Cleer Audio ALPHA Headphones

A Clear Alpha of the Pack?

The obvious front-runners for ANC headphones for the past several years are Sony’s WH-1000XM4 and Bose; the problem is that Sony’s sound signature is getting boomier with every iteration of the WH-1000XM series and the Bose simply don’t have the imaging that I like. So now, as Cleer just inserted ALPHA into the ANC headphones crowd, I have an alternate that I can at least try out.

They’re well-crafted, sturdy and very comfortable. They’re well-specified in every way and their battery life will comfortably outlast even the longest listening sessions. In my case, that’s eight straight hours. And the ALPHA comes with Dirac Virtuo, which has the most subtle and natural-sounding spatial audio algorithm available.

They are convincing, coherent, and thoroughly pleasing. No, they don’t cancel noise as effectively as the Sony and Bose – but they’re hardly a disaster in this regard. In fact, I prefer it (more on this later).

The build quality is good, the nicely padded ear-cups are comfortable and resist absorbing too much of my ear-heat too quickly. Headband padding is decently appropriate, and despite their 330g weight, the ALPHA stays comfortable for up to the 8 hour as I tried them in a single-shot. All multiple tries of that longevity tests also proved that not only I can wear the ALPHA for easily 8 hours in a single shot, the total number of hours these ALPHA can work have always been 32+ hours with the noise cancelling switched on, playing music at the sound levels I usually listened to.
And when they’re not in use, the ALPHA fold usefully small, and are supplied with a decently compact carry-case that should keep the nicely tactile plastics scratch-free. Honestly, however, for the life of me, I have never scratched any of my headphone in my collection, even with that one headphone I got in the late 70’s.

The ALPHA can be operated using the few capacitive touch-surface controls on the outside of the right ear-cup, or the Cleer+ control app (free for iOS and Android). In addition to the touch-controls covering the usual suspects such as Play/Pause, skip forwards/backwards, volume up/down, answer/end/reject call and conversation mode (which lowers playback volume briefly), the right ear-cup also has a button for power on/off/pairing and a 3.5 mm stereo TRS socket for physical connection to a source. Meanwhile on the left-hand side, there’s a USB-C input for charging and an action button that cycles through your noise-cancelling options (on, off and ambient noise control), switches the Dirac Virtuo spatial audio effect on or off, or activating your voice assistant. Once you’ve learned the required number and length of presses the action button requires, it’s quite an intuitive way of getting what you want from your headphones. But I never get used to them. This is not Cleer Audio’s fault. For me, it’s simply because I have too many headphones and earphones in my collection and I can never remember which gesture does what. So for control, I still prefer PSB M4U 8 MkII physical buttons and toggles. Since the ALPHA doesn’t have physical controls, I choose to use the Cleer+ control app, to control the options available on the headphones. The app also has five-band EQ adjustment which I boost a tad in the midrange which sadly, at the time being, cannot be combined with Dirac Virtuo. I was told that Cleer Audio is currently working on the firmware that can activate both the EQ and Dirac Virtuo at the same time.

With a chunky hi-res file of Miles DavisKind of Blue playing, the ALPHA are a muscular, controlled and pretty engaging listen. The higher frequencies are nicely shaped, with plenty of detail regarding texture available and real control to the attack and decay of treble sounds.

The voice has a proper sense of separation and isolation in the midrange, where it integrated quite smoothly into the overall presentation. It’s feels alive with fine detail in technique and timbre once more.

And at the bottom of the frequency range (which has enough depth to make Cleer Audio’s claim of extension down to 20Hz seem plausible), there’s significant body and substance – but, like the rest of the frequency range, it’s well controlled and carries decent momentum even as the tune tries to slur in and out of individual notes.

This overall sense of briskness is carried over to various fast-transient recordings I listened to

The ALPHA sound has a pleasing sense of unity, good integration of the frequency range, and a well-defined, if not the most expansive, soundstage.
However, turn on Dirac Virtuo and the words ‘spacious’ and ‘expansive’ become much more distinct and appropriate. There’s a lot more space in the sound, a slight but distinct impression of a ‘dome’ of sound rather than the regular stereo presentation’s ‘left and right meeting in the centre.’ Not overly so; just enough and not sounding artificial at all.

It’s quite a subtle effect, which – to me, at least – is preferable to the rather ostentatious and in-your-face Sony 360 Reality Audio or Dolby Atmos spatial alternatives. The fact the Dirac algorithm doesn’t impact the ALPHA sonic signature, their control or their rapidity, doesn’t do any harm either. And when listening to a classic stereo recording like The Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There there’s (of course) greater cohesion and unity to the sound.

The Cleer Audio retains enough detail in every circumstance to create a complete image, and they have sufficient dynamic ability to reproduce even the smallest harmonic variations noticeable without being too obvious. Extreme transients’ shifts are controlled with only a hint of overcompression. And there’s this pleasantly natural sounding of nearly all of the instruments too.

The adaptive noise-cancelling is quite impressive although not to the level of Sony – certainly the ALPHA leave no suggestion of absence or counter-signal when suppressing external sounds. This is something that can’t be said about Sony. Compared to their best rivals, though, the Cleer Audio can’t leave you quite as isolated from the outside world as you might require – the drone of a train, or the drone of its passengers, will always be just slightly evident. However, I prefer the cancellation level of Cleer over the Sony as theirs work too well to the point it creates compression fatigue to my ears. Yes, there is such thing as too much of a good thing.

So while this is not the absolute best headphones I’ve ever tested, it is priced very low too and at that price, the ALPHA is clearly the alpha of the (price-range) pack.