It’s 2021 and True Wireless ANC earbuds are now a dominant product category in the headphones world. There are tons of models to choose from, at many price points. The new Cleer Ally Plus II is an appealing option in what I’d call the “premium yet affordable” segment, offering comfort, secure fit, long battery life, wireless charging, noise cancelling, and sound quality that taken together make them a good value and a solid choice for anyone looking to upgrade the earbuds that came with their smartphone or tablet. These headphones are the sequel to Cleer’s Ally Plus and offer improved battery life, fit and noise cancelling performance. The original Ally Plus is still available, now priced at $79.99.

Before we get into the hands-on review, let’s discuss Cleer for a moment. The company is based out of San Diego and the design team consists of industry insiders and veterans with plenty of experience in the headphones category, now working in a dynamic company that, as the Cleeraudio.com website notes “grew tired of the red tape and being content with the status quo”. Long story short, the company aims to exceed expectations in its product lineup.

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The Ally Plus II – Features and Specifications

The real standout feature of Ally Plus II, in my humble opinion, is the “earbuds only” battery life of up to 11 hours. When reading battery life specs of True Wireless models, you need to be sure that the number of hours listed represent the playback time of the actual earbuds, and not a combination of the earbuds battery life and extra hours you gain by using the charging case. What this means is you can rely on the Ally Plus II to last the entire day without even having to put them in the charging case for a boost. Once you add the charging case to the equation, were talking about up to 33 hours of playback before you have to find a USB charger, or use a Qi Wireless charger. That makes them an excellent choice for travel. For the charging case specifically, only five minutes of USB C charge time gives an hour of playtime.

Cleer’s Ally Plus II utilizes 10 mm graphene drivers and has AptX Bluetooth, to maximize the fidelity that is obtainable through Bluetooth. And these earbuds feature the all-important noise cancellation capability, and the company states they achieve up to 34 dB of active noise reduction/cancellation. And you get a “Ambient Awareness” function that lets you hear outside sounds, whether that be for safety sake or so you can converse with someone without having to take them out. The Cleer+ app for iOS and Android lets you configure and tune the Ally Plus II to your liking, offering control over EQ, the degree of Ambient Awareness, and even how the touch/gesture sensitive controls built into both the left and right earbuds operate. Controls include playback/track selection, cycling through noise cancelling and ambient modes, and call controls. You can also use touch gestures to summon voice assistants, and adjust the volume.

These earbuds are specified to reproduce 20 Hz through 20,000 Hz, thus covering the full range of human hearing.

One key feature of these earbuds is the inclusion of multiple ear tips, both “round” and “angled”. They ship with a total of eight pairs so that you can find the right fit to create a good seal. This is crucial because without a good seal, you cannot extract the maximum performance (from any earbuds, not just these) in terms of both audio fidelity and noise canceling. Also, these earbuds offer IPX4 level water and sweat resistance, making them suitable for active lifestyles and use while exercising.

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You get "angled" and "round" style ear tips in multiple sizes with the Ally Plus II

Because it is quite common to use true wireless earbuds for making phone calls and participation in online meetings, Cleer equipped the Ally Plus II with Qualcomm cVc 8th gen tech so that voice calls are clear to whomever is on the other end of a call.


Hands-On

I enjoyed using the Cleer Ally Plus II. They are among the best True Wireless earbuds that I’ve tried at this price point. It immediately worth mentioning that they feature rather strong, prominent bass response, bass lovers will not be left wanting. You can adjust the overall tonal balance utilizing the EQ in the Cleer+ app, so don’t be concerned if you are wary of headphones with pronounced bass response, it’s much easier to reduce bass through EQ than to add it and I was able to quickly find the settings that worked best for personal taste, just a slight reduction of the lowest bass frequencies got the tuning “just right”.

A strong point of these Cleer earbuds is the soundstage and imaging. I’m not sure what the mechanics are that cause variation in perceived soundstage with different earbuds, but Ally Plus II offers a very precise rendition of the soundstage, with a “forward” sound that is not at all “stuck inside your head” so to speak. And when I say precise, I do not mean clinical, it’s what I’d refer to as “enjoyable precision”.

The standout feature of these new earbuds, IMO, is the fit. I spoke with Cleer about the design, and how impressed I am with the way they stay in your ear, yet are extremely comfortable. It turns out this is an area the company focused on, and I really appreciate how they stay put… once you put them in, they stay put and the seal does not come loose, unlike some other True Wireless earbuds I have, including the AirPods Pro. Of course, I understand that everybody’s years are different, and what is a perfect fit for me might not be ideal for someone else, but according to Cleer, the designers paid special attention to the earbud shape and balance. It’s “clear” to me that the effort paid off.


Ally II Plus vs. AirPods Pro

I don’t have an expensive, fancy headphone measurement rig, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for a fully technical review of the Ally Plus II. But what I can do is offer my personal, subjective comparative observations regarding how they sound, and how well the noise cancelling works, as compared to “standard” set by Apple AirPods Pro. My impression is that the noise cancelling (or perhaps the combination of noise cancelling and passive isolation) are at least on-par, but potentially even better. With music playing (over speakers) but not over the earbuds, with a pair of air cleaners and a fan running to create a “hum”, I found the Ally II Plus created a better “bubble of silence” that completely eliminated the air cleaner/fan noise, and the music I could hear from the speakers was quieter and had the same tonal balance. The AirPods Pro allowed some fan noise to leak through, and while it did reduce the level of the background music, the tonality of it is changed so that it sounds very bass heavy.

As someone who enjoys wearing noise canceling headphones strictly for the noise canceling effect (i.e. wearing them without actually playing anything through them) I found that I absolutely preferred the Ally Plus. As usual, YMMV, but effective noise cancelling is a make-or-break feature and one Cleer appears to have effectively tackled with its design. And I absolutely, unquestionably found the Ally Plus II to be more comfortable, yet the fit in the ear is more secure than Apple’s offering. And if you are not a fan of having little white sticks poking out your ears, there’s an aesthetic consideration… the shape of the Cleer Ally Plus II is much more incognito and does not advertise “this person is wearing earbuds” like Apple’s do. But, it is worth noting that Airpods Pro have some features the Cleer model does not, like support for true spatial audio (with directional sensing). And I would say the AirPods case is more pocket-friendly than the Cleer case, although I found the Cleer charging case less “fumbley” than Apple’s case, and there’s a window that lets you see if they are inside the case, properly seated and charging.

As for the sound, a quick comparison between Cleer and Apple yielded the following observations: Airpods have a more “neutral and balanced” sound when no EQ is applied, the Ally II Plus is absolutely bass-forward, but only when noise cancelling is turned on. Turning off noise cancelling on the Cleer model results in a rather dramatic change in tone. So, you’ll want to use the EQ to tune them to taste. The highs are (to me, perceptually) a little smoother and more natural in the Airpods Pro, but the Ally II Plus is at least as detailed and presents a perceptually wider soundstage while the AirPods Pro have that “music inside your head” sound to them. There’s always the matter of personal preference, and that includes tonal balance, and arguably the genre of music you listen to can be a determining factor on what sort of sound profile you find preferable. This is probably a good moment to note that there is a not insignificant price difference, with the Cleer model costing less than Apple’s offering, that one could use to justify the subjective, perceived difference in sound. Anyhow, Cleer CLEARLY has a specific idea of what its “house sound” is and that comes through in listening. I would not go so far as to rate them better or worse than AirPods Pro for sound quality, they are just different and with the Cleer+ app, also adjustable to taste.


Coming Soon: Mimi sound optimization

One thing I did not get to try, but that could make a difference in terms of the subjective sound, is the forthcoming inclusion of Mimi sound optimization (coming July 2021 via firmware). This will add a hearing test functionality that will optimize each earbud to the individual users ears. And not just a blanket optimization, but rather a specific optimization for each ear. Find a quiet place, spend a couple minutes listening to test tones, and you get sound that’s custom tuned to how you hear, and then the option to choose home much of that tuning to apply to the final output. This approach compensates for hearing irregularities that are the physiological reality of being a human! I look forward to checking out this feature when it becomes available.


Conclusion

Cleer’s Ally Plus II is exactly what you’d expect from a company that aims for high performance and good design at price points that are appealing to the budget conscious consumer. I found them reliable (no dropouts) and easy to use, with a signature sound that worked best (for me anyhow) when listening to electronic music, and with a bit of EQ “to taste” are suitable for any genre and any mix style. Comfort and fit are real highlights, as is battery life and noise cancelling capability… and when I’m out biking or running or riding my OneWheel, I definitely prefer their secure fit over other True Wireless earbuds I have tried or that I own… that is their absolute best quality, IMO. Based on my overall experience, I’m happy to grant them a Top Choice designation within the context of their price point.