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Headphones + headphone amplifier


Lars & Ivan THA-8 + Focal SPHEAR

Manufacturer: Lars & Ivan
Price (when reviewed): 250 USD

Provided for review by:

Manufacturer: Focal
Price (when reviewed): 179 USD


Provided for review by:

ars & Ivan was established in October 2000 and its first product was a tube amplifier – the Art Phone. In 2003, Lars & Ivan showed their first series of tastefully designed speakers at the IFA trade fair in Berlin. Coherent, good design is one of the most important features that distinguish the company from other manufacturers and this pertains to the logotype, packaging, as well as to devices themselves. Of course, sound is also important – in 2007 the company was given “The Best Desktop Speakers” award by “What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision” magazine.

I met people from Lars & Ivan during the High End show 2014 in Munich. Then, my attention was attracted by the beautifully looking headphone amplifier THA-21. We arranged to conduct its test (but we agreed to wait until it went on sale). In the meantime, I asked the company representatives to send me a small tube headphone amplifier designed to be used with portable devices, mainly (though not only) with Apple products. The THA-8 model was sent to me from Hong Kong, as the company is based there.

Soon afterwards, Mr Steve Harris from the AudioPlus company contacted me. He supports Focal France in the area of contacts with specialist press. Not knowing that the THA-8 has just been sent to me, he suggested testing in-ear Focal headphones called the Sphear. There are no coincidences, so I accepted the offer with pleasure. It was because I thought that I would see how the two similarly priced products work together. My curiosity was even greater due to the fact that there is something unique about both these devices – vacuum tubes are used in the amplifier and the headphone membrane is loaded with bass-reflex.

The Sphear is a special product for Focal. Mr Simon Matthews, the company’s Group Director of Design, says: “the Sphear attempts to distil all that we hold important into the smallest product we have ever made at Focal.” The company has assumed that sound quality and user comfort are equally important and should not “compete” with each other. The headphone drivers have a dynamic design, but with a miniature bass-reflex system. The element that comes into contact with the ear canal is specially profiled and made of memory foam.


Lars & Ivan THA-8

The Lars & Ivan amplifier is quite large for a portable device. It is difficult to talk about “mobility” in its case – it is a travel amplifier rather than a mobile one – i.e. you can take it with you on a plane or train, or use it in a hotel. While on the move, you will be irritated by its size and weight. The device is packed in a very elegant nice box made of black cardboard. The company logo drawn with transparent lacquer is located on the top of the box.

Inside the box, we find the following elements:

    • a user’s manual, • two mini-jack/mini-jack (four-ring) cables – a short and a long one, • a USB/micro-USB adapter • two pairs of transparent silicone bands, • a black semi-transparent amplifier case, similar to smartphone cases.
Everything is nice and neat – apparently, it has been designed by someone who had given it a lot of thought.

The amplifier is excellently made of aluminium components with a small aluminium volume knob coupled with the power switch. A miniature green LED turns on when the amplifier is switched on. There are mini-jack sockets on both sides of the LED – a line and a headphone input. Another line input is located at the bottom of the device – it is a so-called “pass through”, i.e. an input parallel to the first one. The only active input is the one to which we connect the plug and there is no switch that would allow us to choose between the inputs. At the bottom there is also a charging port – fortunately, it is a micro-USB port, so we can use a smartphone charger, for example.

The electronic circuit is mounted on one board. Amplification is achieved in two miniature vacuum tubes operating as the input buffer and in MUSES8820 integrated circuit in the output stage. Volume is controlled using a (miniature) Alps potentiometer with four terminals. Four-ring inputs and outputs are used. So, apparently, the designer’s intention was for the amplifier not to interrupt controlling the smartphone using headphones when the two devices work together. A lithium-ion battery is used in the amp. After charging, it can operate for 16-18 hours.

The amplifier operated flawlessly during the whole test. It is worth stressing that it makes some noise, which is typical for vacuum tubes. When longer connectors were used, feedback sometimes occurred on high frequencies – i.e. very quiet, subtle, high-frequency hum could be heard. Short cables made it possible to get rid of it.


The headphones are delivered in a small nice box. While opening it, we instantly know that we will find a premium product inside, although the price does not indicate that. The type of materials used and the arrangement of different elements have been properly selected and well thought out. The box contains the headphones, a tiny case to hold them, three pairs of silicone tips, as well as three pairs of replaceable memory foam tips of different sizes.

These are dynamic headphones loaded with a bass-reflex system. They look very nice thanks to a combination of black high-gloss lacquer and steel finishing elements. A microphone to use while talking on a smartphone is located in a tiny cylinder, while smartphone player control is located in a round element in which the left and the right headphone cable come together. It is a simple and very convenient solution, which I have checked myself.

The Sphear headphones are very nicely made and solid. The main housing is made of rigid durable plastic which forms a tunnel to be put in the ear, while the bass-reflex system is located in a chamber at the back. Like in speakers, the rear part of the membrane in Sphear is used to boost bass. The manufacturer informs us directly that the “bass level in Sphear has been slightly increased for mobile use in noisy environments.” At the back, the headphone is enclosed using a stainless steel ring and grille for increased robustness. The large-diameter driver (10.8 mm) has an irregular shape and reinforced edges – it is a coil vapour-deposited onto a Mylar membrane.

The workmanship, packaging and accessories are all excellent here.


The L&I amplifier and Focal headphones worked together very well. Each allowed the other one to fully demonstrate its strengths, without emphasizing its weaknesses (every product has some, no matter what its price is). The amplifier is characterized by saturated sound which is best shown in the midrange. However, this is not a “warm” amp, but, let me repeat myself, a saturated one.

Lars & Ivan THA-8

When compared to the Samsung Core smartphone headset jack, the change was enormous. I carried out a large part of the listening tests during the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, i.e. using super-demanding material. I most often listened to digital Internet radio through a Polish Radio application and, I must admit, the sound was really nice. THA-8 made sound “break free” from the headphones and helped achieve much better sound spaciousness. In the case of AKG Y50 headphones the change was also noticeable, although the Focal headphones sound better and all the changes could be heard more clearly with them.

The amplifier very nicely guides the bass, although it does not go low and softly ends near 50 – 60 Hz. The lowest piano, double bass, bass guitar or electronic sounds are present mainly thanks to their higher harmonics. However, as the midrange sounds smooth, nice and pleasant here, the tone did not rise and the musical message was not shaded (thinned). Also heavier sound, such as from Maroon 5 V album and Opeth Pale Communion was simply good – meaty, dense and exquisite enough to stop me from thinking “what would it be like if…” and looking for another system.

I think that this is largely due to well-matched tone. Without brightening or pumping up the bass, the amp produces coherent and dense sound. I recommend it to anyone who does not mind its considerable size and wants to have a tube in their signal path – it really works!


The amp performed very well and the Sphear headphones had a significant contribution to the overall effect. Although I used different headphones during the listening tests, including very expensive ones, it was this small system that was best balanced and it gave me the most pleasure. It is because the little French headphones are characterized by well-differentiated saturated sound in which a slight emphasis on the lower midrange does not destroy anything. On the contrary, it contributes to the overall good impression due to building large phantom images, large volume and a large musical message.

This is useful both in the case of Oxygene by Jarre, available in the form of a 24-bit file, and Grau im Licht – the latest Diary of Dreams’ album which I obtained in the form of 16-bit WAV files. The Sphear headphones are so sophisticated that changing to 24/192 files instantly resulted in brightness, better dynamics and more space. I must say that most of the albums that I listened to in this way were jazz and classical music albums (e.g. Linn Records). Although rock and pop also benefit from the inoffensive but open sound of the headphones, the more demanding music genres allow the device to realize its full potential.

A comparison with large headphones instantly shows that the Focal headphones produce lighter sound without low bass and that they have averaged dynamics. However, when I used the best in-ear headphones that I know (ones representing the most expensive products in their category – sold at the price of 1000 USD!), i.e. AKG K 3003i Aluminium, everything became balanced again. That is right, AKG headphones were better at everything, mainly at showing the colours of music and bass, but it did not bother me so much while I used the Sphear. Even without comparing their price, I could say that even though the French headphones are a little bit worse, the difference is not big enough to make anyone buy AKG instantly. What is more, after adding the difference in price to the equation, it is hard not to get the impression that the French headphones are sold for a half of the price.

These are excellent, inexpensive, perfectly made headphones, additionally equipped with well-profiled tips, thanks to which they fit the ear very well. I recommend them with all my heart! Well-deserved RED Fingerprint

Technical specifications (according to the manufacturer))

Lars & Ivan THA-8
Output power: 180 mW/16 Ω | 22 mW/300
Recommended headphone impedance: 16 Ω – 300 Ω
Total harmonic distortion + noise (THD+N): <0.1%
Signal to noise ratio: ≥76 dB
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 65 kHz
Capacity/Cell/Battery life: 1800 mAh/Lithium-ion Polymer/16 – 18 hours
Dimensions (L x W x D): 125.6 x 78 x 16 mm
Weight: 150.5 g

Impedance: 16 Ω
Sensitivity (1 mV/1 kHz): 103 dB
Total harmonic distortion (THD): <0.3%/1mV
Signal to noise ratio: ≥76 dB
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
Weight: 15 g


Jazzboy Records JB 029 2 CD

Medium: Compact Disc
Premiere: 25/09/2015

Kortez is a 26-year-old composer and vocalist from Iwonicz. He is an educated pianist and trombonist with a flair for classical music. A few years ago he started singing and after a few months wrote his first songs. The beginning of Kortez’s phonographic career dates back to the onset of 2014 – i.e. when he signed a contract with Jazzboy Records. During the first two-week session in Warsaw, he recorded 66 songs that became his official demo. In March 2015, his first EP entitled Jazzboy Session EP was released. It included three songs: Zostań, Joe and Co Myślisz?. His debut album Bumerang is an intimate collection of stories about love and a lack of it.

Source: company materials


For a very long time, I have not heard such a well recorded and produced album from the domain which can be called (very generally and provisionally) pop music. The sound is incredibly well thought out. Both the tone of individual instruments and the way they sound together, as well as their location in space are excellent. When Hammond enters, we can almost see his hands on the keyboard; when we hear bass, the sound is pointed, but saturated. The guitars bring in some noise, as if they had been recorded using tube guitar amps, which also adds some taste.

Spatial “flavours” obtained thanks to using phase manipulation also make an incredible impression on the listener – in Ludzie z lodu the vocal reaches us from all around, as if the QSound, known from Roger Waters’ album Amused To Death, was used. It is as if we were inside a sound dome, which is very impressive.

The sound is tangible and close. It is also physical, which is a quality that records often lack. I am completely sure that compression was used here, but it was applied in a creative way, not just to make life easier.

The additional demo CD also sounds nice. It is rougher, less “here and now”, but its sound reveals the effort that had been put into it – it is not material that was simply transferred from a computer, but properly edited and produced. It is fantastic, as beautiful good music joins in. It is melancholic and calmed down on the main CD, while on the additional disc it surprises us with a positive mood – even though the same songs are recorded on both. Beautiful!

Sound quality: 9-10/10



- Turntable: AVID HIFI Acutus SP [Custom Version]
- Cartridges: Miyajima Laboratory KANSUI, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory SHILABE, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory ZERO (mono) | Denon DL-103SA, review HERE
- Phono stage: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC, review HERE

- Compact Disc Player: Ancient Audio AIR V-edition, review HERE
- Multiformat Player: Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD
- Line Preamplifier: Polaris III [Custom Version] + AC Regenerator, regular version review (in Polish) HERE
- Power amplifier: Soulution 710
- Integrated Amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE

- Stand mount Loudspeakers: Harbeth M40.1 Domestic, review HERE
- Stands for Harbeths: Acoustic Revive Custom Series Loudspeaker Stands
- Real-Sound Processor: SPEC RSP-101/GL
- Integrated Amplifier/Headphone amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Headphones: HIFIMAN HE-6, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-300, review HERE | Sennheiser HD800 | AKG K701, review (in Polish) HERE | Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, version 600 - reviews (in Polish): HERE, HERE, HERE
- Headphone Stands: Klutz Design CanCans (x 3), review (in Polish) HERE
- Headphone Cables: Entreq Konstantin 2010/Sennheiser HD800/HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE

- Portable Player: HIFIMAN HM-801
- USB Cables: Acoustic Revive USB-1.0SP (1 m) | Acoustic Revive USB-5.0PL (5 m), review HERE
- LAN Cables: Acoustic Revive LAN-1.0 PA (kable ) | RLI-1 (filtry), review HERE
- Router: Liksys WAG320N
- NAS: Synology DS410j/8 TB
System I
- Interconnects: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, review HERE | preamplifier-power amplifier: Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo, review HERE
- Loudspeaker Cables: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, review (in Polish) HERE
System II
- Interconnects: Acoustic Revive RCA-1.0PA | XLR-1.0PA II
- Loudspeaker Cables: Acoustic Revive SPC-PA

System I
- Power Cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300, all system, review HERE
- Power Distributor: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate, review HERE
- Power Line: fuse &#8211; power cable Oyaide Tunami Nigo (6m) &#8211; wall sockets 3 x Furutech FT-SWS (R)
System II
- Power Cables: Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version, review (in Polish) HERE | Oyaide GPX-R (x 4 ), review HERE
- Power Distributor: Oyaide MTS-4e, review HERE
- Stolik: SolidBase IV Custom, read HERE/all system
- Anti-vibration Platforms: Acoustic Revive RAF-48H, review HERE/digital sources | Pro Audio Bono [Custom Version]/headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier, review HERE | Acoustic Revive RST-38H/loudspeakers under review/stands for loudspeakers under review
- Anti-vibration Feets: Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc/ CD Player/Ayon Polaris II Power Supply /products under review, review HERE | Finite Elemente CeraPuc/ products under review, review HERE | Audio Replas OPT-30HG-SC/PL HR Quartz, review HERE
- Anti-vibration accsories: Audio Replas CNS-7000SZ/power cable, review HERE
- Quartz Isolators: Acoustic Revive RIQ-5010/CP-4

- FM Radio: Tivoli Audio Model One