Michael Piskor 2015

The Reference R1 by Flare Audio

Sound Impressions

The Bass

The low end on this headphone is very similar to some of the good Planars out there with regard to how it is portrayed, such as the LCD series from Audeze and MrSpeakers Alpha Dog series:  powerful, heavy and also shockingly responsive to EQ as well.  With small +3 boosts, you can both audibly discern and feel the quantity of the low end increase and decrease as you adjust to your liking.   This is a very responsive headphone to low end EQ and I enjoy it very much, yet it measured very poorly.  I am a bit of a bass head, so naturally I enjoy the soft edges of this headphone in general, which sound a lot like a mid tier Electrostatic: headphones that are not as sharpened as Planars or Dynamic driver headphones.  Bass is plentiful and never leaves me unsatisfied.  I feel the overall texture to be incredibly silky and similar to my Koss ESP-950, however it offers a dry approach to the tone as well.  Odd, considering the mids and upper end of the headphone are well out of the neutral spectrum and into the colored circuit type of sound.  Summed up, the low end of this headphone feels like Electrostatic bass with a satisfying softness and lack of impact and snap that I find to be extremely tasty, but also has Planar quantity and solidity…the bass presentation is nothing like any Dynamic driver I’ve yet heard.  The low end of the R1 is also beautifully tuned, at least in my opinion.  I do not find it lacking engaging qualities in the slightest: that snap factor isn’t weak, nor is it too powerful.  It’s just right for me and it is something I’ve longed desired for some time in a smaller headphone like this.   It is highly musical, fun and vivid, but also with a classy appeal to smoothness and rounded edges without a harsh snappiness factor.

Mids and Treble

Forward and lively, the R1 offers a fantastic vocalist presentation that is very similar to the Audeze products.  In fact, it is almost identical in physical setup to my LCDXC: Very forward midrange with plenty of depth of field, nice firm bass with good quantity and finally a solid treble experience that is never lack luster nor sibilant.  The problem again as I’ve mentioned here is that the headphone’s sounds immensely thick, muted even.  When I swap from my Audio Technica ESW9LTD, a portable headphone that costs around $425US, to the Flare Audio R1, instant veil and lack of clarity and dependability can be heard on the R1.  When I mentioned this to Mr. Roberts, he told me I need to use the headphone for a period of time to allow my ears to adjust, which is something I’ve actually written about in the past inside my ToTL guide not too long ago.  Mr. Roberts is right, post adjustment and using the headphone for maybe 15 minutes renders the excessive muted sound and veil somewhat inert.  I simply do not hear it so much after this period of time and the headphone sounds very nice to me afterwards. However, when I use any other headphone mentioned thus far for a certain amount of time, and then swap as fast as possible to the R1, the experience is negative.  This is the same phenomenon I experienced in the Sennheiser HD800 and just like that HD800, the R1 requires high quality source material to sound good.  It seems that this R1 really doesn’t play well with the noise and air between instruments in most tracks, just like the HD800 handles treble in a highly unforgiving manner.

The background coloration on some headphones can be jet black, natural and unnoticeable or even bright, this R1’s background coloration is what is causing some distress the overall clarity of the headphone and also causing the veil/muting I am hearing to blossom.  That is purely subjective, of course.  I feel like if the R1 had a jet black background, everything would pop more and become more lively and clear.  My ears can sense less veil depending on the track so I think this headphone is the first headphone I’ve ever experienced that is sensitive to background coloration.   There are some tracks that I own that sound great, others not so much with a more noticeable “background” to the spaces between instruments or behind vocals.


Treble is a strong point of this headphone and rivals the Hifiman headphones to my ears in some ways.  Powerful, gently brightened and totally void of harshness or sibilant tendencies.  Usually, dynamic headphones sound so thin and unnatural to me with regard to treble, however this R1 again sounds a lot like an improved Koss ESP 950 Electrostatic on the upper end, actually nearing the Stax headphones in the way it portrays itself in terms of solidity and firmness.  This is a type of treble that I’ve also not found in any Dynamic headphone I’ve ever used and I consider it closer to the way Hifiman has portrayed the treble in the HE-6 and the HE-560.   In my humbled opinion, the R1 shares a similar treble brightness in tone and texture to the Hifiman HE-560, all be it with a less defined physical structure and less clarity:  This means that the treble is similar to how Electrostatics employ Treble with solidity and weight carried, but also much like the good Planars present their upper ends in quantity and tone.  Something without much definability and as a listener you will not be able to sense the edges of a vocalist or instrument in the higher frequencies, which is a trait that is common place in those nice Electrostatic headphones like the ESP-950, Stax 007 and similar.  In Dynamic designs, treble is noticeably more sharpened, allowing the listener to accurately feel or sense where the source of the treble ( vocalist or instrument ) is centered, as well as where it vanishes into the stereo void.  The R1 and a few Electrostatics handle treble a bit differently, in that they are not so easy for your ears to accurately spot the location of where the treble instance ends.  This lack of the user’s ability to sense where that sonic cue ends will provide a tasty, effortless and buttery smooth tone, highly relaxing and something you aren’t at all likely to wince at during high hats, screaming guitars or sudden peaky, treble inside your track.

Sound staging is fairly good for a headphone of this size, although it doesn’t offer much of a sense of width.  The R1 offers very nice immersing factors and negates the sense of width that a lot of Dynamics tend to offer.  Swapping between this R1 and my ATH W3000ANV results in the R1 sounding less spacious, of course.  But, the R1 offers intimacy and a more forward signature, something with less snap and more quantity on the low end without bleeding into the midrange.  Separation of instruments and vocalists are well above average and offer both a good sense of substance as well as forwardness.  The headphone does sound airy by comparison to a lot of other Dynamic headphones I’ve got around here to test with, such as the Fidelio series from Philips, AKGs powerhouse portables of the last few years like the K267/K500 and Sony’s Z7.  It won’t compete with the likes of the Denon D-series or the Fostex TH-series headphones in staging, but I think the R1 is certainly better than most midtier Dynamic headphones with regard to staging depth quality.  I’ve not encountered a single genre this headphone fails in and I would very much consider the R1 a genre master.  The good staging qualities combined with a musical approach to the tuning made for some excellent playlist shuffling without a hint of distress.  True, it is much smaller sounding than my ATH W3000ANV, but those 3000ANV’s are also less intimate and forward.

Final Thoughts

If the clarity factor was better and the muted presentation my ears are picking up on were improved upon, this would be a great headphone.  Not so nice measurements aside, the headphone has a really fantastic musical appeal to them and one that could easily become the next Audeze LCD2 if properly redesigned.  Right now, the headphone needs a total overhaul in physical, exterior traits: new ear pads, new cable, new headband.  The R1 also sounds too muted and veiled by comparison to headphones in their price tier, this is easily fixed though with some driver tuning and dampening as mentioned.  In time, I think the headphone could be re-released after some redesign and end up being “the Dynamic driver” of the headphone world that everyone wants and attempts to match or exceed in quality.

It is shocking to hear a Dynamic headphone with a substance factor on par with Planars…the two driver types simply sound so different, yet the R1 sounds like a small Planar headphone to me, but also one that has a more effortless and softer impact on the low end and treble snap.  It is impressive in some ways and hurts to know the technology is protected.  If it weren’t, I would not see any reason to continue producing normal Dynamic drivers as we all know it.  This headphone could have been a true game changer, but is far off of a solid rating.  Right now, I hope the company invests time to redesign and rethinking some of the headphones traits.  I was able to swap the Koss 540BTi headphone pads onto the R1 from Flare with some moderate success with fit and an improved clarity over the stock pads, I desperately want a new cable as well.  It is clear that the components used in the ear pads are limiting the headphones clarity, as I’ve proven that without question in swapping the stock pads for numerous other pads from other headphones with a positive result.


In the end, the R1 has the potential to become a great headphone, but only time will tell if the company is able to drastically increase the overall clarity and get rid of the overly thick and somewhat muted sound signature.  After writing this review and spending some time away from the R1, my ears want desperately to put them back on.  Despite clarity not being quite on par with a near $800US headphone, I am willing to make that sacrifice in attempt to enjoy the excellent weight this headphone carries, something dissimilar to any Dynamic headphone I’ve yet come across.  The physical setup of the headphone is ideal for those who want a musical headphone.  I expect great things from Flare in the future.  I hope they are aware that most companies first few attempts at products don’t really sell well.  It will take time and future improvements before their product becomes accepted and desired, so I pray they never give up and strive to improve the R1 at all costs…because this headphone is the black sheep of the Dynamic headphone world and also one with a ton of potential to become a truly incredible product with some tweaks here and there.


Price: $777

Technical Specifications

  • DESIGN Fully open
  • TECHNOLOGY Flare Audio SpaceTM and VortexTM Technologies
  • DRIVERS 1 x 40mm dynamic driver with neodymium magnet
  • WEIGHT 350g (without cable)
  • MATERIALS Milled solid billet aluminium
  • CONNECTORS 3.5mm mini jack
  • CABLE 1.5m studio grade with tangle protection sleeve

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