by Brian Hunter
Headphones are continuing to see a surge at nearly every pricepoint, but none is so competitive as the mainstream “High End” of $300 clearly set up by Beats, followed in turn by big alternative manufacturers like Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic and others. Perhaps one of the most popluar questions I get asked is in reference to this very concise sweet spot of the $250-$350 point of entry. Today’s subjects tap this common topic right on the head with two serious contenders for Beats-alternatives with the Focal Spirit Professional ($350) and the NAD Viso HP50 ($300).
Interestingly enough, both companies are better known for things other than headphones. While Focal stretches the gamut from the über high-end of traditional 2-channel to even pro endeavors, NAD can be found brushing up against the budget approach and also produces some home theater products (NAD also has a premium amplifier line called the Masters Series). What neither company has been known for is headphones. So how did this extension into personal audio pan out for both companies? Pretty well, in fact. The Focal Pro and NAD HP50 have gained some notable mindshare in the community and in truth have produced some very fine sounding products.
Operationally the NAD HP50 has a lot of things going for it, and a few that might be polarizing. The outer shell does feel a bit plastic-y, and the red-hot cherry color of the review sample I received might not suit everyone, but the headphone does come in a more subdued gloss-black color, as well as a white. Overall, the headphone construction does feel a bit on the cheap side when in the hand, especially when compared directly to the Focal Pro, but none of that seems to matter when you put it on your head. The fit for my head was exquisite. The weight was wonderfully feather-like and the clamping pressure of the band was nearly perfect for my larger-than-average head. When it comes to headphones, I would gladly trade a bit of sex appeal for high comfort levels, any day. The included cables for the HP50 include a standard “flat” cable and one with an in-line mic and Apple-friendly controls. The cable is detachable and can connect to either side of the headphone.
By contrast, the Focal Spirit Professional feels like a more solid build. The finish has this “just got wet” drip look to it that is unique and fun for a headphone. The weight feels pretty standard-issue for the size and the noise isolation from the protein leather covered ear pads was significant. The intent here feels right on target for studio or “pro” use. The ear cups are connected via a two-hinge system that may give way to more opportunities for breakage; however both pivot-points felt very solid, so long term reliability may be moot. The two included cables (one straight and one coiled) are single sided and attached to the left ear cup with a 3.5mm recessed connection. Compared with most $300-ish headphones, the Pros do seem a step-up in terms of construction.
Both the NAD HP50 and the Focal Pro are closed back, full-size around-the-ear headphones. Neither pair is designed to be completely collapsible (although the Focal Pros do fold up quite a bit) and neither pair really allow for DJ-style-one-ear-monitoring ear cup rotation. The slot that runs the full extent of the Focal’s ear cup is a bit of a bewildering choice in terms of aesthetic design as the carved out material appears to have no additional function. At first it may seem that the hinge allows for a full reversal flip, but it does not. The vertical tilt is restricted at about 15 degrees, as does the horizontal rotation from the other pivot point. Still, for its intended purpose, the Focal is quite comfortable and accommodating for most heads with a moderate clamping force.
The sound between these two headphones happens to fall in line with some predictable, time-tested stereotypes. Preferences, like salty vs. sweet, that land us within two separate yet equally satisfying destinations, not only add color to a pleasurable landscape, but help us keep definitions of ultimate and finite goals rightfully vague. In this case, we find ourselves staring down a dividing line between analytical and organic. Keeping true to its pro namesake, the Focal’s response is easily readily tempered to monitoring than would be the NAD. Listening to a wide selection of music, from local DSD and Tidal streaming service, it became quickly apparent that the Focal was less forgiving. Perhaps one of the core tent-poles of the analytical school, poor production qualities just appeared to stand out more through this mid-priced headphone. Occasionally, this character crept into the presentation as a slightly awkward treble. While not a constant drone, a few hot points of “peaky-ness” would surface every once and while, especially when the content being fed though through the drivers was less than perfect. Still, that could be a very helpful feature; it just happens to put more pressure on items further up the chain, especially the source files. Even with this in mind, the mids feel good, well balanced and detailed. It is easy to say that both headphones in question here are very well accomplished performers in that area. Detail levels for a mid $300 headphone can unfortunately swing wide, and thankfully both of these two subjects land on the proper side of that sliding scale. It’s a reassuring trait and a positive nod to both in a big way.
Perhaps the most obvious and immediate difference between these two headphones is their treatment of bass. Simply put, the NAD has (slightly) increased levels of low-end, where the Focal is more linear. Regardless of their quantities, the quality of the bass heard through each was surprisingly good — in their respective form. No oversized bloat from the NAD, no thin or wimpy shove from the Focal. For my preferences, the NAD had more (and more to like), but never did it seem like too much. A little more excitement, a little more oomph, but without contrast from something as linear as the Focal, one might never even become aware of it.
Maybe it was the additional bass, or maybe it was just the intended design, but the NAD by comparison also felt a little more laid-back in the highs than the Focal. Now, I often find myself with a unexpected preference for a little less in the uppermost registers, but I have heard many good headphones that were spectacular while showing more treble, even though in the long run I would usually reaching for my old non-fatiguing mainstays. In particular, the HiFiMAN HE-560 has recently caught my attention, even though its response has a bit more “up there” than I normally default to. In any case, the NADs approach once again wasn’t “too much” anywhere along the frequency spectrum. The entire presentation felt pretty right on. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare them both to the summit of personal audio, but more so like $300 “right on”. That’s not to say that some wouldn’t argue the reviewer cliché that it outperforms headphones out of its price range, but I think that its real appeal lies more in its organic performance and sheer entertainment value, than any attempt to be the best headphone ever created. It’s fun, whereas the Focal could be perceived as a bit more business. Still, as anyone who has just recently crushed a presentation or closed the bejesus out of a huge sale will tell you, business can still be satisfying, just another, slightly different kind of “fun” as far as definitions go. But this isn’t PowerPoint slides, it’s music, and listening to music is pretty much never business as usual. The Focal is just more about an orderly and precise recreation of audio than your average $300 headphone is, at least at its core.
So if the Focal gets “down to business”, then where does that leave the NAD HP50? Has the shiny red wonder ever felt the cold morning embrace of silk designer necktie or stood at the head of a sterile boardroom and looked into the eager eyes of a sea of C-suite dignitaries? Well, first and foremost, it carries a solid amount of detail with it into the fold. Its happy rendering is well distributed across both the mids and highs. While the bass is larger than the Focals to my ears, it never feels overdone at any frequency and still manages to be both engaging and textured. It is at its core less formal, but still accurate.
In response to “which is my preference”, my choice proved to be quite harder to come to than I originally anticipated. According to my listening notes, it was the Focal Pro that initially hit me as the go-to, due to its more linear response, but that could be mostly due to the A/B response to the comparison. Long term listening with the NAD highlighted its unusual comfort and light wear. The NAD would be considered a little less fatiguing, but I want to waffle here as the Focal is still pretty far from fatiguing by itself. That said, the laid back nature of the NAD makes it extremely easy to listen to, and if you believe any of the NAD marketing hype (Google “RoomFeel”), these are designed to sound more speaker-like. A speaker-equivalent presentation in the personal audio space is like the holy grail of aspirations. That out-of-head relaxed experience in a headphone is fairly close to an intangible expression, which makes it much harder to put your finger on than a “more bass” observation. But if I had to put the NAD on the speaker-like scale, I would say it ranks fairly well, and substantially better than most headphones.
But even with this natural, easygoing personality, the NAD is still exciting to listen to. It’s engaging, tonally dense, and most of all fun.
Some like salty and some like sweet. It’s very easy to see why, in this situation, some would easily prefer the Focal and in professional monitoring situations (its intended market) as it is the clear candidate.
Perhaps two of the best new offerings currently on the market in this price point, the NAD Viso HP50 and the Focal Spirit Professional make up a Mighty Duo that could likely cover the vast majority of closed-back listening needs. Whether your necessities require a tight linear response with focused midrange (Focal) or a fun, relaxed presentation with a dynamic and (more) fulsome low-end (NAD), these two headphones can fill the order with a quickness at a price tag that nearly makes them a participant of the mainstream.
Both headphones practice careful delivery of audio information, dealing fistfuls of detail that stack up far above the minimum requirements for this price range. After that, the choice is really up to the listener.
It feels great to see even more solid entries into this price segment. Who needs Beats, anyway?
These two headphones mark an excellent finishing place for those looking to take another small step deeper into personal audio, and with the closed back design, both can be an excellent supplement for long-time fans of the hobby for that great-sounding pair of cans for the road and air.
Ultimately, I found myself reaching for the NAD more often than the Focal, both are upstanding citizens to the market and hobby of personal audio. Even with these sonic victories, make no mistake, it is still very easy to miss the mark. But what we have here is a pair of solid entries into a hot market segment.
For the personal audio enthusiast, or anyone just looking for a good headphone, this is a win-win situation.
About the Author
He loves tech and the tools of music, especially the ones involved in reproduction. After he finished his undergrad degree in business, he went to the local community college and got another in photography, which was way more fun.
He likes it when people have unbridled enthusiasm for something and has the utmost respect for individuals who try to create, and even more for those who are good at it.