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Christmas Gift Guide
Headphones

Aural ecstasy: Focal Sphear in-ear headphones

A smooth tonal balance and an extra-comfy fit distinguish the Focal Sphear in-ear headphones from the competition.

I review a lot of headphones, and here's what I learned: they all sound different. Some are too bright, most pump up the bass to some degree and a lot of them are downright uncomfortable. Not this pair -- I could wear the Focal Sphears for hours without fatigue. They sell for $179 in the US, £100 in the UK and AU$249 in Australia.

So when I first popped on the Sphear 'phones I quickly realized they didn't require a tight seal to produce satisfying bass. No matter what, the bass was ripe and full, and still definition and impact were first rate. Treble was pleasantly crisp, detailed and clear; midrange presence and body were exceptional. All of that 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.

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Focal Sphear Focal

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 I've experienced from affordable in-ears before.

Take, for example, the FiiO EX1 in-ear I just recently reviewed here on the Audiophiliac. The EX1 is a terrific headphone for around half the Sphear's price, but it miniaturizes the sound and robs the music of too much body and richness. Returning to the Sphear brought that all back. Unfortunately, both pairs did a poorer-than-average job for in-ear headphones in hushing external/environmental noise.

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. Massively compressed recordings like Keith Richards' new "Crosseyed Heart" album sounded crunchy and harsh, but I can't blame the Sphears for that, they just revealed how nasty the recording really is. On the other hand, Ryan Adams' glorious-sounding "Live at Carnegie Hall" was a feast for my ears.

The Focal Sphear features 10.8mm headphone drivers, impedance is rated at 16 ohms. You get two sets of S/M/L tips (one silicone set and one foam set) and a small carrying case. The mic on the cable is located in the right place to be near the wearer's mouth, and the phone controls are conveniently located farther down on the cable.

As I said, I could wear the Focal Sphears for hours without ever feeling the urge to rip them out of my ears. As much as I loved the sound, the Sphears' uber comfort clinched the deal for me.