Unless you’re determined to get the best noise reduction that kind of money can buy, the ALPHA has a lot to recommend – both in terms of sound quality and pride of ownership.
- Captivating and informative sound, with the added bonus of non-whimsical spatial sound
- Well built and finished
- Impressive specs include good battery life
- Can be upgraded for noise cancellation
- Slightly restricted dynamic margin
- Many high level rivals
Dirac Virtuo spatial audioSpatial audio support that expands the soundstage
BluetoothSupports aptX Adaptive for better connection in busy signal areas
It takes a fearless brand to get involved in the market for fairly expensive active noise-canceling on-ear headphones. All the bigger guns are involved, and this is an area where âgood enoughâ is rarely good enough.
Cleer Audio, however, clearly imagines its chances. These ALPHA headphones have the look, build quality, and specs on paper to compete – and in Dirac Virtuo spatial audio, they have a real point of difference.
âOn paperâ is one thing, howeverâ¦ âin practiceâ is another. Are the Cleer Audio ALPHA enough to compete?
The Cleer Audio ALPHA active noise canceling in-ear headphones are on sale now and in the UK they are priced at Â£ 249. In America, they are available for a slightly more competitive price of $ 249. Although they are not on sale in Australia yet, I would expect them to be priced at around AU $ 449.
Far be it from me to state the obvious, but with that kind of money, the ALPHAs have a fight to do. Sony’s all-conqueror WH-1000XM4s are commonly available for that kind of money these days, and everyone from Bose and Sennheiser to Beats and JBL are willing to sell you a pair of headphones to the similar specifications and similarly priced bearing a more easily recognizable brand logo.
- Folding flat
- Comfortable in the long run
Even playing around the edges of the on-ear headphone design is problematic. It almost goes without saying that Cleer Audio doesn’t want to complicate its life. So the ALPHAs are very thoughtfully designed to look more or less like every other pair of high-end on-ear headphones you’ve seen.
And it is a design that is very well done. The materials are almost entirely plastic, but they’re premium – there’s no crackle or whine here, and the exterior contact points are soft to the touch and tactile. The padding on the headband and ear cups is nice and proves to be comfortable – and the ear cups themselves don’t return your own body heat to you for quite a while.
There’s good articulation in the ear cups and frame, so the ALPHA will fold up small and flat, and there’s a semi-hard carrying case to store them in when not in use. And while the total weight of 330g is nothing to write home about, the ALPHA design is quite compact where many rivals are not. So the little ones among us won’t feel overwhelmed when wearing a pair.
My review sample is finished in “midnight blue,” but “stone” (a finish that Cleer loves so much) is also available.
- Cleer + control app
- Bluetooth 5.1 with adaptive aptX
The ALPHA uses Bluetooth 5.1 for wireless connectivity, which allows compatibility with the SBC, AAC and aptX Adaptive codecs. The latter should ensure flawless audio / video synchronization. Once the audio information is integrated, it is transmitted to the ears through two 40mm wideband multi-magnet speakers that Cleer Audio describes as âironlessâ.
Bluetooth 5.1 also partly explains the 35 hours of battery life enjoyed by the ALPHA.
The helmet can be controlled in several ways. There is a combination of physical and tactile controls around the ear cups – the glossy plastic of the right ear cup includes a capacitive touch surface that covers volume up / down, play / pause, skip forward / back, answer / end / reject the call and talk mode (which lowers the volume just long enough for you to order that soy latte). It also houses an on / off / Bluetooth pairing button and a 3.5mm analog plug.
In contrast, the left earbud should only support one USB-C input (the ALPHA can go from flat to full in about two hours, while 10 minutes of power should be enough for four hours of playback) and a ‘ action ‘button. Depending on the number and duration of presses it receives, the action button will allow you to scroll through your active noise cancellation options (on / off / ambient noise control), to engage your voice assistant, or activate the Dirac Virtuo spatial audio algorithm or off.
Dirac has been moving and shaking in the world of audio manipulation for years now. Many home theaters have been sound calibrated using company methodologies. With Virtuo, he seeks to deliver a spatial audio experience (similar to Sony’s 360 Reality Audio) from two-channel audio mixes.
Most of these controls are duplicated in the Cleer + control application from Cleer (properly clean and stable). It also offers five-band equalizer adjustment (when Dirac Virtuo is turned off) and ten-step ambient noise control adjustment (varying the amount of external sound allowed).
If it wasn’t obvious already, it should be obvious that Cleer Audio didn’t just put an optimistic price tag on the ALPHA and hope for the best. This is the kind of specification that puts ALPHA up against some highly valued alternatives.
- Informative, engaging and robust sound
- Compelling spatial audio effect
- 40mm full range loudspeakers
As it is logical, Cleer Audio allows the end user a certain degree of control over the sound of the ALPHA. But, as is almost always the case, playing around with the EQ settings in the app can only have a deleterious effect on the sound of the headphones. The company voiced them to sound their best when left alone. And anyway, the ALPHAs have two very distinct sounds without your paddling.
Operating in pure stereo, with Dirac Virtuo turned off, the ALPHAs are muscular, organized and really very entertaining listening. Bluetooth 5.1 is more than capable of handling high-resolution digital audio well, and with a 24-bit file from Run the Jewels’ Walk in the snow when playing, they sound clear and direct. The low frequencies are substantial, dynamic and properly controlled.
There’s no buzz here, just a disciplined attack and decline to give even more emphasis to the texture and detail involved. At the other end of the frequency range, there is similar alacrity and substance, with ALPHA providing about as much bite and shine as is acceptable without going completely sass.
It’s between the two, however, that the Cleer Audio begins to make a really compelling case. The vocals are immediate, informative, and detailed – and while the mids are integrated into the frequencies above and below, the vocals exist in a small pocket of space that makes them distinct and isolated (in the best sense of the word). . The more character and / or emotion there is in a vocal performance, the more the ALPHA seems to lap it up.
In almost every other respect too, they are an engaging listener. There’s good organization of the soundstage they present (though it’s far from the largest) and decent dynamic headroom available (although other designs breathe a bit deeper). The overall presentation is coherent and unified.
Turn on Dirac Virtuo, however, and the ALPHA undergoes a change. Rather than the obvious “left”, “right” and “middle” of basic stereo presentation, Virtuo offers much more of a 180 degree “hemisphere” effect. But it’s quite subtle, and therefore preferable to Dolby Atmos Music or 360 Reality Audio. It feels more natural, less artificial and transformed. and, if you’re listening to a fairly primitive stereo recording like The Who’s To replace, quite smoother and less show off.
Elsewhere, the news fluctuates between “good” and “very, very good”. Call quality, thanks to the Qualcomm cVc microphone network, is exceptional, and that means interacting with voice assistants is also completely painless. The noise cancellation is good in isolation, but there’s no doubt that other designs can banish more background noise than the Cleer Audio can handle. This is an adaptive system, supposed to adjust on the fly to the prevailing ambient conditions, but in reality it seems stuck in a setting marked “some noise reduction most of the time”.
Should we buy it?
You appreciate certain sonic nuances Dirac Virtuo is a subtle and efficient feature
You want to listen in silence ALPHA is not the last word in noise cancellation
This is one of the toughest consumer electronics markets of all, but with ALPHA, Cleer Audio is doing more than enough to warrant serious consideration.
How we test
We test every helmet that we scrutinize over a long period of time. We use industry standard testing to properly compare features. We will always tell you what we find. We never, ever take money to review a product.
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Tested for over a week
Tested with various music streaming services
Tested with real world use
A concept a little tricky to define as there are many interpretations of spatial audio, broadly defined, it opens up the sound field to the instruments and voices that surround you in a three-dimensional sound sphere.
RRP in UK
Cleer Audio ALPHA
40 mm without iron
Midnight blue, Stone
20 20,000 – Hz
On the ear