Focal Sopra No.3 loudspeaker
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.3sin Electric Orange, to tickle my wife.
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 dimensionseach speaker is 49.8" high by 15.8" wide by 23.4" deep and weighs 154.3 lbsand 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.
The 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 spacean 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.
The Park Avenue Audio guys and I placed the Sopra No.3s in the honored spots where I put every pair of speakersat least at firstand 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.
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 spikesand, 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 finethe 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.