Earbuds and in-ear monitors can be a really weird market. Its devotees are legion, and they’re often prepared to give these often very affordable and seemingly inconsequential devices a huge amount of love and attention and analysis - the kind usually reserved for kit that costs four figures and requires a specialised truck to deliver to your house. But chat to fans brands like 1More or MEE Audio, and you’ll find a hardcore group who love everything about their miniature noisemakers. Legendary speaker-and-headphone makers Focal recently got in on the act with their Spark series, and we got to hang out with them for a while. Here’s what we thought.
Focal (pronounced Fo-CAL, by the way - they’re French) sent us two models: the Spark, and its wireless cousin. We’ll be tackling the latter in another review, but for now, let’s talk about the wired version. In particular, let’s talk about the design. Because make no mistake: while it might not reach the heights of something like the Utopia (an over-ear pair the company also sent us, which we’ll be reviewing in full soon, and which - spoiler alert - we think are the best headphones on earth), the Spark is still a gorgeous bit of kit.
These are earbuds, rather than shaped in-ear-monitors, and they look really, really good. The chief design feature is the cylindrical metal housing, which feels hefty to hold without being overly heavy. There’s the company’s name on each side, but the most striking detail - and one we’re rather hoping to see picked up by other manufacturers - is the shaped grille on the outside of each housing. It’s in the shape of the stylised Focal ‘F’, cut right into the metal, with the grille behind the cut.
We’re not sure if it has a major impact on the audio quality - these aren’t open-back in-ears, like the AUDEZE iSine 20s - but it looks absolutely terrific, marking these out as something cool even from a distance. Focal have always had excellent design sensibilities, and it shows through here.
They also don’t let form get in the way of function. Not only are the buds light enough not to pose an issue, despite the presence of the metal build, but they’re also well-designed and thought-out - albeit with nothing too unorthodox. The cables are attached with a flexible plastic bracket, and are themselves pretty resistant to tangling up, which we really liked. They’re flat, rather than cylindrical, and feel pleasantly rubbery. Even when shoving the Spark into a pocket, we didn’t find there were too many tangles when we pulled them out.
The design reminded us of another in-ear we tested last year: the MEZE 11 Neo (full review here). Similar metal cylinder design, although we think the Spark is better-made, and with a little bit more flash. They cost about the same, too, so if design is what you’re looking for the Spark should be your first choice. The buds come in three colors - silver, cobalt and blue (ours was silver), and while it would be nice to see a few more options down the line, the colors are inoffensive enough that it’s not a big deal.
The in-line controls on the microphone are exactly what we wanted. By that we mean: they don’t try to do anything clever, or revolutionary, or unusual. You might accuse of being anti-innovation here, but the three-button control scheme works for a reason, and has become popular precisely because it’s so simple. Why do you think companies like Sony have hardly changed the basic shape or layout of their Playstation controls since the original Dual-Shock? Because it worked the first time, and they saw no need to mess with it. Same deal here.
You get a sensible three-button layout, with a volume-up and -down switch, and a single button to handle everything else via multiple presses. We never had a problem locating the buttons without looking, and we knew what to do with them without having to look at the instruction manual.
Essentially, while the Spark don’t do anything revolutionary, they do do everything right. Their design is effective without being overwhelming, and is exceptionally simple. Good job, everyone.
(It's also worth noting that there's a wireless version, which we'll be reviewing soon. Hold tight!)
At a time when most earbuds and IEMs come with whole bags of multi-colored eartips and flanges and weird rubber things (we’re looking at you, BE Sport3 - full review here), it’s a little weird to see that the Spark only ships with three tip sizes.
While it didn’t worry us unduly, we did find that we had a little bit of trouble getting the correct fit. It wasn’t that they were uncomfortable once they were in; just that we didn’t feel the tips were really doing the job for us, either too big to go in properly, or too small to stay there.
It wasn’t a major issue - we did eventually find a combo that worked, and which gave a good seal. And once they were in, we never had an issue wearing them for long periods. They aren’t the most comfortable pair of buds we’ve ever tried, but they’re perfectly acceptable. And if the tip issue really is a problem, you can always shell out a whole fifteen bucks for a three-pack of Comply memory tips - and if you’re into in-ears, then this is something you should be doing anyway. They’re worth it. Trust us.
It was the bass that really surprised us.
It’s a common misconception that large drivers equal massive bass. Case in point: the AUDEZE EL-8 Titanium (full review). It has a sizeable - actually, more-than-sizeable - 100mm driver, but delivers middling bass. And while we knew that the slightly-larger-than-normal 9.5mm drivers on the Spark (most buds have between six and eight millimeters) would have some impact on the bass, we didn’t expect it to be so good.
Once we’d gotten a good seal with these, the low-end stunned us with a performance that was tight, rich and compact. While it didn’t have the oomph of bigger models - and wasn’t going to challenge the performance of something like the Noble Kaiser Encore - it was still an absolute joy to listen to. Kick drums had the appropriate weight. Basslines felt flexible and deep. Bass guitars nearly blew our head off. We did not, at any point, expect a pair of buds like this to pull off such an excellent performance with the bass. It’s like seeing a runway model suddenly start lifting five hundred pounds at the gym.
Elsewhere, the output was excellent, if perhaps not quite so dramatic. The mids and highs had a good level of warmth and detail, with the snap and clarity at the top end counterpointing the bass nicely. In the multiple genres we tested, we did find that overly-busy tracks, like operatic metal, did tend to get a bit muddled, and there were times where we couldn’t quite work out what was happening at all times. But simplify things, like a driving rap tune, and it got fun.
Again: none of this is world-changing. The Spark aren’t going to be making it onto our list of the best high-end headphones any time soon. But they punch above their weight, and the bass power combined with the dynamic abilities of the rest of the frequency spectrum made them a genuinely pleasant surprise.
We shouldn’t be shocked. A company that can pump out something as jaw-dropping as the Utopia isn’t going to balk at engineering a pair of budget buds. But still, it’s nice to see that they didn’t half-ass it. Quite the opposite, in fact.
At sixteen ohms of impedance, these can quite happily be driven by any smartphone, although the sound will sharpen up even further if you pair them with a portable amp, like the FiiO A5 (full review). By the way, if none of what we just said makes sense, then check out our guide to headphone specs, which is super-useful, and super-easy to read.
Call quality, which we tested on multiple occasions, was always good: clear, distortion-free, pleasurable. Outside of the slight difficulty handling complex material, we think the Spark are some of the best sound earbuds we’ve heard yet. In the sub-$100 range, they easily outclass the competition.
We’ve already mentioned the three tips included, and why we struggled with them a little bit, so we won’t dwell on them here.
The Spark comes packaged in a simple cardboard box, nicely positioned inside plastic housing. There’s nothing amazing about it, but it gets the job done.
We do, however, really like the rigid case used to carry the headphones. It’s just the right size to slip into a pocket, and feels well-built and sturdy. Combined with the fact that the cord doesn’t tangle up, it makes transporting the headphones dead simple.
We much prefer a case like this to the usual soft canvas or faux-leather cases used by other buds, where you have to fish around to pull the earphones out. So although the Spark’s accessories aren’t life-changing, they get the job done in a simple and effective manner.
It’s very hard to find fault with Spark buds.
They excel in a number of important areas, and more than once, we ended up pleasantly surprised while using them. The bass, as we’ve mentioned, was a lot better than it had any right to be - so much so, in fact, that we ended up defaulting to these as our on-the-go listening device more often than not, turning away from other, larger models in our rotating collection of review headphones - some of which cost ten times as much as the Spark, which retails on Amazon for an easy $69.
The design is superb, and it feels like Focal gets all the details right, with elements like the non-tangle cable, the rigid case and the simple three-button control all well-thought-out.
Perhaps if we had one criticism of these, it’s that they don’t do anything massively revolutionary or groundbreaking. They are, at heart, a simple pair of earbuds, that deliver good and frequently great sound in an intuitive and useful way, but there’s nothing that gets the heart truly pumping. The quality of the bass was surprising, and we loved its compact power, but it didn’t really make us want to tell our friends about it. We weren’t dragging over perfect strangers to have a listen. There was no - and we’re really sorry about this - Spark.
Then again: perhaps we’re being too demanding. If you’re in the market for a pair of earbuds, then these are absolutely the ones you should go for. They don’t reinvent the wheel, but they do almost everything well, and we have no doubt that they’ll please anyone who listens to them. Focal have proven that they can push the boundaries of what headphones can do in the past, so let’s hope their next range of buds gets a taste of that.
- Terrific and surprising bass.
- Generally solid sound.
- Excellent and detailed design.
- Tangle-free cord and rigid case.
- Busy tracks get a little muddy.
- Nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary.
If you want a slightly simplified design, these are the ones you’d go for. They have a terrible set of in-line controls, and we don’t think the highs are quite as good as the Spark, but they are otherwise highly comparable - and far from a bad pair. They also have exceptionally-solid bass.
In our review, we said, “While the buds do sacrifice a little bit of detail, they substitute it with crisp highs and warm, textured mids. What this comes down to is: these sound much, much better than they have any right to. It’s a credit to the company’s design and technology ethos that they managed to squeeze every tiny watt of power out of these, and do it in such a way that it pulls your brain into thinking you’re listening to something much larger.”
From France to Australia. Audiofly make some great gear, and the AF56 is a doozy. Having recently seen a price reduction, down to about $52 on Amazon, these little buds are excellent - albeit perhaps not quite as well-designed as the Spark.
With a 13mm driver and a fabric-covered cable that resists tangling, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The sound is even and approachable, with a good level of detail and depth. A worthy alternative to the Spark.
Scotland’s RHA makes some great tech (we reviewed their T20i a little while back) and the MA750i is probably the closest comparable model, in terms of price and features, to the Spark. Although we think the Spark has a far better name.
You get flexible earhooks to help with fit, a driver that pumps out some solid, dynamic sound, and an extended three-year warranty. Very little to dislike here, although if forced to choose, it’s the Spark we’d go for.
|MEZE 11 Neo||$59||0.5oz||8mm||16Ω||101dB|