LINK: Flare Audio | PRICE: Retail £400/Kickstarter £200 | Kickstarter
For fear of retreading tired maxims, DJing has changed out of all proportion in the last decade. And while the gear we use has altered radically, there are a few constants still remaining. One such constant is what we put on our ears. And I use “on” deliberately, because I’m about to talk about putting things “in” your ears. As reported previously, I’ve been sent a pair of Flare Audio R2Pro in-ear monitors (IEMs) to test. But before I get to that, it’s worth taking a little time to discuss the practicality of using them in a DJ environment.
Flare Audio is a British company dedicated to thinking differently about how sound is delivered to your ears. With their Vortex and Space audio technology, Flare has won many friends in the pro audio industry. And now they’re applying the obviously expansive knowledge to delivering sound right into your ear. And that knowledge is manifesting itself as the R2 range, with a Kickstarter campaign covering various R2 designs that are easier on the pocket, topped off with the R2Pro which is what I’m looking at in this review.
The R2A is made from Aluminium, and is £79 on Kickstarter, rising to £175 after.
The R2S is made from Steel and is £150 on Kickstarter, rising to £300 after.
The R2Pro is made from Titanium and is £200 on Kickstarter, rising to £400 after.
And if at the end of all this you like the sound of Flare Audio, they also make over ear headphones too (R1 MK2 and R1 Pro), details of which can be found on the Kickstarter page too.
IEMs FOR DJS?
If you’re playing out a lot, headphones are subjected to a significant amount of abuse. Out of your bag, on your head and off your head potentially hundreds of times a night, casually thrown around your DJ setup… it’s a tough life for headphones. So they need to be rugged, and ideally have replaceable parts. Given that DJing has become an increasingly nomadic pastime, travelling light is becoming important too, so weight and size is a concern too, something that directly ties in to the growing need for a single pair of headphones to cover lifestyle, DJ, and producer use.
More sound based concerns are isolation and quality. The sound in your ears will be heavily coloured if too much of the outside world is bleeding in. And of course, making sure that what you hear is an accurate representation of the actual sound. And with this comes the issue of comfort, and just how long you want to have headphones clamped to your head, or IEMs wedged in your ears.
For me though, one of the biggest issues is the practicality of using IEMs in a DJ environment. The on/off nature of headphones works well for DJs, but less so with IEMs. The upside is that you can look like you instead of having a lump of gear on your head. And one major upside that I’ve discovered myself in recent times is that headphones don’t always play nice with glasses, so IEMs score well in this respect.
So there are upsides and downsides of both headphones and IEMs. So let’s take a look at the Flare Audio R2Pros and see how well they fair for DJs.
Flare Audio has a Kickstarter campaign to fund the R2 range, so the pair that I have here are technically preproduction, but for all intents and purposes are the ones that you’ll receive.
It goes without saying that this will be a different experience to headphones, so we’re starting over from a reviewing perspective. I have nothing to compare to, and no industry standard with which to make a fair comparison.
A first impression — so tiny. Not just in comparison to headphones, but against other IEMs too. They are so small and minimal that I feel like I’ll easily lose them. Instead of bulky earpieces and moulded plastic plugs, the R2Pros are hewn from a single piece of 7mm diameter Titanium. But even made from solid metal, they’re still amazingly light. I haven’t got a scale small enough to measure just how light, but it really doesn’t matter.
THE EAR TIP
Most IEMs come with a wide choice of different sized silicon tips, designed to fit as many ear canals as possible. And they do fit, and some even offer excellent isolation, but unless you’re willing to pay for the ACS silicon-squirted-into-your-ear-route, complete isolation is never going to happen.
There is however a half-way house, and that’s Comply tips (that’s com-plie not comp-lee as some say). These are a replaceable memory foam tip available in a number of sizes and colours. They’re a simple push-fit onto the ends of the R2Pros, but there is a definite knack to getting them into your ears. Because you push silicon tips into your ears without much trouble, the Comply tips are a different matter. The way I’ve found best is to squeeze the tips until totally compressed and push them into your ear. When they expand, they fill up your ear canal, and while not 100% isolating (is anything?), they do a pretty amazing job of keeping the sound in your ears and everything else out.
I’ve read comments about Comply tips getting very dirty and tearing, and equally seen people disagreeing too. I feel that the dirt is down to your personal cleanliness, and tearing could be eliminated by doing the whole squeezing before inserting thing. Forcing them into your ears isn’t a great idea and is most likely the cause of much damage to the tips. Equally because of the sealing nature, yanking them out is likely to cause damage to your ears too.
It’s also worth pointing out that you can buy third party silicon tips as well if memory foam isn’t your thing, which does sacrifice a little isolation but makes life a little easier for DJs.
This is a major difference between DJ headphones and IEMs. DJs tend to like longer coiled cables because they’re rugged and stretchy (except Sennheiser HD25 fans obviously), so this is an area where the R2Pros are likely to find less favour with DJs. It’s 1.2m long, straight and made from the tangle-resistant rubber. Where the cable splits to each ear, there’s a rubber stopper to prevent splitting, but I believe that rather swankier metal ones will be available on the final versions. Davies Roberts at Flare Audio tells me that other cable types will be available, including a DJ-friendly option too.
For DJs, this short cable will be an issue, but coiled extenders are available everywhere. For listeners, the issue of cable noise isn’t too bad. This is one of my problems with IEMs, especially fabric covered cable — because the driver is directly connected to the cord, any movement against your clothes telegraphs right into your ears. Luckily this didn’t prove to ba an issue for listening or DJing.
I truly hate this bit, because trying to describe audio and have it make any sense is hard, and also because it really is entirely subjective. I can’t compare the R2Pros to headphones because it’s an entirely different experience. Instead, I’ve pulled out some other IEMs to compare. I have some NOCS NS600, V-MODA Vibes, and some Urban Ears Super.Fi 5s, a range that offers enough mid to high-end features for a reasonable comparison.
This was quite the eye opener for me. I like the V-MODA Vibes, but the Kevlar coated cable noise drives me mad when listening to music. So my preference for casual listening has been the NOCS. The sound of both is good, but the NOCS just has the edge for me. Being pro grade IEMs however, the Ultimate Ears are superior the V-MODA and NOCS in audio quality.
So as I suspected, the Ultimate Ears are the benchmark in this battle for my ears. The first thing to note — the R2Pros aren’t that loud. It’s probably very deliberate so as not to cause damage to your ear, especially as it’s advised that you push them in as far as possible. This is another issue — placement in your ear really matters, as does getting the Comply tips to seal properly. This isn’t unique to the R2Pros, but is a general comment about stuffing things in your ears.
So back to the actual sound — I dug into my collection of Jazz, Opera, Hip Hop, House, Electronica, Punk, and many other stops along the way to see how well the R2Pros handled across a wide range of styles and sources. The overwhelming feeling is one of clarity — with headphones, I can usually pinpoint too much bass, a lacking high, or some other deficiency, but the R2Pros delivered the most even of sound. Nothing was too much or too little, or too shrill but was the aural equivalent of baby Bear’s porridge — just right. And like porridge, they sound smooth and creamy, delivering a sound that is clear and natural, and definitely not tiring on your ear.
Not all devices deliver the same sound though. When pushed hard on my iPhone 5S, things began to fall apart a little with the lower frequencies becoming overwhelming. Every other device seemed just fine though, so be careful how you use your device with the R2Pros. And while still performing well at lower levels, there’s definitely a sweet spot where the R2Pros come alive, at which point the detail is brought out. And although I could just be imagining this, you not only get real separation but some tracks even felt to have a 3D feel, as if some sounds were higher up in my ears than others.
Obviously there are many factors involved in how sound is delivered to your ear drums, and I suspect that I could give the R2Pros to people around me and get different responses. But all I can say is that at this moment in time, I don’t want to listen to music with anything else that the R2Pros right now.
Simple listening is an easy thing to cover off. The R2Pros are outstanding — from the isolation, comfort, build, and to the sound quality, my experience was first class. I believe that there will be different Comply tips in the final package, as well as options for TRRS cables for mobile users. But last they stand, the R2Pros would be my go-to IEMs for listening.
For DJs however, there are many factors at play, as our needs are quite demanding. Sound wise, the isolation is a total winner. But while the more linear sound is great for producers, I know a lot of DJs prefer a more bass-driven sound in their ears. But I personally have no issues with the R2Pro’s sound when using them for DJing.
The short cable could be an issue for some, but coiled extenders can be used to get round this. For me, I think that the biggest hinderance to successful DJ use is the Comply tips. For best fit, you must squeeze, insert, and wait for the foam tips to expand in your ears. And removing them should be done with care too. It’s nowhere near as convenient as using headphones, and the likelihood is that you’ll spend a fortune on Comply tips over the course of a year.
For IEMs, the ability to replace parts is an absolute winner. They’re not as tough as headphones, so being able to replace Comply tips, cables, and drivers is ideal. Comply tips will definitely wear out, but if you take suitable care, nothing else will need replacing anytime soon.
From a DJ perspective, the R2Pros tick a lot of boxes, but miss some important ones, but they are very DJ specific boxes. But from a wider perspective, the R2Pros rock my world. Even without the TRRS cable or the fancy metal cable reinforcer, these are the best IEMs I’ve ever used. The Comply tips aren’t a Flare Audio invention, but it goes to show how good they are that Flare decided that devising their own was a waste of time.
But it’s the pure quality of the audio and overall package that sets the R2Pros apart for me and my ears. If you’re quick, and Flare Audio manages to hit the target, you can get yourself a pair of R2Pros for half price in their Kickstarter campaign. And if you’re in the market for some good IEMs, I wholeheartedly recommend that you do.