Advanced Sound Alpha Review – Sophistication and Moderation
Balanced signature, Excellent control, Pleasing build and ergonomics, Multiple earpads included
Thin, short cable, May lack attack for some, Slight treble glare
Despite being Advanced Sound’s first, the Alpha is a terrific orthodynamic open-back headphone that demonstrates solidity in its build and refinement in its tuning.
For a company so new, Advanced Sound have produced a shockingly wide product range, almost all of which met with a positive critical reception. I’ve greatly enjoyed all of their products sent my way, from their highly cost-effective 747 and M4 to their pricier, but more distinguished Model 3. The hallmark feature of their past products has always been their value, with all of their models lying below $100 USD. Their all-new Alpha doesn’t maintain a budget status, but it does still represent value in its own regard.
The Alpha diverges from Adv’s budget models as a $499 full-sized headphone sporting proprietary single-sided 96mm planar magnetic drivers. That may sound jarring coming from the rest of their lineup, however, it’s fairly modest considering the technology on offer. Chiefly, planar magnetic drivers come with a wealth of inherent benefits; offering more precise transience, lower distortion and a more natural interaction of sound with the outer ear. Moreover, the Alpha represents a surprisingly mature example, excelling with coherence and control.
You can read more about the Alpha and purchase a set for yourself here. I would also suggest reading more about orthodynamic/planar magnetic headphones here if you’re not already familiar.
I would like to thank Hannah from Advanced Sound very much for her quick communication and for providing me with the Alpha for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the headphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.
The Alpha’s packaging reminds of established competitors from Hifiman and Sennheiser. They ship in a large textured box with a metal clasp and lasercut foam innards that snugly protect the headphones and accessories inside.
In addition to the Alpha itself, Advanced sound include a lightweight 8-core cable, magnetic leather cable organiser and ¼” adapter. Interestingly, Adv also provide an additional pair of earpads, they’re of a different design to the pre-installed pads offering a slightly altered sound signature. It’s a nice inclusion that will be appreciated by many. I should also mention that the Alpha’s come with an extensive 3-year warranty that will sure to inspire a little extra buyer confidence.
The Alpha is through and through an at-home headphone; with a larger, comfort focussed design and open-back form factor reinforcing this notion. Its construction is very pleasing, perhaps not as sumptuous as some portable fashion cans around this price, but I would compare them favourably to the Sennheiser HD6XX series and Hifiman headphones.
It’s a blend of smooth painted aluminium and tactile plastics that present well, a pleasing bled of form and funtion. The headphones aren’t light (380g w/o cable), but they’re inline with other planars such as Hifiman’s HE-400 headphones. Still, they will be noticeably heavier than standard dynamic headphones; for reference, the HD650 is a mere 270g.
Regardless, the headphones feel rock solid, with tight tolerances to every join and joint. The hinges don’t squeak and the suspension headband, though slightly firm for me, reliably holds the headphones in place. It has a well-judged pressure that balances stability with adjustability, suiting a wide range of head sizes.
The very wide pleather headband effectively spreads the weight of the headphones, avoiding hotspot formation during long listening sessions. The Alpha has fairly high clamp force that will be subject to personal preference. At the very least, this makes them impressively stable on the head despite their size and weight.
The earcups themselves also flatter with their quality. Though the frame is plastic, they feel dense and solid, reducing weight without compromising feel. The plastic has a nice texture and finish that feels harder wearing than the scuff prone matte and gloss found on most headphones. Otherwise, all structural elements of the headphones, the hangers, hinges and protective grills, are metal. They’re evenly painted and continue to present well after months of testing.
Both included earpads are spacious, soft and comfortable with soft memory foam padding. They provided excellent comfort and seal though the slimmer hybrid pads may be less comfortable for larger eared listeners. They attach via 4 clips that twist into place, enabling very easy swapping. Unlike others, I didn’t experience deterioration of the protective mesh over the drivers. Being an open-back headphone, isolation is minimal and they do leak sound securing them as an at-home headphone.
At the bottom, the Alpha interfaces via a dual entry 2.5mm cable, one on each earcup. The plugs are colour coded to match the coloured hinges. The cable itself is fairly pleasing with silver plated innards. It’s very thin, more suitable for an IEM than a full-sized headphone, though it feels nicely constructed with a tight 8-core braid. It’s also quite short at just 1.2m which may not suit those that intend to run the Alpha’s from a desktop setup.
Otherwise, the cable is pliable and nicely relieved at all terminations. It has a 3.5mm case friendly straight plug though Adv also include a ¼” adapter in the box. As others have mentioned, it would’ve been nice to see a more substantial cable included in the box or even two cables, one longer cable for desktop use and a shorter portable cable. Still, the included units will be more than adequate for the majority of users.
The Alpha is a nicely balanced (but not neutral!) headphone with slightly laid-back vocals creating a mild u-shaped signature. It’s low-end is slightly warmer and its midrange fairly natural. High-frequencies aren’t artificially enhanced, focussing on air and atmosphere over detail presence and crispness. This greatly aids the Alpha’s midrange timbre when compared to a lot of brighter headphones that tend to over-articulate. As a result, the Alpha can be characterised as both a natural and bright/clear headphone and one that executes this style of tuning with sophistication and moderation.
Advanced Sound include two pairs of earpads with the Alpha, the pre-installed PU leather pads in addition to a pair of hybrid fabric/pleather pads. I found myself preferring the hybrid pads for their more balanced sound though many will no doubt enjoy the pleather pads for their more engaging low-end.
The pre-installed pleather pads deliver a more robust low-end with greater mid-bass impact and a warmer tone. They produce larger, more visceral bass notes but don’t sound quite as tight and controlled. Their midrange is also darker and less transparent. Male vocals are actually more upfront while female vocals are noticeably more laid-back and lacking some clarity. They’re still clean and male vocals still lack a touch of density. Highs are also notably affected with the pleather pads being darker and smoother, and the hybrid pads delivering a more energetic, airy presentation. I would’ve preferred something in-between as the pleather pads sound a little too dark while the hybrid pads have a little too much middle treble though this will be more a matter of preference. Though not as deep, the hybrid pads provide similar staging dimensions in addition to more accurate instrument placement on account of their greater balance.
The Alpha presents naturally through slight warmth set to terrific control, and it maintains a well-balanced nature through its entire lower-frequencies. They are not a bass-centric headphone rather, bass is a touch fuller while maintaining accurate placement within the Alpha’s image. Sub-bass doesn’t captivate with its presence, but extends very well, especially for a midrange open-back headphone. Accordingly, the Alpha delivers defined rumble and surprisingly solid slam that lacks just an iota of physicality when compared to closed-back competitors. A small mid-bass focus instigates the Alpha’s fuller character. I would characterise it as full rather than explicitly warm for though it is elevated, bass never sounds rounded or bloated due to careful moderation of emphasis combined with excellent transience and control.
Notes are sligthly enlarged, contributing to the headphone’s full-bodied voicing and the headphones sound just a little warmer in tone while maintaining precise articulation of every note. Despite this, the Alpha is very tight and agile; attack and decay are precise and the headphones maintain blistering pace during complex tracks. Upper-bass has a hair of emphasis over neutral though it sounds well-integrated and avoids tubbiness and midrange spill. It isn’t always the most separated presentation due chiefly to its enlarged bass notes, though excellent speed and control retain great detail and definition. The Alpha boasts a richly textured and dynamic presentation that never comes at the cost of quality; engaging without overpowering.
It’s been said that the Alpha’s midrange specialises in timbre and I would be inclined to agree to an extent. Though not perfectly neutral or flat, the Alpha conveys with nice linearity; its slightly elevated lower-midrange feeding very evenly from its slightly emphasized upper-bass. The result is a midrange that maintains a slightly fuller voicing; natural but neutral enough in tone to retain transparency. Its centre midrange is more neutral, pulling vocals slightly back compared to instruments. However, both male and female vocals are presented with pleasing clarity and they never become lost or overshadowed. Male vocals suffer a little from this tuning, with an inconsistent character ranging small to strained. They’re still clear and devoid of sibilance or raspiness, but do lack density at times.
On the flipside, female vocals are glorious, not due to a huge increase in presence, but their more refined tuning; and as much as I love Tyll from Innerfidelity, I also don’t hear the peakiness and harshness that he reports. Rather, I hear a gradual climb to a small upper-midrange emphasis before a slope into an attenuated lower-treble. Though not perfectly linear, upper-mids sound refined yet crystal clear, with appropriate body and a realistic stage position. As lower-treble isn’t emphasized, upper-mids sound smooth and liquid in their presentation, flattering female vocals and piano. The Alpha may lack a little engagement for lovers of acoustic and aggressive detailing, but they’re delightfully natural up top and impressive resolving. Upper-midrange timbre is where the Alpha excels to my ears while male vocals are clear and defined if lacking a morsel of realism.
Highs are interesting in their tuning, undoubtedly impressive in quality, but their emphasis’ may not suit every listener. Of note, lower-treble is slightly laid-back. Accordingly, though linear with the Alpha’s upper midrange, details lack some attack and crispness. Still, as they’re well-integrated and balanced, the Alpha is very-well detailed, both with regards to foreground and background detail, though it isn’t as immediately apparent as on most competitors. The Alpha is ultimately a more middle-treble focussed headphone. It sounds pristine, open and has gorgeous air as a result. However, this style of tuning also introduces a brightness into its presentation that can overshadow its relatively attenuated lower-treble – containing the bulk of instrumental detail.
The Alpha also isn’t the cleanest sounding headphone as a result, though it does maintain great composure, demonstrating the same excellent control up top as within its lower-frequencies. Further aiding its technical brilliance, the Alpha extends nicely at the very top. The headphones pursue atmosphere and scale over delicacy, a character that stems from an upper-treble spike that enhances the presentation of micro-details but also skews instrument timbre. Strings can sound a little thin and cymbals tend to slightly over-emphasize shimmer. Still, all are presented with great resolution and detail retrieval impresses despite the Alpha’s uneven tuning overshadowing some other aspects of its presentation.
Being both open-back and airy in its delivery, the Alpha delivers a spacious stage that frequently stretches beyond the head. Moreover, it’s a well-layered and coherent presentation on account of the Alpha’s fairly transparent midrange and almost spot-on body. Imaging is excellent, with linear transitions between bass, mids and highs. This is compounded upon by the headphone’s excellent control and precise transience that flatter directional cues and contribute to a well-ordered stage with effortless instrument placement.
Expanding upon the Alpha’s imaging prowess, background layers are well-detailed in addition to foreground elements, though certain elements can be over-emphasized at times. Separation is also respectable overall with only a few caveats. Chiefly, bass separation does suffer slightly on account of its added warmth and the Alpha’s elevated middle-treble can mask some finer detail in the neighbouring frequencies. However, on most tracks, the midrange and high-end have great delineation on account of the Alpha’s impressive extension and enhanced air.
Though large and sporting mammoth 96mm drivers, the Alpha has a very palatable 34ohm impedance with a 90dB sensitivity. They still require modest power to achieve adequate listening volumes and listeners preferring louder volumes will definitely want to look into a dedicated amplifier. They also scale very well with better sources, achieving a more spacious, detailed stage and greater dynamics. As a result, I would consider a solid dedicated source vital to maximising the potential of these headphones.
HTC U11: One of the better smartphone audio implementations, still not nearly ideal. Volume is almost maxed and I listen quietly. Pronounced sub-bass roll-off, loose mid-bass lacking definition. Slightly thinner midrange lacking vocal density. Highs are slightly more energetic but lack extension, mediocre detailing. Dynamically flat with a more confined stage, ill-defined layers. I’m usually perfectly happy with the U11’s performance with IEMs and portable headphones, but don’t let the Alpha’s 34ohm impedance fool you, they deserve a dedicated source, even a relatively cheap one such as the Q1 MKII below.
Fiio Q1 MKII ($100): Very clean budget DAC with modest driving power and a musical signature. Slightly larger but looser sub-bass, still has pleasing impact. Touch of additional mid-bass sounds full but maintains nice control. Slightly laid-back upper midrange but not the smoothest due to a lower-treble bump. Crisper and clearer as a result, but also slightly thin. Extension is good but not outstanding. Soundstage is pleasing, lacking some background detail.
Fiio Q5 ($350): Very well-done balanced sound with slight musical inclination, good driving power for a portable DAC. Tight sub-bass feeds into clean, controlled mid-bass with great definition. Mids are slightly laid-back but transparent and evenly weighted. Treble is impressively linear and well extended, delivering great resolution. As a result, mids and highs are both natural and detailed. Soundstage is great, spacious with accurate placement. Diminishing returns from here up.
Shozy Alien+ (~$450): A very powerful DAP with excellent dynamics and a slightly engaging/musical tuning. Concise sub-bass slam, tight and controlled bass. Mids are slightly more organic mids, vocals are brought forward. Slight lower treble lift accentuates details. Pleasing air, darker background, great extension and resolution. Well-rounded stage, lacking some expansion due to forward midrange.
iBasso DX200 w/AMP5 ($800): Immensely technical DAP, more analytical but with a fuller midrange. Sub-bass is a touch softer than the Alien+ but mid-bass is cleaner and more defined. More transparent midrange, excellent midrange layering. Very detailed, slightly aggressive lower-treble presentation. Slightly brighter background but with terrific extension and resolution. Very spacious stage with precise imaging.
Sennheiser HD6XX: Though very functional, the predominately plastic HD6XX isn’t as premium in its build and design as the Alpha. It’s a comfortable headphone in its own right, though I prefer the wider headband and deeper pads on the Alpha that provide a little more comfort despite the headphone’s additional weight. The HD6XX has very shallow pads by comparison though its lower clamp force creates a comfortable if less stable fit.
The Alpha is similarly balanced overall, but is a little less linear than the HD6XX; slightly more engaging through its bass and midrange, and smoother in its high-frequency presentation. Overall, it can be characterised as a more neutrally toned and cleaner headphone with a greater focus on transparency over timbre. I did the following testing with the Alpha’s stock pleather pads, take into account that they can be made brighter using the included hybrid pads.
Though bass is similarly present on both, the Alpha extends a little further, delivering greater sub-bass impact. Its mid-bass is also a little cleaner, with a more neutral tone where the HD6XX is warmer. Both are well defined, the HD6XX has larger notes as it has more mid-bass while the Alpha is more physical with deeper focus and greater separation. The Alpha is more defined with greater speed.
The HD6XX is more full-bodied in its midrange voicing, delivering natural, if slightly thicker vocals. On the contrary, the Alpha is less elevated through its upper bass and lower-midrange, creating a more neutrally toned, transparent midrange. Male vocals are more forward than the HD6XX though female vocals and higher instruments sound more laid-back on the Alpha if similarly clear.
The Alpha is smoother up top, most notably with regards to lower-treble. It has a bump in its middle treble for added air and clarity but has a smoother foreground detail presentation. On the contrary, the HD6XX has a slightly more pronounced lower/middle treble that makes it more aggressive and more articulate. Both are well detailed, the Sennheiser brings intricacies more to the fore while the Alpha is more linear but also more laid-back.
The HD6XX has a similarly sized stage to the Alpha, but it sounds more separated due to its brighter midrange and lower-treble. The Alpha lacks the same separation but can achieve grand expansion when called for. Imaging is excellent on both, though the more agile, extended and linear Alpha is more accurate and holographic.
Finally, the Alpha extends further in both directions, delivering higher resolution as a result. Despite the HD6XX being nicely balanced and natural, its presentation lacks the layering of the Alpha, its individual notes are also less wholly resolved despite being more articulated on account of its brighter treble and upper-midrange.
Excitement is dangerous, especially for a reviewer; a heavily influencing false expectation that skews opinion towards polarising extremes. The Alpha was definitely a headphone that intrigued me, especially given my affinity for their lower priced designs. On the other hand, I was apprehensive about Advance Sound’s ability to weave a coherent signature using in-house parts, especially given their limited experience with planar drivers. Luckily, unlike many things, the Alpha lived up to a lot of my expectations and presumably others given the predominately positive impressions I’ve seen online.
For a first attempt, their construction impresses, besting industry staples and upholding comfort during longer listening. And when properly driven, the Alpha thrives. They don’t awe on first listen, but build a gradual appreciation over hours of critical listening; and those searching for balance will find it in the Alpha’s mature and well-integrated tuning. The level of quality on offer also greatly impresses, with a stable presentation and surgical control. Its bright middle treble and skewed male vocals will not suit some. But if you’re searching for a well-balanced open-back headphone, newcomer Advanced Sound have produced one of the most versatile offerings yet.
The Alpha can be purchased from Advanced Sound for $499 USD. I am not affiliated with Advanced Sound and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.
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