A glance around any train or bus shows that most people listen to music on their mobiles with the earphones that come in the box. I expect that at home they stream their phone through a Bluetooth speaker. There is little sign, it seems, of mass demand for better audio quality.
This is why the number of niche British companies offering expensive, superior audio is surprising.
Most of these HiFi companies have interesting back stories. Bowers & Wilkins, for example, began in 1966 in an electrical shop in Worthing, Sussex and is now in high-end stores across the world. And Naim Audio was founded in a shop in Salisbury, Wiltshire in 1973 by a racing driver who couldn’t find a stereo system he liked.
More specialised British audio brands include RHA of Glasgow, an eight year-old headphone company whose products are already ubiquitous in US airport stores. Or Cadence Audio, whose founder, Ajay Shirke, loved his family’s Garrard turntable so much as a boy in Pune, India that he now owns the company and is manufacturing Garrard decks in the UK.
But the British HiFi story that stands out for me is that of Flare Audio, based in sleepy Lancing on England’s south coast.
Flare has been going since 2010 and makes what I — and more significantly, several music industry luminaries such as the producer Tony Visconti — rate among the best earphones on the market, costing £299-£399.
Flare has also made the sound system in two London cinemas, a £250,000 home HiFi, a £17 metal earplug which has sold 330,000 units, and it has a £25,000 HiFi made partly from recycled paper coming out soon.
Almost feverishly innovative, the 26-person company holds 13 patents and made £400,000 gross profit last year.
Flare has also designed the most eccentric product I have seen from an electronics company in years. More on that shortly.
What makes Flare noteworthy, however, is its founder and self-taught product designer, 49 year-old Davies Roberts. Mr Roberts left school at 15 without qualifications, arguably dyslexic, but, he says: “Almost certainly on the spectrum.”
He drifted from job to job, was a lifeboatman, then, for 13 years, a fireman and dabbled in DJ-ing. It was during this period that he started wondering if there was a better way of delivering recorded sound. Nothing he tried, he says, mirrored the sound of live music.
He began to study acoustics, but in his own way — imagining how particles behave. “When I got bored, I spent my time doing thought experiments about particles and how the world around me, sound included, is simply particles forming shapes,” he says.
Which brings us to his latest invention. It is called EarHD and is non-electronic. Costing £199-£299 a pair, he prefers to call EarHD acoustic lenses, but they are really miniature ear trumpets.
Our ears, he argues, evolved to hear predators approaching us side-on, where they could not be seen. But if you are talking in a noisy environment you need to concentrate on sound in front of you — the reason we cup a hand behind an ear to hear better.
“This is about upgrading your ears,” Mr Roberts says.
So does the technology work? With fairly good hearing, I have found an impressive improvement in how birdsong and a theatre performance sound — a greater enhancement than cupping a hand behind an ear.
Yet I am not sure I would wear them all day, as Flare hopes people will.
But the actor and technology enthusiast Stephen Fry is much more sold on EarHD. In a YouTube video, he says: “They are remarkable and I’ve become very attached to them. It’s like a mist or film being removed between you and things that make a sound.”
Will people really be prepared to wear these little trumpets in their ears, though? I would have said no, but having noted the growing number of people wearing Apple’s odd-looking AirPod wireless earphones, would now suggest Lancing’s unconventional audio pioneers may have another success on their hands.
Get alerts on Work & Careers when a new story is published