Flare Audio

Flare Audio: Revolutionising headphone design

Revolutionising headphone design based on the principle of particle motion, Flare Audio’s astounding earphone range promises mirror image sound, and according to the praise of some big name advocates, they might just have hit upon something long thought impossible – sound free of the natural distortion of the human ear.

Long believed to be an insurmountable problem, the natural distortion caused by the passage of sound through the human ear – the result of soundwaves bouncing around the ear canal – has been an issue which many have sought to rectify. Tackling the problem using conventional acoustical principles, research has failed to solve this seemingly ingrained issue with human listening.

Flare Audio, a company that first made its name with some innovative loudspeakers, made it their mission to reduce the 20% percent increase in distortion that the shape of our ears adds. With EarHD and Calmer, their extraordinary E-Prototype and the incoming EARS range, Flare have carefully crafted a design that not only delivers meticulous sound, but completely obliterates unwanted distortion.

The smart application of this new tech has changed the lives of those with hyper-sensitive ears, and promises much for both the consumer audio and pro audio world. We spoke to Flare’s co-founder and inventor Davies Roberts as well as fellow co-founder Naomi Roberts to learn more about the company’s journey…

AMI: Firstly, when was Flare Audio founded, and can you talk us through some of your initial innovations in loudspeakers?

Davies Roberts: Myself and Naomi co-founded Flare Audio in 2010. We had both worked in the PA and loudspeaker industry, and became aware that loudspeakers were significantly distorting sound. I realised that a signal chain should not be adding another resonance to whatever resonant instruments or voices that you’re listening to. So, that was the starting point of Flare. I soon realised that the approach I needed to take in order to understand what was going on was a thought experiment around particle vibrations. I don’t look at sound as a wave. I look at sound as a series of dots which are going backwards and forwards and being disrupted at different oscillations.

The dots interact and end up with this disturbance of particles emanating out in a sphere. We used that model in our approach to loudspeaker products and it led to a significant amount of breakthroughs.

It started with the structure. I started with the actual cabinet of the loudspeaker. If you imagine tinging a glass, it would resonate, but if I put my weight on top of the glass and try and ting it again, it won’t resonate. That’s because I’m applying a force in its direction. Our first patent was called ‘Space’ technology in 2012. This anti-resonance compression technology used plates that clamp a loudspeaker. You get the right clamping force, and the speaker resonates as one unit. That’s the holy grail of dampening.

The second challenge was to overcome the pressure problem. With a sealed box, it’s very difficult to compress the sound going in. All traditional loudspeakers have symmetrical distortion going on. I needed to let all the pressure out without releasing the sound. I started work on a pressure release exhaust technology called Vortex. It’s basically a load of vortices that go behind the driver, it pushes the particles around and exits in the opposite direction of their travel. It’s a bit like a tornado effect. This proved highly successful. We get 40dB attenuation through the vortices. They’re designed to disrupt the sound, spin it on its axis and remove any sound information. They were the two really exciting innovations we developed.

AMI: How did the company shift its focus into earphones, and what motivated you to make this switch?

DR: I was still fascinated by what was making the resulting sound subjective. Sounds shouldn’t be subjective once you remove the distortions. I started to wonder why. Back in 2018 I became aware of my actual ears distorting sounds differently, so certain things sounded different to what other people heard. After a bit of R&D we developed our first prototype which we called ‘Calmer’.

The way Calmer works is that it redirects the flow of sound within the ear canal. Particles typically bounce around until they hit the eardrum. There’s all this shell resonance going on. When you talk into a shell you can change the frequency of your voice, and we’re born with a similar type of natural effect based on how our ears are shaped. Everything we hear is distorted by around 20 percent. It’s called HRTF (head-related transfer function) and every single person is different. Everyone hears completely different levels of distortion.

What I recognised is that if I needed to remove a distortion from a space, then I just need to make sure I reflect something perfectly. Calmer goes inside the ear and instead of having the shell to reflect off, it has a flat surface. Directing sound to the eardrum accurately with no bouncing. We found that the result of this – particularly when tested in a space with a lot of sound information – was incredibly calming.

When we released Calmer that product flew off the shelves. We’re close to a million units sold now. It’s been life-changing for many people who suffer from hyper-acoustic issues, autism, and other issues with sound sensitivity.

Calmer got us established and gave us a platform. It proved we could get rid of this ear distortion. The next step was to begin work on an earphone. It’s incredibly complicated to design and invent, but when it comes to the science it’s incredibly simple. Because of the alignment of the (what essentially are) mirrors, if you’re a particle, your path-length is perfectly coming out of the output. The listener is getting a total mirror image of the origin sound. The trick is to ensure that every single impulse of sound (every up and down, backwards and forwards movement of a driver) is matched from the driver to the output.

That’s how this patent-pending technology works. Now we’re working with a crowdfunding campaign to create mass consumer variants of the E-Prototype. We want to span a range from £50 to £300. We want the same sound for both consumers and studio-based professionals.

Flare AudioAMI: The shape is so important, I guess it also becomes something of a visual trademark for the Flare Audio brand too. How big is the team?

DR: We’re pretty small. We’ve got a team of seventeen people but we’ve unlocked what the tech giants have been trying to unlock for decades. Apple has been trying to unlock HRTF for a long time. Inside the AirPod there’s microphones that attempt to pull-out these resonant frequencies. Whereas we’ve bypassed them by simple design.

I left school at fifteen with no qualifications. I approach things really simply. My approach has led me to realise that the received wisdom of the acoustic world is a load of rubbish. We’ve proved time and time again that taking that approach is never going to get advanced sound quality. I realised that impulse was the way. It’s been opening out before our eyes, and we’ve been able to develop these exciting technologies.

AMI: What elements do you hope to improve or enhance ahead of the mass roll-out?

DR: Because we’re a tiny firm, we don’t have millions of pounds of marketing budget. To manufacture just one of those earphone types costs us a lot of money. There’s a lot of work that has to go on. Our crowdfund campaign is currently running to build our funds. We’re taking the E-Protoype further with better drivers and proper silencing. Then we’re literally just sending off the tooling information for our supplier in London. We’re making them in the UK.

AMI: Are you pitching to a consumer audio base or wider pro audio/studio monitoring?

DR: We’re aiming these at everyone. The really exciting bit for us is getting producers listening to it. We’ve got a few high-profile advocates.

We’ve got Stephen Fry, we’ve got Neil Gaiman, Hot Chip, Liam Howlett. All these amazing people who don’t usually endorse products are really excited by the experience they’re getting with these earphones. Liam approached us, wanting to give us an endorsement. So, we’re getting the artist and producer community behind us.

It would be easy to sell this technology on, but we’re on a bit of a mission here at Flare. We’re really passionate about not just changing the sound world, but helping people with hearing issues. We didn’t start Flare to make money, it was all about trying to unlock technology and do something meaningful. When we started on this with loudspeakers it was the pursuit of sound quality. We had no idea at that time how much of an impact what we designed would have on people’s lives.

AMI: So, is that audio therapy strand something you want to further develop?

DR: Yeah, it’s growing. Every single human has got these issues with their ears, it’s just that some people are hyper-sensitive. You wouldn’t say that if you had really great eyesight that you had a disability, and that’s something we’re learning now. If you wear Calmer you can focus your ears. We’re working on that and bridging the gap between Calmer and this earphone technology. We’re working on how to make it even more relaxing.

We’re hoping to bridge the gap to enhance other, third-party headphones clearer too, using our product as an intermediary. There’s a lot going on for a tiny company, but we’re pursuing every avenue.

AMI: Can you talk us through how the very cool relationship with Tim Burgess and the Listening Party headphone came to pass?

Naomi: Well when you run your own company, you become tenacious and make connections where you can. I listen to 6 Music all the time.

We were listening to a Chris Hawkins show when he played a Rob da Bank megamix, an artist that we know. I did a tweet tagging people saying “Great to hear Rob da Bank’ on 6 Music”. Rob replied and said “Still use my earphones!”. Then Chris Hawkins himself started following us. So, I sent him some products.

Chris got in touch really enthused about our products, and offered a list of contacts that he could put us in touch with. Tim Burgess was on the list so thought we’d get him some stuff sent. Before long his people got in touch and asked us if we could make an earphone branded to reflect the Listening Party, which we agreed to. It had the little Tim badge on the side of each earphone. The Listening Party replaced music venues for a while during lockdown, so we decided to add a kickback to the Music Venue Trust on every pair sold. It was a really nice story, and allowed us to get involved with the wider story of music that year.

AMI: What’s next on the agenda for Flare Audio, and what are your plans for 2023?

DR: The earphone range is our next objective. We’ve got four models, E is ‘Everyday’, A is the ‘Active’ range, R is for Recording Engineers and S is for ’Superior’. We need to carry on with R&D to bridge the gap between Calmer and the earphones. We can innovate more products and technology that revolves around our ears. We want to nail the sound going into our ears so we can make other people’s headphones sound amazing.


Welcome to issue 7 of Audio Media International