A MODERN COMBO: THE FOCAL SPIRIT CLASSIC & CAMBRIDGE DACMAGIC XS

It was a late July evening when I got a nondescript box in the mail. I can still remember shaking it like it was Christmas morning to see what it would contain – I was ordering a lot of packages that week. Lo and behold, it turned out to be the Focal Spirit Classic and the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS. And unlike all the other weird gizmos I ordered, these both lasted the one-week toy syndrome. They stayed well past their welcome, and it found a home in a dark part of my heart: My love for mainstream music. I love the bass that rocks my soul, and I love the thick vocals hidden behind the forest of digital equipment. Above all, I love the headphones and gear that make me truly appreciate this kind of music.

Focal is a company based in France that develops audio solutions ranging from monitor speakers, Hi-Fi towers, car audio speakers, soundbars to hi-fi and mainstream headphones. The Focal Spirit is their headphone designation that they append to their units. And the Focal Spirit Classic is their ‘Hi-Fi class’ headphone. They also have other choices including the Focal Spirit Professional to the Focal ‘Spirit One, but today, we are going to be focusing on their flagship can. And of course, the DAC on review is from Cambridge Audio, which is a company that has a steady following and a name for quality. They make other products including Hi-Fi systems, wireless speakers, network enabled systems, and more. It’s quite impressive what this company has under its belt, and above all, its pride in British ingenuity. The package included a little note card proudly displaying the British flag – or U.K if you want to be more correct – and its online website has many subtle hints and nudges towards its heritage. I’ve got to admit that these cans from France and the DAC from the U.K. make a hell of a team.

First off, from the moment I opened the headphone box, I notice that Focal has pumped this can full of the Hi-Fi essentials. It comes in a recessed socket that fits the headphones perfectly and an audiophile-grade cable along with a consumer grade one. This type of design is common with top-of-the-line cans, and Focal jumped onboard. I liked that they did because it allows for extra protection and the two cables make a world of difference depending on application. As for the DacMagic XS, it came in a vertically elongated box adorned with charcoal black images and smooth silvery typeface. Inside, it was a very plain assortment that included the unit, its cable, and a few other accessories and notices. Nothing out of the ordinary, except for how mindblown I was at the size of the thing.

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The DacMagic XS compliment the Focals with its an interface featuring smoothed-over edges and a glossy metallic front. The headphone screams high-end luxury with its leather styled headband and plush pads while the DAC chills out in the aura that its boldness produces. The DacMagic has two buttons, and it’s all you need. On the Focal, the metal side sliders and connector that attaches to the driver housing is elegant beyond words. The housing connector tab is a rectangular piece that looks like it will slide the distance of the indent – but it doesn’t – and its pivot design completes the high-end look that this headphone drops. The connector for the cable is hidden well and given a small tunnel for the junction.

The build of the Classic is sturdy, but it sings a different note than the design choices. Most of the headphone is based on the idea of ‘looks like’. The higher end color choices for the housing, pads and headband are all for show. That’s not to say they aren’t built well, but it’s a far cry from having materials that Hugo Boss and LV would be working with. The metal slider on the side and the rectangular tab are also made of a composite combination of metals and plastic with metal looking texture on the latter parts. The majority of the headphone is plastic. The biggest qualm I have with the Classics is the pads and the clamp. The clamp has too much force and its circumaural design puts all the force into squeezing your ear lobes back.

But this isn’t to say that this is bad. I agree with Focal’s decision here for the appearance factor. If they used high end quality materials, this would be much heavier and more expensive headphone – much more than it already is – and nobody would want that. The composite materials used and the large use of plastics was a smart decision that keeps the headphone within a reasonable weight. It may disappoint some users, but I feel like this was the best move for the unit.

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On the build quality of the XS DAC, I can say that it’s quite a durable little devil. It’s lightweight, but thanks to its shape, it handles well to structural flexing or any possible drop vibration that may otherwise damage the unit. I didn’t perform any drop tests, but the natural stresses it encountered went without an issue.

Finally, getting to the sound section of the Focal Spirit Classic paired with the Cambridge DacMagic XS, I can say that they make an impressive combo. The XS had enough juice to power the Classic – which wasn’t exactly a hungry can – and then some, and I can honestly say that I had to use some of that reserve power when I cranked it up a few times. The two make a great match in more ways than one.

The overall sound signature of the pair could be characterized as thick and bass-heavy, with a recessed yet full vocal range. It is quite luscious in its sonic presentation. The bass is extremely potent and delivers in every situation. But the vocals are the surprising part as they are relatively full sounding and are more natural in delivery than a lot of other units in this price range. I theorize that this is due to how thick the unit’s sound is, which has allowed it a great way to recreate the sonic qualities of the human voice (and body). The XS was especially impressive with emphasis on thicker tonal balance and timbre. It made the Classics bass thicker and louder and the vocals a tad sweeter.

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The bass – as always – is one of my favorite parts of the setup. It isn’t an overly clear or high-end bass section, but it delivers the thing that matters most for mainstream music, bass that kicks. The Classic’s have a relatively fast bass section and the XS’s add texture, something I wasn’t expecting due to the already thick nature of the unit. It was a gift that unexpectedly kept on giving. For the most part, they are quite forgiving with low quality tracks and adaptive to high quality ones, but the potent sub-bass puts a subtle bass note on songs that may not need it. This is annoying for listeners that want pure quality. So while the bass is great for a lot of genres, it may not be as loved by those of live music and other finer choices. They do work well with most genres, especially mainstream rap, pop, and hip-hop.

While listening to Skrillex’s Bangarang EP, the effects the XS had on the classics shone through the quick beat. The bass was mind melting, period. Whereas it was just a loud thump with the Classics, the XS added a level of spatial dimensioning and bass texturing that I just couldn’t believe. The bass was a bit slower, but it came in wavelike passages that pretty much defined what EDM should sound like: a chocolate bar melting from the sonic phenomena of frequency waves. But this time, I was the chocolate bar. The songs ‘Kyoto’, ‘Summit’ and ‘The Devil’s Den’ from the album benefited the most as they all already had a bit of spatial qualities that could be scaled and unreal levels of bass and vocal timbre. I’ve never heard those songs the same again because while the XS and Classic never provide audiophile transparency, they do a damn good job of sounding great for music that I love. And isn’t that the whole point? It is the act of being so happy and energetic from hearing your favorite songs come to life that you just couldn’t care that it wasn’t technically accurate. That precisely is the effect the XS and Classics gave to me with the bass and vocals.

DacMagix-XS-Cambridge-Audio-2The midrange and vocals are the savory stuffing surrounded by a moat of gravy for this combo. They complete the sonic image of the headphones. They are soft, and have good texture in their delivery. In the musical Notre Dame de Paris, the lead song ‘Le Temps des Cathedrales’ was especially fluid with the setup. While the sub bass and spatial elements set the tone for the wide sound stage that the song has, the solo by Bruno Pelletier came out vibrantly. The tone of his voice had a special weight and texture to it that something like the Q701 isn’t capable of doing. It was the Focal Classic’s slightly thicker vocal timbre and the XS DACs sweet additions to the solo of the song that gave it this vibrancy. It was lacking a bit in realism that other headphones excel at, but it drove home the fact that this headphone can deliver some tonally full vocals that more realistic cans can’t push out.

The isolating design of the pads and the sub-bass, makes for a potent closed can. The Classics themselves don’t have fancy soundstage or imaging capabilities, but their closed sonic nature makes it great for mainstream genres. They are not HD800’s, but for their price range and what music you would use on one these, it is quite a blessing to have a unit that can perform so well in the midrange. And if you need to increase the Classics spatial abilities, just drop in a XS DAC and you’ll pretty much be set.

Lastly, the higher range is pretty much non-existent on the Classics. They technically are there and work in a sub-sonic fashion, but they don’t really appear much. And this works just fine. The Classics are not a detail monster and this is a desirable quality for many modern recordings. The XS DAC wasn’t able to help out the Classics much in this area. Many of my test tracks that I commonly used for the high range and vocal highs delivered slushy results in the form of a slightly rolled of sound. I’m OK with this presentation, but it may not appeal to those that want to hear some serious highs.

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Overall, the sonic characteristic of the Classic combined with the XS delivers an impressive presentation of hearty vocals and pumping bass lines. It’s great for the music of the modern generation and although it does work on higher end music, you will have a bit more issues due to the amount of bass coming through.

The headphones sport a nice design choice, and it comes with pretty much everything you need to get this unit working with you on your daily runs or in the studio. Pair it up with the $199 Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS and you have a fine mainstream setup that delivers some extremely fun sound for EDM lovers. At $499, the Classics are up against units like the HE-400i, HD 650, and Alpha Dogs while the XS’s are against the Astell&Kern AK10, Audioquest Dragonfly and Audioengine D3’s, along with many others. The latter are geared towards higher-end audio reproduction and thus the Classics and XS do lag a bit behind in terms of reproducing audiophile detail. The Classics/XS happen to excel with music that high-end headphones seem to forget: The fun and mainstream sound. This puts the Spirit Classics and DacMagic XS in a great position and I think that they will be a great alternative to those that want some high end cans geared perfectly for the mainstream music of today.

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Bowei Zhao

Bowei Zhao is an aspiring audio Guru with a degree in Computer Engineering on a quest to find out what the newest tech products are and how he can get his hands on them.

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  • Michael Mercer
  • 2014-11-16 17:20:19
  • Bowei: SO proud of you bro!! Great job. You're finding YOUR voice. AND: I gotta scribe my half of the ATH-50x review w/ you!! I'm diggin em, alot, with that DHC cable you heard. Your review made me wanna hear the Focals again!! Well done.
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