Flare Audio R1 "Space & Vortex" Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Apr 22, 2015.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube review: http://youtu.be/n3lf1RvhDQY


    Sources: iPhone6+ with Portaphile Micro/PA2V2/FiiO E17k amps using the LOD, various computers using Microstreamer/Oppo HA-2/v-moda Verza DAC/amps.

    Review notes: Some of my impressions of the sound of the Flare Audio R1 are based on direct comparisons to other headphones - the v-moda M100 and XS, the FAD Pandora VI and IV, the Beyerdynamic T1 and T90, the AKG K812 and K712, and notes that I've accumulated from many prior reviews. The remainder of the impressions I have are based on a learned experience with the legendary Beyer DT-48 headphone series. To my knowledge the modern DT-48's came in black at 25 ohms, and were equipped with oval earpads that came in 2 versions - the early non-chambered earpads and the later earpads with chambers that boosted the treble and bass, presumably for hi-fi purposes. In my view the Flare Audio R1 is a natural successor to the DT-48 with the earlier earpads, which provided a more natural, smoother response. I'll describe how I relate to the R1 (i.e. my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) after I cover the objective issues.

    It's doubtful that you've ever seen or heard a headphone like the R1. Certainly if you visit test measurement sites you wouldn't know what to expect, as those sites lack experience with this type of headphone. Experienced users who hear the R1 for the first time are usually surprised at the softness of the treble, and often remark about a 'veil' that gradually peels away with burn-in and/or adjustment to the sound. In my view the regular frequency response is more midrange-oriented, and I use bass and treble controls here and there to adjust the 'signature' to my personal tastes. That's not to create a new sound or nullify the R1's unique qualities - that's to reduce the distractions that signatures represent for all headphones I've reviewed, so I can hear what's going on underneath the signature - i.e. the tonal qualities of voices and instruments, compared to the more typical headphones that I own and use.

    And underneath the signature** is something special - other tech reviewers have commented on a 'weighted' or 'solid' sound that seemed to them to have the best properties of dynamic and planar headphones. I don't have new terms to describe what I hear, or vouch for what other reviewers have said - not because they're not describing the same things - they are - but because it's a unique sound and experience. One example: Hearing new details in recordings that I haven't heard or noticed previously - those don't come across as high-frequency transients which are the usual vehicle for 'detail' (i.e. jack up the treble a little and a headphone sounds more 'detailed'), they appear as more natural tones replacing less natural tones. Unnatural sounds, or artifacts added to existing natural sounds, have an infinite variety of sources. Flare Audio describes their "Space and Vortex" technology in various places as balancing the pressure waves that constitute the sound created by the headphone's drivers.

    **Everyone will hear a headphone signature a little differently due to ear canal differences, but ultimately the headphone should be a window onto the recordings much as if you opened your front door and listened to the outdoor sounds where you live.

    Despite my previous experience in headphones, particularly the Beyer DT-48 I mentioned which has similarities to the R1, it still took me about 12 hours to 'adapt' to the R1's sound, part of which was getting past the 'veil' that other reviewers described, and which in my view was merely a frequency response perception issue. The important point here is that trying out the R1 in a short session during a headphone meet or dealer demo isn't going to tell most users what they're going to hear at home after spending more time with the headphone. In fact, I don't have suggestions along that line except to read the reviews and forum posts (and followups to this review) to get a sense of what to expect, should you have a serious interest in the R1. The R1 is efficient enough to be used with most cellphone players et al, so considerations of amping will be on the basis of how the sound quality improves with any particular amp. My take at this point is that the sound improves the same way as with any other headphone.

    Generally speaking, the headphone's sound quality (underneath the 'signature') is the ability to deliver fundamental tones properly, a smooth transition of tones from top to bottom, and a lack of various distortions. Many audiophiles today spend thousands of dollars on a tube (valve) headphone amp, partly because the best of those amps are very well built with premium parts and wiring etc., and partly because the tubes (being slower than solid state devices) "round off" certain distortions - odd-order harmonics for example. These are not fringe audiophiles BTW. I can't explain exactly what the R1 does to render sounds more musically than conventional headphones (although I have some theories), but I'd guess that there's some analogy, however distant it may be, between what it does to soften some of those 'bad' harmonics and what tube/valve amps do. Then again, that analogy may not be supportable due to a lack of technical information.

    So even though I can't be sure of exactly what the R1 does from an engineering standpoint, I have some critical test tracks that highlight weaknesses in many headphones: David Chesky & Wonjung Kim/Girl From Guatemala - the intense treble percussion at 3:00 should have lots of clean musical harmonics and little or no harshness. Tiger Okoshi/Bootsman's Little House - the trumpet should have the appropriate sharp and 'blatty' sound, without obvious distortion. Scarlatti (Kipnis)/Sonata in E Major K381 - the harpsichord should have the very sparkly string tones that this plucked instrument is known for. Emily Palen/The Inevitability of Water - the intense violin tones, especially at ~0:57, should have lots of airy harmonics without any roughness. Markus Schulz/Mainstage - this track has an electronic bass tone that causes driver breakup on certain headphones. All of these and whatever else I've played has done so perfectly.

    Physically, the R1 feels heavy for its size, although at 11 oz it's not so much heavy as dense, due to its amazing metal-case driver cups. The R1's headband and earcup pressure are intense compared to most consumer headphones, but like the DT-48 headphone I mentioned above that shares a similar industrial design aesthetic, it's something that most experienced headphone users can get used to, if they have an awareness of and appreciation for the R1's unique sound. Users who aren't experienced with these kinds of headphones (found mostly in studios and other recording venues), or users who are looking for high comfort for everyday casual use, may object to the strong headband clamp and earpad pressure on the outer ear parts. I've found that breaking in the R1 a little at a time - 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then longer sessions over a few days, I get along with it and the sensations "disappear" while listening, but that does require keeping one's head relatively still.

    Isolation is modest - good enough for most outdoor use, but probably not enough for use on jet planes etc. The leakage is high, so not appropriate for use in a public library or a very quiet office. The cable is thick and covered with a woven material, ~6 feet long, double-entry, and is terminated with a standard miniplug for most portable devices. A 1/4 inch (6.35 mm) adapter was included, along with a fabric carry bag. The headband will adjust to smaller heads than my average head size, by about 1/2 inch on each side, but apparently not larger heads unless there's a workaround or modification possible. The headband has rubber padding underneath, but it's not especially soft, so in my case I have most of the weight on the earcups so the headband doesn't press down on my head too much.

    In previous reviews I've included the following music examples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the R1 compares with each individual track.
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Flare Audio R1 review part 2 - music tracks

    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has excellent detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The R1 plays this extremely well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled well by the R1.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, and you can barely feel the weight they carry with the R1.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The R1 plays this music smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled extremely well by the R1.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The R1 plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no excessive emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The R1 reproduces the space and detail very well.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the R1 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The R1 plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine is clearly recognizable.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The R1 reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The R1 plays this track perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have just a taste of the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound and feel that indicates a solid deep-bass response. Overall, the R1 plays this music very well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have an almost "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The R1 plays this pretty well.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce lightly with the R1. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The R1 provides good detail. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the R1 does those well.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The R1 plays the fundamental tone lightly, but you can still hear/feel the 16 cycle per second "beats" that make up that tone.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2014, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the R1 is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is very subtle with the R1.

    Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the R1 renders this music with good impact but less "crunch" effect than many of the brighter consumer headphones.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The R1's reproduction is very good.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The R1 conveys some of that experience, but not as much as most typical full-size headphones. The tympani have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and detailed, and the R1 renders the tones and transients clearly.

    Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The R1's reproduction is good, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are light but still work very well with the horns and other instruments. The R1 delivers the impacts with modest weight and great detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a very realistic sound.
  3. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    R1 postscript.

    Postscript: Reading an older conversation on the Gearslutz forum today (google R1 and Gearslutz), noting their references to measurements of the R1 and their comparisons to the Beyer DT-48 series, my instincts about the R1 were confirmed - like the DT-48, or even a classic full-range horn loudspeaker like the Klipschorn, the R1 can sound like the best thing you've ever heard, but it's not automatic - it requires special attention.

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