Monitoring – Focal Spirit Pros

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.

Screen Shot 2016-10-01 at 11.10.50.jpgThe 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.

folder.jpgMacy 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.


D9s in the house

Just arrived initially for a home demonstration – Spendor D9s in light oak finish. Initial listening tests are more than encouraging with the speakers being easy to integrate (weirdly easy) with my odd room acoustics. A loaned Devialet 220Pro made an ideal listening partnership but for the moment the speakers are being driven by one channel each on my two 8000Ps. This gives me twice the power supply heft than a single stereo power amp and sounds significantly better than a lone 8000P serving two channels. There will be much to report in the coming days.

Going shopping

It’s very odd being a hi-fi shopper once again. What’s proved unusually difficult is finding dealers where certain comparison can be had. I’ve a very odd shortlist of DAC/amplification I’d like to hear including NAD, Benchmark, Auralic, Devialet and Lyngdorf equipment. Some folk will offer home dems or loans but I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I was combining brand names in an idle Google search when I came across a new Edinburgh dealer who stocks both Benchmark and Lyngdorf products. Well that had to be worth a visit.

Saturday last, unannounced, I pitched up at Audio-philia – a very smartly refitted corner shop 15-20 minutes walk from Edinburgh centre. Owners Carlo and Linda were consummate hosts – a quick chat to establish our interests then no pressure – just ‘here’s the remote go and have a listen’. As their Lyngdorf TDAI-2170 had just been sold we were only able to listen to the Benchmark DAC3 and AHB2 DAC and power amp this time.


Audio-philia has a unique raised mezzanine listening area which gives near-field conditions but with the speakers almost in free space. We (me and Mrs P) listened first through Quadral Chromium 6s – a German two-way new to me (retailing at £1395). This combination produced etched detail, with wonderful stereo imagery – the whole presentation a vividly detailed, but in no way oppressive, sound. Not a conventional way to divide up a budget with the speakers costing only ⅔rds of the DAC – but this was a sound I could certainly live with – though perhaps not in my current listening room.

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 13.35.31.jpgCarlo suggested – with my current choice of larger floorstanders and the music we’d be playing – we might like to hear Brodmann Festival F2 speakers. These offered a very different presentation. Like my own Tannoys, these are loudspeakers I’d like to power up loud but get out of the near field and hear them with more of the room. On dem in the Audio-philia lounge the sideway-facing drivers gave an oddly intangible quality to the sound at the lowish levels we were using. Unsurprisingly, piano was delightfully rendered, especially a recent BIS recording of Satie’s Gnossienne No.1 by Noriko Ogawa (performing on an 1890 Erard grand piano, built in the same year the piece was written). Tonal subtlety, pedalling and key touch all there as were the instrument dynamics but I didn’t get the same tangible presence from these speakers in this location I had so enjoyed with Quadrals.

Still, we’d come to hear DACs and amplifiers not speakers and I have to say I was deeply impressed by the grip and transparency of the Benchmark combination.

Carlo has emailed today to say the Lyngdorf is back on his shelves so I’ve an appointment to make and another visit to Edinburgh to look forward to.


Auralic ARIES Mini – sound

Preamble: I began writing this blog piece as soon as I’d powered up the Auralic ARIES Mini. But then there was an update to write about…and so much to listen to…sorry it took so long.

Shortly after entering the URLs for my favourite high quality Internet radio stations I knew the ARIES Mini was something special. Spoken word was easy on the ear, clear and crisply dynamic. This particular quality was noticeable during more serious listening tests. The ARIES has an easy intelligibility and has reduced any shouty tendency in my Tannoy D500s. It becomes so much easier to seamlessly follow lyrics and musical lines.

It’s always interesting to turn up the volume and listen to how the system gets louder. The ARIES Mini delivers a signal that lets the system get ‘loud over there’ within the image and not ‘loud in your ear’ – it’s proved easy to listen at high levels for extended periods without fatigue. Conversely, when some of the big set-piece demos have failed to deliver the expected slam I’ve found I’ve been listening a much lower levels than usual because of the improved transparency of the sound. (I use the SPLnFFT app on my iPad to keep a check on levels). It’s interesting to speculate that what you’ve got used to is a big slab of distortion hitting you!

That first evening listening with the ARIES Mini was unintentionally instructive. First call was to listen to some old favourite tracks to see what was new and what had changed. It was while shutting down the system for the night that I realised we’d just spent four hours listening to nothing but CD rips of old analogue masters – never having strayed outside my Classic Demos playlist.

folder.jpgI  never tire of Yo Yo Ma’s playing in the lovely Finzi Cello concerto. This is a simple ‘Decca tree’ recording from 1979 by Kenneth Wilkinson in the wonderful acoustic of Watford Town Hall. ‘Wilkie’ was known for his rich orchestral balance with fully detailed lower registers and precise instrumental placement. The ARIES Mini images Ma’s pizzicato cello at the opening of the 3rd movement Adagio so precisely, separate and distinct from the answering side drum. Low strings enter – the initial soft touch of bow to string tangible in a way I’d not previously heard.

In a similar vein, I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to the intro to Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead (a relatively early digital recording from the wonderful Amsterdam Concertgebouw hall) to assess a loudspeaker’s low end resolution. Here again was a clarity that extended into the lowest reaches of the orchestra at the lowest signal levels.

The ARIES Mini has the real ability to surprise you dynamically – not with those big ‘made you jump’ musical moments but the focus it brings to leading edges. For example from a CD rip of an old withdrawn library copy of Martin Simpson – The Collection – (‘The Moth’) the bite and accuracy of the guitar already has your attention but each harmonica or sung entry makes you start.  folder.jpg

And after a few weeks I now realise that what the ARIES Mini does best is to raise the standard of CD rips, Redbook standard files with greatly improved focus and intelligibility. Sure DSD64 and 24/192 files sound superb but the difference between real hi-res files and 16/44.1 CD rips has narrowed very much in favour of the ‘lower quality’ files.

Auralic firmware update

No sooner were things working with the Auralic ARIES Mini that I registered for Beta updates and received firmware 5.0. I was listening to a remastered folder.jpgrecording of Gossec’s Symphonies, settling into the recording never having hear it before, when the unit notfied me on the iPad of a beta update. Within a couple of minute I was able to hear back-to-back firmware 4.1/5.0 with the same track.

Immediately apparent was an improvment in instrument focus, stereo depth and separation. Just like finding that last degree of focus in a lens and getting the right depth of field – everything pops into place. Checking this wasn’t some change to the sophisticated digital filtering settings available on the Auralic units I soon worked out I was still using the Precise setting with Beta 5 as I had been before. (Beta 5.0 now allows all filter setting to be deselected – previous you had the choice between Precise / Dynamic / Balance / Smooth.) I’ve now opted for no filtering and with the handful of albums I’ve now auditioned with the updated unit I’m delighted with the ease, intelligibility and musicality to the sound.

Beta 5.0 also provides Lightning DS Web Admin which means you can log into your Auralic unit using Apple Safari or Google Chrome with its IP address. Web Admin has four main panels for Library, Streamer, Processor and Hardware setup. A column explaining the concepts and setting is to the right of the main window – an excellent idea.

Some users will welcome the Roon Ready support for the ARIES Mini and I was amused to see Auralic offer MQA decoding support with the cheeky note: ‘the MQA decoding method integrated by all AURALiC streaming devices has been developed solely by AURALiC using AURALiC’s proprietary resampling and de-blurring method. This process is not an MQA-created or MQA-licensed process.’

Auralic ARIES Mini – setup


Big changes in a small way.

I’d been experimenting with Mac and DAC solutions for time before finally settling on Audirvana 2.6.8 on a 8Gb iMac running 10.12.4. I’ve been driving the USB input on my Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 for an improved sound over the inbuilt streamer and at the same time retain the advantage of Internet radio and easy remote control. I get on well with the Audirvana user interface but it can be slow and buggy at times driving the Mac system from the iPad, which is frustrating.

The opportunity to move my office system Cambridge Audio NP-30 on to a new home also gave me the chance to rotate systems – improve the office system by installing the Stream Magic 6 and find a new digital front-end for my main system. I still have a bundle of options open for my main system upgrade and am currently looking at Lyngdorf, NAD Master, Auralic, Devialet and Benchmark products to fit the bill. In the meantime I bought an Auralic ARIES Mini from Audio Emotion. I paid £449.00.

There’s little in the box. Even though I’d seen and heard the ARIES Mini at hi-fi shows handing this tiny package comes as a surprise – especially when you realise over a third is fresh air if you don’t opt to fit an HDD or SDD (a kit is provided). Auralic strongly recommends wireless connectivity but having heard of setup issue with the Apple Airport Extreme that I use for my wireless network I decided to go Ethernet. Installation could not be simpler. Two line out connections and power in is all that’s needed at first if like me you wish to use the on-board DAC. (There are USB, co-ax and Toslink optical connections if you opt to drive a DAC with the ARIES Mini.) The installation manual is elegant and brief (I used to design and write them so I should know!) ending on page 6 with a QR code – from here on everything is done via Auralic’s Lightning DS control software on the iPad. (I’ll look at Lighting DS in a separate blog).

Lighting DS neatly guides you through setup initially getting the ARIES Mini to talk through your existing network. Setup is really little more than pointing the device at your music library (in my case on a QNAP NAS driver with MinimStreamer) and choosing which outputs, Line or Digital, you wish to use. You can’t use both. You then need to create an Auralic account and you will receive email confirmation that you have setup and activated your ARIES Mini successfully. I use a 1.25Tb music library on a QNAP NAS drive with MinimServer; Lighting DS seemed to take only moments to index over 3,400 albums. (I could easily incorporate my whole music library on an internal SDD but at the moment a 2Tb drive is about £599 which more than doubles the cost of the ARIES – Lighting Server will present the internal drive for other devices as it acts as a UPnP renderer.)


The ARIES Mini is always powered up. It can be put into sleep mode from an iPad and can be awoken by pressing any button. Oh yes. There are three control buttons sculpted into the front of the ARIES Mini box. I’ve opted for Mute and Track Up/Down rather than the default Play/Pause and Volume Up/Down. Speaking of powering up the supplied ‘wall wart’ power supply works (obviously) but it is tiny and you can see why aftermarket PSU alternatives and Auralic’s own linear PSU (sadly half the price of the Mini itself) can be used to make sound quality improvements – something I will be looking into. So how does it sound…