Focal Sopra No.3 loudspeaker

When it comes to Focal loudspeakers, I've been a lurker. For decades now, their demonstrations at audio shows have been memorable—a highlight was when, several years ago, I got Focal to play a powerful percussion track through a pair of their Grande Utopias at very high volume on a show's last day. Just to hear and feel how this mammoth system could deliver clarity and impact was awe-inspiring, and it was underscored by seeing folks from all the neighboring rooms quickly entering to enjoy it with me. It has also been a continuing pleasure to relax and listen to music with Stereophile's former Senior Editor, Jonathan Scull through his Focal Utopias, which he purchased in 1998. Alas, the years have turned, speakers have come and gone, and I had not yet had any Focal speakers in my own system. (Bob Deutsch seemed always to get the jump on me!)

No longer. When the Sopra No.3 was announced, I found it immediately attractive in a particularly French way, but my schedule was congested. However, the first smiling face I saw at last September's CEDIA Expo was that of Daniel Jacques, president of Audio Plus Services, Focal's US distributor. After "Hello," his first words to me were, "Is it time?" Indeed it was. We quickly agreed that he'd send me a pair of Sopra No.3s—in Electric Orange, to tickle my wife.

Description
Jacques arranged to have the Focals delivered, unpacked, and set up by a local Manhattan dealer, Park Avenue Audio. He'd told me that the Sopra No.3 ($19,999/pair) is big, but even having read their dimensions—each speaker is 49.8" high by 15.8" wide by 23.4" deep and weighs 154.3 lbs—and seen them in demo rooms, I didn't expect a pair of them to so dominate my room. Their construction and finish are flawless. Especially in Electric Orange, they are statement components that never go unnoticed. Everyone seems to love their looks.

When it comes to bass, big is good. Mounted in an oval chamfered frame in the front panel of 2.7"-thick MDF are two 8.25" W-cone woofers. Focal's most recent evolution of their W material has a structural foam core sandwiched by skins of woven glass fiber for very high stiffness and internal damping, the latter controlled by varying the core's thickness. Each woofer's magnetic field is stabilized and kept linear throughout the range of the voice-coil's travel by Focal's Neutral Induction Circuit (NIC), central to which is a Faraday ring (footnote 1) of nonmagnetic material. The large lower cabinet leans slightly back and is vented into the room via a 2.5" by 8.5" port at the speaker's lower front, just above the substantial glass base plate.

417sopra.bac250.jpgThe Sopra No.3's top subenclosure contains a 6.5" midrange driver with a W cone and the Neutral Inductance Circuit used in the woofers. Unique to the midrange is a proprietary surround incorporating a tuned mass damper or TMD. By molding into the suspension two thick circumferential rings, extreme cone displacements no longer impose wildly nonlinear changes in the suspension's behavior. The results are reductions in resonances and any resulting reflections of these back into the cone. Focal has posted online a description of the TMD that includes an illuminating animation. The interior volume that loads the midrange driver is only the front portion of the upper subenclosure; the rear portion serves as an extension of the bass enclosure; these spaces communicate via channels in the Sopra No.3's intermediate section, which contains Focal's emblematic inverted-dome beryllium tweeter.

The intermediate section is an elegant design, engineered to perform multiple functions. First, the wedge-shaped structure serves to put the tweeter axis at seated ear level, and to angle down the axis of the midrange driver above it so that both meet at the listener's ears. Second, as described above, this complex monoblock structure, which is made of polyurethane, allows the volume of the woofer enclosure below to extend into the rear of the upper subenclosure above. Third, the inside of the intermediate section is engineered with a vented, horn-shaped space—an approach referred to by Focal as Infinite Horn Loading (IHL)— that absorbs the tweeter's rear radiation without reflecting energy back to the driver. Incidentally, for the first time in a Focal speaker, as far as I know, the protective grille over the delicate beryllium dome is not removable.

Le tout ensemble is elegant and functional.

Setup
The Park Avenue Audio guys and I placed the Sopra No.3s in the honored spots where I put every pair of speakers—at least at first—and we tried to hook them up to my Classé Sigma Mono monoblocks. Each Sopra has a single pair of finger-friendly multiway terminals (the speakers can't be biwired), but these didn't provide a sufficiently tight connection with any of my usual speaker cables terminated in banana plugs. So I used 2m-long AudioQuest Granites terminated with spades.

417sopra.tweet.jpg

Immediately, I heard excessive bass. To fix this, Audio Plus's Todd Hurry recommended that I extend all four of the speakers' adjustable spikes. The problem was that I wasn't yet certain that the Sopras' current positions were optimal for imaging and bass clarity, and if they weren't, the spikes would make it difficult to move them. In addition, Focal had not provided any footers or discs to protect wood floors from the spikes—and, at the time, each Sopra had its two front feet on carpet and its two rear feet on newly refinished wood (footnote 2).

A day spent listening to the Sopra No.3s in their starting positions revealed that, in addition to the over-ample bass, the soundstage seemed cramped. I began a process of moving them about, then fine-tuning the toe-in at each position. The vertical angle engineered into the enclosure's intermediate section was just fine—the tweeters were almost exactly at my seated ear height of 38". In what turned out to be their optimal positions, the Sopras were almost 2' farther apart than I usually have speakers in this room, toed in to point directly at the main listening position. With that arrangement, the soundstage was widest, and had more focus all the way from far left to far right.



Footnote 1: I recall one small British speaker builder doing this back in the 1970s. They cut rings from toothpaste tubes (then the only readily available source of high-purity aluminum), added them to the voice-coils of the then-popular KEF B139 woofers, and achieved better performance.

Footnote 2: According to the text and illustrations in the Sopra No.3 manual, floor-protecting discs are indeed supplied.—Ed.

COMPANY INFO
Focal-JMlab
US distributor: Audio Plus Services
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, NY 12919
(800) 663-9352
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Supperconductor's picture

The older I get the more I hear the room in most systems. I can't help but wonder if judicious use of room treatment/EQ/correction might be a topic you guys could give more attention as part of your speaker reviews.

Given all the time, expense, and attention paid to electronics, system matching, cables, tweaks, etc., it seems to me that digital processing should merit higher consideration.

Most of my listening is with Audirvana+ at my desktop workstation. Minor EQ bumps of just a few dB here and there can give bigger bang than a component upgrade IMHO. I'm in the process (AT LONG LAST) of setting up a dedicated listening/viewing room (a strictly 2.0 system). And I will certainly be experimenting with Dirac, room treatments, and the like.

The demos at audio shows of room correction have always struck me as the most impressive. I'm sure this review system is fantastic so why not take that last step at addressing the biggest component? THE ROOM!

Kal Rubinson's picture

If you know me, you know that I agree with you entirely. In the past, I have mentioned that I think it is necessary to review speakers without applying any room correction because the vast majority of stereo listeners do not use EQ; in fact, they reject it. OTOH, one can justify a reviewer using EQ to attempt to minimize the bias introduced by the unique influence particular to his space.

I do both but I only mention the effect of the EQ if it is significant. In most cases, the effect is an improvement but rarely transforming. Such was the case here. The leopard didn't change his spots.

mrkaic's picture

I agree 100% with both of you and have a related question. I have a Micromega M-One without the room correction option. Does anyone have any experience with the Micromega room correction upgrade option? I am thinking about getting it, since my listening room is quite small and my speakers (Focal Aria 936) too big for the small room.

Grateful for any advice.

Best,

MM

Kal Rubinson's picture

I am afraid that I have not heard of this device nor can I find any technical description of the room correction system on the Web (in English).

mrkaic's picture

Thank you anyway. I think that many readers would be grateful for a review of the M-One. I think it is a really nice machine: http://micromega.com/en/products/mone-range/

Best,

MM

Supperconductor's picture

Good to know that EQ was tried. Yeah, I used to be one of the EQ/DSP NIMBY's but lately the rooms I've found myself in, have issues.

The new house has a media room and I've got carte blanche (wife's idea). I'm picking the color scheme and light control (to serve an ISF calibrated front projector), speaker placements, acoustic treatments, seating, and also evaluating DSP options. On more than one occasion, I've witnessed absolute transformations with speaker placement, surface treatments & EQ/DSP.

HansRamon's picture

You don't like the french?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Why would you think that?

anirudhparti's picture

Wonderful and detailed review, these big boys definitely deserve such a good review. How do compared them against the KEF blades.

I really like KEF and reviewed their younger sibling, LS50
http://audiowavegeek.com/kef-ls50-the-authentic-sound

appreciate the view of the masters :)

HansRamon's picture

Dear Mr. Herb Reichert, i will mail you a couple of "GaueHippies" when available..........

Kal Rubinson's picture

Who is Herb Reichert? ;-)