The wireless headphone and earphone category is projected to grow to almost $27 billion USD by 2027 and while that might sound like great news to the industry, what does that mean for consumers. Technology can take a quantum leap in five years, but if we take a look at the category in 2022, we look down into a bottomless pit of wireless products with few points of differentiation.
Apple can afford to take modest steps with each new product cycle because it has the marketing budget and a pool of media who will only write nice things about their products.
They also have over a billion iPhone customers across the globe who don’t necessarily pay attention to what brands like Cleer, Sennheiser, 1More, or Bose are doing in the true wireless category. Products like the Cleer ARC True Wireless Earbuds face an uphill struggle but they are potentially a better alternative to AirPods or any cheap TWS earphones that you find in any airport or 7-Eleven.
Having previously reviewed the Cleer Ally Plus II, which I found to be a rather solid offering, I was intrigued by the Cleer Arc because they are trying to accomplish the ANC experience in a different manner.
As someone who travels for work on airplanes and coaches and attends a lot of soccer games across the midwest and other parts of the country, I see the value of true wireless earphones with ANC because I am one of those people on the plane who does not want to listen to everyone snoring, the drone of the engine, or screaming parents in the stands who don’t agree with the referee.
Isolation from noise that ruins the music listening experience or makes it easier for me to concentrate on the job at hand, is all that I require; the issue with many of the wireless earphones and headphones that I have tried and reviewed so far is that the ANC has a negative impact on the sound quality.
For those consumers who are more concerned about noise and phone call quality, ANC is a great feature and they are willing to compromise on sound quality. Many of us are not.
The Cleer ARC are certainly not for the consumer who demands the highest possible level of isolation; the design doesn’t allow for it and that is why they might be better for someone who is also more concerned about situational awareness.
Instead of embedding the earbud in your ear, with the nozzle going down your canal, the ARC driver shell rests on the surface of your ear. This does provide a level of passive isolation but it is certainly not in the same category of other true wireless earbuds which offer a tighter seal.
The design reminds me of two other IEM technologies that are currently being used by other manufacturers; the bone conduction driver offered in the Unique Melody IEMs, which allows for the mechanical movement of the driver, delivering a more visceral low end experience, and the open driver on the most recent IEMs from Fir Audio that mimics a passive subwoofer in your ear canal.
Having experienced both, I would offer that they deliver a positive experience, but can understand how they might not be for everyone.
The Cleer ARC follows a very similar path; it utilizes a 16.2mm dynamic driver that covers the entire range. Large ear hooks keep the earpieces in place, allowing for a precise fit and are kept in place by a swinging arm that operates like a hinge.
Unlike the vast majority of true wireless earbuds, the Cleer ARC live inside a rather flat and hard plastic case; most wireless earbuds today ship inside a charging case that is shaped like an egg and is designed to fit inside your pants or jacket pocket.
When I opened the charging case, I came to the realization that Cleer have not opted for the traditional charging case with an internal battery. Users have to connect the attached USB Type-B to a laptop or wall charger.
I can see that being an issue for some people who want to charge their wireless earbuds when they are not using them and are not able to keep the case connected to a power source.
If you use these at work, it probably isn’t a big deal to keep the charging case connected to a USB port on your computer or desktop, but I do find the charging case somewhat odd in 2022. Cleer feels that listeners desire portability over ease of charging; I’m not sure they are correct in that assumption.
The stated battery life is 7 hours on a full charge; it is our standard practice to run that test four times to verify the accuracy of the claim; I managed to get more than 7 hours twice (7 hours and 15 minutes), and two tests yielded 6 hours, and 50 minutes. That is more than enough time for most users for a work day, but it is not the longest we have measured so far.
Plugging in the unit for 10 minutes yielded one hour of listening time at normal listening levels, and we averaged 60 minutes to achieve a full charge; we verified this four times as well.
The driver technology and shape of the driver yield another benefit; you never have to worry about losing ear tips — there are none.
Getting a proper fit was also slightly more complicated than just inserting an ear tip into the canal and achieving a proper seal; you have to rotate the earpiece to accomplish that and that reduces the level of passive isolation.
If you wear glasses, the fit and isolation will prove to be adequate but not great. I wear glasses and sunglasses and my experience was that the unit performed better when I wasn’t wearing either.
I took the Cleer ARC on a number of morning walks, and I found myself pushing the driver further into my ear to compensate for the issue with glasses, which resulted in deeper bass response, and a warmer sonic signature. It also became somewhat veiled which was not the desired result.
You can achieve good sound quality while wearing glasses but the fit issue could be better.
The Cleer ARC is being marketed as an open-back true wireless design which means that you don’t achieve a lot of isolation. The flip side is that the soundstage is a lot larger than with traditional true wireless IEMs, and your situational awareness when walking through busy city streets or in your local park is certainly heightened.
When people said hello to me as I walked through my neighborhood, I never struggled to hear that they were saying; this might be a safer bet for walks at night or if your kids wear them to school in a busy neighborhood with a lot of cars in the morning and at dusk.
Taking off my glasses resulted in a better fit with improved isolation; the driver sat flatter in my ear and I did not notice them as much. I still struggled with the realization that the sound is not as transparent in that scenario.
The best fit was attained with the driver unit angled downward 10-15 degrees from the horizontal axis.
Cleer have a technical white paper which explains their design decisions and why they opted for an open-back design with a 16.2mm dynamic driver that you can find here.
One of the benefits of the larger driver is that the Cleer ARC’s bass response is rather robust; bass notes have both impact and definition and I rather enjoyed its performance with rock and classical music.
2Cellos’ “Despacito” (Let There Be Cello, Qobuz, 24-bit/44.1kHz) gave the Cleer ARC a rather firm workout and I was pleased to see that the bass response did not lose its impact as I raised the volume and become a muddled mess.
Sticking with the Croatian cello duo, I listened to a mix of their music including their beautiful rendition of the Game of Thrones title track and their cover of “Bad Guy.”
I listened to their cover and compared it to Billie Eilish’s 2019 release and noticed the same thing; the upper bass does bleed into the lower midrange which can result in a slight loss of clarity and detail. I have certainly heard worse with both tracks in regard to the upper bass/lower midrange but it is definitely there.
The tuning of the Cleer ARC is a rather strong “V” where both the bass and treble are emphasized at the expense of the midrange which comes across as being slightly recessed; vocals are not pushed forward of the instrumentation.
Male and female vocals do have enough presence to make the ARC a pleasant listen and there is certainly sufficient clarity, but Cleer ARC does not have the expansive airiness of some of the competition.
One of the benefits of the open-back design is that the soundstage is wider and higher than most of the TWS earphones that I have listened to over the past 2 years; the depth benefits the least from the design and driver.
The ARC never gets strident or hard in the treble but it is not the last word in micro detail; the overall tonal balance is on the warmer side which does not favor detail retrieval.
The $129 Cleer ARC TWS Earphones exist in a very competitive category where consumers have come to expect better than average battery life, excellent sound quality, passive and active noise cancelling, and compatibility with aptX HD, LDAC, and strong call quality.
The ARC delivers a spacious sound with better than average sound quality, durability, and above average battery life. The charging case is not going to appeal to everyone, and the somewhat problematic fit while wearing glasses will certainly be an issue for some.
Does the sound quality level the playing field for the Cleer ARC? It certainly does some things better than the competition, bass impact, soundstage, and the complete absence of fatigue during long listening sessions — but will that prove to be enough for most consumers who expect certain features in 2022?
The Cleer ARC doesn’t offer a lot of isolation and that makes them less than ideal for airplane trips where the other passengers don’t want to hear what you are listening to.
If you want a pair of true wireless earphones that give you complete situational awareness, the Cleer ARC are a very logical choice.