Friends and colleagues often approach me with inquiries like this: “I’m looking for noise cancelling Bluetooth headphones and have tried the Bose QuietComfort models (hasn’t everyone?), but are there other good models I ought to check out?” In cases where headphone seekers say they care just as much about sound quality as about convenience and noise reduction I’ve got several good recommendations to offer and one of my favourites is the Cleer FLOW headphone ($199.99). Another good option would be the just-released Cleer FLOW II ($279.99), which is priced the same as the original FLOW (which continues in the product line). The FLOW II is now available in two colours – gunmetal and metallic silver – and provides a Google Assistant Voice Interface, but is otherwise almost identical to the original FLOW.
The FLOW is an attractive, satin black, closed back, noise cancelling, Bluetooth 4.2-capable wireless headphone that offers unusually good playing time with noise cancelling engaged (approximately 20 hours, which is excellent). The FLOW also can be driven directly from a 3.5mm audio mini‑jack.
Inside, the FLOW uses a 40mm dynamic-type driver with Cleer’s patented ironless motor design, said to deliver, “bold and articulate playback via high-excursion with optimised control and exceptionally low distortion.” Honestly, the ‘Achilles heel’ for many noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones is an element of sonic veiling that can make headphones sound as if you are hearing them through a wet pair of socks. Recognising this, Cleer has gone out of its way to give the FLOW greater measures of clarity and overall tonal neutrality than is typical for designs in its price range.
The FLOW is also admirably quiet owing to Cleer’s “hybrid noise cancellation technology and optimised passive isolation,” said to give listeners approximately 30dB of ambient noise suppression across a broad band of frequencies. For moments when one might need to hear what’s going on in the outside world, the FLOW features an Ambient Aware control switch, where the listener is offered three options for allowing ambient sound to pass through: Ambient Normal, Ambient Voice, or Conversation mode. I found the FLOW does an exemplary job of blocking out external sounds, yet does so with virtually no observable diminution of sound quality (something easier said than done).
Other controls include an on/off/pairing switch, a noise cancelling on/off switch, and touch controls on the outer surface of the left ear cup. Swiping up on the cup face increases volume (and vice versa), while sweeping a finger fore or aft provides previous or next track selections. Finally, tapping the left ear cup provides (depending on context) either play/pause or call answer/call end functions.
In day-to-day use the FLOW is a joy to use, partly because of its well thought-out ergonomics, which make the headphone all-day comfortable to wear, but also because of the fundamental simplicity of its user controls. But the best part of all is the sound. The FLOW offers very nearly neutral tonal balance with presence/treble region response that shows perhaps a subtle hint of downward shelving of response, but nothing too noticeable. The overall feel is one of balance and tonal ‘completeness’, with nothing exaggerated and nothing left out. There are also levels of clarity and articulacy uncommon for wireless headphones.
As a result, one quickly forgets the FLOW is a Bluetooth headphone at all, which is as things should be. On ‘Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly’ from Gary Burton’s The New Quartet [ECM, Tidal Hi-Fi], the ringing, almost chime-like quality of Burton’s vibraphones is presented intact with full harmonic richness, while Abraham Laboriel’s spectacularly energetic bass lines are presented with snarl, growl, and bite fully intact. The FLOW shows similar sonic excellence on the title track of Marilyn Mazur’s Flamingo Sky [Stunt Records, Tidal Hi-Fi], capturing Mazur dynamically and texturally intricate percussion work and Krister Jonsson’s penetrating and angular guitar lines with exemplary clarity and energy.
For those seeking a well-rounded and—most importantly—musically adept noise cancelling Bluetooth headphone, one priced comfortably below $250, Cleer’s FLOW is a sure-fire, go-to recommendation.
Type: Closed-back, dynamic driver-equipped, noise cancelling, Bluetooth wireless headphone.
Driver complement: 40mm Ironless™ dynamic driver.
Frequency response: 20Hz–40kHz (audio line in), 20Hz–20kHz (Bluetooth)
Connectivity: Analogue line in (3.5mm mini-jack), Bluetooth
Sensitivity: Not specified
Impedance: Not specified
Battery: 3.7V, 800mAH
Playback time, full charge: Up to 20 hours, with ANC and BT functions engaged
Weight: Not specified
Price: $199.99 US
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