The Cleer ARC are a solid alternative to in-ear buds if you don’t like being closed off from your surroundings
- Manufacturer: Cleer Audio
- Model: ARC
- Type: Bluetooth True Wireless Open-Ear Earbuds
- Price: £129 MSRP
- Supported Connections: Bluetooth 5.0
- Reviewed on: Windows PC, Samsung Mobile/Tablet
- Supplied by: Cleer Audio
Cleer ARC Review
Cleer’s newest open-ear buds, the ARC, offer a welcome alternative to in-ear buds and bone-conductive headphones. Nestling over your ears and funnelling sound into your canal, buds of this type are created for those who prefer to hear their surroundings, whether for comfort or safety, but they can also be more comfortable to wear for long periods than the in-ear types.
I love the way the ARC don’t block out outside sound. When working at my desk, I can still clearly hear people talking around me, and the gentle click of my mechanical keyboard, but this is overlaid with my music or whatever I’m listening to. I usually leave one of my headphones behind an ear so I can hear what’s going on around me and stay involved. With the ARC, I still benefit from proper high-quality stereo audio, with the benefit of having proper situational awareness.
If I was to try to articulate how using the ARC feels, it’s like having a soundtrack that accompanies your life. Normal earbuds supplant the outside world, but Cleer’s ARC accentuate it. It sounds like having a Bluetooth speaker beside your head, but without the anti-social element. There are advantages to regular buds, such as significantly more intense bass and unfiltered audio. However, the ARC are an alternative that I never knew I needed, and Cleer has still managed to give them its signature, crystal clear tone.
The ARC look fantastic, and although they toe the line of having a bit of a hearing-aid kind of appearance, the quality finish and silver accents elevate the design. With typical Cleer Audio build quality, these are earphones you’ll be proud to show off. The sound quality, as we’ve come to expect from Cleer, is excellent, but I found the peak volume to be prohibitively low.
They are exceptionally comfortable and fit securely, even during vigorous activity. They are a great choice for cycling or running due to the open-ear design filtering through outside sound, and the IPX4 rating makes them reassuringly mild-weather proof. I read a few other reviews that criticised the fitment and sound quality, but that wasn’t my experience at all. It’s easy to assume you just slip them over your ears and that’s that, but they still need to be adjusted and nestled properly into your ears, just like any buds. If you take the time to ensure the fit is right, the sound quality is improved tremendously.
Design and build
What’s in the box?
- Orbit wireless earphones
- USB-C to USB-C charging cable
- Charging case
- Quick-start guide/user manual
- Campfire Audio pin-badge
- Memory foam and silicon tips (S/M/L)
The Cleer ARC come in a fabric-covered box that looks sublime. It’s larger than most typical wireless bud cases, but it’s slim and jacket-pocket/bag friendly. Inside the case, they use a magnetic attachment to keep the buds in place, which is suitably secure, and pins in the stem connect to contacts on the inside of the moulded case for charging. I was disappointed that the case doesn’t have an integrated battery, though. This is a severe misstep, in my opinion.
The integrated USB cable is a great idea, but you need to have the case open and it’s rather short, which can be inconvenient. I would have preferred a separate port on the outside of the case or the inclusion of a female-to-female USB adapter for convenience, which would have allowed the use of whichever charger you have handy, but I still appreciate the convenience of having an all-in-one package, and it’s discreetly integrated into the case.
The ARC sports a supremely stylish design – no wonder it won a red-dot design award! An innovative hinge with a carefully measured spring tension secures the speaker element to the stem of the buds, which helps the ARC adapt to most ear shapes and sizes.
With very subtly contrasted light-grey tones and discreet Cleer logos, the ARC look premium, especially with the small speaker grilles on the exterior that help boost the soundstage. The tasteful grey is neatly accented by a silver metallic finish on the hinge, though this seems to be painted plastic rather than metal.
On the inside of the buds, you can see the down-firing grille that directs sound into your ear. As these are open-ear buds, the ARC doesn’t block your ear canal, instead sitting slightly above and focusing sound into and across your ear.
The ARC are very easy to put on. Simply hook the stem over your ear, and the ARC naturally hugs your ear. It takes a quick adjustment to fit them correctly, but after a few uses it becomes second nature. The stem is extremely chunky, though, which may be an issue for users with smaller ears and/or piercings, and they aren’t glasses-friendly, sitting right where the arms of your spec/sunglasses go, which is a shame.
Once in place, they are very secure, and at 15 grams each, you barely notice they are there. Considering they merely sit on top of your ears, no amount of vigorous shaking could budge them loose, making them ideal for exercising or adventuring.
Connectivity, features and controls
For the first use, you’ll need to manually power on the buds, which puts them into pairing mode. After their first use, the buds power on automatically once removed from the case, and power off when replaced. You can also use the onboard power buttons if you forget the case or it’s in your bag.
To pair to another device, you can long-press either power button, but they’ll automatically search for a new connection as long as the previously connected device isn’t in range. They will auto-connect to the most recently connected device, but they do not support Bluetooth multipoint, which made it slightly awkward when switching between devices. That’s not likely to be an issue for most users, but when switching from my phone to my PC, I had to turn off my phone’s Bluetooth or remove the pairing to prevent dropouts and stuttering as they tried to bounce between devices.
The Bluetooth range was about average via my phone, but surprisingly fairly limited on my PC, dropping out at a significantly lower distance than most of my Bluetooth headphones and buds. They are still good for a few metres, but they are more susceptible to interference from walls and obstacles than most products I’ve tested. With your phone in your pocket (or quite nearby), you aren’t likely to have any issues but don’t expect to be walking freely around your house away from the source.
Cleer has included touch controls to the ARC, which can control all of the basic functions. Combinations of single, double and triple taps allow you to play, pause, skip tracks and activate your voice assistant. In my testing, the controls were very responsive if a little slow to respond, though it did take me a while to get used to tapping slightly higher than I would for in-ear buds.
Of special note is the volume control – A double-tap and hold on the left or right, for volume down and up, respectively, will continually adjust the volume, but in slower, measured steps. I’ve tested many touch-control devices and they either require repeated holds for each step or rise/lower in volume too fast. The ARC have it perfectly judged, allowing you to accurately adjust volume without overstepping the mark.
The Cleer ARC use the Cleer+ app, which is available for Android and iPhone users, but I couldn’t find a PC app. The Cleer+ app is compatible with their whole range of wireless headphones and buds, so you don’t need a separate app if you own their outstanding Alpha, Enduro or Scene headphones/speakers. Any EQ presets you’ve made aren’t cross-compatible, but that’s not really an issue, as they all have slightly different audio signatures.
When I connected the ARC to the app for the first time, a firmware update was available that added touch control customisation. This allows you to disable or reassign the tap functions, but it also improved the native audio EQ, boosting bass and improving the low-end performance.
The EQ customisation tool doesn’t have any presets, but it does save your custom EQ to the ARC. I found trying to boost frequencies didn’t have much effect, but lowering the already emphasised higher frequencies helped bring out the desired bass and mid-tones. This did lower the already moderate volume, but it was worth it for the improved overall audio presentation.
Like all of the other Cleer Audio products I’ve tested, the sound quality is great, but the ARC buds could do with being a little louder. They are plenty loud enough for indoor use and quieter outdoor activities, but the sound can quickly get swallowed up by noisy traffic. Peak volume in general just isn’t quite there, and can easily be muffled by loud background sounds. I had to turn them up to nearly full volume during busy commutes, and they were still almost drowned out by traffic noise.
There are, of course, occasions when you need to hear the outside world. Maybe you are cycling or running, or you’re at a train station and want to hear your announcement. In these circumstances, the ARC makes a lot of sense. Rather than replacing the sound you hear, the ARC accompanies it in a very natural-sounding way. It feels as though everyone around you should be able to hear your music, like having a pair of speakers by your head, but it’s a counterintuitively personal experience. In reality, there is a minor amount of sound leakage, but it’s not as intrusive as a pair of open-back headphones, for example. That being said, you may still draw some disapproving glances from fellow travellers in a quiet environment.
You also have the advantage of negating that slightly spaced-out feeling you get when you remove earbuds after prolonged loud listening and your hearing readjusts. It may just be me, but if I’ve been using buds or even headphones for more than a few minutes, I get those brief moments of discombobulation while I return to the real world. You can slightly negate the effect with in-ear buds that have a quality ambient mode, but the ARC definitely feel much easier to slip into and out of.
Soundstage and imaging are generally solid with Cleer Audio, and I was suitably impressed by the ARC. The soundstage is excellent, with a real sense of spaciousness enhanced by the fact the sound is genuinely coming, unhindered, from outside your ear, but the open-ear design means it largely gets swallowed up by exterior sound.
They fare better when indoors or when it’s quiet, giving your audio breathing room. It’s not necessarily a limitation of the earphones, as that spaciousness is there, but the illusion is compromised by sound from around you. I’m being exceptionally critical, of course, and for the overwhelming majority, you won’t find issues in this regard.
There is no distortion that I noticed at full volume, but bass, mids and treble do tend to meld together when you have the ARC turned up loud. This is coupled with a lack of dynamic range, which can strengthen quieter elements of audio, but takes away from the dynamism slightly.
Tested in a quiet room and at a sensible volume, the sound is very enjoyable, with clear and pronounced higher bass frequencies, even if the low-end lacks a little punch. The lower bass presence is there, as can be heard if you press the ARC closer to your ear canal, but the open-ear design means you lose out on that deep warmth. Low-end sustained bass notes are clearly produced, but again, they are easily lost, especially amongst background noise, due to the open nature of the ARC.
Mids are a high-point for the ARC, with a full body and tuning that accentuates the higher end of the mids. This makes the ARC wonderful for podcasts and TV shows. They emphasise voices and vocals exceptionally well, and it’s these frequencies that carry best when in a louder environment, too.
Treble is slightly sharp, but not piercingly so. I’m all for a crisp finish to my audio, but the ARC go ever so slightly too far for my preferences. I had no issues at moderate volumes, as this only affected high-volume listening such as when commuting, but this is when I use the ARC the most, which can be jarring over longer periods.
Unlike the Cleer Enduro ANC or Alpha, the app’s EQ didn’t fare so well at boosting frequencies, but lowering the treble and upper mids did help to round out and improve the bass and soften the treble. This slightly lowered the overall volume, though, which was already lower than desirable, so not a great option when competing against raucous background noise.
Overall, it’s a solid performance from the ARC, but they aren’t as exciting to listen to as Cleer’s over-ear headphones.
With a seven-hour battery life, the ARC should last most people for a day or so of listening, but with the lack of charging via the case, they feel a step back from modern true-wireless buds which can carry upwards of 30 hours of additional charge. I usually leave my other wireless buds in my coat pocket so they are always ready, and just charge them once a week, but I had to make sure to charge the ARC each day so they didn’t run low. They charge quickly, though, and the low-battery indicator sounds with around 25% battery remaining, giving you ample warning of needing charging.
I would note that I was using them for upwards of five hours a day while working; If you only use them during a short commute, you could get away with less frequent charging.
Cleer has produced a lovely pair of open-ear headphones that are stylish and very well made, but they aren’t likely to appeal to everyone. For those who don’t want to block out their surroundings, they are fantastic – they make an ideal companion for countryside strolls or relaxed bike rides, allowing you to enjoy the tweets of birds and the rustle of leaves alongside your music, and they’re perfect for offices where you still need to hear your colleagues. In a busy and loud environment, however, the peak volume isn’t high enough, and your music can be lost among the noise.
The way they rest on your ears means that you don’t get the full effect of the bass they produce, and the treble can be a little sharp. Tinkering with the EQ in the app can improve this, and the ARC still have that pristine Cleer audio signature, but it’s not as impressive as their other headphones.
The main sticking point for me is the battery life. Seven hours is perfectly fine for the earphones themselves, even if I feel they could have fitted a larger battery in the ARC, but the lack of case-charging makes them slightly inconvenient, and heavy listeners will be charging them daily.
Cleer’s ARC are just a few improvements away from being a solid all-rounder, but even though they are excellent in the right situation, they will only appeal to a small niche in their current guise.