Focal Sphear In-ear Headphone Review
High-end in-ears hit all the right notes—except value.
If you're not knee deep in the world of high-end audio, you could be forgiven for not knowing about Focal. Pronounced Fo-CAL, it's a French company known for making components for several other high-end manufacturers. Up until recently, Focal has been mostly content to remain behind the scenes in the audio game.
At least, until now. Famed for their loudspeaker systems in particular, Focal now is making a splash in the headphone industry. With its first premium in-ear model, the Sphear ($179.99 MSRP).
With excellent sound quality and a beautiful design, the Sphear in-ears show Focal is onto something. But for $180, the Sphears need to be damn near perfect. While these are a very polished first effort, we have doubts about the return on investment.
Brushed metal, black plastic
The design of the Sphear is pretty straightforward: lightweight black plastic encases the 10.8mm dynamic drivers, and the solder points are protected by a protective ring of rubber that circles the earbud. It makes a fetching first impression, with a sleek brushed metal backing with a cutout Focal logo exposing a fine mesh. These are definitely lookers.
However, that does mean there are a few tradeoffs. Because the wire isn't replaceable, and the internal solder points are tiny, you may end up breaking your expensive in-ears if you don't treat them with care. To keep that from happening, we recommend using the included carrying case. Additionally, don't ever yank them out of your ears by the cable—it's the quickest way to wreck any earbud.
I will say that where the cable is a little vulnerable where it meets the earbud, it's well-protected at the 1/8th inch plug. A combination of rubber and metal means you're unlikely to shear or bend the wire in a way it's not supposed to go. You'd think that would be a bit of a no-brainer, but many of the in-ears you see out and about often break at that point.
Included in the packaging is an airplane adapter, as well as several silicone and foam tips. I gotta say, memory foam tips feel great and block out a ton of outside noise, so having those included in the packaging is an excellent thing to have. However, you can't just jam them in and expect them to hold: grab one size up from what you think you need, roll them in between your thumb and forefinger to compress the foam a bit, then place them in your ears, and hold until the foam expands to fit your ear canal. After that's done, you'll have a near-perfect seal every time you listen. Lots of enthusiasts will grab Comply foam tips off the internet to replace their silicone sleeves anyway, so this is a great addition.
The Sphear features an in-line remote with a somewhat strange design. That round cable split isn't just some superfluous piece of plastic: it's a button that can answer calls, play/pause, or skip tracks based on how many times you press it in quick succession. It's fully compatible with Windows phones, iPhones, and Android devices— a feat greatly appreciated in our office.
Consumer sound without overwhelming bass
As with all in-ears, any discussion about sound quality begins with getting a perfect fit, so we recommend the memory foam tips. There are certain things that almost all in-ears do very well—low distortion, low sound leakage, and high isolation—but the Sphears only check two of those boxes.
For in-ears, this model leaks sound into the wild a bit more than most, and I caution you to keep the volume in check if you buy the Sphears. If you listen at your desk, your coworkers might catch a faint waft of your music every so often, but it'll get completely drowned out if someone is talking near you.
Testing revealed a very consumer-oriented sound, and they fit pretty well along market standards for headphones. Again, it's absolutely critical to get a good fit before you listen. If you don't, you'll notice a profound drop in bass emphasis, and it's hard to miss. Stick with the foam tips and you should be fine, but you may have to try going up a size before finding one that fits you.
Even with a great seal, we found that bass takes a bit of a backseat to cymbals, shimmers, and other shrill sounds because low frequency notes are emphasized less than you'd expect. It's fine for most, but it becomes much more pronounced when you listen out in public or at the gym—settings where low-frequency noise tends to mask your music a bit.
For example, were you to listen to music that has a lot of rumble or kick drums in them, there's a greater likelihood that they'll sound a little off at low volumes because 100Hz-1kHz are comparatively louder. However, most stringed instruments will be well represented. Pop music has lots of this, so barring a few situations like listening to movies or the odd song with super low rumbles you shouldn't find much fault with the Sphears. However, if a 5-string or drop-D bass comes into play, you'll notice that lingering notes often disappear in the cacophony of music, leading to a slight tinny sound. For example, the lower bassline and some drums in Macklemore's music takes a backseat to the vocals, claps, and background samples in the player above.
Were you to switch it up and watch a movie, you'd notice that rumbles, kettle drums, and explosions won't have the same sort of impact or presence in your listening. But that's if and only if you don't get a good seal. This makes any of the new Batman movies sound a little less rattling than they would in a theater—but that might not be so bad if you feel those flicks get a little too carried away with bass.
In general, though, most of your music will sound just as it should: free of audible distortion or channel balance errors. There's only so much you can ask of headphones, and the rest is up to personal taste.
The Bottom Line
For a first foray into the world of high-end in-ears, the Focal Sphears clearly mean business. That said, at $180 they are probably beyond what most shoppers are looking for in a pair of in-ears. Instead, we feel that they'll primarily appeal to enthusiasts who want "the Focal sound" in a portable form factor.
And if that's what you're looking for, we don't think they'll disappoint. As far as in-ears go, these are very comfortable, frustration-free, and the memory foam tips are a killer addition—one too often overlooked in the industry. They don't seem like the most durable 'buds we've ever used, but if you take proper care of them they should last long enough.
But in a wildly saturated market, there are just so many competing models that sound just as good (if not better) that cost less. So if you're just looking for a good set of in-ears, you'll probably be perfectly happy with one of the many alternatives. For example, the Marshall Mode EQ are also comfortable, sound great, and have customizable sound profiles to let you tweak the output to your liking. If you're in need of more bass or isolation, the Decibullz Contour can be custom molded to fit your ears, while the Bowers and Wilkins C5 series 2, JLab Audio Epic In-ears, and JBL Synchros Reflect all fit the bill just fine.
And if you're just looking for a nice pair of in-ears for the gym, then I strongly recommend either getting something inexpensive, wireless, or near-indestructible instead. The Sphears are great, but they're simply not cut out for that job—and $180 is a lot to blow for something that won't survive long if you have a highly active lifestyle.
Of course, time marches on, and if you can find these on sale for around $120 then by all means pull the trigger. Either way, Focal has clearly shown that it knows how to make a great pair of headphones, and we can't wait to see what they come up with next.
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