Flare R2A – initial impressions
I picked up the Flare R2A as part of their successful Kickstarter campaign last year, and they were my first “proper” audiophile headphone. They were my daily drivers until very recently (as of March 2016), but I only started writing reviews on gear recently so revisiting these now to add my impressions.
About me: newly minted audiophile, late 30s, long time music fan and aspiring to be a reasonably inept drummer. Listen to at least 2 hours of music a day on my commute to work – prefer IEMs for out and about, and a large pair of headphones when I have the house to myself and a glass in my hand. Recently started converting my library to FLAC and 320kbps MP3, and do most of my other listening through Spotify or Tidal HiFi. I am a fan of rock, acoustic (apart from folk) and sarcasm. Oh yeah, and a small amount of electronica. Not a basshead, but I do love a sound with some body to it.
Tech specs (or lack of)
These IEMs were part of a Kickstarter campaign, and it is very difficult to find the actually numbers written down anywhere describing what the frequency range covered is, and other stats like that. One thing you can find quite easily is information about the underlying concept of these earphones: Waveform Integrity. The designer (Davies Roberts of Flare Audio) has stated that his intentions with this IEM were to reproduce music exactly as the artist recorded it, with the waveform reaching your eardrums being exactly the same as the waveform that was pushed into the studio microphones. This is achieved by balancing the pressure on the front and back “sides” of the 5mm dynamic micro-driver at the heart of the R2As, so that pressure doesn’t build up on one side of the driver and distort the music being produced. Much like the main spec sheet, exactly how this is done is not freely disclosed, but it is a very interesting concept, and does appear to have a direct effect on the presentation of these IEMS, which I will outline below. It also affect the pressure being built up in your inner ear, which Roberts claims will help reduce damage to the delicate structures of the ear over time (or something like that – I couldn’t quite hear him when I listened to the video interview…).
On first receiving the box, it does appear that all expense has been spared in the packaging of this piece of audio equipment. It arrives in an oversized Flare Audio cloth bag, containing a white box the size of a small wedding ring container, with a minimalist Flare logo embossed on the top in silver foil. Opening the box yields some foam with the tiny earbuds held securely in their own cutout sections, one pair of Comply Tx200 tips, and precisely nothing else. This is packaging for the minimalist’s minimalist – even shaking the bag and box like you are trying to learn the maracas doesn’t dislodge anything further, it really is that simple. Still, as has been remarked before, you don’t listen to a cardboard box.
Build quality and ergonomics
The R2As are precision machined from one solid piece of aerospace-grade aluminium, and give the impression of being high quality and built to last. The buds themselves are absolutely tiny, in keeping with the size of the driver – the only IEMs I have held that approach the minute size of the R2A are the Aurisonics Rockets. The back of the IEM housing can be unscrewed, and the entire driver and cabling setup is user-replaceable if needed (a good solution as the cables are non-removable in order for the pressure balancing design to work). In terms of ergonomics, the tiny size of the IEMs coupled with the use of the included Comply tips mean that these are possibly the most comfortable in-ear solution for listening to sound I have come across to date. The buds can be inserted deep into the ear canal without any discomfort, enabling their use in bed as they effectively disappear into your ear when fitted correctly.
They can be worn over-ear or down, but the attached metal-block covering the Y-Splitter (more minimalism at work, this time a minimalist version of the Berlin wall, adorned with a Flare logo in lieu of graffiti) means that over-ear use is far more comfortable, the metal breeze block acting as a weight to pull the otherwise thin, flyaway cables down behind your ears and reduce microphonics to a minimum. If worn straight down, the block has a tendency to pull the buds from your ears if moved excessively, and dangles around your throat like an audiophile medallion. Unlike the premium and durable feel of the shells, the cable feels quite low-end for an IEM in this price bracket, being a thin, rubbery and light single strand cable rather than the more fancy braided or coated affairs you tend to see on competing products, which detracts a little from the premium feel. Due to the pressure balancing design, there is also no visible strain relief where the cabling enters the shells, which doesn’t give the impression that these cables will last the test of time particularly well if these are your “out and about” listening choice.
LG G Flex 2 (with and without Brainwavz AP001 mini-amp)
Sansa Clip+ (Rockboxed, amped as above)
Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (straight from the output jack)
Test tracks (mainly 320kbps MP3 or FLAC/Tidal HiFi):
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – S.O.B. / Wasting Time
Blackberry Smoke – The Whipporwill (album)
Slash – Shadow Life / Bad Rain (my reference tracks for bass impact and attack, guitar “crunch”)
Slash & Beth Hart – Mother Maria (vocal tone)
Richie Kotzen – Come On Free (bass tone)
Otis Redding – various
Elvis – various
Leon Bridges – Coming Home (album)
Foy Vance – various
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (album)
Sigma - various
Rudimental – various
Rodrigo y Gabriela – various
Mavis Staples – Livin’ On A High Note
General notes on the sound signature
The abiding impression the R2A leave with me every time I listen to them is not so much what they bring to the listening, but what they remove. Once properly settled deep in your ear canal, the IEM seems to melt away slowly, leaving the impression of the music pouring directly out of your head into the surrounding area. The feeling of being “part” of the music is effortless, and feels incredibly immersive. I have lost count of the amount of times I have slipped these in and then drifted oiff into some dream-like state while listening to some Otis or Alison Krauss. Davies Roberts has stated his intention for these IEMs to “get out of the way of the music”, and in that, he has definitely succeeded with these. There are IEMs and headphones out there that will bring more energy, or more beauty, or more clarity, or just more good old-fashioned oomph to a piece of music, but very few that will INVOLVE you so much in a piece without you even realising it.
The treble on the R2As is a very silky, fatigue free affair, with plenty of resolution and a beautiful pure tone. They are tuned to feel smooth rather than sharp or etched – this doesn’t mean that any detail is lacking, and if you listen for it then all the notes are present and correct, just not pushed forward by artificially emphasising certain elements to get that “crunch” or slam that can be so appealing to some. The benefit of the laid-back treble is that it is very easy on the ears, and there would be no problems wearing these for an entire day without any aural discomfort. I liken the treble presentation to a piece of comic-book artwork before it has been inked for final publication – lots of fine detail in different shades of grey pencil which can be picked out when you are looking, but without the thick black lines of ink laid over the top that naturally draw your attention to the main lines of the drawing. Using the enclosed Comply foam tips, there is no hint of sibilance, and the treble exhibits a very smooth and almost rolled off feel. For those that like a slightly sharper feel to the treble, these do respond very well to EQ in the higher registers – I did try that, but they fit so closely to my personal preference for smoothed off treble (in fact, they are mainly responsible for it) that I never resort to that any more and just enjoy the presentation “as is”.
The midrange of these IEMs is where the real beauty of the sonic presentation starts to shine through, with a lively and forward sound, and levels of “realism” that highlight exactly how much the other IEMs in my collection actually shape the sound I hear through them. Vocal intonation is a particular beauty through these earphones, with the vocal phrasing of certain singers wrapping itself around your ears like they were standing in the same room singing directly at you. There is also a solid “feel” to the mid-range sound, so notes ring pure and thick, without ever crowding the sound-field or feeling artificially pumped up. Allied to the massive soundstage offered by these IEMs, the overall effect is to fill your head with the sound, while keeping all the instruments separated, and without losing any detail in the process.
Two words can be used to sum up the bass on offer here: deep and clear. The bass is provided with a solidity to match the presentation of the mid-range, and rolls down deeper without distortion than anything I’ve heard outside of the Aurisonics ASG series. This solid, clear bass is presented without a hint of bleed into the middle or upper registers, so the clarity just reinforces the quality on display. There is a slight tilt towards warmness due to the quality of bass presented, but this never tilts the balance of the IEM overall or threatens to turn this into a “basshead” monitor. There is a notable absence of any bass bloat, with all notes reaching as deep as they need to, with a crisp definition and texture that really adds to the enjoyment. EDM like Daft Punk sounds absolutely mid-blowing through these, with the driving bassline of “Get Lucky” filling the aural horizon and bringing a damn big grin to my face every time I listen to it. In terms of “slam”, these aren’t the most emphasised IEMs out there, buit that is very much in keeping with the overall presentation – they play what is in the music, without any Chinese whispers on the way through to twist the sound between the recording and your ears.
If there is one thing these earphones shouldn’t excel at, given their physical size, it is soundstage. Unfortunately for the critics and fortunately for the general listening public, this is one area that Flare takes expectations and turns them into rubble. These things are huuuuge. Gigantic. Effortlessly vast. In fact, effortless is the best way to describe the general feeling of spaciousness given off by the R2A experience. Music spreads out from your head in 360 degrees, with all instruments occupying their own little slice of the audio landscape, and all easily distinguishable from each other, even in the most complex and convoluted passages of instrumental music. The high detail level offered by the enclosed micro-driver allows for excellent separation, with individual instruments registering in your ears as the strings are hit, leaving a final impression almost akin to an open-backed headphone in terms of the vastness and airiness of the music. These are truly special in this regard, and a magnificent achievement in this price bracket. One point to note – the overall presentation of the R2 series is heavily dependent on correct placement/fitment of the IEMs in your inner ear, and require a deep insertion to really extend the bass and open up the soundstage – fitting these shallow will drastically reduce the bass on offer and also shorten up the soundstage, so Comply are definitely worth persevering with if you aren’t a fan, in order to get the maximum benefits on offer.
Despite its tiny size, the R2A does require a bit of juice to sound its best. Played out of my phone or DAP without any amping, the volume needs to pushed up almost to maximum to get a decent level, and the music can seem a little flat and lifeless. Adding a bit of extra power with a Fiio or Brainwavz mini amp or playing from a more powerful source, and the IEMs really start to sing, and bring out the full capability of the micro-driver.
The Flare R2A were conceived as a statement on how music should sound by their creator. In the main part, he has succeeded, producing an IEM with a wonderful clarity which sounds like the audio equivalent of a glass of ice cold water on a hot summers day, The bass and mid range bring some real beauty to most types of music, and the smooth treble lends itself to hours of listening. These may not be for those who prefer a warmer or more v-shaped sound, or for those fans of screaming treble, and the build quality of the cable may be a concern, but overall these are an amazing piece of engineering, with a sound that literally dwarfs the size of the casings and a purity that wouldn’t be out of place in a nunnery. Outstanding.