Focal Sopra No1

Hard to Say Goodbye

Equipment report
Focal Sopra No.1
Focal Sopra No1

There’s something to be said for a high-end loudspeaker manufacturer actually making its own drivers. The number of companies that do this is relatively small, though many try to obfuscate the matter by declaring that their woofers and tweeters are made to their exacting “specifications” by outside sources. In fact, many fine loudspeakers are produced by this latter paradigm. But having complete control over driver manufacture in-house can facilitate efforts to optimally integrate the performance of transducers, crossover, and enclosure. Since very close to its beginnings in 1979, Focal (at the time known as JMLab—Jacques Mahul started the company and remains at the helm) has produced both raw drivers and complete speaker systems. For 25 years, Mahul sold his drivers to other marques. But especially with the development of an automotive speaker line, the demand became too great and now the French company keeps all of its drivers for its own products.

The Sopra speakers—there are two currently, the $8999 Sopra No1 and the $13,999 Sopra No2—occupy a position in the Focal product range between the Electra line and the take-no-prisoners Utopia series. The Sopra No1 is the top half of a Sopra No2 turned upside down and mounted on a dedicated stand. A mini-monitor? It sure doesn’t perform like any other mini-monitor I’ve heard, and if you’re thinking of employing a subwoofer along with these loudspeakers, maybe yes—but maybe no.

The two transducers in the Sopra No1 exemplify Focal’s long history of driver design. The W-sandwich cone was developed for the earliest Utopias in 1995, a Rohacell foam core covered on both sides with a thin layer of resin-impregnated glass tissue. These drivers, efficiently fabricated at Focal’s St. Etienne factory, manifest the Holy Trinity of high rigidity, low mass, and excellent self-damping characteristics that translate into transparency, excellent phase response parameters, and low distortion, compared to drivers made from other commonly employed materials such as Kevlar or aramid fiber. Focal tweeters, of course, have been the standard for high-frequency reproduction for decades. Before starting JMLab/Focal, Jacques Mahul worked at Audax where he developed the first dome tweeter. At his own company, he pioneered the beryllium tweeter and, in 1981, introduced the inverted dome topology, which leverages the advantages of having the tweeter similar in shape to the cone to better integrate the two drivers.

The key features of the beryllium tweeter and sandwich cone have been in place for years and, to cite a Focal technical paper, “the only way forward was to work more closely on the driver suspension.” Using computer-modeling methods to investigate the effect of adding mass to a driver’s suspension (a technique that’s been used to assess automobile suspensions and anti-seismic systems for tall buildings), Focal developed its TMD (Tuned Harmonic Damper) suspension, configured as a pair of circular rings that oscillate to neutralize the resonance frequency of the driver’s surround. The result, says Focal, is a greater than 50 percent reduction in distortion around the critical area of 2000Hz, which results in improved imaging, delineation, and timbral accuracy. Sopra speakers also take advantage of some “trickle-down” technology from the massive EM drivers found in Utopia models, and other refinements of the EM circuit that Focal sees as a work-in-progress, calling it the Neutral Inductance Concept, or NIC.

Focal set out to implement its improved drivers in a relatively compact design. The tweeter is positioned in a progressively damped horn-shaped duct that leads to the back of the loudspeaker and preserves real estate for the Sopra No1’s low-frequency driver enclosure. In its continuing effort to create new initialisms representing its technological advances, Focal calls this IHL, for Infinite Horn Loading and states that measurable distortion in the midband is reduced to a degree complementary to that achieved by the new driver design. The cabinet is fabricated from MDF—Focal feels strongly that an enclosure that is too stiff can push resonances up into a more audible range, plus this material is easy to work with in creating the curved enclosure shapes that confer the advantages of less diffraction of sound and more structural rigidity. A variety of standard finishes are available: My review sample was an attractive Dogato walnut veneer, though I’m sure the brilliantly colored high-gloss lacquer finishes you see in the Focal ads are more frequently requested. On the back panel is a single pair of five-way binding posts, thoughtfully spaced about 2" from center-to-center, that are effectively tightened by hand, even over thick spade terminations. Grille covers are easily removed, and should be.

The Sopra No1s arrived in two rather small cardboard boxes that could only mean one thing: “some assembly required,” as the saying goes. It took me around two hours to unpack the speakers with their included stands and put them together, though I’m sure if I had to do it again, it would take half as long. The stand’s robust supporting pillar must be bolted to the heavy glass base, a top metal plate to the pillar, and then—this is the frustrating part—the speakers are bolted to the top plate. Getting the threads in the Sopra No1’s bottom surface to align with the holes in that top plate so that the final set of bolts can be inserted and tightened is definitely a two-person job. This is something your dealer should do for you—presumably in recognition of the fact that you didn’t audition the speakers for three hours in his showroom and them buy them for $200 less somewhere else. Added value, remember?

Positioning the Sopra No1s was surprisingly easy. Once assembled, I plopped them down in the location where other, smallish stand-mounted speakers have worked well. The tonal balance and imaging were pretty good, even though the speakers weren’t broken-in at all. The minimalist users manual provides a formula for placing the speakers and when I plugged the numbers in, they were sitting pretty much exactly where Focal said they should be. A little fiddling with toe-in and leveling with the easily adjustable floor spikes, and the deal was sealed. Preceding the Sopras in the reproduction chain was my usual reference gear. I used digital sources exclusively, either an Oppo 93 (as a disc transport) or the Baetis Reference music computer, both feeding data to my Anthem D2v for D-to-A conversion and control. Amplification was by a pair of Pass XA 60.8s and all cabling was recent vintage Transparent, save for the Shunyata Anaconda AES/EBU cable from Baetis to Anthem. In lieu of any physical room treatment, I ran Anthem’s DSP room-correction program, utilizing measurements taken at eight room locations, and employed it up to 2kHz after inspecting the frequency response curves generated by the software. Focal says that the Sopra No1 is an appropriate loudspeaker for rooms up to 275 square feet and my space is 15' x 15', with the ceiling height varying from 11' to 13'—so my room should have been a felicitous match.