toggle switches.
  • High current output stage to accommodate very long cable runs and capable of driving 600ohm loads.
  • Rigid external chassis with solid aluminum front and side panels and heavy gauge steel on the top, bottom and rear panels for shielding from RF, EMI and external vibrations.
  • Circuit board with pure copper tracings and gold plating that yields low impedance characteristics.
  • Designed to be powered up at all times for optimal performance.
  • Low operating temperature to ensure long life.

Listening to the Hegel HD20 DAC…and Beyond

Hegel HD20 DAC from Norway

Hegel HD20 DAC from Norway

Digital-to-analog converters have come a long way, and it seems like there is no end in sight. Precise timing of the samples in a digital stream of audio can make the difference between music being reproduced naturally or with some haze and artifacts. And like many DACs the Hegel HD 20 reclocks the incoming signal for the lowest possible jitter. In addition to this reclocking, Hegel also uses a special imepedance correcting input (coax 1) to ensure the best sound from a standard RCA terminated digital cable.

At first glance this unassuming black box simply has digital inputs and analog outputs on the rear with a simple blue LCD display on front. The power supply is built-in, and a supplied remote controls the input selection and digital volume. The remote may also be used to control your computer if the DAC is connected through USB (which is limited to 96kHz SR). 2 coaxial digital inputs on RCA, one optical input, and one USB input are supplied. Analog outputs come in 2 flavors; single-ended RCA and balanced XLR.

Rear of the Hegel HD20

Rear of the Hegel HD20

In Use: The Hegel’s balanced outputs connected directly into my amplifier as well as my monitor controller for two setups. 1)The direct-to-amp scenario requires using the built-in digital volume, which can leave something to be desired when played at low volume settings. 2)When connected through my class A monitor controller via XLR the sound was tight, smooth and detailed. The space of the stereo image was well-defined and localization of instruments was clear. Funny enough, we found that coax 2 provided this tighter larger stereo image compared to coax 1 (with the impedance correction).

Playing acoustic music through my Green Mountain Audio Eos HX was natural and defined with the HD20. If it has any sound signature, I would say it is relaxed and detailed. Nothing in the mixes I listened to sounded hyped or overly detailed. The beauty of this DAC was its ability to stay organic and 3 dimensional in the home environment.

Using the HD20 with a dedicated headphone amp was may favorite. The sound is spacious, natural….just plain listenable. Many of my favorite Jazz recordings came through my HD-600 headphones with a smoothness that made music listening a treat. Combined with the CI Audio headphone amp, the Hegel truly shined.

Opting for the USB input allowed me access to internet radio and computer audio files. This USB input  is limited to 96kHz SR. While this is certainly a convenient feature, it lacks the full sample rate handling for high-definition downloads..

Other than the coaxial 1 input issues, I was impressed with the large natural sound stage and the organic timbre that the Hegel HD20 was capable of delivering. Now with the introduction of the Hegel HD25, the company has harnessed current 32 bit DAC chipsets, and allowed the full 192Khz SR over the USB input. In addition, the NEW HD25 also allows you to choose between two different digital filters to suit your tastes. While I have not auditioned this new DAC offering, I can certainly say that if the HD20 is any sonic indication, an audition of the new HD25 from Hegel is a must.