Focus on Focal - Sphear S, Spark and Spark Wireless Earphone Review Roundup

Written by Paul Moons on . Posted in Audio

Focal Earphones RoundupFollowing up on our review last year of the very impressive Focal Sphear in-ear headphones, we now take a look at Focal’s 2017/18 lineup: The Sphear S, Spark and Spark Wireless earphones.

Read on for our review.

French audio company Focal has been creating acoustic equipment since 1979 in the home audio, headphones, car speakers and monitor fields. Focal entered the headphone market in 2012 with their first in-ear product appearing in 2015.

IT STARTS WITH A SPARK

Focal Earphones Roundup - SparkThe most inexpensive of Focal's in ear line up are the Spark earphones. Available in blue black and white, the Sparks are Focal’s entry-level earphones. Along with the earphones, the Sparks come with a neat carry pouch, a rudimentary quick start guide and a set of small, medium and large silicone tips.

The Spark earphones feature a flat non-tangle cable design, measuring 97cm from 3.5mm plug to the cylindrical Y separator. The driver units are a further 41cm up with the left side featuring a small control block housing the near ubiquitous previous/play/skip buttons and a microphone for use with mobile phones.

Focal Earphones Roundup - SparkOur black review unit was elegantly trimmed with silver throughout - on the 3.5mm plug, “Y” separator and control block. The gentle touch of silver really made these look elegant and refined from any angle. It’s fair to say that “entry-level” for Focal is a lot better than average!

The driver units themselves continue the high-end appearance with piano black once again intermingled with a stylish silver trim. While more cylindrical than the previously reviewed Sphear’s, the earphones retain the stylish Focal logo venting.

So the Spark’s certainly look the part but how do they sound?

Focal Earphones Roundup - SparkListening to a variety of tracks, from pop to metal to classical the Sparks performed well. Not only were they comfortable in ear but they had a nice even sound - perhaps a little too even. The clarity was a highlight with the strings on Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” being crisp and clear although as the song builds the sound flattens somewhat, especially compared to the Sphear’s from last year. Classical tracks like Handel’s messiah too sounded good but missed that extra pop. Interestingly AC/DCs Thunderstruck sounded quite good in its simplistic glory and the bass on Carly Rae Jepsem’s “Call Me Maybe” was solid, making good use of the Spark’s range. Bass was well produced, if pronounced on most tracks and while the mid-range seemed to get lost from time to time, the overall sound was quite agreeable to our ears.

The Sparks weren’t perfect by any stretch and while Focal lists the Sparks as entry-level earphones, we think they sound better than that moniker suggests.

SPARK WIRELESS

Focal Earphones Roundup - Spark WirelessFollowing design cues from the Sparks, the Spark Wireless bluetooth earphones lose some cable length and add Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity. Beyond the earphones themselves, the Spark Wireless package contains the same neat carrying pouch as the Sparks; a short (20cm) micro USB to USB A charging cable; a magnetic battery clip and three pairs of silicone tips (small, medium and large). A quick start guide and a wireless (Bluetooth) information sheet round out the package.

While our review sample was white, the Spark Wireless earphones are available in white, rose gold and black.

The design is similar to the Sparks in that a ribbon cable is used throughout: The total length of the cable from driver unit to driver unit is 59cm. 13cm from the left driver unit is the control block featuring the standard previous/play/skip buttons along with a small microphone. The control block also has a micro USB receptacle for charging which is hidden behind a small flap.

Focal Earphones Roundup - Spark WirelessA further 9cm down (and 26cm from the right driver unit) is a 4.5 x 1.5 x 0.7cm battery pack which gives the Spark Wireless up to 8 hours of uninterrupted playback.

Despite following the same basic ribbon design as the Spark’s, the look and feel of our white Spark Wireless earphones wasn’t nearly as eye catching as the black and silver trimmed Sparks. While the silver driver units were identical to the wired Sparks, the battery and control block looked decidedly entry level: Gone was the silver trim adorning the edges and in its place was plain white plastic with simple grey Focal branding on the control block and an embossed logo on the battery. While it wasn’t exactly awful, sitting next to the wired Sparks, the wireless variant did look a little pedestrian.

The pairing experience was on par with other headphones we have used: A five second push of the play button on the control block put the Spark Wireless in pairing mode which our iPhone SE picked up straight away.

Focal Earphones Roundup - Spark WirelessOn my first occasion wearing the Spark Wireless earphones in the usual-cord-behind-your-back-fashion I felt strangely uncomfortable. The weight of the battery pack coupled with my slight head movements seemed to cause my right earphone to slowly creep out. While this was alleviated by using the included magnetic battery clip, I discovered that wearing the Spark Wireless earphones around my chest was better: With the battery pack tucked into my T-shirt’s neck, the Spark Wireless earphones became somewhat more comfortable.

The remote control buttons worked as expected on iOS devices tested, although the double "boop" warning when the maximum volume was reached was accompanied by a barely audible digital alarm type sound beneath the “boop” which felt very much out of place.

Focal Earphones Roundup - Spark WirelessAfter working through our comfort level, we got to listening to the Spark Wireless with a variety of tracks. The sound for the most part was on par with that of the wired Sparks, although the highs seemed a little more restrained. The mid range remained flat but the bass was if anything slightly more pronounced. Like the wired Sparks before it, Sting’s Shape of my heart started strong but lost its way a little as the song progressed. Led Zeppelin’s "Immigrant Song's" highs sounded a little flatter but bass heavy tracks again won the day. The electronic bounce of the Rez Game Soundtrack sounded great with its beeps and bloops carried through various thumping bass lines. Classical music seemed flatter than most other genres while pop music like Wheetus’s “Teenage Dirtbag” sounded better as long as it didn’t get too complicated in the mid range.

While the volume was acceptable, even at maximum volume the Wireless Sparks weren't overly loud which ironically may be a consideration for those who are slightly deaf - or wish to be.

With regards to bluetooth connectivity, we experienced no real artefacting and the connection between our devices and the Spark Wireless earphones was good.

Also, in our usage, battery life was in line with Focal’s claims, giving us around eight hours of playtime at reasonable volumes.

AND FINALLY WE COME FULL CIRCLE, WELL.. SPHEAR

Focal Earphones Roundup - Sphear SLeading this group of earphones is Focal’s premier in ear listening device, the Sphear S. Having been most impressed with the original Sphear earphones, we were understandably keen to take a look.

Beyond the earphones themselves, the Sphear S package comes complete with a full set of both small, medium and large tips in both silicone and foam; a small carrying pouch and a short manual. While our Sphear S sample came in black, a rose gold option is newly available according to Focal's international website.

Focal Earphones Roundup - Sphear SUnlike the Spark earphones, the Sphear S earphones have more traditional cables and appear to be of the same non-tangle variety as their predecessor. In fact, other than an embossed ’S’ added to the rear of the control bulb where the cables meet, the new Sphear S earphones are pretty much indistinguishable from the outgoing Sphear (non S) earphones: Even the specifications are the same.

The Sphear S earphones have a total length of around 135cm from the driver units to the silver Focal branded 3.5mm mini-jack. 92cm from the 3.5mm mini-jack, the cables split at the play/pause/answer button where they fork out a further 40cm to each individual earphone. On the left fork is a small cylindrical microphone roughly 12cm from the left driver unit.

Focal Earphones Roundup - Sphear SBetween this cabling the connector, control button and ear phones continue to be impeccably built. The 3.5mm mini-jack is polished chrome with the focal branding etched onto its top and the the play/pause/answer button has a brushed aluminium look on its front with the Focal logo etched into it, just like the Sphear before it.

Like the rest of the package, the driver units are also indistinguishable from the original Sphears: They have a plastic black inside with a brushed aluminium exterior. The exterior has the familiar Focal logo meshed to provide a port for the acoustic chamber within. The metallic exterior rim is polished chrome and features neatly etched Focal branding at the top as per the 3.5mm plug.

Focal Earphones Roundup - Sphear SThe Sphear S earphones look a treat and while we like the look of the black Spark earphones, the Sphear S with their larger driver units and single button really do push that serious audiophile look.

Sound is such a relative beast. In isolation, the Spark (wired) earphones really sounded quite good. And they are. Except the Sphear S earphones are better.

Like last year’s Sphears, the Sphear S’s have ridiculously clear highs and accurate ear filling bass. The Sphear S sound is sharp and detailed. Everything sounds crisp like the old Sphears, making old favourites jump out at you like new. The mid range is less pronounced than the razor sharp highs but bass was reproduced accurately without being overblown or boomy.

Focal Earphones Roundup - Sphear SFor the Sphear S listening session we began with some Spiderbait. “Old Man Sam” burst to life with its guitar thwack and bass drum beat kicking along towards its ear piercing guitar barrage. The Sphear S effortlessly transitioned from the bass to the guitar attack without missing a beat while the boppy “It’s Beautiful” bounced and filled the soundstage with its sugary electronic guitar madness.

Handel’s Messiah similarly came to life with nuanced violins and atmosphere that just wasn’t present in the Sparks. The difference here is hard to describe but the sound from the Sphear S, in comparison just felt enveloping, almost live in its own right. Bass heavy tracks from the Beastie Boys sounded deep but not ridiculous. Focal have really balanced these earphones well, delivering accurate, focused sound.

Finally, it is worth noting that after a few hours of painstaking A/B testing, we really couldn’t hear a sonic difference between the new Sphear S earphones and last year’s original Sphears. And we’re okay with that.

SPECIFICATIONS

Focal Earphones Roundup - SparkSPARK

Impedence: 16Ohm
Sensitivity: 103dB
THD 1mW <0.3%
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20KHz
Driver: Electrodynamic Mylar 9.5mm
Microphone: Omnidirectional
Net Weight: 14g
Connector: 3.5mm Jack

Focal Earphones Roundup - Spark WirelessSPARK WIRELESS

Impedence: 16Ohm
Sensitivity: 103dB
THD 1mW <0.3%
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20KHz
Driver: Electrodynamic Mylar 9.5mm
Microphone: Omnidirectional
Net Weight: 14g
Battery: Up to 8 Hours
Bluetooth Version: 4.1
Distance: >15m

Focal Earphones Roundup - Sphear SSPHEAR S

Impedence: 16Ohm
Sensitivity: 103dB
THD 1mW <0.3%
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20KHz
Driver: Electrodynamic Mylar 10.8mm
Microphone: Omnidirectional
Net Weight: 15g
Connector: 3.5mm Jack

CONCLUSION

Focal Earphones RoundupThe Focal line up is a strong one. The Sphear S are as good as the original Sphears and as they are ostensibly indistinguishable, may very well be a simple rebranding - and considering how much we liked the original Sphears, there's nothing wrong with that.

The Spark Wireless were a decent sounding Bluetooth earphone but the design just didn't feel as refined as the others in the round up. Personally, I just couldn't get that comfortable with them. While the driver units sat in my ear well enough, there was something about the cable balance that didn’t sit right with me: Either the interconnects between the battery and driver units were too close together; or the balance of having the battery and microphone dangling from my ears was out; or maybe even just the wonkiness of my own head was the problem.. whatever the reason, the Spark Wireless earphones just didn't jive with me.

The Spark (wired) speakers however were the real surprise. They are the cheapest of the three earphones and while they aren't as sharp and meticulous as the Sphear S (or the original Sphears if you've just tuned in) for their price they are a very good sounding earphone.

While the Spear S's are the pick of the litter to be sure, if you’re on a budget the Spark earphones are just as eye catching and sound great. And if you own a pair of the original Sphears, maybe just etch a small 'S' on the rear of the controller.

The Spark, Spark Wireless and Sphear S earphones from Focal are available now from Addicted to Audio stores and online for $109AUD, $169AUD, and $199AUD respectively.

A gentle reminder: Listening is a very subjective experience and while we cannot attest to have super audiophile hearing, we can attest to liking music and knowing what we listen to. From old the school hip-hip, heavy metal, pop music and orchestral music, we sampled a variety of music with the Spark, Spark Wireless and Sphear S earphones for this review.

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