Powerful bass response that never distorts. Lightweight, secure in-ear fit. Inline remote with exceptionally clear microphone.
Lacking in the high-mids. Not for those seeking an accurate sound signature.
- Bottom Line
The wired Focal Spark earphones deliver a rich, full bass response but could use a little more presence in the higher frequencies to balance things out.
The French audio brand Focal has been busy of late, expanding its quality lineup to include more affordable earphones to complement offerings like the Utopia, a $4,000 pair of headphones. The Focal Spark, at $69, represents the opposite end of the the Focal pricing spectrum, a no-frills, wired in-canal pair with an inline remote. They offer a surprisingly bass-forward audio experience, given Focal's typically more balanced, accurate approach. There's nothing wrong with the added bass depth, as it's never over the top, but the earphones could use some added high-mid presence to give things more definition and clarity in the highs.
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Available in black, blue, and silver-and-white models, the Spark's design is simple and clean. Flat, linguini-esque cabling descends from the earpieces, which feature metallic outer panels emblazoned with the Focal logo. (This logo, coincidentally, looks quite a bit like the logo of audio manufacturer MartinLogan, only shifted on its side.) Inside the earpieces, audio is delivered via electrodynamic 9.5mm mylar drivers, with a 15 Ohm impedance.
An inline remote control and microphone compartment is located along the left ear's cable at roughly chin level. The remote is of the three-button variety, with a central button devoted to playback, call management, and track navigation, depending on how many times you tap it. The outer two buttons are dedicated volume up and down controls that work in conjunction with your mobile device's master volume levels. The cabling joins into a single cable around mid-torso, culminating in a 3.5mm connection.
The pinhole mic, located on the opposite side of the remote control compartment, offers excellent intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 6s, we not only understood each word clearly, but microphone quality was exceptional, delivering crisp high mids and an ideal level of bass response.
The earphones ship with three pairs of silicone eartips in small, medium, and large sizes, and the in-ear fit is lightweight and secure. Other than a tiny black zip-up protective case, there are no additional accessories.
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like the Knife's "Silent Shout," the earphones deliver a powerful low frequency response. At top, unwise listening levels, the drivers do not distort, and at more moderate volumes, the deep lows still have a strong presence, balanced somewhat by the high-mids and highs.
Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives a better sense of the general sound signature. The drums on this track can sound overly bass-heavy on earphones that boost the deep lows too much. Here, the drums definitely get an extra helping in the bass department, but it's not enough to send things into ridiculous thunder territory. Callahan's baritone vocals also get a heavy dose of low and low-mid presence, bringing out their richness even more than might be necessary. We've heard earphones boost the lows far more intensely than this, but what's missing here is a little bit of added high-mid presence to balance it out and keep things crisp. This is a sound signature that leans toward the lows and the low-mids, with some definition in the highs, but not as much as we'd prefer.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the drum loop receives less high-mid presence than it typically does, which has the effect of dulling the attack of the hits slightly. Instead of a sharp attack, we get more thump, with the sustain of the hits beefed up in the lower frequencies. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with some serious presence. Again, it's not the most intense bass boosting we've ever heard, but the lows are pumped up considerably. The vocals on this track are delivered clearly, but again, we are missing the high-mid treble edge that would help them stand out more against the bass-dense backdrop.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, get an added bass presence, but not nearly to the extent of modern mixes that feature more sub-bass content. The lower register instrumentation is pushed forward in the mix, but it doesn't overwhelm the balance, and the bright higher register brass, strings, and vocals are able to maintain their prominence in the mix. The earphones sound more balanced on orchestral tracks than with any other genre, but there's still some added bass push.
Focal's recent headphones have exercised a little more restraint in the bass department and focused more on accuracy. The Spark's boosted bass is not unpleasant in the slightest, but it's missing its counterpart in the high-mids and highs—if we're abandoning the idea of a flat, accurate response, we need sculpting everywhere, not just in the lows, to achieve a sense of balance. If big bass without crisp highs appeals to you, the Spark won't disappoint, but if you're looking for a little more definition in this price range, consider the RHA S500i, the Klipsch Reference X6i, or the 1More Triple Driver In-Ear Headphones. If you have more room in your budget and want some excellent-sounding wired in-ears, the Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2 remain one of our favorites.
By Tim Gideon Contributing Editor, Audio
Contributing Editor Tim Gideon has been writing for PCMag since 2006. He specializes in reviewing audio products, and is obsessed with headphones, speakers, and recording gear. More »
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