When two large, trunk-sized boxes arrived at What Hi-Fi? headquarters, we wondered how we could have misjudged the size of the Focal Sopra No.1 speakers so badly.
Expecting to review conventional medium-sized standmounters, the packaging suggested something the size of a stout pig.
Opening the boxes revealed that the dedicated stands were included, one per box. Mystery solved. They’re nice stands too, with a thick glass base, wooden column and a metal top plate.
They’re easy to make, stable and have given some thought to cable management. The speakers bolt onto the stand, which makes things pleasantly secure.
There’s the company’s trademark 25mm inverted beryllium dome – one of the sweetest and most capable tweeters we’ve heard – alongside a 16.5cm ‘W’ mid/bass driver.
The mid/bass cone uses a sandwich construction with a core of specially designed foam between two sheets of glass fibre. This structure is designed to deliver the speaker cone holy grail of light weight, rigidity and good self-damping.
Focal makes the drive units in-house, so has a great deal of flexibility when it comes to fine-tuning the cone’s performance to match the intended use. This is, potentially at least, a massive advantage over its competitors.
The cabinet is one of the company’s usual hefty affairs. Great care has been taken in getting the time alignment right between the drivers, which bodes well for the focus and integration of the sound. So far so very Focal.
Look beyond the rather predictable headline tech details and you’ll find there are also plenty of new things to consider.
That inverted dome may look familiar but Focal’s engineers have had a determined go at improving performance by dealing with the compression effects of the air behind it.
The rear-firing sound is now fed into a damped chamber before exiting to the outside world through a flared horn. This is what the grille at the back of the Sopra No.1s covers.
Such a design not only reduces dynamic compression, but also improves treble purity. The whole tweeter module is made of injection-moulded polyurethane – a material chosen for its excellent self-damping qualities and ability to form complex shapes.
The mid/bass driver hasn’t been left alone either. Its motor system has been redesigned to reduce distortion and plenty of work has been done to the surround to help the driver deliver more accurate results.
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The Sopra No.1’s cabinet does a passable impression of a granite boulder. At 19kg, it’s heavy – and that figure pretty much doubles when you add the stands.
The general level of finish is as good as you’d expect at this price, though we noticed some minor paint flaws around the bolt holes in the speaker’s base on our review sample.
There’s a choice of five finishes: one wood option – walnut – and four lacquered paint finishes (white, black, red and orange).
The Gamut D3i/D200i pre/power combination delivers the grunt, with Naim’s NAC-N272/250DR providing back up.
These standmount speakers aren’t unduly fussy about positioning. We end up with them out into the room with a slight angle towards the listening position.
Tonality is nicely balanced in this position. No speaker that stands 43cm high is ever going to deliver oodles of deep bass, but the Sopra No.1s compensate with an impressive level of agility and precision at low frequencies.
We’re big fans of the sound of Focal’s beryllium dome, and here it performs better than ever, thanks to the work done on handling the backward radiation. Highs sound open and refined but still have enough in the way of bite to convince.
There’s an astonishing amount of detail on offer, and we’re impressed with the way these speakers render harmonically rich instruments such as cymbals.
The sound is delivered with believable presence and crisp edges without sounding the least bit harsh.
Listen to Here’s The Tender Coming from The Unthanks and everything clicks into place. The speaker’s midrange is spellbinding. It’s subtle, articulate and massively informative.
The group’s vocals are handled superbly with nuances delivered with considerable skill. We’re impressed by the natural presentation and the way the Sopra 1’s keep the instrumental backdrop organised and cohesive.
Moving on to Dvorak’s New World Symphony shows off the Focal’s expansive stereo imaging and their ability to layer a sound stage with precision. It’s a fluid presentation, one that’s informative and entertaining in equal proportions.
Dynamics are good, with the Sopras delivering low-level shifts with conviction.
Like every speaker of this size, larger scale crescendos lack a bit of authority and reach, but you’ll need to move onto bigger, floorstanding models to get a notable improvement here.
Play something like Kendrick Lamar’s King Kunta and the Focal speakers don't sound quite so comfortable. The sound is a little polite, lacking the punch and attack to draw us into the music. Rhythmically things are decent, but not quite able to latch onto this hard-charging tune with the grip it deserves.
There’s no questioning the Sopra’s refinement, though – they refuse to overstate the recording’s coarse nature – nor their ability to unravel the complex production without sounding unduly clinical.
The Focal Sopra No.1s are impressively sophisticated speakers. They’re refined, forensic and pleasing in their ability to organise all that information effectively.
Listen to classical or smaller scale vocal-based music and the Sopra 1s are eloquent and charming and right up there with the finest speakers at this price.
However, if you like your music to have edge, and want some speakers that will get your toes tapping rather than just your brain engaged, others do better.
See all our Focal reviews