Flare Audio has posed quite the conundrum for PSNEurope. The south-coast operation cropped up in the guise of a rental firm Purple Audio in 2007, but then disappeared from view. Reports of a disagreement with a former ally didn’t help the company’s profile.
Fast forward to the autumn of 2012, and Flare is back, this time as a manufacturer armed with a radical new approach to loudspeaker design. “Space Technology,” claimed Flare’s founder Davies Roberts, “will open up a new frontier in sound experience for audio professionals through to home consumers.”
Another day, another game-changer. It seems to happen a lot in pro audio, with dubious longer-term consequences. But Flare seems to offer something more solid, as it has won fans not only in the live and installation markets, but in the wider music business too. Key to this was the launch of a distinctive-looking studio monitor, the S1, followed quickly by a touring box, the X5 – both employing so-called Space Technology. Genuine praise for the sound and performance of the speakers has spilled forth: several high-profile names are already endorsing Flare, while others joined the board of directors in April.
Following a convincing demonstration of the speakers at The Great Escape conference in Brighton, Flare agreed to an exclusive interview, promising to reveal the secrets of Space Technology and more to a still sceptical PSNEurope.
Now cut to July 2013, and Davies Roberts – very much the excitable schoolboy when he’s talking about his designs – and the more measured Kristin Hanson, Flare’s COO, are sitting with your correspondent in the Flare HQ in Lancing, charting key points in the lead up to this interview.
Roberts’ design for a bassbin, the Quadhorn, and the filing of a patent for ‘Nanoflow’ technology in September 2011, was the first milestone. (“The Quadhorn,” he posted to the Blue Room online technical forum earlier this year, “made me start to realise that the approach to building loudspeakers was misguided.”)
Borne out of his experience with the Quadhorn was the formulation of a principle Roberts calls ‘Waveform Integrity’ (his take on linearity and accuracy in sound reproduction – he published a White Paper on it too). A compulsion to pursue this principle – to solve “what has been going wrong with sound systems” he says – led him to close the hire firm and focus on speaker design. The breakthrough came last June, he claims, and by October, Flare was filing a patent for ‘Space Technology’.
And so it began. Major Tom took a system on tour with Michael Ball in the spring. Richard Hawley and The Levellers used an X5 rig at Under The Big Top in Sheffield, while the Artful Badger collective requested X5s for their stage at the Secret Garden Party. Tony Moore could hardly contain himself after he used Flare speakers at Folkfest at the Bedford in south London. Industry demos at Hatfield House and the Brighton Centre have served to surprise other pro-audio influencers.
(PSNEurope) What of that first ‘light-bulb’ moment?
(Davies Roberts) Sound is a simple wave. We have a simple piston in the form of a driver, so why can’t that piston operate [as it should] and produce a perfect sound wave? The light-bulb was that I suddenly realised I wasn’t relying on a chamber or box anymore, I was making the drivers become pistons and work together to create an accurate waveform.
(PSNEurope) This led you to the mysterious ‘Space Technology’. What is it?
(Davies Roberts) To explain it simply: if you pluck a guitar string, it resonates and creates sound. If you damp it with your finger, it stops. So that’s what Space is doing – stopping the vibrations that cause resonance.
How do you kill resonance in the enclosure?
Some designers take the ‘bury it’ approach: make the box so heavy that it can’t possible resonate. Mount it in a concrete wall, for instance, the ‘infinite baffle’ approach. I needed a way to create this ‘concrete’, cheaply, effectively and easily, to remove resonance. And I came up with this idea using MDF. Rather than building a [regular] enclosure, I thought, get those bits of wood, layer them, drill a hole in each corner, and bond them together to create something that stops resonance within the box.
What is the scaled-up version of that process?
Layers of birch ply or MDF are cut on a CNC machine, and holes are bored in each [for the compression bolts]. The layers are glued together and then subjected to 10-tons of pressure in order to make the enclosure structurally sound. After painting, a pre-machined 15mm aluminium plate is applied to each face, then the bolts are inserted and tightened to a predetermined torque. In the X5s, the patent attorney calculated there was circa 200 tonnes of force in the bolts – but the actual torque is not mentioned in the patent and won’t be published. There’s no processing, no cotton wool or wadding in the box. (Flying X5 hang shown above.)
Space Technology therefore creates a rigid box which ‘unifies’ resonance but doesn’t interfere with the driver. Is there more to the design?
For a sealed enclosure, it’s harder to push the loudspeaker driver than it is to pull it out. Like a syringe. You do this in the science lab when you’re a kid. Block the end of a syringe: it’s then harder to push the plunger in, compressing the air, than it is to pull it out, creating a vacuum.
So the imbalance between compression and expansion phases for your sealed box results in a non-linear response. And you’ve overcome this?
Space Technology cleaned up the higher frequencies. For lower, we needed to allow the driver to breathe – to take the pressure away from behind it, to let that driver become completely linear – but we didn’t want the ports to interfere with the sound. The way we’ve achieved that is by using our patent-pending Vortex technology.
On the compression stroke, air behind the speaker is driven through a small aperture to a cylindrical/disc structure where it spins – the vortex – and then escapes through a side port. It lets the initial pressure change of the driver come out of this port, but none of the sound. If you want some examples of this, look at vortex exhausts in cars – which deaden the noise but do it without dampening. A vortex kills amplitude but maintains phase.
(Roberts disappears behind a curtain and re-emerges holding a cross-section of a vortex prototype. It’s like a cross between a wrought iron gate and a crop circle viewed from the air… made of birch ply.)
A true infinite baffle is an infinitely big wall with a speaker located in the middle of it; you hear just one side of the speaker, not the other and there is no interference to the drivers movement. That’s what everyone’s been striving to do. They said it’s impossible to do. But that’s what this design is.
You’ve achieved the impossible?
Well… I’ve achieved what I aimed to do. By applying pressure to the structure to create one bonded unit, it stops non-uniform movement of the cabinet. And by immediately removing any pressure in the system, the driver is free to operate without any interference from the (air) pressure or the enclosure.
And this means a revised approach to levels?
In traditional systems more energy is required to create an overall measured SPL. Flare systems can operate at lower levels yet the perceived loudness is equivalent, though the measured loudness is lower, because the waveform is balanced. By that I mean the positive pressure component of the waveform matches the expansion at every frequency. Hearing is optimised with an even ‘push/pull’ of the eardrum, if both expansion and compression components are matched in a waveform the sound will appear much louder to the listener than if it is unbalanced.
This can only be achieved if a driver’s movement has become linear throughout its entire operating range and this is the core value of my Waveform Integrity approach.
(PSNEurope) What reaction have you had to this?
(Davies Roberts) We’ve had countless comments from people, including those who are not necessarily from professional audio but understand the problem with speakers, who say this should have been done years ago. This make sense to physicists and scientists, but not to acousticians, because it’s not their approach.
Flare is ignoring the acoustics, and looking at the problem from the physics point of view.
That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.
In the patent research, Flare found elements of “this physics approach dating back in the 1930s which was before the advent of electronic correction”, reveals Kristin Hanson later.
Flare isn’t the only company pursuing linearity of course. Meyer Sound has flown the ‘linear sound’ flag since Day One. In the last 12 months, John Meyer has spoken about the issue of achieving linearity with his large-scale LEO system several times. “They are talking about achieving the same sort of thing that we are – though we call it Waveform Integrity and we are looking at further aspects of the sound wave,” says Roberts.
Flare has attracted the interest of some seriously high-profile names. Hanson, herself of accountancy firm PwC, won the fiscal favour of Nick Gatfield, CEO of Sony Music, and Paul Mountford of Cisco Systems. They are now on the board of directors. Big names carry useful connections, of course. “As a former hire company we know that the biggest problem is riders. So the approach was, we needed an ‘A-Team’ of record executives onboard so they can introduce the speakers to the artists they work with.”
Further endorsement has come from engineer/producer (and founder of Metropolis) Gary Langan, and ex-Olympic Studios veteran Chris Kimsey. It transpires that Kimsey is working with the revamped Olympic complex in Barnes and wants to use Flare speakers for a Dolby Atmos system there. “We can sink them into the wall and they become invisible. As ‘immersive cinema’ becomes the way to go, we think we have the best solution for that,” notes Hanson.
In performance, Roberts describes the X5 as producing a linear line source response. The crossover points are designed to get the maximum SPL out of the box: so 20-100 on the bass, 100-1k on the 15, 1k to 6k on the 6, 6k up on the HF. “They are purely there to spread the power between the drivers evenly. Not to mask resonance. There is no ‘damage’ happening to be masked by specific crossover points.”
And the demonstrations Flare has conducted continue to enlighten listeners. A primary reaction of “shock” is Roberts’ most frequent observation.
“I’m the sceptic so I stand around and wait for the negative comments,” laughs Hanson, “but there haven’t been any.”
“There’s no EQing, there’s no guessing. You plug it in and turn it on. We take away the risk. As a hire company, my biggest realisation was risk from a system behaving differently in different rooms. You can’t control the band or the engineers but you can remove one element. Engineers have said our system gives them a blank canvas.”
Where will Flare be in three years?
“We believe that once this technology is understood, and we’ve got one major hire company on board, there is going to be an arms race. We hope to be making serious in-roads into the pro-audio market. I’ve learned how hard it is to be an inventor, especially if you are ignoring market forces, I think the first adopter will help us get a lot easier from that point. So once that occurs, it gets easier. Installations are already igniting.”
“We are agile and can react quickly to any market,” adds Hanson.
Meanwhile, it’s time to get back to putting right what is wrong with sound systems, as Roberts put it earlier.
“Pro audio is fun,” he reflects, “and we at Flare believe we have the answer to a lot of problems, so why not go out there and make it better?”
(Pictured above: S1 studio monitor)