I should probably preface this by saying I’m not in any way an audiophile. While I truly appreciate good quality sound, I don’t know a thing about stereo width, audio frequencies or what ‘warm’* is meant to sound like. I listen to music as much as the next person though, and since I much prefer in-ear buds over a pair of big, bulky outer ear headphones, I was very intrigued to see exactly how good something from the top end of the market could possibly be.
Enter UK company Flare, who started life creating loudspeakers for the professional audio market. Now creating premium earphones and ear protectors, their latest product is Flares Pro, wireless titanium earphones. I’ve been testing them out, and I’m both impressed yet underwhelmed.
One thing is for sure; the Flares Pro scream “premium” in practically every way. I’ve rarely seen packaging as impressive as these bad boys. A cube cladded in soundproofing-style material opens up to give way to a three layered tray: one containing the headphones themselves; another containing the wireless DAC Bluetooth receiver and a selection of earbuds; and a third containing a handy carry pouch. Quality is the name of the game here, as a little quality control card packaged inside the box, stamped at eight different QC intervals, reminded me.
Everything in the box seems a little overwhelming at first - it’s a lot of stuff for just one small pair of earphones. But it all makes sense. There’s a choice of six different earbuds — two sets of different quality (‘everyday’ and ‘audiophile’), each in three sizes. Choosing the right size that fits your ear canal is absolutely key here, as a good fit in your ear makes all the difference when it comes to sound quality.
As I mentioned, the Flares Pro are wireless, but not in the sense of AirPods. The earbuds themselves will always be connected to a wire, but you have a choice whether you want to connect them to the wireless Bluetooth receiver, or use a traditional cable to connect them to your headphone jack. Having the choice is nice as it means you’re not limited as to what devices you connect them to.
The Bluetooth connectivity works really well, and the Flares instantly connected with my Galaxy S7 as soon as I toggled Bluetooth on. The DAC is pretty small and unassuming, but with a fairly short cable length, you’re pretty much left with no choice than to dangle it around your neck, clip it somewhere near your collar, or slot it into a breast pocket. It’s not always going to be convenient, but the clip feels secure enough. Out and about though, I opted for the old-fashioned wired approach. I was too worried about losing anything - £350 is a lot of money to be walking around with it clipped to the front of my person.
Yes, the Flares Pro retail at £350. For me, an average person who listens to average music on average headphones, that’s an astronomical amount of money. And while you do get a fantastic package with the Flares, I’m just not sure if it’s worth quite that sum of money.
In terms of audio quality, I expected to be blown away. The Flares Pro are by far the most expensive pair of earphones I’ve ever had the pleasure of inserting into my ear canal, and yet, while they sounded very good, it wasn’t exactly leagues above anything I'd heard before. There’s certainly a noticeable clarity — you’ll have no problem making out every little sound or note — and a pleasant, balanced sound, although just how rich the Flares sound does depend heavily on how well they fit in your ears.
I’ve never been a fan of the fully in-ear style earphones, preferring the earbuds that just nestle snugly in the crevices of my outer ear. Purposefully pushing something down my ear canal has, frankly, always felt like a reckless thing to do, and yet that’s exactly what the Flares ask you to do. Once you’ve chosen the size that fits best in your ear, you’re supposed to “push deep into the ear” - their words, not mine - and hold it in place for 15 seconds until you create a perfect seal. Honestly, getting them in place is not particularly easy or pleasant — it feels a little like you’re being treated for an ear infection — but once they’re fitted in place correctly, they’re actually quite comfortable. After I got over the weird feeling of messing around to get them in place, I was able to wear them solidly during a three hour train journey, and didn’t feel irritated by them.
If they’re not exactly in place, though, the sound quality will be massively impacted. Unless each earbud is fully sealed in your ear, they can sound a little tinny and hollow. At least it’s an easy check to see if they’re secured in place.
The different earfoams included are meant to make a difference to sound, too, with the softest, most delicate ‘audiophile’ set supposedly offering the best audio quality. Personally I couldn’t tell a difference between those and the everyday set, which are made of a more sturdy silicone as opposed to memory foam. The audiophile set is a little comfier to wear thanks to how soft it is, but it also means they won’t last as long with extended use. Hence the other set being called ‘everyday’. The package comes with a few spare pairs though, and they can be purchased from the Flares website if you somehow manage to destroy them all.
In terms of build quality of the Flares Pro, they’re pretty solid. Naturally, the headphones feel more like a premium product when using the wireless DAC than without, but that’s partly because the cable doesn’t feel too sturdy. I wouldn’t like to fall asleep wearing them, and even trying to fold up the wire to pop the earphones back into the carry case leaves me a little concerned about its wellbeing. The cable feels very rubbery, and while I certainly wouldn’t like to stress test it, I worry it could be very easily damaged.
The earphones themselves, though, are a different matter. Made of titanium, they both look and feel the part and are the true hallmark of quality. It’s just a shame that the cable attached to them doesn’t feel as sturdy.
I really like the Flares Pro, I do. Without a doubt they’re the best earphones I’ve had the pleasure to use. They’re comfortable (eventually), sound great, and have some of the coolest packaging I've seen, but despite all that, I’m struggling to justify their price. I suppose justifying the price of a quality pair of headphones heavily depends on how much you personally value good audio, and you’ve only got to do a quick search on Google to see that plenty of audiophiles attest that the Flares Pro do fit the bill nicely. But for an average user like me, I really cannot comprehend ever paying that much money for a pair of earphones, no matter how nice they are.
(‘Warm’ means “good bass, adequate low frequencies, adequate fundamentals relative to harmonics. Not thin. Also excessive bass or mid bass. Also, pleasantly spacious, with adequate reverberation at low frequencies. Also see Rich, Round. Warm highs means sweet highs”. Thanks Head-Fi.)