FOCAL SOPRA NO1
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.