Over the past 20 plus years, I have been very blessed to own some of the most fantastic loudspeakers that the audiophile industry has been able to produce. The pressure is always to make a floorstanding speaker that can get you closer and closer to the music, and the price to get that Nth degree of performance often is pretty steep. I became aware of French loudspeaker manufacturer Focal as the maker of the much-praised tweeter in many of my beloved Wilson Audio speakers from the past. Focal’s reputation for building first-rate drivers is second to none worldwide, and the company still makes drivers for certain speaker manufacturers. Of course, Focal makes its own speakers, too--which have increasingly gained attention from the most demanding listeners, thanks to their high efficiency, innovative technologies, and simply stunning industrial design.
A few years back, I was wooed to purchase a pair of Focal Diablo Utopia bookshelf speakers. In rough terms, they were a small version of Focal’s flagship Grand Utopia EM. Considering the installation was going to be in my West Los Angeles office, I didn’t have the space or the capital to go big with the Grand Utopias. I loved the Diablo’s size and sound, and I ultimately brought them home to mate with an 85-inch Samsung Ultra HD TV in my recently renovated 1957 “post-and-beam” home. They looked good. They sounded very, very good. But then the Focal Sopra N°2 arrived on the market, and the rules changed. Priced at $13,995 per pair and in a full floorstanding form factor, the Sopra N°2 is packed with even more patented technologies from Focal’s flagship speaker. I knew immediately that I wanted a pair.
One of the unique features of the Sopra N°2 is its sexy form factor. It’s a narrow and tall floorstanding speaker with a tilt in the top of the cabinet (which is made in Burgundy, by the way) that gives the speaker a very human, if not feminine, aura. The fit and finish of the speaker will go toe to toe with any model from the top speaker makers in the business, be it Bowers & Wilkins, Wilson Audio, Magico, MartinLogan, YG Acoustic, or Meridian. Every nut, bold, part, mold, and design cue is carefully crafted to look like sex on a stick, to use a Jimmy Choo reference. The effect is that women who normally hate large, boxy, black speakers have commented without being prompted, “Wow, those are some really pretty speakers.” Or, “I didn’t know I would like speakers painted in white, but they look really good.” Focal offers a pretty aggressive array of stock colors, including orange (I call it Philadelphia Flyers orange, and I wanted to order it so very badly), black, white, red, and a few really well done blood-wood stained finishes. I played it somewhat safe and ordered up the white Sopra N°2s.
The Focal Sopra N°2s come nicely packed and, thankfully, without a palette in my case. I was able to unbox them and assemble the fantastically designed feet for both speakers in less than 25 minutes, and that was with me being very deliberate. Having a helper would be nice, but it isn’t a must.
Because the Sopra N°2s have a reported efficiency of 91 dB, you can match them with damn near any good power amp you like. I used Classé Audio’s new Class D Sigma AMP5 power amp that, trust me, does not sound like the Class D amps of yesteryear. The AMP5 offers 200 watts per channel, which allowed me to rattle my home’s new triple-paned, Xeon-filled windows peeking out at the Pacific Ocean.
In comparison with the five pairs of Wilson Audio speakers that I’ve owned in the past--all of which were very responsive to small positioning changes in the room--the process of dialing in the Sopra N°2s to get rocking the best bass and imaging was pretty straightforward. Add in my $1,300 SVS SB-13 subwoofer, and it was even easier to get rocking quickly. However, I tried to spend a good amount of my review time listening with only the full-range Focals--although I personally always use the SVS, even for TV listening. Clearly, the Focals benefit from fine tuning and laser adjustments for the sweet spot, but you can expect to have rocking good sound in short order when setting up the Focal Sopra N°2s.
Recently, I was on a phone call with one of my favorite PR people in the AV business (they don’t represent Focal, but they do represent other top-of-the-line speaker makers), and we were discussing how there really hasn’t been any sea-change technologies in speaker development in the past 75 years. While that might be true, the best speaker companies push the limit of what can be done in a more traditional speaker, and none more so than Focal.
A lot of what makes the Sopra N°2 great is owed to advances made in the higher-end Focal flagship products. NIC, or Neutral Inductance Circuit, addresses improvements in the magnetic field of a driver that decreases distortion in a meaningful way, and that technology comes right from the Grand Utopia EM speakers. Another patented new speaker technology is the Tuned Mass Damper, which consists of two tubular rings on the suspension of the midrange driver that are designed to “stabilize the dynamic behavior of the surround according to resonance, thus avoiding deformation of the cone without afflicting the dynamics.” Regarding higher frequencies, Focal is famous for using Beryllium tweeters; but, beyond the use of exotic materials is the infinite horn-loading technology, where Focal installs the tweeter right on top of an area that allows it to breathe back into the cabinet in a horn-like configuration. While it’s not as perfect as the speaker resonating in free air, it creates a very open, lively (but never bright) high end that you’d expect from drastically different speaker technologies that can’t compete with Focal’s dynamics. This technology is also patented.
In honor of my USC women’s golf team buddy Victoria, who just made it past the first stage of LPGA Qualification School, I fired up “Hey Nineteen” by Steely Dan (AIFF 1440). I keep making on-course putting references to things like “too hot in the hot tub” (for putts that go blasting past the hole) from Saturday Night Live’s James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party, and she has no idea what I’m talking about because she was born eight years after the Eddie Murphy skit aired. She doesn’t know what a balata golf ball is and has never hit a “wood” made out of wood. But I digress from the audiophile gold of one of Steely Dan’s most notable tracks. The extra-tight drums sounded crisp, while the carefully plucked guitar riffs sounded mellow yet tasty. The layered Michael McDonald-laden vocal harmonies in the chorus are the makings of what Sirius XM spent the entire summer promoting on its limited edition “Yacht Rock” channel. Overall, the imaging was fully coherent, engaging, and fun. Anybody would jam to this track, no matter how “skeezy” my wife says it sounds.
Moving forward a decade to Sting’s first solo record, loaded with the best musicians one could imagine, “Englishman in New York” offers a lush timbre with a super-wide soundstage when played back through the Sopra N°2s. Air abounds as Mr. Sumner’s voice beams above riffs from Branford Marsalis on what sounds like his tenor sax. Going into the third verse, the track breaks down to a very 1980s-sounding drum machine sound. Often that somewhat-dated production element can sound shrill and digital, but through the Sopra N°2s it was much more tolerable and less fatiguing.
I bet I am not the only one who has been digging into their Prince archives after The Artist’s 2016 departure. The Sopra N°2s gave classic tracks like “Little Red Corvette” more breath in the chorus than I heard even with the Focal Diablo Utopias in residence. The midrange was more controlled and open, even as the dynamic window opened up going into each chorus. The edge on Prince’s guitar in the intro of “When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain (AIFF 1440) sounded so real and in-the-room that I couldn’t help but to turn up the volume and start the song over again. Into the first verse, Prince’s vocals beamed between the two speakers with a depth and accuracy found only on the best systems with the best recordings. Respectfully, these Prince records are a bit dated and being played back at CD resolution, but who cares? They sounded great.
On “Hey You” from Pink Floyd’s all-time classic The Wall (AIFF 1440), I got a chance to hear what the Focal Sopra N°2s can do with isolated and deeper bass. I unplugged my SVS sub to hear the depths that the Focals can dip to, and they are musically engaging and fun. It sounds better, of course, with a well-tuned subwoofer for the deepest notes, but Roger Waters’ fretless bass still sounded rich and smooth while his vocals beamed. The David Gilmore guitar solo begged for me to push the volume, as there was little to no fatigue when he squeezed the last drops of solo out of his Stratocaster.
At very high levels, “Hella Good” by No Doubt has become one of my favorite tests for coherency. Gwen Stefani’s vocals are deep, but the bass is the main draw to see just how low these floorstanding speakers can go. Deep is a pretty fair descriptor, and tight is a good way to describe the overall sound. Other speakers fall apart on this track as No Doubt heads into the highly produced choruses, but the Focals kept it together at high volumes.
At the highest levels I blasted “Always on the Run” from Lenny Kravitz’s Mama Said featuring Slash on guitar. This funky yet heavy track is loaded with complexities, including lead and rhythm guitars, horns, bass, and a driving backbeat. Kravitz is one of the last living badass front men left in rock-and-roll today, and his vocals sounded engaging without being harsh. Slash’s solo screams Les-Paul-on-fire, while the bass rips below him in the mix.
In case you think the Focal Sopras might be for music-loving audiophiles only, you would be mistaken. I played scenes from Gravity, via a Blu-ray-quality download from the Kalidescape Store. This film is known for its stunning video quality, but the audio mix in the first few chapters provides a good blend of dialogue and effects. As George Clooney’s character tries to save Sandra Bullock’s character in space, there’s everything from close-miked dialogue to some bumpy, scary run-ins with the Space Shuttle and beyond. With my Classé Sigma AV preamp in phantom center mode, the Focal Sopra 2s were able to easily keep up with the challenges of this demanding soundtrack and keep me engaged for a prolonged, multi-chapter listening session.
The Sopra N°2s must be considered among the titans of audiophile loudspeakers from the likes of Revel, Wilson Audio, Magico, YG Acoustics, MartinLogan, Bowers and Wilkins, and many others. Having both bought and sold Focal speakers, I can tell you that the resale value for other speakers is often stronger than that of Focals. It’s likely going to be easier to sell a pair of Wilson Sasha WPs or Alexas than it is Focals in the used market. Then again, the asking price is so much less for the Focals and the performance is comparable to speakers costing two or three times more that one could argue that the speakers already have paid their value, even if they don’t sell for 60 cents on the dollar years after the purchase.
A personal downside for me--but really more of a compliment to the Focal Sopra N°2s speakers--is the fact that my room’s acoustic flaws are obvious to astute listeners (myself being the most notable), in that the speaker is so resolved and revealing. I often don’t want to roll down the Crestron shade to make the first-order reflections sound less pronounced on the right side of the room because I want to enjoy my view, too. To be very polite, my new AV room is less-than-perfect in terms of acoustics at this stage. In the near future, I plan to treat the ceiling with absorption via a fabric wall, which will help with a little slap effect. I might be able to install some bass traps like RPG’s Modex plates in the back corners. Other acoustic issues are going to be hard to overcome, but it doesn’t make me like the Sopra N°2s any less. It’s just a statement as to how good they could sound in a more dialed-in, purposeful audio room. I just happen to live in a less-than-perfect room located somewhere near the real world.
Comparison and Competition
Think blue chip when you think comparison and competition. I recently spent some time with the new Bowers and Wilkins Diamond Series 800 D3 towers, and at $30,000 you can make comparisons. Wilson Audio Sasha WP speakers (now in V2) come to mind. They also have a more affordable speaker in their Sabrina model that has some improved industrial designs. The historical tie between Focal and Wilson makes for a natural comparison. Additionally, the really gorgeous cabinetry, custom paint colors, and exotic form factors draw additional comparisons.
Focal has since launched a Sopra N°3, a larger speaker with larger bass drivers and a higher list price ($19,999/pair), which is obvious competition for those looking for more low end and higher dynamics from their floorstanding speakers. With my SVS sub in the game, I just didn’t feel the need for anything bigger. I did lust for a center speaker, and Focal does offer the Sopra Center for $3,499 in black only. That likely will work for me, as my Samsung 85-incher is all black, and they should all mesh nicely in terms of overall appearance.
You could pick any top-performing dynamic speaker from the best speaker manufacturers in the world (think: Magico, YG, MartinLogan, and others), but one you might not be thinking about is the Paradigm Signature S8. At about $8,500, these floorstanding speakers are actually easier to drive and a little more dynamic for half the price. They might be the best value in the high-end speaker in the market today, even if the Paradigms don’t come donned in as pretty a dress as the others.
If you really want to strip off the pretty dress concept, Tekton Design’s Pendragon speaker is a stone-cold, high-efficiency killer that comes painted in custom colors and is better than most know for a tiny fraction of the price of the big boys.
All of the speakers I mentioned above in the Focal Sopra N°2’s price range are good. Scratch that--they are excellent! And one could easily make a sonic argument that the Focal No.2s compete favorably with speakers costing more than double the asking price. That level of value is hard to come by in the marketplace. (I know people will go crazy that I am calling a $14,000 pair of speakers a “value,” but they need to view it in relation to other high-end floorstanding speakers--not Elacs, RSLs, or Tektons.) Music lovers can fire up high-resolution files of the most meaningful recordings ever made and get closer to the master tape than ever before. And home theater enthusiasts will love what the Sopra speakers can do with high-quality movie soundtracks. Beyond value, the Focal Sopra N°2s are a statement about design, style, and performance. One can find a good speaker for less money, and one can find an incredible speaker costing far more. When it comes time to actually pull out your wallet and make an investment, you might not find a better balance between the worlds of performance, design, and value. With that said, my wallet is out, and these speakers aren’t going back to France.