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

 

 

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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.

The HiFiQC Method For Stereo Microphone Isolation

Schoeps UMS 20 Stereo Bar mounted to Rycote Lyre suspension

ORTF with UMS 20 Stereo Bar mounted to Rycote Lyre suspension

Recording music and sound effects with carefully placed stereo microphones can present some challenges. Since directional microphones are more sensitive to infrasonic noise, special attention should be taken when placing them in various environments. Wind, machines, automobile traffic, and footsteps can all cause rumble or noise to build-up and eventually reach your microphones. The low-frequency nature of these sounds can take up precious headroom in your audio recordings. While wind (blowing on the capsules) can be tamed with various foam enclosures (the W5D is my favorite for Schoeps) don’t forget to isolate mechanical vibrations from reaching your mics too. After trying elastic shockmounts alone, I devised 3-part system to better isolate my ORTF stereo array (also works for MS, XY, and Blumlein) from infrasonic disturbances .

A 3/8 inch mic mount threading adapter allows me to eliminate the 20 mm Schoeps mounting adapter, saving 38 grams of weight

A 3/8 inch mic mount threading adapter allows me to eliminate the 20 mm Schoeps mounting adapter, saving 38 grams of weight

To start, Rycote has a non-elastic suspension made of a super-strong thermoplastic called Hytrel. And unlike elastic, it won’t sag and eventually wear-out (so far, so good). After being impressed with a Rycote Invision suspension for a single Schoeps mic, I decided to see if a solution existed for isolating 2 Schoeps mics arranged on the UMS 20 stereo bar.

After some digging, I came across the Rycote portable recorder suspension and wondered if it might work since the weight of the stereo bar and mics was nearly identical to most portable recorders. As you can see from the picture above, this model easily supports and isolates the Schoeps universal stereo bracket with mics attached.

Carbon Fiber Disc and Sorbothane Hemisphere

Carbon Fiber Disc and Sorbothane Hemisphere

Using a microphone suspension is certainly one method to help prevent vibrations from reaching your mics, but what about infrasonic born vibration from foot traffic, cars nearby, or HVAC compressors. These disturbances can travel up your mic stand and into your microphone.

After experiencing issues from foot steps and traffic rumble, I worked on a solution to isolate the microphone tripod from the ground itself. Both Carbon Fiber and Sorbothane are materials known to dissipate mechanical energy. So, I settled on Sorbothane hemispheres attached to an equal diameter carbon fiber disc.  Sorbothane works best when compressed under a range of weight (depending on size and Duro rating of hemisphere). By choosing a durometer rating of 50 in the 1.5″x.75″ Sorbothane hemisphere, 7-14 pounds of weight on each tripod leg could be isolated.  And after adding some 8 lbs sand bags to my tripod, I was able to get the load heavy enough to make the Sorbothane hemishpere’s truly effective.

Sorbothane being displaced by the weight of microphone stand

Sorbothane being compressed by the weight of microphone stand and sandbags

Lastly, but equally important is making sure your microphone cables do not transmit cable-borne noise to the microphone body. Carefully dressing your mic cables around the tripod is essential to preventing vibrations from reaching your mic. With the help of velcro cable wraps, you can neatly run your mic cables, but don’t forget to pay attention to where and how they are laid on the ground. In some cases you may need to isolate the cable on the ground too.

For those looking for an even smaller stereo mic setup with windjammer possibilities…Check out this ORTF setup with Schoeps CCM mics, Rycote Lyre suspension, and even a Rycote connobox to eliminate cable handling noise!

Happy Recording,

-HiFiQC

Crane Song Avocet…now you know

Most audiophiles will not be familiar with the brand Crane Song. That’s because David Hill, the chief designer,is known more in the pro audio world for producing quality compressors, EQ’s, AD/DA’s, and mic pre amps. He even tackled transparent audio monitoring with a Class A studio controller named the Avocet. Although other pre amps and monitor switchers exist, the Avocet provides accuracy and features that truly set it apart from other stereo monitor/DAC devices.

The DAC provided on the Avocet accepts sample rates up to 192Khz. This type of DAC locks to an incoming PCM signal and upsamples the data to reduce jitter while then running through a class A output path. The quality and sheer resolving power of the Avocet’s DAC is quite an achievement at this price point. You would have to spend considerably more to surpass the digital conversion contained onboard.

The Avocet ($2,800USD) comes in two pieces. A 2U mainframe houses all the physical inputs and outputs; 3 XLR analog, 3 AES/dual wire,1 RCA digital, 3 XLR analog outputs, and a headphone jack.. The RS232 compliant remote contains square buttons that are color coded. Speaker selection buttons are provided (expandable for surround), while other features include; dim, mute, phase, mono, and 16 bit truncation functions, even a talkback function. The highly accurate volume level is achieved through remote-controlled relays within the main chassis. A large green rotary knob on the remote has 24 LEDs and 2 dB level markings surrounding its perimeter. Even though only 24 LEDs surround the knob, 48 dB of level range is displayed by one or two LEDs being illuminated at a time. All in all, you are given a 48 dB range in 1 dB increments.

All the six inputs buttons serve a dual purpose. Pressing the button once selects that input. When you press and hold that button again, it begins to flash. This indicates level offset mode. Adjusting the level of that input is available in 0.5 dB steps. This is especially useful when comparing various sources. The way a mix sounded prior to the mastered (version) output with levels matched allows a mastering engineer to make qualitative assessments on his or her work. More so, this is a way audiophiles could compare various hardware and software sources. By level matching the two sources, you can easily switch between them and hear possible sonic differences. This is a great way to level match and assess various outboard DACs, SACD players, speakers, even different versions of the same recording.

Whether you work professionally with audio or use various sources to enjoy music, the Crane Song Avocet will provide you with original inventive features while always maintaining sonic integrity. This pre amp/monitor selector truly stands out with features that bring the user closer to the original recording.

-My highest recommendation!

Crane Song Website