Flares Pro Review – Unforgiving, Unapologetic

Introduction –

Flare Audio is a British company that, like many others, has some interesting roots designing high-end audio equipment for professional use. However, recently, the company has been making headlines with their bold and innovative products on Kickstarter beginning with their R1 over-ear headphones and really taking off with their more refined R2 in-ears. But while their in-ear designs have been exceptionally well received by critics, more tumultuous user impressions did not always reflect Flares’ unanimous critical reception. And I was always hesitant to personally purchase a pair, especially with their prohibitive international pricing and questionable build quality. However, that was only Flares’ second consumer audio product and their first in-ear earphone and they have since come far to address the complaints of models prior. Their new Flares Pro is far more feature packed than previous models with a unique wireless implementation and vastly improved build quality that includes an exclusive use of titanium and a much improved removable cable. Let’s see if Flares’ new in-ears are as groundbreaking in their sound as their design.

 

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Davies from Flare Audio very much for providing me with the Flares Pro for the purpose of honest review. There is no monetary incentive for a positive review and despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my analysis.

 

About Me, Background, Gear of choice, Preferences and Biases – 

I generally prefer a u-shaped sound that is close to neutral. I like a lot of detail and clarity but can appreciate a smooth, laid back sound. I’m not particularly treble sensitive so I may be more forgiving of brightness over darkness. I will note if I use a different eartip/pad/cover during the review and describe the sound changes.

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Unboxing –

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Flares provide one of the most distinct unboxings I’ve ever experienced. The first thing buyers will notice is that unique cuboid design covered in acoustic foam, demonstrating Flares’ experience with professional audio. The inside of the box is layered with three stacked trays.

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Opening up the box reveals the earphones within two ear shaped inlets with pull tabs on either side allowing users to easily remove the upper most tray. Just beneath lies 3-pairs of silicone tips and 3-pairs of foam tips, each pair colour coded to denote their size.

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These ear tips implement what Flares calls acoustic lens technology, essentially, they have no sound tube by using an output bore that’s tapered to the same angle as the nozzle on the earphones themselves. Both the foam and silicone tips are of very high quality with perfect moulding and the nature of the packaging prevents the tips from getting warped during shipping and storage. Both are also incredibly soft, the foams in particular are so soft that they are prone to damage, even more so than Comply Foam tips. Luckily replacements are quite reasonably priced, but I found a more agreeable experience with the silicone tips. Just below lies the instruction manual, Bluetooth module and a micro-usb charging cable.

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At the very bottom is the hard zippered carry case that comfortably fits the earphones and Bluetooth module. Inside, users will find an additional set of foam tips, however, these tips don’t feature that LENS technology.

 

Design –

The Flares Pros assume a more traditional cable down fit with a bullet style design that is reminiscent of the older R2 models and earphones such as the Hifiman RE-600, Aurisonics Rocket and Etymotic ER4. But unlike the R2 earphones that used different housing materials to achieve different sounds, the Pro exclusively uses the acoustically superior titanium. As a result, the earphones are imbued with a very interesting look (and sound) and users shouldn’t be too concerned about damaging their raw metal finish.

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Build quality is unsurprisingly fabulous, those titanium housings are just as solid as one would expect and their machining is essentially perfect with very minimal gaps to seams and a very even surface to the flared front and rear ports. The earphones are absolutely miniscule in size, measuring just over a cm in length (not including the eartips), and have a very fine brushed finish with an engraved Flare Audio logo on the very top. While they do pick up some occasional smudges, they are easy enough to clean and haven’t picked up any nicks or scratches during my month or so of almost daily use. The Pro’s have a slender, T200 sized straight nozzle that is integrated into the main housings. It is fluted to provide some traction to ear tips and their diameter maximises compatibility with aftermarket tips.

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Fit is similarly fabulous due to the small size and simple design. They easily achieve quite a deep fit and despite that exposed rear vent, the earphones produce no more wind noise than a sealed in-ear and provide great noise isolation equivalent to earphones like the Hifiman RE-600 but still shy of the vacuum like silence provided by Campfire and Shure earphones. I suppose it’s no surprise given the Flare make some really nice earplugs, but the Pro is one of the most isolating vented earphones I’ve come across and the lack of wind noise is a huge plus when wearing them outdoors. In addition, while they are technically a cable down earphone, their design lends them perfectly towards over-ear wear which removes microphonic cable noise, increases fit depth and improves their stability during activity. When wearing the Pro’s over-ear, the earphones stay put during a run without requiring any adjustments. Comfort is also fabulous, due to their size, the housings don’t contact any part of the ear but they do protrude a little too much to be suitable for wear when sleeping. That being said, I didn’t experience any hot spots or discomfort after hours and hours of wear, in fact, I soon forgot I was even wearing them. The Flare Pros are easily among the most comfortable earphones I’ve tested.

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Unfortunately, Flares mated one of the most robust, comfortable housing designs I’ve tested to one of the worst cables I’ve ever used. The Pro’s cable is rubbery, thin and springy. Not only does it catches on clothes, the cable also retains memory from storage and is difficult to untangle on behalf of that tacky texture. But where the Flares’ original in-ears required users to replace the whole driver assembly in the case of cable damage, the new Pro’s utilize a much more practical partially removable cable system similar to the Klipsch X20 and Sennheiser ie800. And unlike these models, Flares have more reason than smaller housing size for assuming such a setup as opposed to a fully removable design since it enables users to swap between a wired and wireless connection. While the cable is hardwired to the earpiece, each channel has an individual MMCX connector that inserts either a 3.5mm cable at the y-split or the balanced Bluetooth module.

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The earpieces and MMCX connectors have pleasing strain relief that is much improved over the R2 and though the y-split and plug on the wired cable are not as well fortified, at least that segment is easily replaceable. And on a more positive note, since both sides use a different coloured cable, white/grey for right and grey/black for left, the otherwise identically styled earpieces are easily differentiated and finding correct orientation when swapping from a wired to wireless connection is made much easier. I still would prefer a more subdued cable design, that zebra coloured cable doesn’t do those gorgeous titanium housings any favours nor does their shocking ergonomics, but routing the cable over the ear does help keep the cable in check.

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Overall, the Flare Audio Pros are an exceptionally constructed in-ear with almost perfect comfort and ergonomics, perfect for those with small ears. They have great noise isolation for travel despite being vented and their titanium complexion maintains its lustre through daily use. While their cable is average at best, their modular design enables easy swapping between a wired and wireless connection that negates more of the longevity and ergonomic concerns I have with the cable anyway.

 

Usability –

The Flares Pros have a partially modular design that allows users to easily switch between a wired and wireless connection. Interestingly, Flares are putting particular emphasis on their Bluetooth implementation that promises superior quality to more conventional setups and, in Flares’ case, improved sound quality over a wired connection too (which would be a first for me).

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In terms of hardware, the Bluetooth module does not share the earphones fabulous build quality but remains one of the better-constructed modules I’ve handled. It has a full plastic construction that is well sized with a nice toothed shirt clip that firmly holds the device. The module is also relatively light weight, I did notice it during a jog but never did it become cumbersome and I definitely prefer this approach to the neckband style wireless earphones or those that house all of the electronics within the remote.

The front is dominated by three large buttons that are stiff but clicky though they are a bit difficult to discern due to their identical sizing and design. The module feels a bit disappointing when considering their $600 AUD asking price, it does feel somewhat hollow and brittle. That being said, it does have some weight with no flex or creak and most importantly, the gold plated MMCX connectors on the top are snappy and solid and the clip at the rear holds its place perfectly.

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Pairing is simple, controlled via the centre button which doubles as the status LED and power button. Holding for 2 seconds powers on and, if they are already paired, they quickly auto connect to available devices. Otherwise, the module immediately enters pairing mode upon power on. Once connected, the centre button controls the play/pause function and the volume buttons adjust the internal volume of the module separate to the source. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get double and triple tap to skip functions to work.

Battery life was close to Flares rating of 12 hours which is great considering the modules size and driving power. On that note, the maximum volume is good but not great, however, that is more due to the inefficiency of the earphones themselves than the module itself and I was comfortable listening at around 25% volume anyway. The module automatically turns off when no audio is playing or if no device is paired and remembers volume setting between power cycles, something that is quite uncommon and convenient.

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Bluetooth range is also very good, they maintained a solid connection with my iPod Nano, even when the device was placed on the opposite side of my body. Most Bluetooth earphones become extremely spotty with such placing, some failing to connect altogether, but the Flares were almost completely reliable with only some slight skipping when obscured by my hand or arm. With a more line of sight connection, the earphones achieve vastly more range, I was able to traverse between rooms in my house without breakup.

 

Sound –

At a glance, the Flares Pros are a single 5.5mm dynamic driver earphone. However, after a brief exchange with Davies, the visionary behind Flare Audio, it was evident that there is much more to these earphones than basic specification would suggest. Davies mentioned many technologies to me before I started my testing, but one thing that remained constant throughout was that the earphones should sound different than anything I’ve heard. And in listening, they do indeed sound pretty different, not bad and not necessarily good either, just different. And as with the original Flares, I suspect it will be a polarizing sound but underlying their eccentric tonality and tuning choices lies immense raw technical ability that everyone will be able to relish.

 

Technology –

Sound may seem like a simple phenomenon but in reality, creating pristine audio is a challenging science. In that sense, I am always delighted to hear more about innovative designs and approaches to traditional technology and Flare exemplifies this premise with their newest in-ear design. Removing distractions between the driver and ear and balancing pressures between both sides of the driver both form the core of the Pro’s acoustic methodology and what the company says separates the Flares earphones from other designs. Even the ear tips were designed to have no protruding stem beyond the nozzle, reducing resonance and improving imaging performance. Furthermore, the driver lies perfectly centred within the housing with identically machined vents at the front and rear balanced air pressure to minimize transience. And behind the talk of proprietary technologies and marketing lies a very solid approach that is the foundation all quality audio products, similar in fact, to that taken by 64Audio with their TIA tubeless driver system though those earphones cost many times more.

 

Bluetooth module –

Flare claims that the Pro actually sounds superior over a wireless connection than when wired. Of course, in reality, that is not always the case since there is such a range of wired sources out there, but the wireless module included with the Pro’s does manage to best the majority of them. Flare’s wireless implementation is definitely one the best I’ve come across, the module has a two DACs to take advantage of their balanced output and a class A-B amplifier that is absolutely silent with no noise, hiss or distortion. I’m also assuming the module has a pretty decent output power too given that the Pros are quite difficult to drive when wired. All of this combines to create sound quality that rivals a good wired source and, with support for apt-x, they do so with minimal latency too (I tested the module on my BT4.0 laptop and apt-x enabled HTC 10 to confirm). For the average smartphone user, the module will undoubtedly sound superior with greater dynamics and refinement in addition to improved imaging performance, especially if the phone supports apt-x. And while there are some really exceptional smartphones including the iPhone, HTC 10 and LG’s newer flagships, those phones also fail to produce a notably superior sound to the Bluetooth module. That being said, not all sources are created equal and I did find the Pro’s to sound noticeably more balanced, transparent and separated when running from a quality dedicated source like the Fiio X7 and Chord Mojo. That being said, the earphones sounded more tonally pleasing from the module than either source, sounding fuller through their bass and mids and smoother through their treble, taking off that metallic tinge. I’m unsure whether this is due to an inbuilt DSP or perhaps a byproduct of their Bluetooth connection, but either way, the Pro’s did sound their best to my ear when paired with the included Bluetooth module even if separation and outright resolution failed to match the Mojo.

 

Driveability –

The Flares Pros are a notably difficult earphone to drive, requiring more volume than the vast majority of earphones I currently have on hand. This is perhaps intentional on Flares’ behalf, their lower sensitivity filters out the noise created by most Bluetooth implementations, but as a result, the Pro’s are a considerably power hungry earphone that definitely benefit from a dedicated amplifier. Even my HTC 10, one of the most powerful smartphones out there, struggled to extract the Pro’s full potential even if volume was sufficient. That being said, they are certainly no 320ohm VE Zen 2.0 and the integrated amplifier in my Oppo HA-2 delivered plenty of current and voltage to the Pro’s without requiring me to strap my A5 on top. In addition, the Pro’s don’t pick up hiss on anything and I’m typically quite sensitive to noise. Being a single dynamic earphone, they also aren’t too affected by higher output impedances and will still reach adequate volumes from portable sources so long as you’re not the type of listener that likes to max it out. As such, the Flare Pro’s trade source versatility for reduced source sensitivity.

 

Tips –

A few impressions have labelled the Flares Pro as a tip sensitive earphone and seeing as Flares puts such great emphasis on the acoustic changes created by their included eartips, I thought it would be apt to try a few other.

Everyday Earfoams (Silicone): Despite their naming scheme, these tips are actually a soft silicone. They have an unconventional fit and seal but a solid one nonetheless. Pushing them into the ear creates a sensation of suction during which the earphones produce no sound though the pressure gradually fades leaving a strong seal and excellent acoustic properties. They have a u-shaped sound with the best end to end extension of all the tips I tried. They also offered the greatest resolution and imaging was spot on. Highs are very present but can sound metallic, thin and splashy.

Audiophile Earfoams (foam): Due to their shape, I did struggle to find a reliable fit with the included foam tips though when I did find a good seal, the sound they enabled was very pleasing. They were similarly technical to the silicone LENS tips but had a slightly smoother high-end than the silicones. While they are my ideal sound, the foams did not produce a reliable enough fit for me though ymmv.

Sony Hybrid: More conventional fit, retains great comfort and seal without that sense of suction. The earphones sound slightly more balanced with more forwards vocals, sub-bass extension is slightly reduced but still very impressive. The whole sound gains some body, mid-bass and male vocals, in particular, sound more natural at the cost of a little layering and resolution. Highs remain very detailed but sound smoother than the stock silicone tips. That being said, the earphones sound less concise with hazier imaging with the Sony’s. Some may prefer their more balanced, smoother sound even if quality fails to match the stock silicone tips.

Spinfit CP100: Perfect comfort, great fit and seal, but slightly less seal than the other tips for me.  Strangely, the Spinfits provided a more similar sound to the stock silicone tips than the Sony Hybrids, mostly maintaining that same sense of exquisite resolution and layering. They were the brightest tips to my ear, slightly scooping lower mids and adding some upper midrange emphasis. Treble was still slightly more natural than the stock tips.

 

Tonality –

The Flares Pro is meatier than past models and from what I’ve read online, Flares may have revised tuning since demo the models displayed at shows. The Flares Pro isn’t a neutral or perfectly balanced earphone, I would consider it to carry a light V-shaped to U-shaped tonality with sub-bass and middle treble sitting in front of the midrange. It’s a mostly well-judged tonality that retains plenty of balance and the tuning is incredibly satisfying and dynamic.

They do remind me very much of the Sennheiser iei800 with that same kind of bass slam, clean, clear midrange and hyper-clear treble response. The Flares are also similarly technical to the ie800 which was a huge surprise given their more modest asking price.  The Flares Pros are not really an analytical sounding earphone but one that is very aggressively detailed nonetheless.

 

Soundstage, Imaging and Separation –

Being a vented dynamic with a very airy high-end, the Flares Pros have a nice presentation that doesn’t feel constrained in any way but also doesn’t come off as immediately spacious. They still provide a very nice sense of dimension with more emphasis on width over depth. The Sennheiser ie800 and 64Audio U3 are both more spacious earphones, the Sennheiser, in particular, holds a notable advantage in soundstage depth that augments immersion and imaging. When listening to “Believer” by Imagine Dragons and the Flares impressed with nice depth to the main vocals in addition to spacious width to each guitar pluck and backing vocal. The Flares also produced very sharp imaging, instruments were easily and accurately located though I felt that placement wasn’t as natural as the more rounded ie800. Centre image is similarly strong though it was hazier than the ie800, Jupiter and U3 all of which are exceptional. On the contrary, the Pro’s are very separated, more so than all of the aforementioned models. Their treble is especially delineated and their great clarity enhances midrange layering. So while their soundstage isn’t clearly superior to similarly priced earphones, they easily keep up with the best of them and absolutely outperform cheaper in-ears.

 

Bass –

The Flares Pro’s have an exceptional bass response that takes full advantage of their low resonance titanium chambers and beryllium dynamic drivers. For the record, I do personally prefer the way dynamic drivers handle sub-bass over balanced armatures, but I also value a tight, well-tuned response and the Flares absolutely deliver. They actually have similar tuning to the ie800 with sub-bass holding the greatest emphasis in the sound with slightly lifted mid and upper bass granting them with pleasing bass body. Quantity wise, they are also very similar to the ie800, with a touch less sub-bass and a sprinkle of added mid-bass making them slightly more linear, enhancing mid-bass texture and bass energy. Furthermore, the sub-bass performance on the Flares is exceptional with great extension that matches the ie800 and easily bests armature earphones including the considerably more expensive Campfire Jupiter, 64Audio U3 and Noble Django. Bloat is very minimal and midrange spill is non-existent, the Pro’s have an incredibly clean, controlled bass response considering their elevated quantity.

Bass definition and detailing is also some of the best I’ve heard, they have such a clear, well-textured response despite their emphasis. The Pro’s also aren’t bloated but bass does have a slightly tubby character that saps that last iota of detail from their sound. Sub-bass is the real star here, the Pros have a tighter sub-bass response than the ie800 and Dunu DK-3001 which both miss that last bit of detail due to some very slight smearing. On the contrary, the ie800’s more reserved mid and upper-bass tuning produces a little more bass definition than the Pro’s at the cost of sounding less consistently bodied with different mastering qualities and genres. Ultimately, the Pro manages to hold its own against the exemplary DK-3001 and ie800, especially impressive given that these models cost around $200 more here in Australia and that both are less isolating and less stable during wear. Of course, really outstanding armature earphones like the Jupiter do edge out the Flare on definition and detail but they simply lack the level of extension dynamic driver earphones can achieve yet alone an exceptionally well-tuned one. If you enjoy a little extra bass fullness augmented by cinema-like sub-bass, the Pro’s excel in every regard.

 

Mids –

Again, comparison to the ie800 was immediately apt with the same kind of super clear, resolving sound underpinning a slightly brighter tonal balance. The Flares is once again, slightly more balanced with noticeably more forward lower mids, but upper midrange instruments and female vocals still hold the spotlight. Both sound a bit thin and raspy though they are an evolution of the type of sound carried by cheaper models like the K3 Pro and K3 HD. But while the Pro is more balanced, the ie800 is still slightly more refined in its presentation, the Pro has some oddness in the upper midrange which creates a slightly metallic tinge to some vocals. This isn’t too noticeable on instruments and well-mastered tracks aren’t affected at all, but it isn’t something that affects the ie800 which also possesses similar resolution and clarity. Otherwise, lower mids are very well done, hyper clear and resolving with no bass spill or warming. Listening to Robbie William’s cover of “Somethin’ Stupid”, and both male and female vocals were smooth and very well layered with an excellent sense of immediacy. Guitars were exquisitely detailed and aggressive in their presentation. And despite having a little over-forwardness to some strings and trumpets, the Pros tuning stops just short of sibilance; vocals are left slightly raspy and on the thinner side but they are hardly unnatural or otherwise unpleasing. The Flare’s aren’t the most unfatiguing earphone I’ve heard, but they do avoid a lot of the pitfalls that most earphones pursuing this style of tuning succumb to.

Female vocals aren’t as consistently pleasing as male vocals, however, and the Pros do tend to struggle a bit more with the clearer mastering style of modern pop and Asian genres. This was evident when listening to Calvin Harris “Feels” and AKMU’s “Melted” where female vocals sounded slightly too thin and strident. That being said, they were perfectly listenable and provided excellent resolution and detailing in return. In addition, their boosted clarity flatters older songs which tend to sound a bit muffled on more neutral earphones and watching films and videos proved to be delightful with clear, easily discernible voices and great dynamics enhancing more action packed moments. So while the Flares Pro is a little track dependent due to their thinner upper midrange, they nonetheless provide a very clear, super detailed listen with great resolution. They aren’t the most natural or realistic sounding in-ear and definitely won’t suit those looking for an earphone for long term listening, but for quicker bursts, the Pros are one of the most discerning earphones I’ve heard around this price.

 

Treble –

The Flares Pro’s treble is probably the strangest aspect of their presentation and what really differentiated them from the vast majority of other in-ears I’ve heard. Again, their treble tuning is somewhere in the ie800 ballpark with a modest lift throughout accompanied by a very notable middle treble spike that holds the greatest emphasis in the entire sound. Like their midrange, this makes them sound super aggressively detailed but also thin and splashy, even metallic at times. The ie800 does suffer from some of these fall backs but it also has a smoother, less peaky response that didn’t cause me notable fatigue. The Pro’s did tend to grate during longer listening sessions. But in return, they are probably the most detailed earphone I’ve heard around this price, making them perfect for shorter bursts of critical listening.

While they are a little too uneven to reveal details like the Campfire Jupiter and 64Audio U3, nuances are brought to the fore, texturing is surprisingly present given their lack of body and instruments sound raw and immediate. They aren’t the most natural or linear earphone, but air, shimmer and sparkle are all excellent. In addition, extension is fantastic, flattering high-hats and granting instruments with great definition and clarity. The Pros don’t hide their technical inadequacies behind a façade of clarity, rather, they are a little overzealous in their boasting. While they are still too thin and metallic for me, they do somewhat redeem themselves with their class leading detailing and resolution combined with outstanding high-frequency extension and separation. Ultimately, the Pro’s have a polarising high-end that will delight treble heads though mellower, perhaps more refined in-ear like the ie800 manage similar presentation and engagement whilst avoiding the sense of over forwardness that frequently affects the Pros.

 

Verdict –

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The Pros realize Flares talk of excellence with enormous technical proficiency that is sometimes let down by some questionable tuning choices. Their titanium housings are robust and perfectly finished while their cable is ergonomically frustrating. Their wireless performance is the star of the show, easily matching a lot of better-wired sources while maintaining the convenience of low-latency apt-x streaming. However, the Pros are also an anomaly, few earphone slam so hard, fit so stably and isolate so strongly with such a visually open design and the Pro’s provide a truly unique listening experience. While treble needs some work, bass is phenomenal and their midrange is just as revealing as I could have hoped. The Pros are perhaps not a ground-breaking earphone, but one that is very innovative and capable, ironically, what they lack is some traditional damping and high-end attenuation.

Verdict – 8.75/10, The Flare Audio Pro is an accomplished in-ear that constantly trades compromises and redeeming factors. Their housings are sublime but their cable looks like a toy. Their bass is exquisite in every conceivable way but their peaky treble won’t find nearly as many fans. The Pro possesses class leading technical ability, but their tuning still requires a bit of work to maximise that potential.

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