I struggled. Working my way through the discrimination tests on the Critical Listening for Studio Production course proved hard without good headphones. Not only did I need isolation from the smallest environmental noise but phones that didn’t have an inherent ‘sound’ and phones with a genuinely wide bandwidth. Then someone recommended Focal Spirit Professional – these phones have a reassuringly solid build quality. They are finished in an attractive black spatter with simple chrome trim rings. Finish, adjustments and fixings all look like they would stand the rigours of the professional mixing desk life. They have, for instance, an extra long coiled lead that fixes with a mini-jack to the left earpiece and could easily be replaced if damaged or worn.
The wide, easily adjustable headband has generous padding. As full over-ear phones the ear pads have to seal and be comfortable. The Spirit Pros have generous memory-foam pads that float the weight of the phones well. I have always opted for on-ear phones, disliking the isolation that closed phones bring. However, the Sprit Pros fit to perfection (though anyone with a bigger head or larger earlobes than mine may well find things tight) but with evenly distributed weight and no pressure points to heat up and hurt these phones have been comfortable to wear for extending listening sessions.
The full package includes a cloth bag for the phones and a short alternative lead with an inline remote switch and slim mini-jack (which will fit my cased iPad socket). There is also a quality threaded gold-plated ¼inch socket adapter. As ‘pro’ phones there is no possibility of balanced connection.
The Spirit Pros feature big (40mm diameter) drivers made from Mylar/Titanium membranes that provide stiffness, low mass and optimal damping giving a fast, uncoloured sound. Sound quality is alarmingly honest. The treble register is incisive and has a real clarity that is not bright but is truly revealing – you might not like what’s revealed on every source however! Bass is not what you might expect – with so many phones offering artificial bass boost – or being ‘tuned for emotion’ – the Spirit Pros are a breath of clean, controlled low power. And these phones will go really low.
Macy Gray’s Stripped (Chesky Records) was recorded live in a repurposed church in Brooklyn using a dummy head (binaural) microphone. This makes it ideal for headphone playback. The mix can only be influenced by physical positioning of the musicians on the studio floor relative to the microphone and by the individual levels chosen as they interact with one other. But this is the kind of recording that the Spirit Pros eat up and thrive on. The transparent 24/192 files project you straight to the centre of the musical action. Creaks from the venue and amplifier hiss add to the atmosphere. Bob Marley’s Redemption Song is almost whispered in your ear but there’s no loss of clarity in Gray’s distinctive breathy vocals; most pleasing is the weight and power from very gently played bass.
While sorting through some CD rips late one night I came across a recording I’d rather dismissed as being dull and distant
Masur Leipzig recording of the Max Bruch Symphonies. My evening listening was somewhat extended by the discovery of a rich sonorous quality in this orchestral recording. The first of the Swedish Dances ‘filler’ on CD2 showed a fairly distant perspective on the orchestra and a long dying reverberation but this was so much more like the live concert hall balance than I recall from playing this on loudspeakers. The woodwind and lower brass tonality and the swirling power of the orchestral bass captivated me. It’s a generous sound but clear and powerful in the lower registers even when the orchestra is playing piano.
The Spirit Pros were principally auditioned with Audirvana and hi-res flacs on a recent Apple iMac; they were also used with an iPad and with an Audiolab 8000C preamplifier on the same sources. They seem to be of average to above average sensitivity judged purely by comparison and they seem easy to drive. That they err on the rich side of neutrality is not something to dislike.
At launch these phones were selling at around £250 – a quick online check shows a £179-£215 spread from major reliable sellers which makes them, frankly, quite a steal. I suspect you would have to double this money to make any substantial improvement in sound quality at the Oppo PM3 level. Having used the Spirit Pros now for the better part of a year I can pay them the best compliment: that they have become a reliable go-to tool for listening, sorting and judging – and more often getting caught up in the music.