My wife and I were preparing for the arrival of our first child and living in a modest two-bedroom Manhattan apartment when the realization hit us–a five-year love affair with our Wilson Sophia 3 speakers was likely to end. It was a simple lifestyle decision really. Nothing more. Like it or not, lifestyle heavily impacts audio system design, and a kiddo is a game changer. So, after finding the Wilsons a new home with a New Jersey audio enthusiast, we began considering all options for a new system.
In my world, music is priority number one. I wanted speakers that would meet a high threshold for quality music reproduction, were space efficient (the Wilsons require lots of space to sound their best), and were not an eye-level target for the exploratory fingers of a curious, soon-to-be-crawling toddler.
The lifestyle change on the horizon was so significant that a complete system overhaul was contemplated. We put all our cards on the table. I sold my classic Dan D’agostino-designed Aragon 4004 MKII amplifier and my trusty Benchmark preamp. My previous system was “speaker heavy,” with most of the budget allocated to the Wilsons. This time around, I planned to allocate funds more evenly across components. I began by auditioning speakers, and we listened to everything from high-end soundbars to stand-mounted bookshelf speakers. It was then that long-time friend and HomeTheaterReview.com publisher Jerry Del Colliano, who owned Focal Diablo Utopia speakers for many years, suggested we consider Focal’s new Sopra N°1 bookshelf speakers.
The Focals arrived on a single pallet via freight on a chilly, rainy New York afternoon. After carting the boxes up to our Upper East Side box in the sky, unpacking the Focals and setting up each speaker was easy. Laying eyes on the fully assembled Sopra N°1s ($9,500 per pair with the stands) conjures up warm and fuzzy thoughts, as well as phrases like “wife-friendly” and “beyond gorgeous.” First impressions are meaningful, and I must admit it’s extremely difficult to not fall immediately in love with these thoughtfully designed beauties.
Unlike Jerry, who recently acquired a pair of Sopra N°2s in white–which I’m sure are beautiful–I found the chutzpa to order the Sopra N°1s in Electric Orange. I am glad I took the road less traveled by purchasing speakers in a less traditional color. Guests to our home are drawn directly to the orange Sopra N°1s with their oval grilles, sloped glass tops, sexy curves, and bold metal accents. They make a clear artistic statement that is unusual in the speaker industry, where bland black or wood veneer boxes are the norm. The Sopras are available in white, orange, red, black, and walnut.
The Sopra N°1 is a two-way bass-reflex (rear-ported) speaker featuring a 6.5-inch mid-bass driver and 1.06-inch Beryllium inverted dome tweeter. Focal claims that the advantage of Beryllium is its rigidity and lightness versus other metals (such as aluminum or titanium) and thus its wider and flatter frequency response. The speaker has a sensitivity of 89 dB and can easily be driven by most modest amplifiers. Power handling is 25 to 150 watts.
Each stand/speaker combination weighs about 80 pounds and is incredibly stable, thanks to precisely adjustable spiked feet. Focal says the spikes, thumb nuts, and screws were designed by watchmakers. The stands seem unable, however, to accommodate sand or lead shot for additional heft and stability. While some might view this as a negative, the Sopra N°1s are plenty stable, and I came to view this more as a nice-to-have than a must-have. I was more disappointed that the speaker wire channel that runs through the stand (which offers the opportunity for a sleek, clean installation that many buyers will appreciate) was unable to accommodate thicker, inflexible, or more heavily insulated speaker wire. When I tried to run a sample of Transparent’s The Wall Premium 10-AWG cable (a reasonable choice in my opinion) through the internal channel, it was a no-go. Hooking up my Transparent Ultra speaker cables in the more traditional fashion, however, I found the Sopra N°1’s connectors were strong and produced a vice grip on the spade lugs.
Our system overhaul included finally putting all of our PCM discs in storage after ripping them to a Synology NAS 416 drive, which would be controlled by a Mac Mini running iTunes and BitPerfect. I control everything using the Remote app on an iPad Mini.
For power, I chose the Pass Labs XA30.8 Class A amp (review pending) as our new amplifier. The Nelson Pass-designed XA30.8 provides 30 watts of power, which seemed ideal for the Sopras. Given my previous ownership of Mark Levinson and Aragon amplifiers, it seemed an appropriate time to return to my high school roots in the late 1980s–when I worked in audio sales and the Nelson Pass-designed Adcom GFA-555 was the amp to own. The new .8 Series Pass Labs amps are no repackaged Adcom from the past. They are some of the sweetest sounding, most controlled amps one will ever hear.
Finally, my cool wife was on board with placing some Acoustimac suede bass traps in several corners and sound-absorption panels at first-reflection points. The engineers at Acoustimac were patient and helpful in considering our floor plan and some photos I provided to help select the right treatments, all which made a meaningful improvement in clarity and imaging, especially with vocals. With that, I took a first stab at positioning the Focals; over the next several weeks, while I tweaked their position and broke them in, the Sopra N°1s’ true voice emerged. It was finally time for serious listening.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion…
It is hard to believe that John Coltrane’s Blue Trane is nearing its sixtieth birthday. The HDAD 24/192 release (Classics Records) was my edition of choice. Coltrane possesses a unique timbre and character all his own. When you hear him in any context, you know it. The Sopra N°1s quickly transported me from my couch to the original Blue Trane sessions, or at least as close to it as I could humbly expect. Coltrane’s tenor saxophone on “Moment’s Notice” was presented with a smoothness and realism that, in my view, should make other speaker manufacturers jealous. In fact, throughout all of Blue Trane, the Sopra N°1s allowed a direct, uncolored musical connection to the organized chaos, beauty, and boldness that defines Coltrane’s sound.
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I played trumpet as a youngster and have a soft spot for the “soprano” of the brass family. In “Locomotion,” hearing the attack and clarity of each note during Lee Morgan’s speedy trumpet solo made me smile. Finally, the Sopra N°1’s bass performance is quite notable given its smaller stature, especially compared with other bookshelf speakers on the market. Despite this fact, however, the prevalence of Paul Chamber’s bass was wanting as it rolled off beginning at about 60 Hz. There was an obvious octave gap in the musical spectrum, which would require a subwoofer to fix.
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The 30th Anniversary edition of Born to Run (Columbia) was remastered in 24/96 by Bob Ludwig from the original analog masters using the highly touted Plangent Process (http://plangentprocesses.wix.com/plangent ) playback system. Born to Run in high resolution is a must-own for Springsteen fans, and no track, in my view, better exemplifies the lyrical genius and raw emotion of The Boss than “Jungleland.” Suki Lahav’s opening violin solo and Roy Bittan’s familiar piano riff set the stage for a performance that climaxes with an extended saxophone solo by the late Clarence Clemons. I have listened to Born to Run countless times (admittedly, never before in 24/192), and when chills emerged along my arms during the final 90-second buildup into Jungleland’s closing moments, I knew the Sopras were special and worth getting really excited about. The Sopra N°1s presented The Boss and Jungleland with an immediacy and emotional tension that was simply thrilling.
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My favorite band is Yes, and I recently acquired the 24/192 release of Going for the One (Rhino/Elektra). I’ve listened to this album for decades, but this was a new opportunity to rediscover the brilliantly composed and masterfully arranged “Turn of the Century” and “Awaken.” Would the Sopra N°1s deliver? The 24/192 release of Going for the One completely surpasses the quality of the two previous remastered versions. In fact, this release sounds so much better than its predecessors that the complex instrumentation and layers of sound–notably, Rick Wakeman’s pipe organ–can bedevil any loudspeaker. With “Turn of the Century” and “Going for the One,” the Sopra N°1s presented a natural and uncongested soundstage with musical fluidity and precise instrument placement. The muddy mids and lackluster highs that plagued preceding releases have been corrected, allowing for even greater appreciation of the quietest passages during Awaken, which are filled with percussion and Jon Anderson’s harp.
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To find flaw while listening to Going for the One was not difficult, though. To no surprise, Rick Wakeman’s pipe organ introduction on “Parallels” begged the Sopra N°1s to dig deeper, and they just could not. It was here that the Sopra N°1s lacked the gusto that would be present with floorstanding speakers or an added subwoofer. This is not to say that the Sopra N°1s failed to deliver musical dynamics. To the contrary, they do so superbly. It was just that, during all my listening, it was here that I yearned deeply for that old Revel Sub-30 (http://hometheaterreview.com/revel-ultima-sub-30-subwoofer-reviewed/ ) that I sold years ago–oh, the lucky bastard who bought it.
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In the mid to late 1960s, Neil Young established himself as a prolific artist with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. His solo career took shape in the early 1970s with solo performances known for being intimate sessions, with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and piano at hand. No performance better demonstrates this than Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise Records, CD). Recorded in 1971, the album was not released until 2007. Since that time, it has become widely regarded as one of the great acoustic solo performances. Songs from that 1971 tour would find their way onto Young’s best-selling album Harvest.
The Sopra N°1s reveal the smallest details with ease and unrelenting precision. They bring out the best and worst characteristics of a recording. Thankfully, Live at Massey Hall 1971 is an outstanding recording, which allowed the Sopra N°1s to convey the mood and feeling of Young’s performance on tracks like “Old Man” and “Needle & Damage Done” with best-in-class excellence. Transparency and imaging were beautifully rendered. Dynamics on “Old Man” were so lifelike, especially at moderate to high volumes, one might be fooled into believing Young was playing a personal performance in my listening room. Closing guitar harmonics on “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” had a natural decay that reconfirmed my conclusion regarding the Sopra N°1s’ ability to convey details with realism and a deft hand.
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Living Colour skyrocketed to fame in the late 1980s with their double-platinum album Vivid (Epic) and Grammy Award-winning hit “Open Letter to a Landlord.” In a musical era where most new rock bands emerged from Seattle playing grunge rock, Living Colour emerged from New York City with a refreshing style all their own, merging influences in metal, punk, funk, R&B, rap, and jazz. In 1990 the band released its second studio album, Time’s Up (Epic, CD). As I listened to “New Jack Theme, ” “Someone Like You” and “Type,” Vernon Reid’s rhythm guitar tracks were harmonically rich and never sounded muddy. I find hard rock or metal to be the style of music most susceptible to listener fatigue, especially at moderate to high volume. The Sopra N°1s presented Time’s Up with virtually no fatigue or harshness. Finally, I was able to appreciate the texture and creativity of Will Calhoun’s brushwork during the Caribbean-style ballad “Solace of You” in a way that I had never done in the past.
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While the Sopra N°1s are the focal point of my music system, I also have been using them for television and movies in a 2.0-channel configuration. The Sopra N°1s obviously do not provide the bass “slam” and full dynamics of action-packed movie soundtracks on their own, but for vocals and just about everything else, they perform superbly. In recent weeks my wife and I have been watching many of the Academy Award-nominated movies on Blu-ray that we missed in theaters this year, including Brooklyn, Spotlight, The Martian, and Bridge of Spies, and we thoroughly enjoyed every moment through the Sopras. Adding the matching Focal Sopra center channel, surrounds, and subwoofer (released while I was writing this review) would no doubt make for an awesome home cinema experience. To my disappointment, it appears that Focal has decided, at least for the moment, to only offer those additional speakers in black.
If you are in the market for uber-high-end bookshelf speakers, you should strongly consider the Sopra N°1s, as they are truly exceptional loudspeakers. Much like all bookshelf speakers at any price, if bass below 60 Hz is a must-have, then you must add a subwoofer. There are a plethora of makes and models below $2,000 from companies such as Paradigm, Martin Logan, SVS, Revel and B&W, to name just a few, which will more than adequately complement the Sopra N°1s. This begs the question, however, “is it worth it?” While price is never really a downside, relative value is. The subwoofer criticism may seem like a weak downside on the surface because it can be easily applied to all bookshelf models. However, few bookshelf speakers cost $9,500. The debate here probably has no end. Are a pair of bookshelf speakers and a subwoofer totaling $12,000 worth the money versus, perhaps, a pair of floorstanding speakers equal the price? The answer to that question lies within you. In a typical New York City apartment where space is a premium and finding adequate space to position speakers away from walls and corners can be challenging, utilizing a bookshelf system with a properly placed and tuned subwoofer is likely the smarter option.
Comparison and Competition
Competitors to the Sopra N°1s include reference bookshelf offerings from top manufacturers, such as the Revel Ultima GEM2 ($11,400 with stands), B&W 805 Diamond ($5,700 with stands), Sonus Faber Olympica I ($7,700 with stands), Magico S1.5 ($10,800 without stands), and Wilson Duette Series-2 ($22,500 with stands).
If you are dropping in the neighborhood of 10 grand on high-end loudspeakers, perhaps even orange ones, you owe it to yourself to consider all the top options with an open mind and fresh ears. I have, however, owned Wilson Sophia 3s and can confidently say that, as far as the mids and highs are concerned (forget dollar-for-dollar, I am talking absolute), the Sopra N°1s are superior. They definitely sound better than my old Wilson Sophia 3s in nearly every way other than deep bass, and that’s no small compliment.
The Sopra N°1s are serious eye-candy. As Prince would’ve said, “you sexy mother F**KER!” Beyond aesthetics, the Sopras easily exceeded my expectations for serious sit-down listening. The more time I spent with the Sopra N°1s, the more eager I became to re-explore my music collection–late nights, eyes closed, remote in one hand, a few fingers of Oban 14 in the other. There are many speakers on the market up to the task of high-resolution listening. With its horn-loaded beryllium tweeters revealing every detail with insanely low distortion, the Sopra N°1s are one of them. They will pique your intellectual curiosity regarding the endless musical subtleties hiding in your music collection. I never before auditioned a beryllium tweeter in my home, and you owe it to yourself to check it out. But be warned: If you bring your wife, favorite reference music, and American Express card to the showroom, be prepared to accommodate two reasonably sized boxes in the back seat for the drive home. Focal has accomplished something completely unique and groundbreaking with the Sopra N°1s: they sound as good as, if not better than, they look. This little beauty is a beast.
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