Cleer Audio Alpha aren't just any wireless over-ears. These headphones promise to cause a stir thanks to their support for Dirac Virtuo – immersive 'theatre-like' sound processing – adaptive active noise cancellation, patented 40mm Ironless drivers, and a whopping 35 hours of playback – and that's in ANC mode.
They're billed as a "game-changing headphone" and, on paper, we'd have to agree; The Alpha's spec sheet is impressive. But of course, spec sheets can be deceptive. We’re here to see if Cleer’s latest progeny stands up against the class leaders for usability, comfort, value and sound quality at the £249 ($250) price point. Cleer might just as well have written ‘Sony WH-1000XM4 challengers’ across the front of the box, too. Should Sony be concerned? We’re about to find out.
If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, Sony would blush upon unboxing the Cleer Audio Alpha. Put them on, glance at your reflection and you might think you’re wearing Sony’s XM4 over-ears. The travel case is virtually identical to the Sony's too, as is the way they’re folded up inside it. Even the stone colourway of our sample (the Alpha are also available in midnight blue) is virtually indistinguishable next to the What Hi-Fi? Award winners.
Cleer tells us the Alpha sport upgraded ear pads (now with a cooling feature) for supreme wearer comfort and, over the course of our listening, we find the design well-balanced and relatively cool, with just enough clamping force to ensure good passive noise isolation and security.
They are perhaps a tad heavy though, at 330g (for reference, Sony’s XM4 over-ears weigh just 254g). And after several hours of wear, even the extra padding applied to the top of the headband isn’t enough to stop the band digging into the crown of our heads a little. Comparatively, Sony’s headphones feel far more comfortable, almost like a second skin.
Look at the Alpha’s earcups and you’ll find a metallic ring measuring 4cm in diameter. The circle inside this serves as the multifunction touch pad on the right ear cup, but on both sides it is covered with clear plastic to boast a glossier texture than the Sony-esque brushed polymer of the earpieces and headband.
Swipe up or down on the right ear cup and you’ll increase or decrease volume. Swipe forwards (towards your nose) or back (towards the nape of your neck) and you’ll skip forwards or back a track. This solution works well and certainly minimises errant button pushes. A double-tap takes care of playing or pausing audio as well as answering and ending calls.
There are also two physical buttons, one on the back edge of each ear cup. The right one is for power and pairing (on this, you can simultaneously connect to two devices – simply double-press this button to make Alpha look for a second device and switch between music on your phone and the Winter Olympics on your laptop, say), while the left can be pressed once to toggle between noise cancellation profiles, twice to toggle Dirac Virtuo spatial audio tech on or off, and held down to access your device’s voice assistant.
Battery life 35 hours
Active noise cancellation Yes
Drivers 40mm Ironless drivers
Bluetooth 5.1, aptX Adaptive
Features Dirac Virtuo
Finally, in yet another nod to the Sonys, you can cover the touchpad on the right ear cup for two seconds to significantly reduce the volume and enter ‘conversation mode’ for hearing people in your immediate surroundings and voice pickup. Wearer detection is also on the menu and can be toggled on or off in the Cleer+ app’s settings. For whatever reason, it’s possibly the only feature that’s a little hit and miss in terms of functionality for us, but it works roughly two-thirds of the time.
Cleer has simplified the app’s interface and it is a good decision. Once paired, you’ll see a picture of the product with the remaining battery directly underneath. Beneath this are three tabs. The first is ‘ambient noise control’, which features a slider from 1-10 depending on how much external noise you’d like to hear. Next to this is ‘off’, or ‘noise cancellation’. Click on the latter you’ll also be given the option to deploy ‘smart noise cancellation’ – more on this later.
Next, you’ll see a toggle for Dirac Virtuo, then a five-band equaliser, and finally, playback buttons. All in all, it’s a neat, decluttered and intuitive layout.
The Alpha's adaptive active noise cancellation is billed as a solution that automatically changes the level of noise blocking, detecting changes in the frequency of sound coming at the listener and adapting in real-time.
We brave storm Eunice (or is it Franklin?) to test this and find its efficacy very good indeed – buses zooming past us are all but nixed, traffic is calmed. The ambient profile is a similar story; it is both easy to locate and naturally easy on our ears. Depending on where we drag the slider, car engines and voices present themselves ever-more readily with only minimal distortion and hardening through the treble to the music we’re playing. Considering the gale-force winds we walked through for these particular tests, the Alpha’s two-mic CVC design with wind noise reduction does a smashing job of keeping calls clear, audible and pleasant.
Dirac Virtuo – Dirac’s patented spatial audio solution built into the Bluetooth chipset here – is a hit when streaming TV content, too. We pair the Alpha to our MacBook Pro, toggle Dirac Virtuo on and stream the Alpine skiing at the 2022 Winter Olympics on BBC iPlayer. As each skier springs from the gate in the denouement of the men’s giant slalom, we hear the yell of “Come on!” from the trainer as if behind us in the mix – and the sliding of each ski over Beijing’s Ice River comes alternately through either ear. When a competitor completes the course, the Olympic committee’s announcement and welcome music sound farther afield, as if beyond the spectator stands. It’s remarkably good fun and creates a truly believable immersive experience, if just a tad harsh on occasion through the lower treble.
But what about their performance with music? We cue up The Cure’s Just Like Heaven and find admirable separation between the central bass riff, the rhythm guitar in our left ear and the drum fill through our right. For detail, Cleer’s Alpha impress through the snappy bassline, as Robert Smith’s impetuous vocal stylings arrive centre-stage alongside a slightly bright key progression – and it’s here that we start to notice an issue.
The extra attention paid to the higher frequencies does promote a more spacious soundstage and it means we notice certain musical strands more in isolation, but this isn’t always a good thing. Here, the timing suffers and after only a short while, we find the over-emphasis through the lower treble slightly wearing on our ears.
Stream Fela Kuti’s Zombie on Tidal, for example, and the tenor saxophone feels slightly harsh, overemphasised and extricated from the mix in a way it should not. This fast-moving jazz composition is not the simplest source material, but it does lose its way a little rhythmically through the Cleer headphones. Switching to the Sony Award winners, we find ourselves tapping our feet and nodding our heads to the collective timing of Kuti’s talented group of brass musicians and percussionists once again.
It’s far from a terrible performance sonically, but it can certainly be beaten. Listen to Bizet’s The Toreador, and the triangle seems to intrude upon other sections of the orchestra and it isn’t held particularly well in check – which means we aren’t able to fully appreciate the driving rhythm. The aforementioned Sony class leaders are able to deliver a more cohesive and musically engaging mix that does not lose impetus in trying to impress.
The Cleer Audio Alpha are up against some tough competition in what is a saturated market at this price point. Although the app is enjoyable, the noise cancellation equal to the class leaders, and the partnership with Dirac definitely the right direction in which to be heading, our issues with the level of comfort plus the lack of musical cohesion and overstated lower treble mean that, as things stand, they cannot challenge the category's frontrunners.
- Build 3
- Features 5
- Sound 3
Read our review of the Sony WH-1000XM4
Also consider the Apple AirPods Max