There has been a recent interest in open-loudspeakers that simply have a baffle but no cabinet as such. I remember the tests we did with loudspeakers at BBC Wood Norton in the 80s when I trained to be a Studio Manager. We found that depending on cabinet size, and whether speakers were infinite baffle, ported or with no cabinet at all, the sound changed considerably. Flare Audio, which is run by Davies Roberts originally started as a supplier of PA equipment in 2007, he formed Flare in 2010 as he was frustrated with the sound variances between gigs and equipment, and who then started creating his own loudspeaker designs in 2012. Their speakers are now used by bands and establishments including Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, Rob da Bank, and Node. Apparently Flare Audio was selected due to its ‘clarity of sound’, and his designs are foremost in trying to get that purity of sound production, with nothing getting in the way. Indeed, Davies found that if you have any form of friction inside the speaker cabinet then cancellations and additions to frequency information will happen. He calls it Waveform Integrity. His SB12 has a port straight through from front to back and a system of matrixes to allow sound pressure to leave and new air to enter. I always loved the look of that. He also noted that with headphones this friction was even more complex. In closed-back headphones when the speaker diaphragm moves there is pressure both behind the driver and also in front, as it is sealed to your ear via the ear cushion. With open-back designs the pressure is only between the driver and your ear. With his Reference 1 Headphone he therefore attempts to remove that friction both in front and behind the driver.

“Open back designs distort sound information on the compression stroke of the driver and add asymmetry to the waveform. Closed designs distort sound information on both sides of the waveform.”FlareR1-small

Bear with me for a while; At University doing my Master of Music degree in the last century I worked on the interrelation between frequencies in sounds. This included a series of electroacoustic works under the banner of SINOLIMI (SInes NOn LInearly MIxed), whereby two pure sine-wave sounds being mixed together can cause both sum and difference frequencies, which cause a complete remodelling of the original sounds. Many years before that, when I first got into Hi-Fi at the naive age of 8, I thought it was magic that a single loudspeaker could possibly play many different frequencies at the same time; after all, a single musical instrument like a wood block or flute couldn’t. Davies claims that different frequencies on that single loudspeaker interact with each other, causing distortion hence new sounds and therefore lots of these at the same time can modify the sound you hear. He says all drivers create sound by placing higher frequencies inside the movement of lower frequencies, i.e. 21Hz is created within the movement of 20Hz, 22Hz within 21Hz and so on. He calls this the “Time Domain”. Additionally, if your headphones are closed back, then not only will there be reflections of frequencies but the reflection of waves in the cans will interfere with the driver vibrations, slowing down the primary soundwaves as they bump into it. Next time you play your open-back Stax SR-407 earspeakers, cup your hands behind the boxes and move in and out, and you will hear different frequencies interfering with the principal sound.

All in all then, there are lots of things interfering with the fundamental sound you play when you listen on cans. And, unfortunately, we have got so used to hearing all these distortions our ears think it is all right (just like our eyes see things upside down but our brain turns them back up the other way!) When I put on the Flare Audio R1 cans after playing my Audio Technica W1000s, I thought something had gone wrong with the music as it sounded all mid-band and “phased”, but then when I first put on the R1 and then listened to the Audio Technica’s I wondered where all the bass had gone and was desperate to find a way to turn down the treble! Our brains via our ears have their own tone control, an automatic volume control, and even an imagination control and ‘we’ can play havoc with the music we play without realising it. Scary!FlareBOXS

So, after all this science, welcome the Reference R1 headphones, mimicking the metallic rugged ‘army look’ of their PA speakers, and using both of Flare’s patent-pending technologies used in their speaker designs called SpaceTM and VortexTM. These technologies are applied to both sides of the driver to create what he says is “the first ‘fully open’ true infinite baffle headphone that produces distortion free sound”. Quite some claim. The VortexTM discs themselves are matrix systems that remove residual air pressure that interferes with the movement of the 40cm Mylar ear speaker and silences the sound pressure as it escapes into the air. The depth of the vortex is different either side of the driver because there is more pressure between the rear of the driver and the cabinet as it is a smaller area, so the vortex hole at the sides of the unit are bigger. The other side, which travels from the driver to your ear canal, is a greater area so less pressure and consequently a smaller vortex. Both sides of this mathematical equation therefore match. The vortex can be seen by the holes running along the edges of the metal ear-cup. Flare Audio commissioned Salford University to test the attenuation of external sound entering via this vortex. Those tests were on a basic vortex shape and as a result of this work were able to modify the design using fins to gain far higher attenuation. Tests have shown external attenuation up to 20dB . SpaceTM is about reducing the enclosure wall vibration and so uses 4 bolts that pull the rear plate and ear pad plates together with a constant compressive force on the VortexTM discs that reside both sides of the driver. Loving abbreviations he calls this one ‘DSV’ (dual sided vortex) disc.

To recap then, Flare Audio is trying to do several things at the same time with their Reference R1 headphones;
They are trying to remove the sound pressure that can result in open and particularly closed-back headphones. By balancing the pressures between the front and rear sections enables linear driver movement (LDM).
Remove sound distortions which are caused by the friction as a result of enclosed residual pressure interference (ERPI). Basically, using wadding inside the enclosure adds friction. Particles slowing down then hit the frequencies you actually wish to hear.
Create significant noise insulation through the use of VortexTM silencing technology,
Create a means whereby different frequencies do not interfere with each other, and therefore to create the most honest sound production system available. If a driver’s movement is restricted by the pressure mentioned in ii) above, then the time domain of frequency information is also distorted; the “Time Domain Distortion” (TDD).

Now, as this is all rather complicated and full of enough acronyms and abbreviations to make me L.M.A.O, how did it all sound once I started to listen? Firstly, putting on these cans was harder than I thought. The whole is rather heavy and with a steel headband gave my ears the feeling of tightness, though with an excellent insulation from the outside world. It was not excessive, and in the pro audio industry would be quite acceptable, but because the leatherette ear-cup is quite thin, wearing glasses wasn’t easy as they could hurt after a while by getting the frame caught between my head and the powder coated sprung steel headband.FLARE2S

Listening to music gave me a chance to feel the music rather than the pressure of the drivers, though the closeness of the drivers to my ears made it rather claustrophobic. I remember the truly open-back and front design of the AKG 1000 headphones. The reason these famous old cans worked so well was the fact that actually nothing touched your ears. All is held in place above your ears, though it tends to feel like a vice, if my memory serves me correctly. The ear ‘speakers’ could then be aimed parallel to your ears, making the sound more akin to conventional headphones, or at an angle like the successful Stax Lambda style SR-207, 307, 407 and 507, which sounds more natural. The Flare Reference headphone is none of these. The speakers are held parallel to your ears. The sound, as explained earlier, does take a long time to get adjusted to, but once adjusted clearly defines weaknesses in many recordings; things like distortion or sudden changes in soundstage caused by bad editing, making it an ideal tool for engineers to perfect their art. Linn Record’s excellent new Sibelius Symphony No 2, (Thomas Sondergard, BBC National Orchestra of Wales) doesn’t rush through like some headphones can make the recording, showing the detail of the live recording played in the clear acoustics of the Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. The violins and violas are very clear, illustrating the good mid band of these ear speakers, but it was too forward and confused for my liking. In track 18 “Louder than Words” from The Endless River, Pink Floyd (my favourite track of this album) David Gilmour’s voice was too forward and unclear in this the only vocal track. Conversely, in Pat Metheny Group ‘The Way Up’, which is one of my favourite jazz records of all time, the top frequencies of ride and crash cymbals were still very clear, something I felt lost in some of the listening tests I did. Indeed this recording has an excellent range of frequencies and detail, with masses of horizontal writing of different tunes with different instruments playing at the same time, something that these headphones can decipher admirably. However, throughout my listening I did sense that there were missed opportunities to make these headphones become something really special; the technology is all there, just that 40cm Mylar driver letting the whole thing down. The mid bass is OK, but those used to thumping bottoms and bursts of acoustic pressure will be disappointed. These things are not audiophile or professional virtues, though. I want to hear the sound as it really should be and I got that in the mid-bass and in the midrange, though it took a bit of getting used to. No, the biggest problem was in the frequencies extremes, something which is vital, particularly today’s HD fixation. The speed and detail was also not quite good enough for me. However, this is the first version of this new technology, and Davies Roberts believes in customer satisfaction and retrofitting as new versions and updates become available; perhaps a better driver. He is already talking about a canvas padding headband to aid comfort and new designs including inner-earphones. What I really loved was seeing a 3.5mm plug at the end of the lead. If you really do need ¼ inch plugs, then you are usually sitting next to a standalone unit and in which case adding an adaptor is no problem. But those of us wanting to walk around plugged into a portable device like an iPod, Fiio or iBasso, there is nothing more annoying than having to add an adaptor sticking out of the unit! Just wish the heat-shrink wasn’t quite so long.

There is considerable sense and science in the R1 but there are still several areas where further thoughts will improve the design. But, just as the original Model T Ford with its ridiculous non-standard system of foot pedals led to putting the world on wheels eventually with a clutch, break and accelerator, so too could the R1 be the beginning of something great. Just hope it doesn’t take too long.

CONCLUSION

This is a lovely package and the craftsmanship and design are well worth the £499 asking price. The sound was completely different and did ‘improve’ as I listened for longer, but you know, sometimes you just want to put cans on straight away and get that immediate ‘high’. This product is like Marmite; you will either love it or hate it. The only reason the Reference R1 makes it in my mind is because of what is possible. A number of sound engineers, such as Mick Hughes (Metallica) and Gary Langan (Metropolis Studios) have approved of it, so as a tool for the sound engineer it ticks a lot of boxes (I prefer it to the Beyer DT100 or Sennheiser HD480) but if you are wanting and expecting to get that immediate ‘buzz’ when you put them on, you will unfortunately look elsewhere.RECOMMENDED LOGO NEW

Sound Quality – 7.8/10 (there is still work to do)

Value for Money – 8.6/10 (the good looks and the R&D)

Build Quality – 8.3/10 (will be better with canvas padding headband)

Overall – 8.23/10

Janine Elliot

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