A classy-looking speaker with a refined sound
FOR Refined balance; excellent resolution; superb treble; build AGAINST Could do with a bit more punch and attack
When two large, trunk-sized boxes arrived at What Hi-fi? headquarters, we wondered how we could have misjudged the size of the Focal Sopra No.1s so badly. Expecting to review conventional medium-sized standmounters, the packaging suggested something the size of a stout pig.
Opening the boxes reveals that dedicated stands are included, one per box. Mystery solved. They’re nice stands too, with thick glass bases, wooden columns and metal top plates. They’re easy to assemble, stable and have given some thought to cable management. The speakers bolt onto the stands, which makes things pleasantly secure.
Anyone familiar with Focal’s high-end Utopia and Electra ranges will note the similarities. There’s the company’s trademark 25mm inverted beryllium dome – one of the sweetest and most capable tweeters we’ve heard – alongside a 16.5cm ‘W’ mid/bass driver.
The mid/bass cone uses a sandwich construction with a core of specially designed foam between two sheets of glass fibre. This structure is designed to deliver the speaker-cone Holy Grail of light weight, rigidity and good damping.
Focal makes the drive units in-house, so has a great deal of flexibility when it comes to fine-tuning the cone’s performance to match the intended use. This is, potentially at least, a massive advantage over its competitors.
The cabinet is one of the company’s usual hefty affairs. Great care has been taken in getting the time-alignment right between the drivers, which bodes well for the focus and integration of the sound. So far, so very Focal.
Look beyond the rather predictable headline tech details and you’ll find there are also plenty of new things to consider. That inverted dome may look familiar, but Focal’s engineers have had a determined go at improving performance by dealing with the compression effects of the air behind it.
Round the back
The rear-firing sound is now fed into a damped chamber before exiting to the outside world through a flared horn. This is what the grille at the back of the No.1s covers. Such a design not only reduces dynamic compression, but also improves treble purity.
The mid/bass driver hasn’t been left alone either. Its motor system has been redesigned to reduce distortion, and plenty of work has been done to the surround to help the driver deliver more accurate results.
The 1’s cabinet does a passable impression of a granite boulder. At 19kg, it’s heavy – and that figure pretty much doubles when you add the stands. The general level of finish is as good as you’d expect at this price, though we notice some minor paint flaws around the bolt holes in the speaker’s base on our review sample. There’s a choice of five finishes: one wood option – walnut – and four lacquered paint finishes (white, black, red and orange).
These Focals deserve top-class partnering kit, so we use Naim’s NDS/555PS streamer and the Clearaudio Innovation Wood turntable as sources. The Gamut D3i/d200i pre/power combination delivers the grunt, with Naim’s NAC N272/250DR providing back-up. Our phono stage is Cyrus’s Phono Signature powered by the PSX R2 outboard supply. Chord Company and Naim provide all the cables.
These standmounters aren’t unduly fussy about positioning. We end up with them out into the room with a slight angle towards the listening position. Tonality is nicely balanced in this position. No speaker that stands 43cm high is ever going to deliver oodles of deep bass, but the Sopras compensate with an impressive level of agility and precision at low frequencies.
A sweeter tweeter
We’re big fans of the sound of Focal’s beryllium dome, and here it performs better than ever thanks to the work done on handling the backward radiation. Highs sound open and refined, but still have enough bite to convince.
There’s an astonishing amount of detail on offer, and we’re impressed with the way these speakers render harmonically rich instruments such as
”We’re big fans of the sound of Focal’s beryllium dome tweeter, and here it performs better than ever thanks to the work done on handling the backward radiation”
cymbals. The sound is delivered with believable presence and crisp edges without sounding the least bit harsh.
Listen to Here’s The Tender Coming from The Unthanks and everything clicks into place – the speaker’s midrange is spellbinding. It’s subtle, articulate and massively informative. The group’s vocals are handled superbly, the nuances delivered with considerable skill. We’re impressed by the natural presentation and the way the 1’s keep the instrumental backdrop organised and cohesive.
Expansive New World
Moving on to Dvořák’s New World
Symphony shows off the Focals’ expansive stereo imaging and ability to layer a soundstage with precision. It’s a fluid presentation, informative and entertaining in equal proportions. Dynamics are good, the Sopras delivering low-level shifts with conviction.
Like every speaker of this size, larger-scale crescendos lack a bit of authority and reach, but you’ll need to move onto bigger, floorstanding models to get a notable improvement here.
Play something such as The Roots’
Thought Is Like and the Focals don’t sound quite so comfortable. They’re a little too polite, lacking the punch and attack to draw us into the music. Rhythmically things are decent, but not quite able to latch onto this hardcharging tune with the grip it deserves.
There’s no questioning the Sopras’ refinement though – they refuse to overstate the recording’s coarse nature – nor their ability to unravel the complex production without sounding too clinical.
The Sopra No.1s are impressively sophisticated speakers. They’re refined, forensic and pleasing in their ability to organise all that information effectively. Listen to classical or smaller-scale vocal-based music and the 1s are eloquent and charming and right up there with the finest speakers at this price. But if you like your music to have edge, and want some speakers that will get your toes tapping rather than just your brain engaged, others do better.
The Sopra No.1s’ letter-box reflex port is sited underneath the cable terminals
Rear-firing tweeter sound exits through a flared horn via a damping chamber
The idiosyncratic styling strikes you first, then you notice the solid build