We had never heard of ADVANCED. Before this year's CANJAM New York event, they had flown completely under our radar. We have no idea why - normally, we're pretty good with this kind of thing. Then we heard their Alphas - and the New Jersey company will never slip off our radar again. In this review, we break down the sound, design, comfort and fit, packaging and accessories, specs and more of the ADVANCED Alphas. To see how it stacks up, check out our list of the best high-end headphones.
Damn. It's good. Really, that's what it comes down to. The ADVANCED Alphas are among the most exciting, appealing, dynamic headphones we've ever heard, and it all starts with that bass. It's not overly dominant, but it makes its presence felt, with an absolutely terrific tonality. It speaks of a sound that has been carefully-tuned, with real thought put into the low-end. It's an absolute blast to listen to, and we couldn't get enough of it.
The Alphas are planar magnetic headphones. That means the drivers - the elements that actually make the sound you hear - work by spreading a magnetic force across the driver diaphragm. Planar drivers are generally considered to offer better sound than regular dynamic drivers, which are far more common, and which rely on moving coils of wire to vibrate the diaphragm. That's not universally true, but it's definitely the case here. There are other headphones that beat the Alphas on bass - the amazing AUDEZE LCD2Cs (full review here) come to mind. But those cost nearly $300 more than the $500 Alphas, and for under half a grand, the latter offer some of the best bass we've come across. They will put a huge smile on your face.
High-Ends (Treble) and Mids
That's not to say the other parts of the sound suffer. This isn't a pair of Beats by Dre. The highs and the mids may not be the most engaging part of the experience, but they definitely deliver. Vocals, in particular, are just gorgeous. The Alphas give them such warmth and depth, such delightful presence. In terms of the enjoyment you'll get from the sound, these are a world away from something like the Monoprice Monolith M1060s (full review here). Those headphones - also budget planars - were fine. But the Alphas have them beaten in almost every way. You'll pay for the privilege - the Alphas cost $500, the M1060s cost $280 - but it's so worth it.
If there's one criticism we'd level at the sound, it's that the highs occasionally felt a little muddled. The top end definitely wasn't as clean as we would have liked - it almost felt like the exuberance in the bass had thrown the highs a little out of whack. Elements like strings and snares felt a little thin, which was a shame, given how good the rest of the sound spectrum was. It's particularly strange, given that these are open-back headphones - a type which generally leads to an open airiness in the highs. In this aspect, other headphones have it beaten - the amazing MEZE 99 Classics (full review here), for example. Those headphones - from Romania, if you can believe it - deliver a warm, smooth top end that just pips the Alphas. At $309, they're cheaper, too.
Sound Changes With Different Earpads
The Alphas actually ship with interchangeable earpads. They come with a pair of leather pads pre-installed, and a second pair of hybrid fabric/leather pads available for swapping in. We'll talk about the design of these below, but we'll be honest: the sound didn't change enough for us to spend more than a few minutes checking them out. The leather pads had slightly more engaging bass, and we expected the hybrids to be the opposite of this - lowering the bass, and emphasizing the mids and highs. They did, but it was super subtle. The pads are nice to have, but if you don't like the sound, they won't help you. Also, what, you don't like the sound? Are you an insane person? There's a good reason we put these cans in our top five of the best headphones available this year.
Planar headphones tend to be big. That means the outer housing has a lot off real estate, and it's a spot that headphone-makers take full advantage of. ADVANCED are no exception. They may not have the instantly-recognizable patterns of headphones from AUDEZE and Monoprice, but they're distinctive in their own way. The outer grille is ever-so-slightly convex, a shape that feels good in the hands, and there's a definite sense that thought has been put into how these look. We particularly like the subtle design indicators, like the red band around the right hinge. They put us in mind of the touches on the Focal Clear (full review here). At just under $1,500, those headphones are three times the price of the Alphas, so that's impressive.
The only strange aspect? The 'Designed For Musicians' slogan on the hinge. ADVANCED may want to pitch these to musicians, but this is very clearly a pair of headphones for listening - not for mixing, or making music. You want a very neutral, clear pair of headphones for that, and these...are not them.
While the Alphas aren't so robust that you could throw them across a room with impunity, they hold their own. The frame may be plastic, but the metal highlights and the touch, machined headband base mean it's unlikely that you'll break them. And there's a pleasing solidity to the build that we really liked. It's something that is often absent in other, more storied headphones. The absurdly popular Sennheiser HD6XXs, for instance, are not only more expensive ($549) but don't feel nearly as strong. It's not that either pair are easy to break; it's just that the Alphas really feel like they can take a punch.
The ALPHAS have a similar design to the aforementioned MEZE 99 Classics, in that they have a fixed metal headband with a flexible strap of leather underneath. This strap rests on top of the head when you put the cans on. It's a design that works well, and it made these headphones comfortable to wear. Mostly.
See, if there was one other criticism we could level at the Alphas, to go with their slightly wonky highs, it's that the clamping pressure. It's not a huge problem, but we did find that the headphones clamped the skull a little too tightly. That made listening for more than a couple of hours a bit of a challenge. Clamping pressure is one of the personal aspects of headphone listening, so if you're lucky and have a tiny head, this may be less of an issue. But we definitely felt it. For reference, the most comfortable headphones we've ever worn are the Beyerdynamic Amiron Home (full review here). Those are slightly more expensive than the Alphas, at $599, but make your head feel like it's getting a massage from winged seraphim.
ADVANCED's accessory game is on point. You get the two sets of pads we already mentioned, which are easy to swap in and out thanks to a clever tab system - seriously, changing them takes about ten seconds. You also get a very funky braided cable. It looks good and feels weighty, but it's annoyingly short - only 4'11". For a pair of headphones that are almost certainly going to be used for static listening, it would have been nice to have a longer cable. Hell, even the Audio-Technica ATH-M50X - as common a pair of headphones as you can think of - have a longer cable option, at 9'11".
The one we like the most was the little leather-covered magnetic clasp, meant to...hold the cables in place? Look snazzy on a backpack? Who cares? It's a fun and surprising little bonus gizmo, and like so many other things about these headphones, it made us crack a smile. It and the other accessories are slotted into a gorgeous, faux-leather, flip-top box. The headphones are wedged a little too tight in there for you to use as a permanent case; you're better off with a good stand (a Kennerton Praetor Antique, perhaps?). But for transportation, you can't beat it.
What We Like
- The ADVANCED Alphas deliver phenomenal bass for the price, with rich tone and warm detail.
- Vocals are really flattered by these headphones, with good articulation.
- The design, build quality, and accessories are almost universally excellent.
- The headphones offer excellent value - they feel like they should cost a lot more than they do.
What We Don't
- The Alphas' high-end feels woolly and hesitant, without the detail we've come to expect from planar headphones.
- The clamping pressure is off, making them tough to wear for long periods.
- The cable that comes with the Alphas feels far too short.
|Monoprice Monolith M1060||$280||50Ω||96dB||106mm||Planar||1.1lbs|
If you're willing to spend a little more, you can't go wrong with the AUDEZE LCD2C. The Alphas are good; these are spectacular. They take everything we loved about AUDEZE's $1,000 LCD2 headphones, whack $200 off the price, and leave you with a pair that retains just about everything. You get magnificent sound, including bass that will unhinge your jaw, as well as stellar detail and clarity in the mids and highs. You also get stunning design. The famed wood cups from their predecessor are gone, replaced by tough plastic, but it doesn't feel like a huge amount has been lost. Clamping pressure is good, too, which is one of the problems we had with the Alphas - although having said that, the LCD2Cs are much heavier, at 1.1lbs to the Alphas' 13.7oz. In our opinion, these are the single best sub-$1,000 option available right now, and while we enjoyed our time with the Alphas, we adored our turn with the LCD2Cs. As planar headphones go, they've got it all.
If you're not willing to spend a little more, then we'd recommend the Monoprice Monolith M1060. These are designed as a pair of entry-level planar headphones, designed to give you a taste of the sound for not a huge outlay - $280, compared to $500 for the Alphas. And yes, you do get decent audio quality, with typical planar openness and air that we have no doubt you'll find addictive. However, the low price means that certain things had to be left out. The design is fine, but the build quality is not: the M1060s feel awfully flimsy, like they'd fall apart if you gave them a strong look. Compared to the rugged Alphas, there's quite a difference. And you get a very bare-bones case. These may be cheaper - and they definitely do what they set out to - but the experience you'll get with the Alphas is just better.
We debated whether to include the Sennheiser HD6XXs or the OPPO PM-3s as our third alternative. We're going to go with the Sennheisers. They might not be planar magnetic, like the OPPOs, but they have one key factor: they are still available at a reasonable price. OPPO are pulling out of the audio business, and while PM-3s are still available, you'll have to be content with paying $900 for them. Given that they used to retail at $300, you probably won't want to. So stick with the Sennheisers. They can be a little hard to find - they were a release from the crowdfunded site Massdrop - but they remain excellent. A differently-tuned version of the classic HD650, the 6XXs are the calm jazz master to the Alpha's rock god. The sound is clear and clam, with a ton of high-end detail, although you do lose out on the glorious bass. An unusual alternative - but, we think, a good one.
ADVANCED don't make other over-ear headphones at this point. They have an Indiegogo campaign going for a cheaper pair of planars, the $199 GT-Rs, but it hasn't been fully-funded yet. If that happens, those headphones will be among the cheapest planars ever made. For now, try out their GT3 in-ear headphones. Made of machined metal, they have a pleasing weight to them, and deliver superb sound for the price. As with the Alphas' extra pads, they come with tuning filters that you can use to modify the sound. The Alphas remain the best thing ADVANCED have ever done, but if you enjoy in-ears, give the GT3 a go.
A last word on the Alphas. Throughout our time with them, we kept thinking: why hadn't we heard of these? We're audio journalists, after all. We pride ourselves on knowing things about audio. Had we missed them? Had our obsessive research and stalking of headphone forums been in vain? But a quick check revealed that we weren't crazy. Advanced scored the odd mention, sure, but nowhere near the amount that AUDEZE, Monoprice and others had. That's crazy. The Alphas are among the top-five headphones currently available, at any price...and no-one is talking about them. Look: just buy the damn things. Your current headphones aren't good enough. These are, and you will love them.