Focal Sopra N°3

Hardware Review

Focal Sopra N°3
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
floorstanding loudspeaker
René van Es

Focal introduced the Sopra series in 2015, at the time there were two models, the No.1 bookshelf and N°2 floorstander, which I rather liked. This year Focal followed these with centre and surround speakers and a new floorstander, the Sopra N°3. This is bigger, heavier and has more cone surface on the woofers than the other Sopras and was too big to get up to my third floor apartment, so I listened to a pair at one of the main Dutch Focal dealers in a large auditorium for as long as I wanted.

Focal has been working on the Sopra series for four years now, the range forms the link between the cheaper Electra and more expensive Utopia models. It’s a range that surprises with innovation, looks and new drivers. The physically impressive N°3 stands 1264mm high and weighs 70 kilos. Its drivers have a ‘W’ cone for the 15cm V2 midrange and the two 21cm V4 woofers (which means 40% more cone area compared to the N°2). The beryllium inverted dome tweeter remains the same. Most of the innovations are behind the cones and therefor hidden. For the midrange Focal developed what they call a ‘Tuned Mass Damper’, this looks like a bump in the material, but in fact it adds extra mass to the surround to make sure unwanted resonances are damped and more precise cone movement results. This is based on a technique originally developed for racing car suspensions and earthquake protection for skyscrapers. The midrange also profits from the ‘Neutral Inductance Circuit’ inside the magnetic field, this is a Faraday ring that ensures the magnetic strength inside the voice coil gap is constant and not influenced by voice coil movements, current flow or changing frequencies. Compared to the midrange unit the two big woofers look simple but they benefit from NIC technology (see my review of the N°2 for more).

 

 

The Gamma Structure enclosure for Sopra N°3 has its bass reflex port opening on the bottom above a glass base. Inside the cabinet Helmholtz resonators damp unwanted resonances, an approach that Focal considers a better solution than adding components to the crossover. The tweeter enclosure behind the inverted dome is a wide horn filled with damping material that’s designed to match the air resistance in front of the driver. This is said to result in 30% lower distortion. The bend in the cabinet is designed to provide the correct phase angle between drivers, albeit this can only be true at a specific listening distance. Time alignment of drivers could also have been done in the crossover, but that reduces efficiency and masks detail and/or dynamics. Focal prefers to solve problems acoustically rather than electrically.

The system I used for listening was all McIntosh: an MB100 Media Bridge connecting to the built-in DAC of a C2500 preamp. Power amplifiers are the extremely capable MC1.2KW mono’s, each specified to deliver 1200 Watts into 8 Ohms, very handy for the power hungry Sopra N°3. Cables are Van Den Hul. The system is on Finite Element racks and the MB100 takes my music from a USB stick. Listening to the first track that afternoon I adjusted the speakers and the room a little. I used the spikes, reduced toe-in and moved the couch backwards. As a result less bass pressure reached my ears and a wider stereo image could be heard. ‘Fever’, the duet between Natalie Cole and Ray Charles from the CD Genius Loves Company, was the first song to play. Natalie takes precedent over Ray from time to time, with both voices not overly warm, but comfortable and natural. Never harsh, remember Cole is not always pleasant to listen to on lesser systems, the Focal gives a precise balance that reflects the recording and is more than capable of revealing the speed when Charles brings the song towards the end. Next up was the voice of Allan Taylor where the low end rolled across the floor in the just right amount, making the voice sound strong, dark and deep brown. The stereo image is as good as can be in my listening position with a lot of depth. The image starts at the virtual line between the speakers and goes backwards. Brass instruments are fine but Taylor’s voice is a bit too big, his head should be smaller. Percussion is fast and transparent with a lot of power from the bass drums, in delightful contrast to the light tones of a tambourine. The volume level makes the recording either too soft or too big and should be chosen with care in these surroundings, so I moved both speakers and the couch a little more to fine tune the imaging. Clearly the Sopra N°3 needs a large room and some distance between speakers and the listener.

 

On Round Midnight Christy Baron has a seductive voice and curls up on your lap like a cat. The Focals present this with percussion in the far right background is where it should be and the voice steady in place, just like the brass players. The drum kit with its energy and dynamics sounds great on the Sopra N°3 and proves that you need cone surface for realistic reproduction of music. Nothing beats square inches. I listened to this at a volume level where Christy becomes almost real, but not too loud, in the listening seat the levels measured between 80 and 90dB. ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ has lots of high energy bass and changes appear where other speakers only produce one note bass. Hi-hats are clearly brushed. A minor negative issue is that both musicians and singer are all on one line before me, but that might be due to the recording or the room acoustics. Although piano is very impressive, it’s the voice that shines brightest. The dynamics are often outstanding, the Focal is a pure translator for energy. A live track with Katie Melua was probably hard work for the recording engineer because the piano is so powerful compared to Katie’s fragile and tender voice. The public is all around you when they start clapping hands and the little movements on the stage are always there. Adele is more majestic  and far bigger in her Royal Albert Hall concert. At times it’s very emotional, tracks like ‘Lovesong’ can bring a tear to your eye on the Sopra N°3 or at least give you goose bumps. The band produces the background notes in a way that is fast, full of attack and dynamic. But it is the concert hall acoustic that really surrounds and impresses me most. Apart from Adele herself of course, she is always the star of the show. She takes the audience’s breath away and I feel like I’m in that audience.

Dire Straits was recorded at a far higher level, closer to 0dB, so when they start playing I jump out of the couch. With the two McIntosh amps showing an average 10 Watt output the Sopra N°3 returns volume levels of over 90dB. Drums splash upfront but are controlled and previously unheard small sounds appear on the far left and right sides of the stereo image. Speed is the magic word, this system is magnificent for rock music. If live concerts ever reached this level of perfection I would be in a concert hall every day. ‘Planet Of New Orleans’ starts with a guitar projected into the room. The lower notes from the band provide details often hidden by other systems. The bass provides a foundation to build the music on, it’s never muddy, quite the opposite, bass is clear and never pushes the woofers to their limits. “I was made for ‘Avratz’ by Infected Mushroom” shouts the Sopra N°3 to me. “I am not afraid of electronic bass, make the stereo image as wide as you can, torture me!”. 100 Watts or more only shakes the floor, vibrates the couch and my body, but the Sopra N°3 never gets into trouble. High efficiency horn loudspeakers could not better these results in dynamics.

 

 

A lot of drive but less force comes from the Dutch violin player Janine Jansen. I played ‘Summer’ from her interpretation of The Four Seasons, this starts with a subtle weeping violin that clarifies the exact distance between Jansen and the orchestra. And when the energy breaks loose the Sopra N°3 is very happy to let you know all about it. Timbre and speed keep the music refreshing and in balance, with moments when Jansen is brilliant, never too harsh, with excellent lower notes from cello and bass. Max Richter’s take on this piece is totally different, it’s like an out of this world dream with violins in the front and an orchestra moving in waves behind them; beautiful but at the same time very strange to listen to. Just how subtle a big system can be becomes clear with ‘Spiegel Im Spiegel’ composed by Arvo Pärt. The cello seems to cry, high piano notes float in the air, lower notes are full of energy. I listen with eyes closed, afraid that someone will come into the room and interrupt my inner journey. Music can be very pure and impressive when reproduced this well. Playing Ceacilie Norby’s ‘No Air’ from her CD Arabesque the piano is in the room and physically as big as it should be. It’s a return to the real world after Pärt but still with a hint of the outstretched landscape of Scandinavia.

We need jazz and it is Pat Metheny’s guitar that cuts into the dreamy atmosphere, followed by the voice of Anne Marie Jopek. Guitar is bright and notes fade away softly into the background. It’s a journey into an unknown world, I don’t speak Polish but it seems that I can understand Jopek by the way she creates such a wonderful world. Even stranger, although now I understand what she says, is Laurie Anderson with ‘Same Time Tomorrow’, as she shouts “Ullah” from what seems like outer space, her voice hangs in the air like a pulsating ball, an effect that’s hard to produce with a lot of speakers. Back again to piano, bass and drums with the Bobo Stenson Trio. This shows how subtly a bass can slide into the music and push the piano to higher volume levels before percussion joins in. Percussion that seems to be spread out from left to right, bigger than bass or piano, just the way it was recorded and mixed. The kick of the bass drum rolls towards me, hi-hats sizzle in the distance, tiny notes from other percussion instruments pop up in the air. It’s very dynamic without any compression from either the Focals or the McIntosh amps. Exciting and at the same time tender in a way that can be described in one word; pleasure.  Jazz singer Stacey Kent is one of my reference artists, her words on ‘This Happy Madness’ overflow the room and show how well educated her voice is. After the fireworks of the afternoon it’s maybe a bit too relaxed and I might have been better off looking for a real explosion of sound. The session comes to an end and with regret I switch off the amps, all the while wishing I could spend more time with the Sopra N°3.

 

 

My formal conclusion is that this Focal is capable of playing any kind of music; jazz, pop, classical, acoustic, electronic, loud or soft, nothing will give the Sopra N°3 serious trouble. Focal has surpassed itself with this majestic system, where even the most subtle sounds mix with unbridled force. In between anything is possible, the loneliness of Arvo Pärt, the joy of Melody Gardot, the purity of Stacey Kent, the soaring violin of Janine Jansen or eye watering live music by Adele and Katie Melua. The Sopra N°3 is one of those systems that deserves the best electronics you can give it. I did not find or reach its limits, they do exist I am sure, but they must have disappeared into the atmosphere and experience. Recommended without any limitation as long as you have the space for this speaker, the electronics to drive them and a love for music. Sometimes we take our hat off to manufacturers that come up with outstanding products in this price range. Focal is one of them, the Sopra N°3 is a masterpiece that belongs among the best loudspeakers you can buy.

Specifications: 

Type: Three-way bass-reflex floor standing loudspeaker
Drivers: Two 8" (21cm) W woofers with NIC motor, 6.5" (16.5cm) W midrange with TMD suspension and NIC motor, 1" (27mm) Beryllium inverted dome tweeter
Frequency response (+/- 3dB): 33Hz - 40kHz
Low frequency point- 6dB: 26Hz
Sensivity (2.83V / 1m): 91.5dB
Nom. impedance: 8 Ohms
Minimum impedance: 3.1 Ohms
Crossover frequency: 250Hz / 2200Hz
Recommended amplifier power: 40 - 400W
Dimensions (HxWxD): 1264x402x595mm
Net weight: 70kg
Finishes: black lacquer, Carrara white, Imperial red, Electric orange, walnut veneer

Price: 
£15,750
Manufacturer Details: 

Focal-JMlab
T (+33) 4 77 43 57 00
www.focal.com

Distributor Details: 

Focal-JMlab UK Ltd
T 0845 660 2680
www.focal.com