The Flare Audio Pro In Ear Monitors have a very interesting design, cost £349 and can be used wired, or using Bluetooth. Janine Elliot takes a listen.

As a school teacher in recent years, whenever I uttered the word “volume”, “balance” or hifi” to students I was looked at as if I was talking another language. Much of the younger generation are fast forgetting about the fun of integrating hifi components and perhaps not likely to spend considerable amounts on audio unless it is for their car, or perish the thought, monophonic wireless speakers. Luckily I am hoping that is all about to change at least for personal listening as younger listeners start to get unhappy with mp3 on their phones and hi-res FLACs become commonly playable on newer models. Better audio coding formats do, however, require better earphones and headphones, and in recent years there have been an increasing number of impressive models bending the audio boundaries even for older hifi bugs like me, and which just make reviewing such fun.

The first headphone, the R1, from Davies Roberts, CEO of Flare Audio, was a great idea but was never their best product. Creating a headphone without that ghetto-blaster bass pressure infecting the music was a great idea, only let down by the driver. What was clever was the spiraling vortex system around both sides of the 40mm dynamic headphone drivers designed to remove all Enclosed Residual Pressure Interference (ERPI). Then came their R2 IEM. Wow, this was a game changer, especially the R2PRO (£200 Kick-Starter price, then £400 after) with its Titanium body-shell. Whilst it was impossible to fit a vortex system either side of the driver in such a small space, in order that there was equal pressure both sides of the driver he created a spring effect system at the front to match that caused naturally on the rear of the driver. Whilst some might think there is no bass, it is just void of the sound pressure usually associated with bass frequencies in IEMs. This allowed much more of the detail and speed of sound at bass frequencies but relies on good fitting of the earfoams, and extended and detailed top frequencies that were so clear you would think your ears had just been syringed. They were respected by professional musicians and producers alike, as is their new offering, a balanced IEM with wireless DAC, called the ‘FLARES PRO’, all for £349. This new top model is loved by Bowie, T-Rex and Iggy Pop producer Tony Visconti (“These are the best earphones ever”), and Gary Langon, engineer of Queen and Yes (“These earphones are absolute game changers”). But not to be influenced by these big names and able to form my own conclusions I decided to put it through its paces myself before coming to any kind of conclusion.

This new model is, however, significantly different from its predecessor. Where the closed-back R2 used 1 jet and had no acoustic lens, the FLARES PRO uses a dual jet, one at either end, and has a special acoustic lens that fires sound onto the ear drum. The driver is only 5.5mm, though ½ a millimetre bigger than the R2, and is made of Beryllium and also very sensitive, which allowed me to get more detail and information from the music that I played. The IEM case itself is made from aerospace Grade 5 Titanium, just like its predecessor, and slightly longer in length. However, this new model should be treated as a completely new product, just as is the difference between the R2 and R2Pro that I reviewed a few years back is huge. Having followed Flare over the past few years I am as excited about the developments in design and audio quality of each new product as Davies will be in presenting them to the public.

One of the key parts of this very reasonably priced package is the wireless module, complete with microphone. This means you can connect your music to your Bluetooth enabled DAP or phone, via Bluetooth® v4.1 with APT-X connectivity.  As CEO Davies Roberts informed me “The Wireless module has a balanced output which removes cross-talk interference”. The output from the dual DAC chips are direct, thus there is no component distortion or noise generated. This is only possible thanks to the linear impedance that the FLARES PRO has, thus as Davies told me “electronics are more stable and produce far less audible distortion”.

Presentation

The first thing I was aware of was the much improved build quality and presentation over previous incarnations. Where the previous model had a unique method of replacing the fragile cable if you were unfortunate enough to break it (or had a cat with sharp teeth, like I did), you needed to have nimble fingers and good eyesight to be able to do this operation. The new model instead has a much better and reinforced cable housing connecting to the body of the IEM, meaning the fragile connector of the predecessor is gone. Indeed, this model has far better cabling design, thicker and with a matt finish which doesn’t make noises when moving around, like some cables still do. All the components are of superior quality as is the presentation box itself. Where it was often confusing which was left or right cable in the predecessor I am pleased to say there are colour-coded light/dark grey cables for right and left ear respectively. Only, perhaps, the manual might be too diminutive for those with failing eyesight. This model comes in a large square box cleverly disguised with noise cancelling foam regularly seen in recording studios.  As well as the remote, the cleverly packaged box with its triple layers also includes 6 sets of earfoams, covering audiophile and everyday ‘fitting’, a carrying case for the IEMs and micro USB charging cable. The wireless unit has a 170mAH 2.4v rechargeable lithium-ion battery, with two hours charge time for the 12 hours playback and 150hours standby time. It is compatible with HFP HSP, A2DP, AVRCP and APT-X.  It allows 48/96kHz 16 bit playback, though interestingly I could actually manage to play WAV files up to 24/192 from my Fiio with minimal dithering, but of course it wouldn’t play FLACs or DSDs. Perhaps a model allowing aptX-HD will appear when the new format becomes popular. Both standard and aptX-HD do still have a compression ratio of 4:1, though, to reduce audio-coding delays and minimise latency issues, so you may or may not use this facility. For the review I used both wired and Bluetooth. Indeed, I was torn between both, which will become clearer later. What is clever, too, is the voice control for answering and ending phone calls, if your phone allows. You can control the playback and answer phone calls just as in most remotes, and therefore of course it has a microphone.

Jets, Lenses and Anti-Resonance

There are three major parts to this design that help to produce an IEM that simply concentrates of presenting the audio rather than dealing with conventional headaches of resonances imposed by the boxes and spaces therein. The titanium shell of the R2 PRO I reviewed back in 2015 was significantly better than the aluminium or steel R2. So, the material’s strength and crystal structure impacts on the sound, and is why it is again chosen for this new model. But there is much more than just the material in the FLARES PRO. This IEM has been totally re-thought. Firstly there is the “Dual Jet” technology to control the movement of the driver, like a jet engine controlling intake of air. Basically there are two jets one at either end of the bullet size unit, each at carefully worked out sizes within tolerances of 10 microns  to achieve the correct pressure at all frequencies. The aim is to reduce distortion, and hence colouration of the sound.  The “acoustic lens” focuses and fires the sound into your eardrums. The tip of the unit is noticeably smaller than the width of the IEM, and smaller than the 5.5mm driver. Only the addition of the ‘earfoams’ makes the whole titanium shell look wider. Thirdly there is anti-resonance technology whereby a small space inside the unit ensures internal vibrations exit out of the rear rather than reflected back inside the unit to “infect” the sound, which would again create colourations and hence distortion. The idea of controlling unwanted sounds has always been central to Flare designs, and the resultant purity and efficiency of the music produced has been one of the reasons I have always liked their products.

The Sound

The initial listening was with the wired connection to my Fiio DAP. My first thoughts were that this is slightly longer than the original model though being so thin allowed the bullet to fit snugly into the ear, if you use the foams correctly (allow 15 seconds to expand before letting go). They can also be rested against the outer ear antitragus, that bit of cartilage on your lugholes, if you want that extra security that it won’t fall out if you are sprinting around the local park, but because the unit is slightly longer you might not find that quite so comfortable, particularly if you like much larger IEMs that do not touch your outer ear. There are three types and two sizes of Earfoams supplied, though the easy-listening Everyday Earfoams are silicone based, and not memory foam, so not so good at staying in place, at least in my ears, and because it is important that there is no leak of sound between the driver and ear for that excellent bass detail, that option of foams will not be so good musically. A Universal version is more durable and shaped to fit the majority of ears, but not so good at isolating and creating that better bass end. I chose to use the Audiophile version, of course, for my serious listening, and though they are not quite so hardwearing they do create an excellent isolation.

The difference in detail of sound and involvement in the music over the previous incarnation was quite staggering. Even listening to my own music, I found I was hearing little details I hadn’t experienced before. Turning to music I thought I knew so well was even more of an Aladdin’s cave. The speed, detail and cleanliness of sound was quite astounding, no wonder record producers love these IEMs. Distorted  spoken word in “I Wanna Rule the World” (from ‘Lazy Days’, 10cc) were very audible, though the intentional distorted guitars in “Iceberg”, track 5, whilst easier to hear. Indeed the musical phrases were much clearer and were therefore made much more interesting, indicating vividly how much the 1970’s band enjoyed making this complicated theatre piece. There are over 4 idioms in this piece including the musique concrete opening and vocal phrases such as “die die” and “Really not a lot you can do” plus the Ken Sykora style guitar passages that combine to make this all such an enjoyable and enticing track. The amount of detail kept me spellbound in my listening.

Which brings me to Beethovens 7th symphony. When I performed it in a local symphony orchestra the second movement just made me very tearful, especially with the beautiful viola section melody at the start of the movement. It wasn’t bad playing that made me cry, but the emotion of the melodic lines and repetitive death-march rhythm. Music does make me cry, but it has to be a mixture of both the music line as well as the performance itself. I didn’t cry on this occasion, not just because the performance from the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra (Herbert Kegal) isn’t the most exhilarating (it’s not so high in my list as performances with conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle or Eugan Jochum, for example), but because I was picking out all the instruments and engrossed in every nuance of detail as I would sitting in front of the mixing desk at the recording.  Not that music was overtly critical, it was quite simply just accurately performing what was put in front of it. Such was the clarity and depth of information that even mp3 copy of David Gilmour “Rattle That Lock” came across so clear and extended that I forgot this was compressed music through compressed BT.  This was seriously good listening!

What is so good about the Flares Pro is that due to separate left and right cables with click-on MMCX gold-plated professional connectors a true balanced audio playback can be utilised allowing a greater listening experience. Since conventional earphones use a 3-pin (tip, ring and sleeve) 3.5mm jack this means there is a shared or common earth between both channels, which will cause phase distortions since that part of the signal is being shared.  Whilst not so noticed in loudspeaker listening there are papers discussing the greater effects on headphone listeners. I love my Stax Earspeakers as the sound travels balanced from source to ear. We are beginning to see balanced appearing in DAPs and hopefully more and more earphones soon. Flare Audio will be bringing out a balanced cable especially for this operation, and whilst I hope MMCX plugs will become popular in the portable DAP market, it is most likely the 4-pin 2.5mm jack will be the popular format since it is one plug and not two and less fragile. For wired listening the attractive cable plugs into a good quality y-adapter though this means output at the 3.5mm jack is unbalanced. Whilst the clarity I heard at the start of my listening using the wired set up was on a new level, it was not balanced, and I did hear very slightly more distortion than in the balanced BT mode, though of course that mode did limit me in terms of not being able  to play FLACs/DSD. It was hard to decide whether I preferred playing wired and BT, though luckily you have the choice.

Turning to ‘wired’ listening was such an improvement on the earlier R2Pro, and that model was very good. The precision and delivery of music from this new model made me sad to finish the review. OK, I am a sound engineer by trade, but also a musician playing 27 instruments (at the last count) and so my ears can pull out both detail and musicality. The limit is really the source of the music, as I soon found out listening to Mike Valentine’s reel to reel recording of ‘Big Band Spectacular’, since digital, even at 24/192, doesn’t really stand a chance against the best analogue source. Whether “Sing, Sing, Sing” or “In the Mood” the music not only induced finger tapping (the cable isn’t long enough to permit foot-tapping from where the Revox PR99 or Sony TC-766-2 are sat!) but it kept me engrossed in all that was going on.

Back to digital, this time using line output from the Class-A Slee Voyager headphone amp; Dadawa “The Turning Scripture” (Sister Drum) turned new pages in my listening experience of this track, with bass and top frequencies having quicker attack time and more detail that I only expect on my Stax electrostatics. 03’47 starts off a Dadawa characteristic of a powerful pulsating bass accompanying the chorus of voices that I wondered if the minute drivers would actually cope let alone my ears, and which ends with unusual grunting vocal noises all across my head. I need not have worried; if this can cope with what Visconti and Langon can throw at it then I shouldn’t ever have a problem.  No listening is complete without some Pink Floyd. “On the Run” from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (24/96khz ) had impeccable clarity; noises of sequenced synthesiser pattern, repeated drum patterns, that allowed you to feel you were actually sitting in front of the snare drum, the aeroplane engine and deep musique concrete noises allowed me to get closer to the music than any IEM before. The iconic “Time” track again was such fun; from the detailed transients from the clocks ticking to the deep engine noises that begin the track. Impeccable timing. The E and F# chords combined with the tom toms and synths and guitars are full blooded, and the ‘A major’ chord that comes towards the end of this section (2’08”) literally took my head off; it was if I had a 15” driver vibrating away in front of my; it wasn’t the 5.5mm driving having problems but the music in a new level of clarity. This continued in the instrumental verse every 4 bars. Why didn’t I hear this so clearly through the speakers? I decided to put that track on the speakers and whilst I could pick it out now after identifying it, I had never noticed the extent of this before today. I try not to turn my reviews into a record review or a list of all the music I have, but I needed to complete the listening with something I hadn’t played for a while. The Four Sea Interludes by Benjamin Britten is a work with extremes of bass and treble instruments and detailed individual tunes and rhythms from different instruments including flutes, violins, cellos trumpets, with rhythmic statements from percussion including timpani and tubular bells, so a great piece to play to test both detail and musicality. There are four movements in this instrumental work that was written separately but related to the Opera Peter Grimes which has libretto adapted by Montagu Slater from the narrative poem, “Peter Grimes,” in George Crabbe’s book ‘The Borough’.  The work is set at a Suffolk sea town, as indeed was Britten born not far from my own late father in Lowestoft.  This is a great work to get emotionally and technically involved in; particularly the third movement, and this version (Michael Stern/Kansas City Symphony orchestra 88.2/24bit) was no exception. The beautiful slow movement with its pulsating rhythm through the beautiful melodic phrases, sounding like a rolling tide at the seashore and was a great contrast from the beautiful desolate muted-trumpet melody. This was not only musically engaging but technically absorbing. I didn’t want to stop the listening.  The third movement with the canon-like violin and brass lines was similarly not only highly detailed and engaging but musical as well. There can be a link; detailed does not just mean technical. There are often 5 movements in this performance despite it saying “Four” in the title, though that is because the Passacaglia, Op33b, is often played alongside the Sea Interludes, which are Op 33a. Don’t ever think there is no bass here, the bass drum and tuba spurts at 5’50” will move your eardrum quite easily. These IEMs do have a clearer and extended bass end to their predecessor, though that model was still excellent if you wore the earfoams correctly. If you want bass pressure and therefore miss a lot of the detail from the music, then there are plenty of options out there on Amazon or from Curry’s but you may perhaps damage your ears if you play too loud. If you want sound quality, detail and involvement, then these could be your best choice, whatever the price, particularly when you consider the option of BT.  The pin-sharp and extended frequency response could be too perfect for some, but just begin to take in what ‘lesser’ IEMs will miss in terms of music and your £349 will be more than well rewarded. Indeed, though my name isn’t Visconti, I would want to use these IEMs to monitor all my heroes, too.

Conclusion

This product ticks all boxes for me in terms of detail, extension, speed and accuracy of the music, particularly in BT mode though that is limited to not playing FLACs and DSDs. This product was also great fun simply just opening the box, all for a very impressive £349. Where you might throw away boxes that your hifi comes in, you won’t want to throw these away.

Clarity of portrayal of the music does mean that what you hear is what you get; no veiling of the sound just to make it sound “nice”. It copes with significant levels of sound with no stress from the small 5.5mm driver and the BT function working up to around 15m. With the rise again in personal listening over the last decade and more recently the desire for better audio quality, the days of using cheap and bad IEMs is gradually fading fast, with top-end products getting cheaper and cheap. Maybe, possibly, the ears of our future heirs will experience even better personal music than we do now. I just wonder what Flare Audio will produce next.  Watch out for the next very exciting chapter.

AT A GLANCE

Pros:

Transparency
Well-controlled, fast and detailed sound delivery
BlueTooth option included
Excellent frequency range
Much improved components and packaging

Cons:

Excellent speed, detail and accuracy might be misconceived as ‘less musicality’.
Build Quality:  Excellent detail to build from the Titanium bullets to BT unit and packaging.

Sound Quality:  An excellently detailed and honest portrayal of the music, far exceeding this price point.

Value For Money:  At £349 this is excellent value considering sound quality and added BT unit. These are cheaper than retail price for the R2Pro that preceded them.

Janine Elliot 

Janine has suggested that the Flare Audio Pro IEMS are put forward for Hifi Pig’s coveted Outstanding Product Award and so they will now be sent to a second reviewer to complete the proceess.

Let’s first discuss the packaging for these Flare Pro IEMs. One word – exemplary. Funky and well thought out and more than a huge dollop of that Christmas morning feel. I know I bang on about this a lot but it really does count – you wouldn’t turn up at an interview in your scruffs would you? First impressions matter and in a market as rammed as the IEM one it pays to stand out from the crowd from the get go. My only gripe with the packaging is the minuscule manual that I found a tad difficult to read.

Janine has gone into what you get in the box and all the technical information and so I’m not going to go over it again.

First up I needed to charge the little Bluetooth DAC doodad which took a couple of hours. Pairing with the phone is a doddle and even for an old duffer like me for whom Bluetooth represents some kind of strange witchcraft, I was up and running in a matter of a few seconds. I use the Onkyo player on my phone as it’ll handle hi-rez files but the tune that had been playing and left halfway through was the excellent Hardfloor Podcast One, an MP3 file. The sound is clearly that of an MP3 but I’m surprised at the amount of detail the Flares are getting through to my lugholes. I’m using the audiophile tips and they are firmly planted in my ear canal where they should be and you can sort of tell that there’s nothing getting in the way of the sound reaching your eardrum. Bass, which I thought was a bit lacking in the R2s, was very good indeed and not at all overblown and the out of head experience is pretty cool given these IEMs are embedded halfway into your skull. With regards to the Blutooth range I’m able to pop up stairs to pick something off my desk with no dropouts.

So that’s MP3 covered but I know most of the folk reading this aren’t going to lower themselves to such a lowly format and so it’s on with John Martyn’s Solid Air on FLAC, but still transmitted to the Flare Pros by Bluetooth. What comes across here is a sense of balance and detail. The sound is as  uncoloured as you could wish for, clean and pretty stunning considering I’m wandering around unattached. The dynamics of Martyn’s guitar playing comes through in spades and his vocal shines with brilliant clarity, highlighting the tone of his voice beautifully. Again, impressive stuff.

Firing up the brilliant Chord Poly/Mojo combo and streaming tunes from the home NAS drive and using the Flare Pros in wired mode is a step up in sonics for sure to my ears. It was impressive using Bluetooth but Fun Loving Criminals’ 100% Columbian sounds sublime. I’m not a huge fan of “serious” playback on the go, i’ve always thought the hassle was too much for the results obtained, but the Chord/Flare partnership is pretty stunning. This record is really well produced and I’m again taken aback by the level of detail and nuances in the mix, particularly little spatial cues and effects. Little details like the vibrato on the guitar during the track Fisty Nuts are clearly audible and the sheer depth of detail is superb. This is a key characteristic of the Flare Pros – UNCOLOURED DETAIL!

I’m finding myself listening to tunes at a much lower level than I would usually on IEMs. I think sometimes with lesser IEMs there is a propensity to turn up the volume in the hope that it will bring more detail – of course it doesn’t. With the Flare Pros it is all there at all but the most quiet volume levels. There is still the feeling that everything is there, if that makes sense.

I was expecting the Pros to be a little light on the bass front but they are not in anyway light. What they are is balanced throughout the frequency range and where some IEMs and other headphones are artificially boosted in the bass to give them an air of  – well I don’t know what but it’s wrong – the Pros from Flare just seem natural and unforced.

I’m writing this paragraph after having done my official review period with the Flare Pros, but I have continued to listen to them with a wide range of material in the time since. They are nothing short of a revelation on the IEM front. In the manual there is a picture of legendary producer Tony Visconti with a quote saying he mixes on the Flare Pros. When I saw this frankly I thought what a load of crap, but you know what I can see…well hear… it actually happening. The detail and balance on the Pros is astonishing allowing you to delve into the mix and pic it apart.

Conclusion

If you’ve read all that you’ll gather I’m a fan, though I really wasn’t expecting to be. These are a very, very capable in ear monitor, and it is that word monitor that is all important. They are accurate, as uncoloured as you could wish for and make really, really beautiful music whatever the style of music.

The little Bluetooth clip on unit to which the IEMs attach wen you want to be untethered is a useful feature and the sound quality is very good. Wire them up to a decent DAC/amp and you are given a rare insight into the recording and the stereo image with buckets full of detail.
A classy offering in a great package that for the money screams BUY ME!

Some may not like the idea of pushing the buds right into their ears, I was one, but once in there the Pros are very comfortable indeed and you sort of forget you are wearing them.

I concur with Janine and have absolutely no hesitation in awarding the Flare Pros our Outstanding Product Award.

Stuart Smith

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