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Focal Sphear review: An audiophile-grade in-ear headphone for less than $200

A smooth tonal balance and a comfy fit distinguish the Focal Sphear from the competition.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
David Carnoy
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

After I shot my video for the Focal Sphear (embedded above), I got an email from the PR rep for the company telling me I'd made a small mistake -- a faux pas, if you will.

8.2

Focal Sphear

The Good

The Focal Sphear is a lightweight, comfortable in-ear headphone that stays in your ears and sounds impressive for the price, with full bass and pleasantly crisp treble. There's an inline one-button remote and microphone for cell phone use and a carry case is included.

The Bad

They let in a little more ambient noise than your typical noise-isolating headphone and the headphone's added transparency magnifies the flaws in poorly produced tracks or heavily compressed recordings.

The Bottom Line

The Focal Sphear is a relatively affordable audiophile-grade in-ear headphone that's easy to listen to for long stretches.

"Great video," he wrote. "Just a heads up for the future -- the company name is pronounced 'Faux-cal' versus 'Focal' as you would say when referring to a focal point. Remember, they are French."

Yes, my bad. Not to make it a focal point or anything, but Focal is a French company. And aside from the fact that most people in the US, UK and Australia will probably not pronounce the company's name with a French accent, it makes good headphones. We particularly like its new in-ear Sphear, which retails for $179 in the US, £100 in the UK and AU$249 in Australia.

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What you get in the box.

Sarah Tew/CNET

So, why do we like it? For starters it's lightweight, very comfortable to wear and it stays in your ears. It also seems sturdily built and comes with a thick main cord that terminates in an L-shaped plug. The mic on the cable is located high up on the left cord, close to your mouth for making calls, while the single-button remote is conveniently located farther down on the cable at the Y junction. That button acts as a call answer/end and pause/play button and skips tracks forward when you tap it twice and backwards when you tap it three times.

Call quality was good when making calls with the headphone and the Sphear works well as a headset.

In terms of accessories, you get two sets of small, medium and large tips -- one silicone set and one foam set -- and a small carrying case. The headphone features 10.8mm headphone drivers and impedance is rated at 16 ohms.

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Close up of the buds.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance

While the Sphear is considered a noise-isolating headphone, it does let in a bit more ambient noise than your typical noise-isolating headphone. Even so, sound quality is excellent. The bass is ripe and full, treble is pleasantly crisp, detailed and clear and midrange presence and body are exceptional.

Steve says that those qualities made classical and acoustic music of all types come alive over the Sphears, and that's hardly a given with most similarly priced in-ear headphones.

Listening to the Kronos String Quartet the sound was never strident; string tone had just the right balance of body and detail. Vocals were also unusually well treated, so they sounded more natural than most in-ears do in this price range.

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The one-button inline remote is at the Y-junction, separated from the integrated microphone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A lot of richly balanced headphones sacrifice midrange and treble detailing, but the Sphear's clarity never faltered. Antonio Sanchez's hard-hitting drum solos from the "Birdman" soundtrack had plenty of impact and punch. Sanchez's mighty kick drum was cleanly defined.

We also compared the Sphear to the Bose SoundTrue Ultra , another in-ear we like a lot for its comfort and sound. The Sphear is a more revealing, exciting headphone, with more bass. Playing Michael Brecker's "Midnight Voyage" and Ryan Adams' glorious-sounding "Live at Carnegie Hall" it had more immediacy and presence than the Bose. On certain tracks, however, the Focal's added transparency magnified the flaws in poorly produced tracks or heavily compressed recordings like Keith Richards' new "Crosseyed Heart" and gave the music an edge that bordered on grating. Sonic accuracy can be a double-edged sword.

Conclusion

This a headphone you can wear for long stretches at a time without experiencing listening fatigue and it works well with a variety of music genres. It's well worth considering if you're looking for an audiophile-grade in-ear headphone for an affordable price.

8.2

Focal Sphear

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 8Value 8