Earlier this year, I had the chance to check out my first set of headphones from french audio outfit Focal. I really dug the Focal Listen Wireless headphones, so I was eager to check out Focal’s Spark wireless in-ear headphones. These are another of those “glasses strap” style of wireless earbuds. Rather than going full wireless, the wireless gear is packed into a couple of pills along with a wire that runs between the two earbuds. At $99, Focal is placing these at the top end of basic-listening gear and in the middle of the wireless scale. Can the convenience of the wireless make up for a price that suggests some pretty severe compromises?
Build and Style
From a build perspective, the Sparks are pretty straightforward, but with a few nice touches. The buds themselves aren’t huge and are light enough that they stay comfortably in the ear with the included silicone ear tips.
The Sparks have an overall lightweight feel. The weight is distributed across the cord in four parts – the two earbuds, the left-oriented control panel, and the module containing the wireless and battery tech. Again this means that the buds are very comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
Most of the build is plastic and rubber with the exception of the tips and backs of the buds, which feel like aluminum to me. The cord itself is a rubberized deal with a flat cord (think linguine instead of spaghetti) meant to decrease tangle. That seems to work, but it also makes them a headache to get into the included case. It feels like trying to pack a bunch of those spring-loaded snakes into a suitcase.
Speaking of the case, the loadout of accessories is pretty solid for the price. The semi-rigid case is small enough to be very pocket-sized, and inside there’s room to fit the included magnetic sport clip – meant to hold the earbuds to your shirt when you’re running – and the adorable USB Micro cable included for charging. I think a slightly longer case would’ve been better for these headphones, but this one does get the job done. At this price point, I wouldn’t ask for much more.
The set does include two extra pairs of silicone ear tips, but disappointingly there are no alternate tip-types like those that companies such as Shure, Etyomtic, and other brands provide even at similar price points. I would love to see some Complyfoam, some triple-flange, or even some of those yellow construction-worker foam tips as alternate options, just because different users have different preferences and those things can be bought by the truckload.
Focal sent me the black ones, which look pretty good, but I think the silver and pink ones are a lot more attractive, at least for this model of earbuds.
On the feature side of things, there’s not a lot to wade through. These are Bluetooth 4.1 headphones, which means they can be susceptible to the latency that goes with that. They support the aptX Bluetooth codec, which helps. At close range, though, the latency is imperceptible to me, so for watching video on my phone they worked fine.
Focal advertises a range of about 10 meters/33 feet, which can vary depending on what kind of walls you put in between, but the range I got was about what I’d expect. With the number of walls in my apartment, I made it about 20 feet, which is not too bad.
Through the course of testing these, I went through a couple complete battery cycles. The 8-hour battery life is a fairly accurate promise at regular volume, though as usual, cranking these means shorter battery life.
One of my biggest gripes with the Focal Sparks comes before I even turn them on. The seal they provide is just not very good, which should be inexcusable for in-ear headphones and especially for in-ear headphones at this price point. It’s not hard to find similarly-priced earbuds that actually seal out the world. That seal allows them to create the kind of bass response I’d expect from headphones at this price point, while still letting the other parts of the music I’m playing stay intact.
It seems unsurprising to me, then, that the bass feels artificially augmented, overpowering other parts of the music. The whole audio profile of these headphones feels overly crowded. Just about anything from the bass-heavy Zero 7 feels like it’s all lows and highs – just hum and crackle.
The instruments in Metallica’s “Of Wolf and Man” just kind of bleed together. The drums have lots of bass, but lose all their punch, with drum rolls losing a lot of their power. The vocals in the track fall off, too, not standing out like I’d expect. In Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia,” the twang of the opening guitar is basically gone. It might be one of the more obvious and disappointing differences I’ve felt when reviewing headphones. Often I feel like I’m nitpicking, but here the difference is painfully obvious, and it feels like I’m listening to the song through cottonballs, instead of headphones from a premium audio outfit.
I’ve liked Focal headphones before, but the Spark is not pleasing. I’m not a fan of the looks – from the linguine noodle cord to the bulky earphones – nor of the sound. They’re dull and lifeless. They might work if they were posed as athletic headphones, but they don’t seem to be in any of the documentation. And I still don’t think I’d want to use them for that, anyway. They’re not up to Focal’s standard. At the price point, they could be worse, but you can spend a little more and get a lot better than the Spark Wireless headphones.
Disclaimer: We received a review unit from the manufacturer and used it for two full battery cycles before writing this review.