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Focal Sopra No1

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.

 

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 detail-obscuring 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 attention-getting 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-a-piece 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.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Two-way, bass-reflex
Driver complement: One 1″ inverted dome tweeter, one 6 ½” bass/midrange
Frequency response: 45Hz–40kHz (+/-3dB)
Sensitivity: 89dB
Recommended amplifier power: 25–150 watts
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
Dimensions: 16.75″ x 11″ x 15 ½”
Weight: 42 lbs.
Price: $8999, stands included

FOCAL
108 Rue de l’Avenir
BP 374
42353 La Talaudière Cedex
France

AUDIO PLUS SERVICES
(U.S. Distributor)
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive 
Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 663-9352
audioplusservices.com

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