SoundMag - - Review -

It was in­deed. From the get-go—and es­pe­cially af­ter a few days of break-in—the So­pra No1 was ut­terly en­thralling. Fo­cal’s beryl­lium tweeter is surely the best in the busi­ness, and the air, open­ness, and del­i­cacy of the top oc­taves equaled or even sur­passed what’s achieved with many elec­tro­static or rib­bon trans­duc­ers. Mu­si­cal data liv­ing largely in the up­per fre­quen­cies had a pen­e­trat­ing en­ergy and pres­ence with­out a trace of ag­gres­sive­ness. I learned a lot about what the Fo­cals could do in this re­gard from lis­ten­ing to dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of 1970s rock/pop ma­te­rial. Here is mu­sic that was recorded with ana­log gear and in­tended for vinyl play­back. From a CD or even high-res­o­lu­tion dig­i­tal file, the “short­com­ings” of th­ese record­ings come to the fore—a lack of deep bass and a po­ten­tially weary­ing peak­i­ness to voices and in­stru­ments with lots of up­per par­tials such as cym­bals or closely miked acous­tic gui­tars. By way of ex­am­ple, I’m told that Joni Mitchell used Martin gui­tars equipped with steel strings to record her clas­sic al­bum Blue. With an av­er­age vinyl press­ing, the dy­namic im­me­di­acy and rhyth­mic im­pe­tus of Mitchell’s ac­com­pa­ni­ment pro­vides a per­fect coun­ter­point to the vo­cal con­tour of a song like “Lit­tle Green.”Too of­ten, even the finest dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions (the HDTRACKS 192/24 ver­sion, for in­stance) have the gui­tars seem­ing jar­ring and jan­gly, to the point of be­com­ing a dis­trac­tion from the gen­tle wist­ful­ness of the song. The So­pras re­stored the in­de­fectible unity of the lyri­cal and in­stru­men­tal as­pects of “Lit­tle Green,” as heard from the hi-res file. I felt much the same about other ma­te­rial I love from this era, songs sup­ported pri­mar­ily by acous­tic gui­tars—CS&N’s “You Don’t Have To Cry” or Todd Rund­gren’s “Love of the Com­mon Man,” and so many oth­ers.

The So­pra’s faith­ful­ness to the over­tone struc­ture of more un­usual mu­si­cal sounds is an­other man­i­fes­ta­tion of the level of per­for­mance achieved with the loud­speaker’s top end. In Igor Stravin­sky’s faux-baroque mas­ter­piece Pul­cinella, based on mu­sic by Per­golesi, at the close of the “Scherzino” move­ment, the com­poser wants to im­i­tate the sound of a lute. The ob­vi­ous mod­ern in­stru­ment for the job is the harp—but the pared-down or­ches­tra­tion for Pul­cinella doesn’t in­clude one. So Stravin­sky, good stu­dent of Rim­sky-Kor­sakov that he was, fig­ured out an­other way to ac­com­plish his end, by hav­ing cel­los play pizzi­cato open fifth har­mon­ics. Stravin­sky’s in­ge­nious so­lu­tion—cel­los im­i­tat­ing harp im­i­tat­ing lute—has the de­sired ef­fect and we hear it clearly through the So­pra No1s. Of course, the stel­lar per­for­mance of the tweeter wouldn’t mat­ter if it weren’t suc­cess­fully tran­si­tioned to the mid/woofer driver. The ma­te­ri­als com­pris­ing the W-sand­wich cone and the improvements to the sus­pen­sion ev­i­dently make for an ex­traor­di­nar­ily un­col­ored midrange. The cross­over fre­quency is a high-ish 2.2kHz and the hand­off is ac­com­plished in­vis­i­bly to as­sure the in­tegrity of solo voices, male and fe­male, and all in­stru­men­tal sonori­ties.

De­tail re­trieval is first-rate. It’s a cliché to make an ob­ser­va­tion such as this, but small fe­lic­i­ties in com­plex pop mixes that had es­caped my at­ten­tion for decades sud­denly seemed ut­terly es­sen­tial: claves on the ti­tle cut from Paul

Si­mon’s Grace­land or the nu­ances of the Ea­gles’ back­ground har­monies on “New Kid in Town.”

The sub­tleties that one used to have to go un­der head­phones to ap­pre­ci­ate are ev­i­dent through loud­speak­ers op­er­at­ing in the po­ten­tially de­tai­lob­scur­ing en­vi­ron­ment of a room. Imag­ing, typ­i­cally a strength of small stand-mounted speak­ers, is ex­em­plary, mak­ing cham­ber mu­sic and small jazz group record­ings es­pe­cially ab­sorb­ing. Dy­nam­ics are strik­ing for a loud­speaker this size, or any size, re­ally. Pow­er­ful, vir­tu­osic pi­ano mu­sic makes the point nicely. Lis­ten­ing to the vi­o­lently driven “Pre­cip­i­tato” fi­nale of Prokofiev’s Pi­ano Sonata No. 7 (played by Matti Raekallio), Mes­si­aen’s “Re­gard de l’Esprit de joie” from Vingt re­gards sur l’en­fant Jé­sus (Alice Ader) or Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (Mi­noru No­jima) was the in­tense and po­ten­tially ex­haust­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it should be with a good per­for­mance.

Dy­nam­ics and loud­ness, of course, are not the same thing and one has to be rea­son­able about how loud you ask the So­pra No1s to play. The fairly small size of my room may ex­plain why I was usu­ally able to achieve sat­is­fy­ing volume with­out a sense of stress, even with mu­sic meant to be ex­pe­ri­enced at at­ten­tionget­ting DB lev­els—hard rock, Mahler, 19th cen­tury French or­gan mu­sic. Just don’t turn it up to 11; settle for eight-and-a-half. Then there’s the is­sue of bass.

The So­pra No1 is down 6dB at 41Hz (-3dB at 45Hz) but is ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing the nec­es­sary vis­ceral bass/drums foun­da­tion of well-recorded rock or the weight of an orches­tra’s string bass sec­tion. I did, of course, try adding a sub­woofer. I have a good one, the pas­sive Wil­son WATCH Dog, pow­ered by a Para­sound A23 bridged to pro­duce 400 watts. I spent a good deal of time me­thod­i­cally vary­ing the low fre­quency roll-off for the So­pras, the up­per fre­quency roll-off for the sub, and tried nu­mer­ous volume, po­lar­ity, and phase ad­just­ments to the sub­woofer sig­nal. There was no prob­lem in­creas­ing the amount of bass in the room but not with­out com­pro­mis­ing the of-apiece sonic fab­ric that this Fo­cal speaker cre­ates on its own. En­larg­ing the scale of the low end so it was dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the rest of the fre­quency spec­trum was coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. If you like what the So­pra does for the highs and the mid­band but feel un­der­served when it comes to bass or volume, you need a big­ger So­pra. The So­pra No2 ups the ante con­sid­er­ably when it comes to low-end out­put and co­her­ence at high lev­els; by the time you’re read­ing this, the even larger So­pra No3 ($20,000) will be avail­able as well.

Per­haps the most telling part of the au­dio­phile loud-speaker re­view process is what hap­pens when all the crit­i­cal lis­ten­ing has fin­ished. In many in­stances, when I feel I’m ready to write, I’ll pack up the speak­ers un­der con­sid­er­a­tion and fire up the ref­er­ence Wil­son Duette 2s that have been wait­ing pa­tiently in the hall­way off the lis­ten­ing room. With the So­pra No1s, I felt com­pelled to hear them play mu­sic un­til the last pos­si­ble mo­ment. The truck pick­ing up the Fo­cals for the trip back to their U.S. dis­trib­u­tor, Au­dio Plus Ser­vices, showed up ear­lier than an­tic­i­pated. The driver called up from the street and I told him to re­turn later as I scram­bled to fin­ish dis­as­sem­bling the So­pra No1s and get their con­stituent parts back into the card­board boxes. Some­times it’s hard to say good­bye.

The Fo­cal So­pra No 1 is avail­able now for RRP $14,250.

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