No one ever made a mistake buying Sony over-ear noise-cancelling headphones. But not everyone is interested in following the herd - and if it’s an alternative to ubiquity you’re after, the Cleer Audio ALPHA could be just the ticket.
They’re well made. They’re robust. They’re comfy. They're extensively specified in every respect, and they have battery life that will comfortably outlast even your longest listening sessions. And in Dirac Virtuo, they have the most subtle, and consequently the most effective, spatial audio algorithm around. No matter what you’re listening to, the ALPHA sound convincing, coherent and fully entertaining.
No, they don’t cancel noise as effectively as the best rivals - but they’re hardly a disaster in this regard. And no, the brand doesn’t currently get the kudos it’s likely to in the future. But as far as compelling options that don’t say ‘Sony’ or ‘Bose’ on their earcups go, the Cleer Audio ALPHA deserve an audition.
Cleer Audio ALPHA price and release date
- Available now
- $249 / £249 / AU$450
The Cleer Audio ALPHA are on sale now for $249 / £249. Customers in Australia should expect to hand over AU$450 or so - that’s based purely on exchange rates, mind you, because the ALPHA haven’t made it onto the company’s Australian website just yet.
You don’t need to have a blackbelt in headphone knowledge to understand how extensive your choice of over-ear active noise-cancelling headphones at this sort of money is. The obvious front-runners are Sony’s exemplary WH-1000XM4 (lately available in this price range), but you should also consider alternatives from Bose, JBL, Sennheiser and any number of the other usual suspects. Basically, Cleer Audio has pitched the ALPHA into the thick of the action.
Design and features
- Comfortable fit
- Adaptive noise-cancelling
- Bluetooth aptX Adaptive
Anyone who breaks the over-ear headphones design template is either brave, or foolish, or both. There’s no chance of Cleer Audio falling into those categories, though - so the ALPHA look exactly as you’d expect.
By prevailing standards they’re reasonably compact, and don’t leave that acre of space between the side of the wearer’s head and the headband that some other, more ostentatious designs do.
The quality of the plastics is good, the nicely padded ear-cups are comfortable and resist absorbing too much of your ear-heat too quickly. Headband padding is decent, and despite their reasonably significant 330g weight, the ALPHA stay comfortable for hours on end.
Which is just as well, because with a very acceptable battery life of 35 hours (with noise-cancelling switched on) the ALPHA are ready to outlast the longest listening sessions.
Should the worst happen, the headphones can go from ‘flat’ to ‘full’ in a couple of hours, while just ten minutes on the mains should be good for four hours of playback. 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.
Wireless connectivity is via Bluetooth 5.1 (which is undoubtedly a big contributor to that impressive battery life), with support for SBC, AAC and aptX Adaptive codecs - so synchronization between audio and video should be smooth. Once beamed aboard, audio information is delivered to the wearer’s ears by a couple of 40mm full-range drivers that use Cleer Audio’s multiple-magnet ‘ironless’ arrangement in a quest for distortion-free sound.
The ALPHA can be operated using the few physical controls, the capacitive touch-surface 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 ‘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 3.5mm analogue socket for physical connection to a source.
On the left-hand side, meanwhile, 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 summons 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.
The Cleer+ control app is equally useful (and gratifyingly stable while it’s at it). As well as duplicating a lot of the control options available elsewhere, the app also has five-band EQ adjustment (as long as the Dirac Virtuo is switched off) and allows you to adjust the amount of external sound you hear when ‘ambient noise control’ is selected.
It’s as complete a specification as this price-point demands, and - on paper, at least - makes the ALPHA fully competitive. Even the choice of finishes (the ‘midnight blue’ of this review sample or ‘stone’ are available) are a nice variation on those offered by higher-profile rivals.
- Full-bodied, well organized sound
- Nicely subtle spatial audio effect
- Half-decent noise cancellation
There are two distinct Cleer Audio ALPHA sounds - the sound when Dirac Virtuo is engaged, and the sound when it’s switched off. We have to start somewhere, of course, so let’s talk about the way the ALPHA perform when Dirac is not engaged and the EQ levels are left flat.
With a chunky hi-res file of Thom Yorke’s Traffic 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.
In the midrange, where the endless litany of this tune’s vocal complaints exist, there’s a proper sensation of separation and isolation to the voice - even as it’s integrated quite smoothly into the overall presentation. Again, it’s alive with fine detail of technique and timbre. And at the bottom of the frequency range (which has the sort of depth to make Cleer Audio’s claim of extension down to 20Hz seem reasonable) there’s significant body and substance - but, as with the rest of the frequency range, it’s well controlled and carries decent momentum even as the tune attempts to slur in and out of individual notes.
This overall sense of alacrity is carried over to a listen of the rattling indie-pop of Standard Fare’s Fifteen. There’s a pleasant sense of unity to the ALPHA sound, good integration of the frequency range and a soundstage that’s well defined if not the most expansive.
Switch Dirac Virtuo on, though, and ‘expansive’ is a much more applicable word. There’s a great deal more space to the sound, a slight but definite impression of a ‘dome’ of sound rather than the ‘left and right meeting in the center’ of the regular stereo presentation.
It’s quite a subtle effect, which - to us, at least - is preferable to the rather ostentatious 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 primitive stereo recording like The Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There there’s (of course) greater cohesion and unity to the sound.
The Cleer Audio retain enough detail in every circumstance to paint a complete picture, and they have sufficient dynamic ability to make the smallest harmonic variations obvious. Big dynamic shifts are inhibited just a little, but not so much that ‘quiet’ isn’t quite a distance from ‘loud’. And there’s a pleasantly natural and convincing facility with rhythmic expression here too.
Call quality is good, and the ALPHA have no problems interacting with voice assistants or boosting external sounds in ‘ambient’ mode. And up to a point, the adaptive noise-cancelling is impressive too - certainly the ALPHA leave no suggestion of absence or counter-signal when suppressing external sounds.
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.
Should I buy the Cleer Audio ALPHA?
Buy it if...
You prefer the road less traveled
Not everyone wants to follow the Sony herd.
You’re fond of audio subtlety
Dirac Virtuo is spatial audio for the discerning listener.
You listen all day and all night long
The ALPHA have the stamina to see you through.
Don't buy them if...
You don’t want to explain yourself
“No, they’re by a company called ‘Cleer Audio’.”
You want absolute silence
The ALPHA will do a good job cancelling external noise - up to a point.
- Read our guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones