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Review: Cleer NEXT – Your Next, and perhaps Last, Headphones?

The Cleer Audio NEXT audiophile headphones are exceptional in many dimensions.
The Cleer Audio NEXT audiophile headphones are exceptional in many dimensions.

More than just a taste, they’re a full serving of an exceptional audio experience.

First, a sincere thank you to Cleer Audio for providing a loaner unit and allowing Headphonesty to review the NEXT audiophile headphones. As is my standard, I did not read or watch any reviews of the NEXT before my evaluation.

Writing this review, I am struggling to get started. Why, you ask? I am entirely too enthralled with the NEXT on my head that all I want to do is sit back, close my eyes, and listen. And listen more. Whenever I wear them, it’s challenging to concentrate on anything else.

Let’s discuss luxury automobiles for a moment. Luxury products are often not the very best performers. Rather than for peak performance, people may buy them for a variety of other reasons, including design, quality, innovation, technical achievement, uniqueness, or brand cache and prestige – to name a few. Luxury cars have their devoted fans and buyers because they feel special, and maybe more importantly, how they make their owners feel special.

The Cleer Audio NEXT audiophile headphones are exceptional in many dimensions.
Bottom Line

The NEXT are an audiophile prophylactic to upgrade-itis. Cleer’s ambition to set a high bar for themselves and headphone audio is a success in my view and to my ears. The NEXT look and feel decadent and have won awards for design. Many "best" headphones are the only best at some single aspect. Instead, the NEXT holistically achieve something more important - the every day “reach for” factor that motivates owners to use them, even when other choices are available.

What We Like
  • Fine balance of form and function
  • Supreme design, build quality, fit, and finish
  • Long-listening comfort with some of the best earpads tested
  • High dynamic range
  • Close to neutral sound signature that does not cause fatigue
  • Adequate bass with a balance of speed and impact
  • Treble clarity and revealing, high detail
  • EQ is generally unnecessary to enjoy most music
  • Cable, connectors, and headphones may well outlive you and your kids
  • Premium leather carry/travel case
What We Don't Like
  • Tuning may be too tame for some who prefer heavy bass and treble-boosted “consumer-friendly” sound signatures
  • Will perform best with an amplifier or powerful source (many phones and portables are inadequate)
  • Industrial strength cable is unnecessarily heavy-duty and somewhat microphonic
  • Cable is not easily replaceable due to specialty connectors
  • Ear pads are not meant to be removed or replaced by the owner
  • Large size may not fit small heads

Cleer’s NEXT are similar. For me, I was infatuated at first sight, in 2-D digital ink. When I put my hands on them, I was smitten, secretly hoping (as an objective reviewer) that the actual sound performance would cause me to fall in love and not disappoint me deeply. Skin deep beauty may be sufficient for art, not for audiophiles and audio gear enthusiasts, who demand style, substance, and performance.

Performance-wise, the NEXT can keep up with the competition. Where the NEXT really stand apart are in a more emotional and sensual realm, not scientific or clinical. Let’s look and listen more closely and decide if these NEXT headphones are indeed worth it and the right ones for you.

I begin formal evaluations after a lengthy burn-in period (72-100 hours). In addition, I do not use secondary EQ adjustments while testing.

First Impressions

The NEXT remind me a great deal of the Emotiva Airmotiv GR1, a remarkable headphone in that, and in the best way, there was nothing entirely remarkable. The NEXT sound and feel like a more fully realized vision of the GR1.

The GR1 were largely a highly successful customization of standard parts built and provided by Sivga. Cleer’s NEXT were developed with their own proprietary design and technology.

The NEXT are clearly a pursuit of passion from the project’s inception. They are designed and built to be handed proudly down to future generations. While they’re built to withstand a beating, they expect to be handled like a valued keepsake. With proper care, they should age better than their owners.

No matter the angle, the NEXT show off their award-winning design.
No matter the angle, the NEXT show off their award-winning design.

Company Overview

Established in 2012, Cleer is a San Diego, CA, United States-based, award-winning manufacturer of high-performance headphones and electronics. Cleer was founded with a shared passion for the ultimate listening experience and a quest to pioneer the highest standards of audio and realize its potential through both performance and style.

“We are passionate audio lovers with deep industry experience, devoted to blazing new trails in performance audio. As champions of functionality and minimalism, we aim to exceed expectations through thoughtful, intuitive design and expert craftsmanship that delivers uncompromising performance and inspires joy.” – Cleer

Technical Specifications

  • Type: Circum-aural, open-back headphones
  • Transducer driver: 40mm dynamic Ironless™ driver with magnesium diaphragm, using a 20 rare-earth “Radial Magnet Structure” (Cleer proprietary patented engineering)
  • Frequency range: 10Hz – 45kHz
  • Impedance: 16Ohms (nominal)
  • Sensitivity: 92db/mW
  • Max. power handling: 90mW / 1.2V (10% THD)
  • Optimal power requirement: 10mW (0.4V)
  • Max. SPL: 112dB / 1kHz (1% THD)
  • Distortion (THD): < 0.3% / 1mW / 1kHz
  • Cable length and type: 2m (6.6ft) detachable balanced output cable with 3.5mm (1/8”) gold-plated straight plug and professional LEMO plug connectors
  • Connections: Each earcup has a separate high-quality LEMO input connector
  • Plug type: 3.5mm (1/8”) gold-plated straight plug, 3.5mm to 6.35mm (1/4”) TRS adapter included
  • Weight (excluding cable): 395g (13.9 oz)
The NEXT weigh in at 395g / 13.9oz. Not too light, not too heavy.
The NEXT weigh in at 395g / 13.9oz. Not too light, not too heavy.

Packaging

The large box that the NEXT are nestled in is quite substantial and opens like a book. The headphones occupy one side, shrouded in satin-covered sculpted foam, and the other side contains a lift-away covered compartment that contains a sleeve with the carrying pouch folded within.

The initial presentation of the NEXT is a regal affair.
The initial presentation of the NEXT is a regal affair.

Despite not having a storage and travel case, the genuine leather dual-sided pouch feels like premium, supple leather, lined and padded with a super soft velour-type material. The headphones fit in one side, and the cables in the other.

The NEXT do not fold flat and they are not ideal for everyday bag and carry duty.

Inside the black folder is the premium lined leather storage pouch.
Inside the black folder is the premium lined leather storage pouch.

In the box

  • NEXT audiophile headphones
  • 2m (6.6ft) detachable balanced output cable with 3.5mm (1/8”) gold-plated straight plug and professional LEMO plug connectors
  • 3.5mm to 6.35mm (1/4”) TRS adapter plug
  • Dual-sided leather storage and carrying pouch
  • Quick Start Guide
  • Safety Sheet

Cable

The NEXT uses Canare’s professional-grade, heavy-duty L-4E6S, a preferred microphone cable for many musicians and professional audio engineers which are fully optimized for all balanced audio applications. Flexible, smooth, and extra durable, this 24 AWG quad-core, four-conductor, 2m balanced output cable is made in Japan and has over 40 separate strands in each conductor, eliminating breakage due to flexing.

One end terminates in a 3.5mm gold-plated straight plug, and the other two ends that connect to the ear cups are professional LEMO push-pull plug connectors. The stiff black protective splitter is equally sturdy. A 3.5mm to 6.35mm TRS adapter is included.

The industrial strength Canare cable should not fail. Ever.
The industrial strength Canare cable should not fail. Ever.

All three terminal connections are secure and fit tightly. If you want to read more about the cable construction and specs, click here.

The cable is heavy for a headphone cable and feels like it belongs on stage. The strain relief and plug housing are strongly fortified, large-diameter metal. Will they last forever? It certainly seems that way. Do they transmit microphonic noise? Yes, and too much for my liking and beyond the threshold of acceptability for headphones in the modern era. If you don’t move around much, this likely won’t bother you.

The cable is one of my few misgivings about the NEXT.

The cable is completely over the top for headphones, though some will feel it’s an appropriate match for the elevated sense of self and style the NEXT have. The cable will be a point of irritation for those who like to swap cables, as they are unique. If you are an advanced DIYer, you could build your own alternate cables, complete with proper LEMO connectors.

All the connectors, including the proprietary LEMO, are as robust as the cable itself.
All the connectors, including the proprietary LEMO, are as robust as the cable itself.

Design

Unmistakable. Stunning. Magnificent! Everything about the NEXT states quality.

The NEXT are a vision collaboration with Designworks, a global creative consultancy owned by BMW Group and based in Newbury Park, California, United States. While I am not a trained design expert, those who fashion themselves to be (note: for the punsters among you), have heaped praise on the NEXT.

The design has been so successful that NEXT have achieved multiple accolades, including a Good Design® award, and is featured in The Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design.

The NEXT are circum-aural, open-back headphones built from 6061-T6 aluminum alloy, chosen for its low weight, high strength, and workability. It is the primary construction material for the frame, ear cup bodies, suspending arms, sliding headband adjusters, and the ends of the headband.

According to Cleer, the open-back design provides two primary benefits:

  1. Natural, spacious, sound reproduction devoid of coloration.
  2. Improved transient response-the headphone’s ability to respond to sudden changes within the waveform.
The unique, commanding, and functional, sculpted alloy of the NEXT.
The unique, commanding, and functional, sculpted alloy of the NEXT.

They are as much art as they are functional headphones. They look like a piece of sculpture best placed in full display when not in use. I love to admire them almost as much as I love to wear and listen to them.

“Our design inspiration for the Cleer NEXT audiophile headphone was driven by a singular idea: headphones that evoke the feelings of a favorite timepiece. Every design decision was influenced by a desire to create a product that would be considered delightfully exquisite, intimately personal, and intended for decades of enjoyment – with zero compromise in performance, durability or comfort.” – Clever Audio

There is a smooth glide sliding system to make headband size adjustments. It works well and secures in place. The ear cups articulate; pivot bearings are noiseless and allow for enough rotation and tilt to ensure a proper seal for most users. I do not notice any noise from the headband or ear cups regardless of how I move around (e.g., no creaking, cracking, or rubbing sounds). The fit and finish, down to the smallest stitching detail, is exceptional.

The arms holding the ear cups are secure, silent, and robust.
The arms holding the ear cups are secure, silent, and robust.

Comfort

Ahhhhhhhhh…. the NEXT are luxurious. They feel like slipping into a thick and super comfortable spa robe. The weight is moderate and well-balanced, without excessive pressure on the top of the head or clamp force to press them to your temporal bones.

The headband is shaped well and generously padded. The ear cups? My favorite ever – my ears and head have never been happier for hours on end. I do not have small, dainty ears and often have discomfort with smaller, shallow ear pads.

The memory foam earpads compress just enough to feel secure and never leave my head feeling sandwiched in between. There is no claustrophobia or extra heat buildup. With the NEXT, there is a lot of room to breathe, literally and figuratively – aided by the relatively low clamp force.

The buttery smooth, premium sheepskin leather over thick memory foam? Extravagant.
The buttery smooth, premium sheepskin leather over thick memory foam? Extravagant.

This is good news for buyers in that the leather is highly unlikely to deteriorate with some easy, basic maintenance.

An important note about size: if you are a member of the Big Head Club, these will fit you well. For noggins too small to qualify, the NEXT may border on being too large without enough clamp force. For those with S or XS brain cages, these will likely not be a good match for you.

For reference, I have a medium-sized head and wear these with no extension in the slider adjustments from minimum, and they just fit. Even at the smallest setting, they are not highly secure and move around quite a bit on my head with any quick movement. The NEXT are meant for quiet listening, not the gym or moving out and about.

The silent and smooth slider extension ensure that the NEXT will accommodate members of the Big Head Club.
The silent and smooth slider extension ensure that the NEXT will accommodate members of the Big Head Club.

Internals

“Our exclusive 40mm magnesium diaphragm balances high stiffness-to-weight with excellent damping characteristics for superior broadband audio reproduction complete with extended bass, smooth mids, and vivid high-frequency response.” – Cleer

Rather than using iron, magnesium alloy is the metal of choice for the NEXT’s internals. Cleer’s Ironless Driver™ Technology is a radial magnet structure of 20 strategically layered, rare-earth magnets for effective voice coil control and efficient translation of electrical impulse into sound. These magnets are paired with a proprietary magnesium diaphragm.

Exploded view of Cleer's proprietary Ironless magnet array. (From: www.cleeraudio.com)
Exploded view of Cleer’s proprietary Ironless magnet array. (From: www.cleeraudio.com)

Magnesium alloy drivers benefit from low mass, high rigidity, and high internal damping for exceptional audio reproduction. When mated to the innovative, ironless magnet structure, the result is efficient and linear, wideband frequency response for vivid and nuanced, high-resolution sound.

To view more about Cleer’s Ironless Driver™ Technology, watch this short video (Source: Cleer).

This technology also results in fluid and free-flowing diaphragm movement, drastically reducing distortion across all frequencies, particularly in the upper-frequency range.

According to Cleer, the result is less than half the distortion across the audio spectrum and up to 6 times less distortion in the critical upper midrange region. (From: www.cleeraudio.com)
According to Cleer, the result is less than half the distortion across the audio spectrum and up to 6 times less distortion in the critical upper midrange region. (From: www.cleeraudio.com)

Cleer’s technology delivers relatively efficient and low-distortion performance with a low sensitivity of 92dB and a low nominal impedance of 16Ohms. While they can be driven by most mobile phones and standard players, they will sound best when supplied with more power from a secondary source (headphone desktop or dongle DAC/Amps, etc.). I did not notice distortion at any volume.

Cleer NEXT Sound

The links posted are generally YouTube or YouTubeMusic links. The quality varies drastically and are provided for quick reference. I primarily listen and evaluate from original source CDs or high-quality lossless files.

For evaluation, I listen to a great variety of music through numerous sources, including:

NEXT's open back design helps create an illusion of a wide soundstage.
NEXT’s open back design helps create an illusion of a wide soundstage.

Sound quality is excellent, though not likely to top the podium in direct head-to-head comparisons of outright audio performance. They are mostly neutral and natural, with wide extension on both ends of the frequency range.

The NEXT will handle any genre of music competently, though may not satisfy those who like strongly definitive sound characteristics (e.g., heavy bass or very midrange forward). They are not the best choice for users who listen to and love lots of bass heavy music, or those who seek high-energy, boosted sound signatures.

Dynamic range is excellent with super wide frequency extension.

This is most notable with recordings of classical music and live performances. Excellent as well are distinct channel separation, wide and deep imaging, and a large soundstage. The sound is revealing and detailed.

Liya Petrova is an award-winning, renowned violinist from Denmark. Her performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61: III. Rondo. Allegro. NEXT’s dynamics, imaging, and wide staging bring this piece to brilliant life.

In honor of the recently passed American artist Meat Loaf, we’ll listen to I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), featuring English singer Lorraine Crosby. This iconic rock opera sounds terrific through the NEXT, revealing many details lost in lesser headphones.

The NEXT are not in your face, in your head headphones. The NEXT present a wide soundstage with a large soundfield. There is enough sense of diffusion that music sounds big and open, at the slight cost of intimacy.

A detail view of the LEMO connector jack.
A detail view of the LEMO connector jack.

Bass

Overall, bass is plentiful enough to balance music; well-behaved and moderately fast. Bass and sub-bass extension are accurate, well-mannered, and appropriate to the source, and no more. There is no apparent bleed into midrange frequencies, and it is without distortion.

Bass quality and texture are satisfying for most genres of music. For the bassheads among us, there are better options that have more presence and impact.

American drummer and percussionist Greg Ellis’ Kala Rupa is incredibly well-recorded and produced. The rhythm compositions are a perfect test of natural bass reproduction. Speed is adequate to keep up with fast-paced music, resulting in a taut presentation of bass notes. Slightly extended decay makes sound and music feel full.

Midrange

The midrange is well-balanced and even-tempered. The midrange comes forward prominently when featured in the mix, and the highs do not lose accent or clarity at the expense of bass or midrange bleed.

Born in West Virginia, United States, Spencer Elliott’s progressive finger-style steel string guitar compositions are rich and possess a cinematic quality, painting rich melodic landscapes. There’s Something in the Airlock – from Acoustic Guitar Volume 5 from Candyrat Records highlights NEXT’s ability: dynamics, tone weight, and space are outstanding. Crystal-like clarity and musical presence are fully engaging. High snap and speed results in every note being distinct with little no unintended audible blending.

The NEXT are mostly neutral with very broad frequency response.
The NEXT are mostly neutral with very broad frequency response.

Treble

The NEXT excel in detail without overdoing it or becoming too ‘analytical’ sounding. Treble is distinct, clear, and balanced. For those used to consumer tuning and overwhelming bass, the treble clarity will be a surprise, bordering on too sharp; that said, I have yet to experience unpleasant sibilance.

Moments can come through as a touch hot if you are not used to hearing great treble extension. I hear what sounds to be a slightly excessive elevation in the lower treble. Even though I am treble sensitive, I find the NEXT’s timbre pleasing, mostly natural, non-fatiguing, and I appreciate the high clarity and detail.

As per my protocol, I did not read or watch reviews. What I did hear in the community are some comments about the NEXT sounding a bit “metallic” and/or “boxy.” That metallic sound was only apparent to me with one track, and consistent with other headphones. That means that the issue is likely in the recording itself. Boxiness is completely at odds with my notes. In addition, this may have been altered over time due to a mid-cycle production change in the ear pads.

Let’s visit with American musician and composer Tony Macalpine in California, United States, to hear Object Permanence from the Equilibrium album. Tony’s music exemplifies high energy, fast-paced, technical progressive neo-classical instrumental metal. This track is a test of speed, complexity, precision, attack, resolution, and treble extension.

Treble is smooth, clear, with no sign of roll-off, and maintains significant air in the upper frequencies.

Design and build are exceptional, with no detail left unattended to.
Design and build are exceptional, with no detail left unattended to.

Where to Buy

Conclusion

If you’re not the collector so far down the rabbit hole that you are always looking for what’s next, the NEXT are an audiophile prophylactic to upgrade-itis. Cleer’s ambition to set a high bar for themselves and headphone audio is a success in my view and to my ears.

The NEXT look and feel decadent and have won awards for design. Many “best” headphones are the only best at some single aspect. Instead, the NEXT holistically achieve something more important – the every day “reach for” factor that motivates owners to use them, even when other choices are available.

The NEXT are built to last and be passed through generations.
The NEXT are built to last and be passed through generations.

Priced north of USD$500, they are pricey for the “average” consumer and certainly more expensive than the vast majority of headphones on the market. They are also nowhere near the most expensive either, easily costing 5 -10x more. In my opinion, there is no reason why these cannot compete well with any headphones in their price range and are a bargain with a solid cost to performance and quality ratio.

Not only will the NEXT occupy a permanent place in my collection, they will be on display – not hidden away in their leather pouch.

Despite being a misquote from Aristotle, the famous philosopher of Ancient Greece, the saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” applies to the NEXT. They are legitimate contenders for Best in Show, given their allure, audio capability, build quality, and embracing comfort. If there’s a next to NEXT, the only step up will be to successfully innovate and differentiate – again!

3 comments

  1. Bill, much appreciated! I do not yet have accurate or reliable measurement gear at my disposal, nor have I found a reliable measurement of these provided by others.

    Cleer has an internal preference not to share their measurements with the media or consumers. Forgive me the wordplay again – I have to be clear in relaying that I have made my thoughts on this and requests clear to Cleer as well, especially for headphones of this caliber designed for audiophiles and enthusiasts. So far, no delivery. I will post again if this changes. And Cleer, if you’re reading…. more continued requests for the graphs from potential buyers!

    P.S. Graph or no graph, I do hope that you found the descriptions useful, I do my best to characterize/explain sound and its fit to your known or potential preferences. Enjoy, let us know if you get to experience them!

    1. Thanks for replying, Eric. Your review was indeed thorough and helpful, not to mention well written and nicely organized. It’s just that I always like to see at least a FR graph to support the narrative. If nothing else, this will give me a pretty solid idea of the headphone’s tuning.

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