By far the most impressive in-ear headphones I trialled last year were the £349 Flares Pro, made in Sussex by a company founded by Davies Roberts, a former fireman, and his wife Naomi. The Roberts are serious audio experts and suggested I try putting a portable balanced amplifier between my Astell & Kern Jr high-resolution music player and the Flares. “You’ll be amazed,” promised Davies, who even lent me his own £199 iBasso PB3 Mockingbird to make his point.
I have to say, I’ve always regarded balanced outputs as above my audio-geek pay level and rather rudely left the package unopened for weeks. Balanced audio, a professional recording concept, is about strictly separating left and right channels to avoid any interference or “crosstalk”. The payoff for the added level of complication and equipment is reputedy a clearer, purer, more vivid sound.
When I finally tried the iBasso, my first impression was that it was just louder. And so it was. But it was also far more vibrant. It pushed the performance of the Flares into the stratosphere, digging out sounds I never knew existed in recordings. The stereo spaciousness also seemed better. As ever, the quality enhancement depended on the original recording. Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which was probably recorded with valve equipment in the early 1970s, sounded amazing. Other old recordings were often a bit flat. Most breathtaking were modern binaural recordings. I listened to CC Coletti in binaural using the A&K, the iBasso and the Flares. It made for quite a Heath Robinson setup, but also restored my faith in audio complexity. Less is not always more.