ProsExcellent noise canceling; great sound; eye-catching styling, good price
ConsInnovative but quirky controls; won't fit all heads
We've tested a lot of headphones over the years, including those of the wireless, Bluetooth, and noise canceling variety, but we've never published a review of a headset that offers all of these feature until today. Now, truth be told, we actually did test out the elephant in the room, the Bose Quiet Comfort 35, back in late 2016, shortly after they came out, but despite its being the first Bluetooth noise canceling headset ever released, we didn't think it was worthy of a review. Why? Because the audio just wasn't very good. Therefore, the fact that we've even spent the time to pen the review of Cleer's FLOW Noise Canceling Bluetooth Headphones should tell you something right away. It's a whole lot better than what Bose has to offer. But despite the market-leading position that Bose enjoys, that isn't all that much of a triumph. So let's see what else Cleer has to offer besides proving that the emperor has no clothes!
Special thanks to Cleer for providing a sample of the Cleer FLOW Noise Canceling Bluetooth Wireless Headphones for this review.
Description & Features
So, to start, the Cleer Flow offers both noise canceling and Bluetooth. Is that on its own a major feature triumph? Well, as we mentioned above, the combination of noise canceling technology (like legitimate, active noise canceling technology) and Bluetooth wireless technology is a fairly recent phenomenon. As much as both of these features are coveted by a huge percentage of the population, it wasn't necessarily easily to get them to work together. First of all, until a few years ago, Bluetooth was simply unworkable for premium headphones. We remember going to CES in January 2016 and testing out some new very expensive Bluetooth headphones on display at the Audio-Technica booth, and had to bite our lip with the smiling company rep as they crackled and popped during our demo. We couldn't bring ourselves to tell them how badly they were malfunctioning in the crowded show environment. And these headphones didn't even have noise canceling, because no one had figured out how to bring that to market yet on a wireless headphone yet. So, fast-forward three years, and we have both of these technologies being offered by a wide variety of companies, including Cleer, and you'll see realize how much technology has advanced in this market over that time period.
But Cleer, which was founded in 2012 and has quickly established itself in the competitive audio market by offering high quality at reasonable prices (i.e., without the celebrity sponsorship tax passed onto consumers), took its time bringing these two technologies together. The FLOW only hit the market in October 2018, a full two years after Bose's QC35 first arrived. Was it worth the wait? Well, right from the start, FLOW checks all the boxes. On the audio side, you're getting 40mm ironless drivers and Hi-Res Audio certification. Keep in mind that powering big drivers is taxing on a wireless, battery-powered headset, and 40mm is the biggest drivers you'll find outside of premium wireless gaming headphones, but those of course do not offer noise canceling technology, another major energy consumer. So the fact that FLOW offers up to 30dB noise suppression and a claimed 20 hours of battery life is incredible. For comparison, the Bose QC15 wired headphones, which were released in 2012, offered 35 hours of runtime, and they weren't even wireless... that was just to power the noise canceling system!
Cleer has gone the next step in terms of features by adding an "Ambient Mode," which as far as we can tell was first showcased on a Sony headset. The concept is as follows: there are many times when using headphones when you actually do want to hear the world around you, and by running a headphones' noise canceling in reverse, you can have those sounds amplified, rather than missing it entirely as is likely the case if your noise canceling is actually worthy of being used! Cleer offers two Ambient modes, one specifically for voice (so you just hear the person you're talking to), and another for full ambient sounds, so you can hear announcements at an airport. This allows you to continue listening to your music without missing your train, plane, or ticking off the person you're in conversation with! It also avoids the inevitable fumble with your headphones as you hear the latest announcement from the flight attendant about landing times or connecting gates (for this, you'd use voice mode, so the rumbling of the plane is still eliminated). In practice, we found this feature very effective, and although not everyone will use it, it's a great perk.
Finally, we have look and feel of the headset itself. The FLOW is perhaps on the slightly heavy side. In fact, it's the second-heaviest wireless headset we've tested, coming in at 11.9 ounces (336g) on our scale, versus, for example, the 10.9oz that the QC35s come in at, but this is in part because they are constructed in a much more premium fashion. In addition to a robust headband with ample padding, you also get 90-degree swiveling earcups, which makes them a much more compact package when zipped up in their included carry case, and also lets you lay them down around your neck when you're on the run. Alas, they swivel 90 degrees in the wrong direction for that particular usage pattern; we really wish the padded side would swivel downwards so that's what would lay on your collarbones when around your neck, but at least the FLOW gets you halfway to "laid back" perfection, which its competitors don't even bother trying with their static headbands.
Cleer also throws in decorative magnetic rings for the earcups (two colors are included), which definitely set the FLOW apart from the pack. And while the headband is still made of plastic, it looks world's better than the matte black plastic used by the big names in the noise canceling market (Bose and Sony), which have never shown any predilection for style. Sure, some users may not give a darn about style (read: the older jet-setting executives that noise canceling headphones were first marketed to), but the premium headphone market has become a multi-billion industry based primarily on form, not function. Fashion-conscious buyers just won't buy wearable tech unless it has the right look, and for a long time, noise-canceling headphones most definitely did not.
By the way, Cleer also includes a pretty nice accessory bundle. In addition to the stylish travel bag, you get a 3.5mm audio cable for wired use (good for older audio gear or for preserving battery life), a USB cable for charging (although you'll need to provide your own charger), and a two-pronged airplane adapter for wired use with older onboard airline entertainment systems. The FLOW even has cutting-edge near-field communication (NFC), for making a Bluetooth connection without all the button pressing and menu-surfing. We found that it worked well, except for one major issue: if your device is already connected to another Bluetooth device, the FLOW won't pair even though the NFC is detected. You have to disconnect your other device first.
All right, with all of the features covered, let's get into performance!