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June 20, 2017
2 x 5.9 x 2.8 inches
Focal might not be the most well-known audio brand to your average consumer, but anyone who has spent time in a professional studio might recognize the name. You’ll normally find their name attached to high end monitor speakers and headphones, including the $4000 Utopia headphones which have been touted as one of the best ever made. Luckily, the French brand doesn’t only hang out in the high end. Their entry level Spark earbuds cost way less than $4000, but are they any good?
In the box you’ll get the headphones, a small hardshell carrying case for storage, three sets of extra ear tips, and the instruction manual. Nothing fancy here and I appreciate the minimalism of it all. Just open the box and you’re ready to go.
Build & Design
Like I said, I’m a huge fan of anything minimal. When the design of a pair of headphones or a speaker perfectly matches its function, that product usually gets a high score from me in terms of design. At first glance I was sure this would be one of those instances, but then I took the headphones out of the box and was smacked in the face with branding. Look, I get it. Branding is important to any company that wants to sell their product. But I feel like there’s a right way to do it, and Focal didn’t get that balance right with these. First you get the small F logo on either earbud which I don’t mind one bit. If it stopped there, it would’ve been fine. But then you get the name “Focal” stamped in white across the side of the earbud, as well as on the black control module hanging out on the wire, as well as the 3.5mm connector, and even on the small piece of metal at the Y-split.
If you scratched three logos off of these headphones, you’d still have another logo. I know it’s not really a big deal, but I can’t be the only one who cares about this. I don’t want to be a walking advertisement every time I go to the grocery store. But I digress. Besides my obvious hatred of the branding on these headphones my biggest problem with the way these headphones were built and designed is the control module. It’s large, clunky, and block-shaped which doesn’t match the clean and modern aesthetic that I’m sure Focal was going for. Besides this stealthy black color option you can also get them in a white/silver color way that looks a little bit cleaner as the branding isn’t as noticeable.
But now that we’ve got the negatives out of the way let’s focus on some of the things these headphones get right, because it does do a good job at almost everything else. For one, the earbuds have a small bullet-like shape to them that reminds me of the original Xiaomi Piston headphones which I absolutely loved. For some reason earbuds shaped like this always fit my ear perfectly, I didn’t even need to switch out the ear tips to get a great seal, they worked great right out of the box. Whether I was casually walking around running errands or actively shaking my head like a wet dog to test the fit, I didn’t have any issues with these falling out. The cable is also a flat one which helps to avoid tangles which is super helpful if you’re like me and just end up stuffing your headphones in your pocket when you’re done using them.
As far as connection goes there’s only one option here: a good ‘ol 3.5mm jack. If you happen to have a phone without a headphone jack then don’t lose the dongle (or get something else to plug it into) because otherwise you’re out of luck. I do enjoy wireless headphones every now and then, but there’s nothing like plugging in a wire and going on your way.
The in-line controls work fine but if you’re on Android you’ll miss out on the ability to return to a previous track. That said, all the other controls work as advertised. You can pause or play music by clicking the middle multifunction button, skip to the next track by double clicking it, access your phone’s voice assistant by holding it down, and adjust the volume via the up and down buttons. One major problem that I had with these was the microphone. Whether I was trying to talk on the phone or access the voice assistant on my phone I just couldn’t get it to work. That said, I’m willing to bet this is an isolated incident since I haven’t seen that complaint anywhere else so I have to assume it’s just my bad luck.
Now with a pair of headphones like the Utopia in their line-up, you might expect Focal to take the same route towards near perfection with the Spark but the truth is it has a much more of a mainstream sound signature to it. It’s not a bad thing but to be honest it was slightly disappointing. Still, I guess that was just my personal bias slipping in because when I handed off the headphones to my friends to try they loved them.
The low end is given a nice prominence that makes itself known in songs that you might not expect them to. It can be both a good and a bad thing with the bass notes in “Home Again” by Michael Kiwanuka being given a warm presence, but the ones in “Fall Creek Boys Choir” by James Blake being a little too much for my taste. the song already has powerful thumping bassnotes throughout and with a little extra attention paid to them they take over.
The mids seem a little lackluster to my ears with elements that I know are meant to drive the song forward fading into the background. This is can be heard in the Disney piece “Paperman” by Christophe Beck where the melodic strings that come in at about the 35 second mark seem to fall behind the bass. In that same piece however the highs have a nice air around them that never becomes harsh even when it gets much louder towards the end. Sure, it might not have the best detail but it gets the point across without being painful which is a great thing to have when the drivers are literally sitting in your ears.
Overall the sound on the Sparks is good for this price range, but not great. Which is fine since the company has plenty of other products you can look towards if you want great. It could’ve been that I had high expectations going into this review but I feel like the Focal Spark didn’t floor me in any way. It performed as expected in many areas and was a bit of a letdown in others, but it was never great at any one thing.
But that shouldn’t be mistaken for “bad”. These are still a solid pair of earbuds that get the job done, which is all you can really ask for when it comes to earbuds. Whether you’re looking for a spare pair to keep in your bag or are looking to make them your go-to everyday pair of headphones these are a good option that’s just a little rough around the edges.