Mobile introverts, rejoice. Cleer has been making moves in the audio entertainment space for years, and it may have a hit on its hands with the Flow II Wireless Hybrid Noise Cancelling Headphones. Using Qualcomm’s latest CSR8675 single-chip Bluetooth platform, the Flow II features a powerful combination of high-fidelity audio and active noise cancellation. If you're an audiophile who appreciates your quiet time, you may want to put the Flow II on your short list.
Cleer Flow II: Outside the box
These futuristic-looking headphones come in silver or black, and the cans I reviewed were of the latter hue. At $279.99, they're on the high end of midrange Bluetooth devices; the elegant design reflects as much.
Even the Flow II's packaging felt conspicuously chic (there are three layers of thick cardboard, and inner padding, to boot); opening the box felt like opening a Minority Report-style treasure chest. The headphones themselves come in a hard carry case, and the swivel-folding design allowed for a snug fit. There's a dedicated Velcro pouch for the included airplane adapter, and a mesh one for the USB-C charging cord and 3.5mm aux cable.
Design, comfort and fit
At first glance, the Flow II could be mistaken for its slightly less-equipped, slightly older sister, the original Flow. (Both models appear to be structurally identical.) Its plastic chassis is sleek, stylish and sturdy — if a tad clunky. The inner headband is padded at the top, and Cleer has lined each ear cup with comfortable memory foam. However, I would have appreciated more padding in the headband, like the über-comfortable Urbanears Pampas.
At 11.5 ounces, these cans are slightly bulkier than others we've tested recently. (Both the Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM3 weigh just 9 ounces.) I wore the Flow II on and off for a full week, and found them to be mostly comfortable. But after an hour or more of continuous use, that extra 2.5 ounces started to take its toll. For those with smaller ears, you might want to check out the Sony WH-1000XM3 or the Urbanears Pampas.
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The tech specs for the Flow and Flow II are also identical, with two noteworthy exceptions. While the Flow uses a familiar micro USB charging port, the Flow II features a USB Type-C port, which is far more effective for fast charging. A dedicated Google Assistant button is also included on the newer model. (Interestingly, as of this review, both Flows have the same MSRP of $279.99.)
The controls for the Flow II are refreshingly minimalist, featuring only three buttons on the left ear cup : Power/Pairing, Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and Google Assistant. While the Power button is positioned at the very bottom of the ear cup, the other two are closer to the rear, making them accessible to your thumbs. (The raised accents of these two buttons also made them easier to find.)
Touch controls are all the rage, and Cleer incorporates this feature, too. The hidden touch panel on the left ear cup lets you pause tracks with a quick double-tap, adjust the volume by swiping up or down, and skip tracks by swiping forward and backward. In practice, these controls were useful for adjusting music on the fly.
This panel can also be used to answer phone calls and toggle between multiple conversations. Unfortunately, doing so was quite literally a hit-or-miss affair. In order to use the tap-based call controls, you have to hit dead center of the cup. More often than not, I found myself fumbling to find the sweet spot. I eventually got the hang of it, but it took longer than expected.
The touch panel does not function when the aux cable is plugged in, but why would you need it to? If your headphones are tethered to another device, this particular feature becomes redundant, in my opinion.
Active noise cancellation
When I began reviewing mobile tech products (roughly a decade ago), active noise cancellation was still in its infancy — at least from a consumer standpoint. Now this technology has matured past the rebellious-teenager phase, and it's ready for college. The Flow II uses Qualcomm's CSR8675 Bluetooth platform, which integrates a dual-mode radio and hybrid noise-canceling technology that boasts up to 30 decibels of ambient noise suppression. Indeed, with the ANC button activated, I was treated to a highly immersive musical experience during my New York City commute. Even without any music playing, the bustling street noise I'm used to was reduced to almost nothing as I walked from my Brooklyn apartment to the subway; the memory foam created a pleasing seal around each ear.
My favorite feature on the Flow II is its Conversation mode, which temporarily disengages ANC and automatically lowers the volume of whatever you're listening to. Simply place your hand over the left ear cup, and you can instantly hear everything going on around you; remove your hand, and back to introversion you go. As a city-dweller, this allowed me to selectively interact with my bustling environment as I navigated from one place to the next, which is important.
For example, as I approached crosswalks, the Ambient mode made it possible to hear approaching traffic in either direction. It can be easy to miss announcements on the subway if you're blasting bass into your earholes. But with one swift movement, I was listening to the conductor with all the other straphangers. The gesture is rather conspicuous and made me feel like a TV news reporter each time I put my hand to my ear. ( "Back to you, Connie!”)
Cleer suggests this feature would be useful on planes, allowing you to chat quickly with flight attendants — without actually removing the clunky cans. My editors were reluctant to purchase a plane ticket for me to test this scenario, but I'm inclined to agree. The ANC mode, combined with Ambient mode, makes the Flow II absolutely ideal for all forms of public transportation.
Another perk: when you remove the Flow II from your noggin, it automatically pauses any music you have playing until you put them on again. Very nice.
When compared with audio mainstays like Bose, Sony or Sennheiser, Cleer hasn't been around very long — but these guys are quick learners. Using 40mm iron-less drivers, the company promises high-res playback with minimal distortion (up to 20 kilohertz over Bluetooth, or 40 kHz over the 3.5mm aux cable). Music is a daily staple of my life, but drowning out the background noise of NYC with high-fidelity sound is no easy task.
The intricate vocal layers of M83's "Midnight City" came through nicely when I cranked up the volume to 85%, with a rounded ambience to the metallic synths and ear-thumping electronica. Mid-bass output was robust, and highs sounded crisp.
Next up: "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark" by Fall Out Boy. The eclectic balance of frantic vocals, heavy percussion and wailing guitar riffs made for an impressively immersive experience as I rode the rails. If I shut my eyes, it was pretty easy to forget that there were other humans nearby. (Again, not always a good thing. Safety first, folks!)
The well-balanced acapella of Marianas Trench's "No Place Like Home" gave me goosebumps, and the accompanying drum section was resoundingly clear.
So, how does Cleer stack up against the competition? We blasted the same tracks over the less-expensive Urbanears Pampas ($149.99), which are not equipped with ANC: Reverb was noticeably present in "Midnight City" once we pushed the volume past 75% — to the point of muddling the vocals a bit. (The Pampas also get louder quicker.)
Sonic depth was lacking in "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark," and the smaller ear cups didn't help; these cans don't create as efficient a seal as the Flow II. The rich vocals of "No Place Like Home" came through loud and clear, though, and the bass-heavy soundscape got my feet involuntarily thumping once the drums kicked in. Nevertheless, in a side-by-side comparison, true audiophiles will hear where those extra dollars went with the Flow II; the overall experience is simply deeper and more balanced.
The Flow II supports five Bluetooth-friendly codecs: aptX, aptX HD, AAC, LDAC and SBC. Using the included aux cable does improve sound fidelity, but not to a large degree. True audiophiles will appreciate the difference, though.
To be honest, Google Assistant isn't something I use very often. Its integration runs deep these days, and I've been an Android-lover since the original HTC G1 smartphone, but my lifestyle doesn't call for the automation of absolutely everything. That being said, I loved using the dedicated Google Assistant button on the Flow II to read back incoming text messages as I dashed between subway transfers.
One button press lets you check pending notifications, two presses disables verbal announcements and a long press lets you speak to Google Assistant directly (e.g., "Play liked songs on Spotify," "What is the best subway to Union Square?"). It's the button I never knew I needed.
Battery life, USB-C charging
With ANC enabled, the Flow II promises up to 20 hours of playback on a full charge. This longevity is on a par with the Bose Noise Cancelling 700, but it doesn't come close to the massive 30 hours of playback offered by the Sony WH-1000XM3.
The USB-C port allows for quick charging: 10 minutes of charge time equals 2 hours of playtime. This is impressive in comparison with headphones that use micro USB connections, such as the Sony WH-1000XM2. (Those cans eke out only 70 minutes of playtime on the same charge.)
I wore the Flow II every day for a week for over2 hours per day at 70% volume or higher. (I also used it to make several lengthy phone calls.) It took five full days to drain the battery to 10%, which is more than acceptable.
Calls made over Sprint's network on a Samsung Galaxy S8 came in loud and clear on my end, but were sometimes muffled for those I was chatting with. (To be fair, I tested the call quality of the Flow II outside during a windy week in the Big Apple when these issues arose.) I also made calls indoors, using this review as an excuse to catch up with my mom, aunt and other family members from the comfort of my living room. (Call quality is noticeably better indoors.)
The listening range was better than expected, as I was able to maintain a signal up to 40 feet before calls started to spit and sputter.
Bluetooth, NFC and setup
There are three ways to pair your device to Flow II: Bluetooth, Google Fast Pair (for gadgets that support v2.0 or higher) or NFC. Good, old-fashioned Bluetooth-pairing mode worked best for my S8; using the NFC option was annoying, since it required removing my phone case to press the phone against the right ear cup.
When powered on for the first time, the Flow II goes into pairing mode automatically. After selecting "Cleer Flow II" from the Bluetooth device list, we were ready to rock in just a few seconds.
For less than $300, the Cleer Flow II will keep jet-setting audiophiles more than satisfied. The hybrid noise-cancelling technology allows for a fully immersive experience, whether you're lounging around your home or settling in for an 8-hour flight.
The powerful Qualcomm CSR8675 chip is also a force to be reckoned with, delivering solid Bluetooth connectivity and well-balanced audio. Sure, the somewhat clunky design might not be for everyone, but if you're in the market for Bluetooth cans, you might want to go with the Flow II.