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.
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