ADVANCED Alpha: Top Dog
Today we’re going to be taking a look at ADVANCED’s current flagship headphone, the Alpha.
As the running top dog of ADVANCED’s fleet, the Alpha needs to stand out in one form or another to draw attention. With massive 96mm planar magnetic drivers (or orthodynamic if you prefer that term) controlled by powerful n48 magnets, the Alpha delivers a spacious and detailed sound scape. This along with it’s modern open-backed design and lush protein leather and hybrid ear pads enables the Alpha to make a convincing argument for you to join its pack.
Come with me as we explore the Alpha’s den to see what makes this brand flagship worth the bite out of your wallet. I’m also done with the terrible puns, no worries.
I would like to thank Peter and Hannah from ADVANCED for reaching out to see if I would be interested in reviewing the Alpha. After experiencing the stellar GT-R, a more portable planar offering they’ve got in the works, I jumped at the opportunity. The Alpha was sent over free of charge for the purposes of a fair and unbiased review, with no financial incentive in place. Though it does not need to be sent back, it is still considered the property of ADVANCED.
At the time of this review the Alpha retailed for 499.99 USD: https://www.adv-sound.com/collections/all-collection/products/alpha
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. While I enjoy a variety of signatures in my headphones I generally lean towards slightly warm with elevated treble and sub-bass, an even and natural mid-range response, with reduced mid-bass. The HiFiMan RE800, Brainwavz B400, and thinksound On2 offer unique examples of signatures I enjoy.
For at home use the Alpha was powered by the following desktop amplifiers; TEAC HA-501 and iFi Pro iCan. ADVANCED recommends running the Alpha amped, something I certainly agree with. Properly amped it’s presentation is notably tighter, more punchy, and authoritative in the low end and it’s sound stage is more dynamic. I was able to power it to comfortable listening volumes (which for me are admittedly quite low) through my LG G5, though it felt a bit limp. Should you choose to take the Alpha with you on a stroll, the F.Audio S1 paired with the Walnut F1 made for a powerful and cleaning sounding pairing giving me a similar experience to what my desktop amps were putting out.
- Driver unit: 96mm, single-sided n48 planar magnetic
- Impedance: 34 ohm
- Sensitivity: 90dB+/-3dB at 1kHz
- Frequency response: 20Hz – 40kHz
- Max input power: 20mW
- Rated input power: 50mW
Packaging and Accessories:
As with everything ADVANCED makes that I’ve tried, the packaging that goes along with it is pretty nice. In the case of the Alpha, it and all the accessories are enclosed in a massive carrying case, bringing the spirit of flagship headphones like the HiFiMan Susvara down to more affordable levels. The exterior of the case is lined in a durable synthetic material with the ADVANCED logo printed on top. A firm metal clasp keep the lid secure when closed. Inside the Alpha is encased in a slab of dense foam for ultimate protection with the spare pads inserted into cutouts in the lid. The cable is wrapped neatly around the leather cable tie in the centre. In all you get;
- Alpha headphones
- 2 pairs of ear pads; angled protein leather (preinstalled) and angled hybrid pads
- Silver-plated copper 8-way braided cable
- Leather cable tie
The accessories included with the Alpha are fairly limited, but really nice overall. The two pairs of angled ear pads are absolutely fantastic and I really don’t think upgrading them will be necessary. The thick protein leather pads are said to contain memory foam, but I’d classify it more as just a very soft, plush cloud of a cushion instead. The hybrid pads aren’t quite as thick, but my ears don’t touch the driver plate at the back and they feel every bit as comfortable. They’re actually quite similar to HiFiMan’s Susvara pads, but round instead of ovular. Both of the included pads are top notch.
The cable is well constructed, lacks microphonics, is free of memory, and doesn’t really tangle, but it feels a little out of place on a product like this. Why do I say that? Well, its short at only 1.5 meters and feels like an iem cable terminated in 2.5mm jacks for headphone use. Everything about it screams suitability for a mobile headphone, but that’s not what the Alpha is. The Alpha is for use in your comfy chair in the den or living room, or at your desk, or for those intense gaming sessions. It’s not a headphone you trundle around outside with. It’s large, fully open back, and needs an amp to shine. I would love to see ADVANCED include a second, longer cable that’s more suitable to a product like the Alpha, or just lengthen the included cable so I’m not tethered next to my amp. Or toss in an meter long extension cable. Any one of those would work fine.
Design, Build, and Comfort:
The Alpha’s open-back design is very streamlined with the 9 nine large slats that ventilate the massive drivers dominating the look. The small top and bottom slats look to be cosmetic. There is some latticework visible through these slats which give the Alpha’s exterior design some texture and nuance. Printed on the two centre slats is ‘ADVANCED ALPHA’ with ‘Planar Magnetic Driver Technology’ following the curve along the bottom of the ear cup. With an all-black color scheme it ends up a very clean and attractive design that shouldn’t really see people picking sides. I find it has a handsome look with a fairly universal appeal.
The build quality overall is quite good with impressive fit and finish throughout. Unlike on the GT-R which uses the same parts for the headband, the red and black knurling strips used to denote right and left channels are tight and do not rattle. The cups pivot and twist smoothly and freely without any binding or squeaking. The paint finish along the spring-steel headband does have a couple mild blemishes here and there, but they are minimal and do in any way not detract from the overall experience. You really have to be paying attention to notice them.
The floating protein-leather hand band is lightly padded, but the underside is quite soft and I never experienced any hot spots as a result. The stitching is also very uniform and neat. The removable ear pads are also really easy to remove and reinstall. The plastic hooks slot into cutouts on the inside of the cup and twist to lock. There is absolutely no fuss involved in installing them. ADVANCED even put small red and blue dots by the hook and receiving slot to ensure the pads are always installed in the correct orientation; remember that they are angled and need to be installed a specific way to ensure proper fitment. If something does go wrong, pending it’s a manufacturing or material defect, you’ve got a 3 year warranty backing you up.
I did run into a minor build issue with mine that was easily resolved with a glue stick. When twisting off the pads, I found the cloth material covering the pad’s opening caught on the wire mesh protecting the drivers. After a number of pad swaps, the mesh started to pull up around the bottom edge. A quick dab of glue secured it back in place and I haven’t had an issue since.
Comfort is another strong suit of the Alpha. The plush pads and floating headband do a great job of balancing the weight evenly around your head and ears. I did run into a minor concern, one I shared with the GT-R. The headband is a little too loose and lets the Alpha slide down the sides of my head more than I would prefer. Letting others with larger heads than mine use the Alpha, this seems to be an issue for only with those with tiny noggins. For reference, I use 99% of my headphones at the smallest headband setting which in many cases it still too large, forcing me to add extra padding.
Overall the Alpha looks pretty nice, is well-built with good to great fit and finish, and is quite comfortable, though they’ll be a little more comfortable if you have an average to larger head-size.
Pads: The two sets of included pads sound similar, but there are differences that give each their own character. The pre-installed deep protein-leather pads have a bit more low end focus with a softer treble response. The hybrid pads balance out the sound nicely with a punchier though less pronounced low end, and more prominent mid-range.
Looking through my review history you’d be excused in thinking that I’m an in-ear guy through and through. That’s sort of the case with the main issue being I’ve never really found a headphone that truly meets both of my personal comfort and sound requirements. Maybe they’ll be the most comfortable thing I’ve ever worn, but are sloppy bass cannons or simply lack clarity. Or maybe they sound glorious with amazing sound but are too large, or painful to wear for more than a short period. In-ears are way more flexible in those regards and there are a handful I can wear and listen to for hours on end. The Alpha backs up some impressive comfort with a pleasingly authoritative, balanced signature that is detailed and vibrant, yet still easy on the ears.
Looking at ADVANCED’s frequency response chart for the Alpha, I was expecting the treble here to be somewhat unbalanced and overly sharp. There is a dip in the 5k presence region followed by a prominent spike in the 7k brilliance region. What this tune results in is an airy, spacious presentation with good detail and sparkle that lacks grating or piercing qualities. I suppose those that are particularly sensitive to the 7k region might run into issues, but personally I was surprised at the Alpha’s long term listenability. Even a track like The Crystal Method’s “Grace (feat. LeAnn Rimes)” which is notoriously screechy and painful, especially through headphones with treble spikes, is perfectly bearable through the Alpha.
The Alpha’s mid-range is quite smooth with a natural presence relative to the treble and bass regions. It’s neither forward nor recessed, but is near perfectly balanced in the overall presentation. Male and female vocals share head space equally with neither stepping forward or showing prominence, usually. Sometimes female vocals step out a bit too far and can be a touch strident, but it is very uncommon in my experience. There is no sibilance present. Running through a track like Big Gram’s “Run For Your Life” sees both Big Boi and Sarah Barthel’s vocals sharing equal prominence. Usually one stands out more than the other. I especially appreciate this as Sarah’s performance is especially sensual which definitely comes through. Overall timbre is accurate too with instruments being easily distinguishable and sounding as they should.
The Alpha’s low end extension is even without any drops after a certain region, especially obvious when tossing on some sub-bass heavy test tracks like James Blake’s “Limit to Your Love” or The Prodigy’s “Charly (Trip Into Drum and Bass Version)” where things dig deep and warble hard. The lowest sub-bass regions are where the Alpha loses some composure. This is where the Alpha’s amping requirements are most important in my opinion. If not properly powered, the Alpha sounds very loose and uncontrolled on the deepest sub-bass notes. It will even force some distortion when run through my mobile F.Audio S1/Walnut F1 combo. Properly amped through the HA-501 or Pro iCan, it’s still a touch looser than I would prefer but is free of distortion. Thankfully the extra low bass found on these two tracks isn’t really something you find dialed into most music. In contrast, the Alpha’s mid-bass is really tight and punchy. It makes my liquid drum and bass mixes a bliss to listen to as it handles the snappy transitions and detailed hits with ease. Overall texture is quite good with lots of detail and a very dynamic presentation.
The Alpha has a very open and spacious sound stage with a fairly even width and depth. Using it for gaming made for a positive experience due to accurate imaging qualities that enabled me to accurately judge enemy distance and location in Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds. It couldn’t counter my lack of PC gaming skill though, so even with this information I was still whipped in most gunfights. The Alpha’s depth of layering and clear separation of effects and instruments is also top notch keeping your audio free of congestion.
Like the GT-R before it, the Alpha shows that ADVANCED is very capable of delivering a competitive product in an area where they previously had no experience. The Alpha’s design is very clean and mature with good ergonomics and a durable build. The two sets of included angled pads are of very high quality and feel amazing around the ears. I see no real reason to pad swap outside of curiosity.
The Alpha’s sound signature is vibrant yet easy on the ears with a very balanced presentation. With deep though slightly loose sub-bass, a prominent mid-range, and smoothly crisp treble, as long as you properly amp them they are free of any major drawbacks and end up being very versatile across genres.
If you’re in the market for a new open back and/or planar magnetic headphone and want to try something that isn’t from one of the major players in the segment, definitely give the Alpha a shot. You might very well find yourself with a new favorite headphone.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Album)
BT – If the Stars Are Eternal Then So Are You and I (Album)
Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Going to Eat That? (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bonet) (Album)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Album)
James Blake – Limit to Your Love
The Prodigy – Charly (Trip Into Drum and Bass Version)
The Crystal Method – Grace (feat. LeAnn Rimes) (Track)
Jidenna – Long Live the Chief (Track)
Skrillex – Ragga Bomb (Track)
Big Grams – Run for Your Life (Track)