Focal Sopra No.3 loudspeaker Page 2

The bass was also better controlled—or was I just adapting to it? Now I took Hurry's advice about the spikes. The Sopra No.3's stainless-steel spikes come pre-installed in the speaker's base of tempered glass—all I had to do was turn the knob at the top of each threaded spike until it protruded through the rubber feet. To protect my floors, I borrowed some of the nice magnetic spike cups from my Bowers & Wilkins 802 D3 loudspeakers that were now lying around unused. I adjusted the spikes with reference to a small bubble level placed on each Sopra's base. It worked: The lowest frequencies tightened and were better resolved. The bass was now in suitable balance.

Listening
I began with recordings of solo instruments and voice—which the Sopra No.3s absolutely nailed to the center of the soundfield, with convincing presence. Pablo Sáinz Villegas's guitar on his Americano (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMU 907649), and Eugene Fodor's violin in his Witches Brew (CD, Clarity CCD-1017), were sweetly resonant, and benefited from a slight ting on the attacks that made them quite thrilling. I also quite enjoyed the sounds of pianos and female voices through the Focals. Robert Silverman's intensely Romantic performances of Rachmaninoff's two piano sonatas (CD, Stereophile STPH019-2) were presented with fully detailed bass, stable imaging across the spectrum, and appropriate ambient decay. All of the above could be said of my acid-test voice track: Finzi's "Come Away, Death," as performed by mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland and pianist Sergei Osadchuk, in a free 24-bit/192kHz PCM download from 2L (Come Away, Death, SACD/CD, 2L 2L-064-SACD).

417sopra.red250.jpgWhen I switched to male voices, there was a surprise. For quite a while now I've used as a reference Mighty Sam McClain's recording of Carlene Carter's "Too Proud," from the AudioQuest sampler BluesQuest (SACD/CD, AudioQuest AQM-1052)—but now Sam sounded strangely wan and insubstantial, two terms I'd never associated with him. Since I had only two Sopras and my reference system is a 5.1-channel array, I checked the server to confirm the output-signal format. JRiver Media Center told me that I was indeed playing the SACD's two-channel tracks, but reminded me that I also had the original CD (AudioQuest AQCD-1052). A quick switch, and wow—the output was much louder, by least 3–4dB, and Sam's voice was restored to all its former glory.

Further investigation revealed that, to get equivalent satisfaction from the SACD track, I had to play it at a higher level. This disturbs me, because I've often played both versions somewhat indiscriminately without ever noticing a difference in level, though I'd never A/B'd them. The other male singers I tried, from Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley through Hans Theesink to the recently departed Leonard Cohen, each had his characteristic balance of warmth and gruffness, but with each one, I needed a little more level with SACDs than with CDs of the same recordings to achieve the ideal liveliness.

With larger ensembles, there was no question that the Sopras could handle the weight, and, without doubt, produce even higher levels in rooms much larger than mine. I began with La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae, with Christina Pluhar leading L'Arpeggiata (SACD/CD, Alpha SA503), and the Sopras clearly delineated each instrument and voice in its place on the soundstage, reproducing the natural tonal colors of each. When I scaled up to Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem, with soprano Charlotte Margiono, baritone Rodney Gilfry, and John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (CD, Philips ?432 140-2), the results were even more impressive. Released in 1991, this is not the most pellucid or grain-free recording, and with the large forces involved, one might expect harshness and a smeared soundstage. The Sopras were having none of that. The sound scaled up and the soundstage expanded, but the grunge didn't grate on my ear.

That encouraged me to seek out a number of older, technically compromised recordings. I discovered that the Sopras could let me enjoy them at comfortable levels. Out came the compilations: the late Chuck Berry's Gold (2 CDs, Chess 0602498805589) and ABBA's The Definitive Collection (2 CDs, UTV/PolyGram 5499742). My wife loves them, but the sound always makes me cringe. Through the Sopras, they were more than tolerable. Even stuff that was bright and piercing despite a naked clarity, as in Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Rage Hard: The Sonic Collection (SACD/CD, ZTT ZTT177), was tamed and liberated by the Focals.

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With topnotch modern recordings, such as Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic's of Janácek's immense Glagolitic Mass (SACD/CD, Chandos CHSA 5165), the Sopras rose to the occasion by re-creating the entire panoply of orchestral and vocal expression. The individuation of voices was thrilling, and the Sopras provided remarkably rich, dynamic support in the bass, most notably in the wonderful organ solo that precedes the final Intrada. The soundstage was huge, expanding beyond the speakers and, at times, beyond my room's sidewalls, though its depth was not nearly as impressive. I expected more depth, but that may well be because I've heard this recording in surround sound. Nonetheless, the stereo experience was otherwise unconstrained, and I was left emotionally and physically drained.

Cymbals and massed sopranos did occasionally sound too prominent through the Sopras. Perhaps this was a consequence of an ever-so-slightly reticent upper midrange, the very thing that makes for the perfect treatment of classic rock and, perhaps, metal/grunge (just guessing). With the Sopras, the Classé Sigma Monos revealed the warts in recordings that had them, and I pretty quickly swapped them out. I better enjoyed analog amplifiers such as Parasound's Halo A 31 and even Monoprice's inexpensive Monolith 3: they obscured nothing, but neither did they throw anything in my face. A brief audition with the newly arrived ATi AT543nc amplifier was also promising.

Conclusions
Overall, I found Focal's Sopra No.3 satisfying and enjoyable. It was capable of playing absolutely everything with aplomb and power. Indeed, the pair of them fairly invited me to play them loud. The speaker's overall balance was slightly warm, with especially firm, detailed bass. Imaging was clear and stable. Soundstage width was comfortable, depth not so much; that improved with wider spacing of the speakers, but I ran out of room width to achieve even more. I wouldn't consider the Sopra No.3s for rooms any smaller than mine, but ideally they might be perfect for considerably larger spaces. Then you can kick back to enjoy all your favorite recordings, old and new. I'm sure they'll all sound great.

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

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? ;-)

Dazgum's picture

Nice review! I'm surprised that you didn't do any comparison with your B&W 802 D3's as they are very similar in specification been 3 way 2 x 8inch woofers exoctic tweeters and fancy midrange drivers and price not to far apart. Would be very interesting to know what the main differences are.

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