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...