Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
In May 2015, Focal introduced their Sopra line of loudspeakers with the Sopra No1 minimonitor ($9990/pair, all prices USD) and the Sopra No2 floorstander ($18,990/pair). In October 2015, Doug Schneider reviewed the Sopra No2 and liked it so much that it was named a Reviewers’ Choice. Then, in 2016, Focal released a larger floorstander, the Sopra No3 ($23,990/pair), as well as the Sopra Center ($3990 each) and the Sopra Surround BE ($6990/pair).
Though late to the Sopra party, I’m a big fan of minimonitors, and have been itching to listen to the No1s in my room ever since September 2019, when I reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed Focal’s Spectral 40th floorstander ($9999/pair). I requested a pair of Sopra No1s for review, along with their matching stands ($1980/pair), and they arrived in the flashiest finish imaginable: Chameleon (see below).
The Sopra No1 is a rather large, curved minimonitor standing 16.5”H x 11”W x 15.5”D and weighing 42 pounds. The matching stand is 24”H and weighs almost as much: 41 pounds. The No1’s 1” tweeter is crossed over to its 6.5” bass-midrange driver at 2.2kHz. All Sopra models have cone drivers made of Focal’s patented W material, and all of their tweeters are Focal-made inverted domes of pure beryllium.
Focal’s W cones are also found in Focal’s top line, the Utopia models, and have some noteworthy features. The cone comprises two sheets of woven glass tissue sandwiching a structural core of foam. Focal claims that the glass tissue, finely woven of very long fibers, provides a perfect blend of damping, lightness, and rigidity -- they say it’s 20 times as rigid as cones woven of Kevlar or aramid. Varying the thickness of the foam core and the number of glass fibers allows Focal to optimally match the cone’s behavior to its assigned bandwidth. They claim that the resulting sound is entirely transparent, with excellent phase response and very low distortion. Why is it called W? In English, the name of the letter W is double U; in French, it’s double V. The French word for glass is verre. Et voilà: double glass = double verre = double V = W.
Rigidity also rules the Sopra tweeters. Beryllium is seven times more rigid than titanium or aluminum, and this, Focal claims, makes it possible for their Be tweeters to reproduce a very wide bandwidth of 1-40kHz. The Sopra models’ inverted beryllium domes are mounted in Focal’s unique patented Infinite Horn Loading (IHL) system -- essentially, the rear of the tweeter is loaded via a small cavity, which is connected to the exterior of the speaker enclosure by a horn. The horn is filled with a damping material that delicately and gradually absorbs the tweeter’s rear-radiated soundwaves. As a result, the tweeter’s acoustic impedance approaches zero, which means that there’s virtually no resistance to affect the dome’s intended movements and thus the fidelity of its reproduction within its bandwidth. The entire tweeter assembly is isolated in a separate trapezoidal enclosure, made of inert injected polyurethane for optimal mass and damping, that sits atop the main cabinet.
Another patented technology found in the Sopra No1 is Focal’s Tuned Mass Damper (TMD) cone surround, designed to control the cone breakup that occurs when a diaphragm resonates uncontrollably. Two tubular rings are incorporated into the surround to provide additional mass to oscillate in opposition to the cone’s resonant frequency. This stabilizes the dynamic behavior of the surround, which, according to Focal, avoids deformation of the cone without impeding dynamics.
The Sopra No1’s cabinet is unique, and quite attractive on close inspection, with immaculate fit and finish -- which is the least you should expect in a minimonitor costing ten grand per pair. All of its vertical surfaces are curved, the flat top panel slopes upward toward the rear, and the front baffle is raked back to meet the tweeter module at an angle -- in short, the front baffle is folded slightly inward. This means that the bass-midrange driver fires at a slight upward angle, the tweeter slightly downward, presumably to provide the best acoustic blend at the listening position. Around back are high-quality five-way binding posts and a horizontal slot port, to augment the bass output and to provide a perfect visual blend with the cabinet’s curves.
The No1’s on-axis frequency response is specified as 45Hz-40kHz, ±3dB, its sensitivity as 89dB/W/m, and its nominal impedance as 8 ohms. The speaker is warranted for five years.
The Sopra models are available in finishes of Black Lacquer, Carrara White, Electric Orange, Black Oak, and Light Oak -- but the tweeter assembly is always textured matte black. The Chameleon finish of my review samples is shown neither on Focal’s website nor on their price list. Having lived with these speakers a few months, I’m still not sure I like it, but one thing’s for sure: It’s unique. Depending on the angle of light shone on the speakers, their color is green or teal or blue or purple or amber. Very cool, but hard to blend into a typical home’s décor. I asked Romain Vet, VP of marketing for Focal Naim America, about this. He told me that the Sopra No1 can still be ordered in Chameleon, but to expect a delay in shipping -- and a surcharge of $2000.
The Sopra No1s came well packaged, each in its own box, cushioned by high-density Styrofoam and wrapped in a soft cloth bag. Each speaker is accompanied by an instruction manual and a pressure-fit grille that covers only the midrange-woofer.
The black stands are built to a very high standard and were easy to assemble. The main column is heavy, made of steel, filled with an inert material, and fitted with a channel in which to hide the speaker cable. The base plate, a curved trapezoid, repeats the shape of the speaker’s footprint at somewhat larger size; visible through its translucent glass surface is the Focal logo. This plate is pierced by four large feet -- knobs above, spikes below -- that let the user easily level the stands. Also included are four discs of machined steel on which to sit the spikes, for those who don’t want to scratch their hardwood floors. The stand’s steel top plate is triangular, with three holes that accept the bolts (included) that screw in to the speaker’s bottom plate. I was at first taken aback by the stands’ price, but when I saw them set up in my room, and the Sopra No1s in place atop them, I felt they justified $1980/pair. These stands are beautiful.
I placed the Sopra No1s in the usual places I put speakers in my listening room. They described a 9’ equilateral triangle with my listening seat. The speaker’s rear panels were 16” from the front wall. After experimenting with toe-in, I settled on my usual angle of 20°, which produced the best combination of soundstage width and image specificity. My dedicated listening room is relatively small (15’L x 12’W), and treated with broadband absorption at the first reflection points on the sidewalls and on the long wall between and behind the speakers.
This time, I didn’t use my two subwoofers. My Bluesound Node streamer, used as a source and a Roon endpoint, was connected to my miniDSP DDRC-22D (with its built-in Dirac Live room EQ turned off) via an optical link, the miniDSP’s optical output in turn connected to a McIntosh Laboratory C47 preamplifier-DAC. The C47’s balanced outputs were connected to the balanced inputs of my McIntosh MC302 power amplifier with Monoprice balanced interconnects (XLR), and the Sopra No1s were driven from the MC302’s 8-ohm taps via homemade speaker cables with 12-gauge copper conductors. Tidal and my library of CDs, ripped as FLAC files and stored on a NAS, were played by a Roon server installed on a dedicated Windows 10 laptop connected via Ethernet and controlled with the Roon app installed on my Microsoft Surface Pro 6.
I began by listening to “Some Must Dream,” from Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, The Right Stuff/Tidal). I heard exceptional transparency -- the two acoustic guitars flanking Lofgren’s voice were reproduced with spooky realism. The guitar on the right, imaged higher and farther front, is accompanied by gentle pluckings of the second guitar, at left and lower, and farther behind the plane described by the speaker’s frontmost corners. The aural images were hyper-precise, and the Sopras conveyed each pluck’s every nuance and detail. In the spirited twanging of the right-hand guitar and the long decays of the left, I could hear each separate guitar string with all the convincing clarity of a live performance. The Focals’ reproduction of Lofgren’s voice was equally transparent -- it gently floated in space surrounded by air, well above the guitars, with no hint that the sound was being produced by a pair of speakers. The Sopra No1s “disappeared” from my room.
Next up was “Birds,” from Dominique Fils-Aimé’s EP Nameless (24/44.1 FLAC unfolded to 24/88.2 MQA, Ensoul/Tidal). It opens with double bass just to the right, and from the get-go, the No1s captured my attention. Jacques Roy’s attacks on his bass’s thick strings had snap and speed, followed by deep, reverberant decays. The Sopras’ bottom end was tight and dynamic and, despite the lingering bass notes, remained composed, with no cabinet resonances to color the sound.
Roy’s bass is followed by what sound like finger snaps. These showcased the Sopras’ superb ability to deliver dynamic contrasts. When Fils-Aimé’s voice enters 15 seconds in, it had body, intimacy, and detail, as if she were in the room whispering the lyrics to me. Then, at 0:42, she begins singing more forcefully and with greater conviction, an octave higher. Through the Sopras, her voice was a real treat -- high above the tops of the speakers, forming a tightly focused image, airy and detailed. I felt I could reach out and touch her. Again, there was no hint that these palpable sounds were being reproduced in my room by drivers in boxes -- it was a transparent listening experience. Finally, at 1:00, when the backing singers enter at extreme right and left, the Sopra No1s performed their next trick: a superwide soundstage. Those backing voices extended well past the outer edges of the speaker cabinets, no aspect of their sound seeming to emanate from the front baffles. Wow.
Last, I listened to a track I’m very familiar with: “Find My Home,” from Colin James’s Rooftops and Satellites (16/44.1 FLAC, Maple Music/Tidal). Here I heard some similarities with my reference minimonitors, Bowers & Wilkins’ 705 S2s ($2500/pair, plus $500/pair for dedicated stands), as well as some differences. The two models reproduced James’s voice with similar degrees of presence and liveliness, but through the Focals it was more front and center, more clearly delineated from the rest of the mix. And the Sopra No1s had the 705 S2s beat in terms of weight, body, and smoothness through the midrange, where they evinced more presence and realism. The Sopra No1, like Focal’s much larger but identically priced Spectral 40th, had an intoxicatingly liquid-smooth midrange clarity and a forward liveliness that, together, always drew me into the music.
The Sopra No1s were also far more evenhanded in the top end than my B&Ws. For example, the Sopras’ inverted beryllium dome tweeters delivered, with the gentle cymbal crash at hard right 1:07 into “Find My Home,” the finest example of attack, delicacy, shimmer, extension, decay, and wide dispersion I’ve ever heard in my listening room -- including, to the best of my memory, the top end produced by the aramid-fiber inverted domes of Focal’s Spectral 40ths, at almost exactly the same price.
The Sopra No1’s bass proved nimble and fast with “Find My Home” -- I heard precise structure in the bass notes, with good layering, and no bloat or cabinet colorations. The Sopras weren’t the last word in bass output and extension for the price, but were nonetheless solid bass performers. A recent passive bookshelf speaker that edges out the Sopra No1 in bass output and extension is Q Acoustic’s Concept 300, which I reviewed in January. Using my miniDSP UMIK-1 calibrated measuring microphone, I measured the Sopra No1’s in-room -3dB point relative to 1kHz at 33Hz -- respectable, but the Q Concept 300 reaches down to 29Hz, -3dB.
Beryllium Wars: Focal vs. Revel
I had on hand a pair of Revel’s PerformaBe M126Be bookshelf speakers, reviewed in August 2019 by Philip Beaudette for Soundstage! Hi-Fi. The M126Be -- not only named a Reviewers’ Choice, but one of the SoundStage! Network’s Products of the Year for 2019 -- also has a pure-beryllium tweeter. It also made for a great point of comparison with the Focal Sopra No1 not only because the M126Be is considered a textbook-accurate speaker -- as was borne out by the measurements we took in the anechoic chamber of Canada’s National Research Council -- but because, at $4000/pair, it costs less than half as much.
But despite that big difference in price, comparing these speakers in listening tests (for which I matched their levels using pink noise and an SPL meter) made clear to me that I’d entered the realm of diminishing returns. Aside from bass response, the Focals weren’t better than the Revels, merely different.
To compare the speakers’ bass responses, I cued up “Hotel California,” from the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over (16/44.1 FLAC, Geffen). While both models exhibited superb speed and attack 0:33 into this track, when the bass notes dropped, and without hiding any of the drumstrokes’ subtle reverb, the Focals did have more output and went a bit lower in pitch -- I could feel the bass in my body a little more. But this didn’t come as a surprise -- while these two speakers have midrange-bass drivers of the same size, the Sopra No1’s cabinet is considerably larger than the PerformaBe M126Be’s.
The smallest difference was in the treble. Both speakers reproduced exquisitely detailed, extended, and airy top ends, but the Sopra No1s had perhaps 1dB more output from 3 to 10kHz, which made them sound occasionally a hair brighter. For example, when I listened to “Black Velvet,” from Alannah Myles’s Alannah Myles (16/44.1 FLAC, Atlantic), and focused on the cymbal crashes at extreme left and right, I heard from both speakers the same fluid, extended, shimmery splashes that seemed to extend out forever past the cabinets’ outer edges. I couldn’t declare a winner -- but I thought I detected a tad more treble volume from the Sopras. And when I listened to the title track of Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence (24/48 FLAC unfolded to 24/96 MQA, Geffen/Tidal), the Focals slightly over-emphasized Henley’s sibilants at high volumes; the Revels did not.
“The End of the Innocence” was also the perfect way to showcase the most significant difference between the Focals and Revels: in the midrange. While I suspect that the Revel’s frequency response would probably measure more accurately (i.e., flat), I don’t dare say that one speaker is better than the other. They’re just different. I’m also certain that anyone listening to both speakers side by side would have a clear preference, one way or the other. When I focused on Henley’s singing, the No1s’ reproduction of his voice was livelier, more up-front and forward than the M126Be’s’. Through the Focals, Henley’s voice seemed to leap from the mix as an aural image of greater weight, palpability, and height on the soundstage, and surrounded by more air. Nor did the Focals’ additional presence in this regard come at the expense of a reduction in smoothness -- both speakers were liquid-smooth through the midrange even in the chorus at loud volumes, when Henley leans into the mike.
The Focal Sopra No1 is an expensive minimonitor, but you get a lot for $9990/pair: cutting-edge design, and manufacture under Focal’s direct control -- they make every part of every one of their speakers in-house. From the pure-beryllium inverted-dome tweeter in its patented IHL frame, to the W sandwich midrange-bass driver, to the rock-solid, curved, beautifully finished cabinet, it all comes together in a package that leaves a lasting impression. Even the matching stands are well engineered and beautiful to look at.
Having reviewed Focal’s Spectral 40th speaker, my expectations of sound quality from Focal were high. The Sopra No1s met and exceeded those expectations. Their imaging prowess and transparency were beyond reproach -- they “disappeared” from my room even as they chiseled out precise aural images on a wide, deep, and tall soundstage. The degrees of delicacy, shimmer, and extension I heard in the top registers were breathtaking, and the Sopras offered taut, quick bass with superb dynamic punch and contrast.
Still, for the price, I could have used a bit more bass output -- I’ve heard stand-mounted speakers that can deliver that in my room. But the most indelible impression left on me by the Sopra No1 was its midrange -- in my opinion, it was the speaker’s calling card. Once you’ve tasted that combination of detail, body, weight, forward liveliness, and liquid smoothness, all devoid of glare or edge, it’s difficult to live without it.
In fact, I was so taken with these speakers that I’ve decided not to live without them. The Focal Sopra No1 is my new reference minimonitor. Focal, send me the bill. And if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.
. . . Diego Estan
- Speakers -- Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2, Revel PerformaBe M126Be
- Subwoofer -- SVS SB-4000 (2)
- Power amplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory MC302
- Crossover -- Marchand Electronics XM446XLR-A (between preamp and amp)
- Preamplifier-DAC -- McIntosh Laboratory C47
- Room correction EQ -- miniDSP DDRC-22D with Dirac Live 2.0 (between digital sources and DAC)
- Digital sources -- Rotel RCD-991 CD player, Bluesound Node streamer, Windows 10 laptop running Roon
- Analog sources -- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit turntable with Ortofon 2M Red cartridge
- Speaker cables -- homemade, with conductors of 12AWG oxygen-free copper, locking banana plugs
- Analog interconnects -- AmazonBasics (unbalanced, RCA), Monoprice Premier (balanced, XLR)
- Digital link -- AmazonBasics optical (TosLink)
Focal Sopra No1 Loudspeakers
Price: $9990 USD per pair (add $1980/pair for stands).
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
108 Rue de l’Avenir
42350 La Talaudière