Ever since 2016 when Apple forced the issue by eliminating the regular headphone jack on its iPhone 7 model, some headphone manufacturers have necessarily responded by offering Bluetooth connectivity on their headphones.
This is, frankly, unfortunate and totally unnecessary, but for Apple’s decision to make things more complicated for us, and clearly motivated by their desire to now sell us expensive headphones to go with their expensive phone. One can wonder how much of a coincidence it is that Apple’s iPhone sales turned around and started dropping at about the same time.
Apple’s decision has sadly been aped by many other phone manufacturers too. Although we’ve regularly experimented with Bluetooth headsets (primarily for voice calls, not for music listening), the reality remains that Bluetooth connectivity continues to struggle through compatibility and convenience issues. In addition, it was never designed as a high-end audio pathway (one of the surprising things about the various developments in audio technology over the last couple of decades is that new innovations such as MP3 and Bluetooth degrade rather than improve sound quality – see our article here).
Furthermore, for us as travelers, much of the time we’ll want to be connecting to audio sources onboard airplanes or to other audio/video players that have headphone jacks but not Bluetooth, which means headphones have to be dual purpose. Nothing has been simplified by adding Bluetooth. Everything has been made more complex.
But, with that as a rather ill-tempered introduction, the situation is what it is. If you’ve a recent phone with no headphone jack, you’re forced to either get some sort of adapter to convert from the USB or Lightning port on your phone to a regular headphone jack or to get a set of Bluetooth (BT) headphones. Getting a converter might seem like a good idea, but not only is it another connector cable to keep track of and not lose, it also usually means that you can’t simultaneously charge your device and use it. This is a big problem for tablets in particular, which take a long time to charge. Usually on a flight, with only low power charging available through the at-seat USB connectors, we need to have our tablet charging continually just to slow the battery drain. So wireless BT headphones have some advantage – there’s nothing to lose, and you can still be charging while playing/listening.
A number of companies have added a Bluetooth chip to their existing headphone models, and often use the addition of a BT chip (likely cost about $1) as justification for greatly increasing the retail price of their headphones. Bose, for example, have a new model Quiet Comfort 35 II in their range of excellent noise cancelling headphones that includes BT connectivity, priced at $349. This is an aggressive $50 more than their earlier standard $299 price for noise cancelling headphones.
As an aside, while the cost of most electronics continues to tumble, year after year, it is curious to note the success with which Bose has managed to keep the price of its noise cancelling headphones so high. We have seen estimates suggesting that the underlying cost to Bose of a set of headphones it sells for $350 is no more than $30, so there is no underlying reason why the price should be so high, and lots of opportunity for competitors to offer similar products for massively lower pricing. Because of this disconnect between product cost and selling price, we’re always casting around to find something (almost) as good as Bose, but for much less money.
Bose noise cancelling headphones are a curious mix of excellent and average – their noise cancelling remains the best we’ve ever encountered, anywhere, while their audio capabilities are average to good rather than similarly outstanding. However, their weaker audio quality has been well compensated for with the interesting Sonarworks sound enhancing software (now available on Android and iOS devices as well as Windows computers – see our review here).
After some searching, we were intrigued by a product from a company we knew nothing about – the Cleer Flow. The company is relatively new (started in 2015). It had an earlier model of noise cancelling headphones that were generally well received and which won a CES Innovation award, and now has followed up with what it calls its Flow model, priced at $280. Did this price indicate a very high quality product, we wondered?
General Impressions of the Cleer Flow Headphones
The headphones are available in either a grey or black finish, and come with a choice of two different flashy cylinder/ring pieces that appear to be nothing other than cosmetic in function. One is silvery in color, the other coppery. Swapping these over was a frustrating exercise, because it was hard to locate the alternate ring correctly and then secure it in place. Indeed, the friction fit that holds it in place feels flimsy and I’d be far from surprised, over the course of some use, to find in a jet lagged stupor some time (perhaps aided by a glass or two of in-flight champagne!) that the rings come off, unnoticed, and get lost.
Much of the cost of a set of noise cancelling headphones these days goes into form, appearance and packaging rather than the underlying functionality.
The headphones seem to be solidly constructed, and indeed, weigh slightly more than my Bose QC25 headphones (11.8 compared to 7.3 ounces). They are also generally larger, standing out from one’s ear about 0.4″ more than the Bose, and with a larger more boxy type of cup design.
But notwithstanding the greater weight and external size, the internal cup size – the cavity into which one’s ears go, to be then surrounded by the headphone cup – is smaller, primarily in the vertical dimension rather than the horizontal one. Maybe I have large ears? The cup size felt a bit small with the Flow headphones, while perfectly adequate with the Bose headphones.
The Flow headphones clamp more firmly to one’s skull than the Bose ones. This might make them slightly less comfortable for an extended session (eg a 12 hour flight), but it also gives a better seal if you wear glasses. Seal is very important, because if you don’t have a good seal, outside noises literally leak in, reducing the noise cancelling capabilities.
If you don’t have glasses, the seal is similar with the Bose and Flow headphones, but the extra pressure of the Flow seems to create a better seal if you have glasses running from behind your ears to your face. However, if you wait a few minutes, what seems to be a type of memory foam in the Bose headphones slowly molds itself to the irregular shape of the side of your head and glasses and improves its seal, too.
You get a nice carry case with the headphones. If you don’t have some other way of protecting them, you definitely should use the provided carry case. They also come with a USB (charging) cable, an audio cable that happily uses standard connectors at both ends (so easy to replace if lost or broken, and a two prong to one prong adapter if you’re on a plane that uses the older two-prong type connectors.
It has a built-in rechargeable Li-ion battery, which is not replaceable, so there are no “batteries included” as might be the case with non-rechargeable powered headsets.
The battery is stated to be good for up to 20 hours playing time. Unfortunately, when you recharge it, you can’t also use the noise cancelling function at the same time, but a five-minute quick charge will buy you another hour of battery life. We’re not clear what rate of current a quick charge requires, and we’re even less certain if airline USB power adapters will provide that amount of current. It takes about two hours to fully charge the battery.
Not included was a 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter such as is often found with other higher-end headphones. Chances are you already have one, but it was disappointing to see that $280 doesn’t buy you one as part of the total package of goodies you get.
The headphones have a microphone in them so they could be used for a phone call, both via Bluetooth or using the wired cord. The cord connector worked with a variety of iOS and Android phones and tablets.
The headphones have three press buttons on the side of the left ear cup. One controls the on/off, one turns the noise cancelling on/off, and the third, labeled “Ambient”, is a complicated way to hear what is happening around you, feeding in outside sounds through the microphone – for example, if the flight attendant asks you what you want for dinner. To make this Ambient button all the more unnecessarily confusing, it has three settings – off, normal, and voice.
The problem we had with these three buttons is that we were, all the time, bumping them inadvertently while placing the headphones on or taking them off, or adjusting them for comfort. Slide switches would be less likely to be bumped, or switches on the ear cup’s back (like with Bose) rather than on the side of the cup. In addition, if for example wishing to turn on the Ambient feature, you really can’t be sure which of the three buttons you are pressing. It is so much easier to just remove one of the ear cups to hear normally, than it is to fumble and fiddle with the controls.
Another “problem” is that when you press one, a voice confirmation is then given, which delays the immediate effect of your selection, and stops the playing of whatever audio you are listening to until the voice confirmation has been completed. It is nice to be told what you’ve just done, but in this “instant everything” age, even a second or two of interruption and delay feels frustrating.
The left ear cup also has “invisible” controls for playing/pausing (by tapping the center of the cup), for volume (sliding a finger up or down) or for next/previous track (sliding a finger from side to side) that work with some but not all audio playing devices. We promptly forgot about these, preferring to simply do what we already knew and control the devices directly using their own built-in controls, rather than trying to remember another interface and set of commands/controls.
Using the headphones for phone calls worked easily and the sound quality was normal.
The headphones come with a one year warranty.
We first tried the Bluetooth aspect of the headphones to see if there was any way we could use it without needing to use the manual. So we set both an Android and iOS device into discoverable mode, and turned on the headphones. A voice in the headphones told us “power on” but that was all. Neither of the two phones reported finding the headphones.
So we had to turn to the manual to try and establish a connection. This is not unusual with Bluetooth, which seems always to be implemented in an opaque and puzzling manner that requires recourse to the manual, but it is disappointing and adds to the complexity of things. In theory, once you’ve connected a device you won’t have to go through the connection every time in the future; in practice, that often seems to be necessary with other BT devices we have.
So, looking at the manual, we had to start decoding the meanings of the different colors and states (flashing or steady) of an indicator light. Ugh. There’s plenty of space on the headphone cups, why not have a series of separate indicator lights for each thing they are trying to tell us? (Note that no other BT device designers do this, either. It is an industry-wide conceit that the end-users will commit their puzzling interfaces to memory.)
We managed to successfully pair to one phone using the automatic NFC pairing option, and to another phone using the regular pairing method. We also managed to pair to our laptop. But, surprisingly, we couldn’t pair to our iPhone 6+, and just got a cryptic error message on the iPhone and nothing at all on the headphones.
We wondered also how many different connections the headphones would remember, and how they would choose between multiple connections offered simultaneously. For example, if we had our laptop, a tablet, and our phone, all on at the same time, and all with discoverable BT connections, which would it connect to? More to the point, if the device was already connected to one system, how can we switch it to a different one?
These issues and questions are part of the “black magic” of Bluetooth, with the short answer being “it depends”. We couldn’t find an answer to this in the brief user manual, and our several calls to their Customer Support either got a voicemail message or a person telling us “there’s no-one in at present” and a suggestion we send an email instead. Our experimenting suggested that the headphones will connect to the most recent Bluetooth connection it was formerly connected to, and to shift them to a different device, you’ll need to turn off the device you don’t want them to connect to. There’s no way we can tell, on the headphones themselves, to can do this.
We are reviewing these headphones primarily from the perspective of a traveler who seeks noise cancelling as the prime feature, and sound quality as a secondary feature, which is the way we urge you to view your headphone evaluation when in a noisy environment such as an airplane.
These headphones offer up the usual assorted of marketing buzz words and phrases, with their particular claim being “Hybrid noise canceling technology”. We think that means they offer passive sound blocking (like a set of ear muffs hearing protectors) as well as active noise cancellation. They also claim on their website
Powerful hybrid noise canceling technology and optimized passive isolation competently suppresses (~30dB) wide-band ambient noise for immersive listening almost anywhere.
So what does this actually mean? The headphones performed well, and better than most airline supplied noise cancelling headphones, even in Business Class. But they were not as good as the Bose QC15/25/35 family of noise cancelling headphones, which were clearly and incontrovertibly better. We had several people try them, and all agreed they could definitely hear the difference, with the Bose as slightly better performers.
So, if noise cancellation is your primary goal, the narrow pricing differential between these ($280) and either the Bose QC 35 II ($350) probably would have us recommending the Bose product. And if you don’t need/want the Bluetooth, the Bose QC25, currently priced at $180, are hands-down your best choice.
One quirk of these headphones is that if you just want to use them for noise-cancelling and not playing anything, you have to plug in a connecting cord. Otherwise, the headphones “helpfully” search for a Bluetooth source to connect to, and if they can’t connect to a BT source, they then automatically turn themselves off! There is no way to override this. Ugh.
But what say you are insisting on the very best sound quality as well? How do the Flow headphones compare to the Bose? Does better sound make up for not-quite-as-good noise cancelling?
We liked the sound of the Flow headphones. They weren’t as vibrant as the extraordinary (but sadly now no longer available) Solitude dual-driver noise cancelling headphones, but were good, with a nice clean even sound. They weren’t quite as crystal clear on higher and transient frequencies such as are sometimes apparent on the best recordings of pianos and violins, where you can sense the hammers hitting the keys as well as the sounds generated, and the rasp of the bow traveling across the string, and overall, we’d describe the sound as a little muted and dull on the higher frequencies, but uncolored, undistorted, and transparent.
We didn’t feel quite as drawn in to the musical experience as we sometimes do with outstanding quality headphones, where we sometimes get distracted and spend hours enjoying music rather than writing a review. However, for watching a movie on a plane, or enjoying some casual tunes, also on a plane or in another noisy environment, they are perfectly good.
It was hard to fairly compare them to the Bose, because with the Bose, we can feed the headphones through the Sonarworks app and get a very musically accurate experience. Sonarworks don’t support Cleer headphones at present.
However, if using both headphones with, for example, an airplane In-Flight Entertainment system which doesn’t support the Sonarworks app, the difference is minor, although we still feel we slightly prefer a more engaging and brighter tone in the Bose headphones.
Perhaps the simplest and fairest thing to say here is that there is no clear enormous difference in audio quality between the two.
As is always the case with Bluetooth, our experience was frustrating. To be fair to Cleer, they simply follow the same annoying Bluetooth conventions as do all other BT device designers, so while we didn’t enjoy the Bluetooth experience, it is no worse than that provided by any other company.
Noise cancelling is good, but not as good as the Bose headphones. Sound quality is good but not brilliant. Overall, and priced at $280 either on their own site or Amazon, we’d probably pay $70 more for the much better noise cancelling of the Bose QC35 II headphones (priced at $350) if we wanted to also have BT capability, or if we didn’t, it becomes a no-brainer to pay $180 for the excellent Bose QC25 headphones.
There’s nothing actively bad about the Cleer Flow headphones, but also nothing outstandingly good. Perhaps the kindest thing to say is to note they are promising a newer model this year (we believe perhaps June) that appears to have better sound quality, some extra capabilities, and which will be priced at the same $280 level as the current headphones.