Samsung's finally getting into the premium personal audio market with its Level line of products, but can they just walk into this increasingly crowded space, one that is, frankly, dominated by the oft-maligned Beats Audio? Two pairs of headphones, one pair of earbuds, and a portable Bluetooth speaker comprise Samsung's first real effort to break into this lucrative space - are any of them worth your attention? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer could be yes.
Level Over ($350)
The Level Overs are Samsung's flagship premium headphone, commanding a just-barely-beats-Beats price of $350 (Beats Studio Wireless are $380). Yes, that is a very expensive set of headphones that you are probably not interested in, but then again, the Level Overs are very clearly targeted at a specific group of buyers: people who are considering the Beats Studio Wireless or, potentially, the Parrot Ziks.
If you're simply going on features, the Level Overs blow Beats out of the water. The touch controls on the right ear alone are a massive advantage for the Level Over, and I simply cannot overstate their convenience. Like the Parrot Ziks, you can control volume and play/pause/tracking via swiping or tapping gestures on the right ear housing of the Level Overs. Swipe up to increase volume (it even does incremental adjustments based on how far you swipe), swipe down to lower it. Double-tap to play or pause. Swipe left or right to active the next / previous track function. This stuff works in every music app I tested, too. I would pay money dollars for this. You can also tap and hold for 3 seconds to activate S Voice / BT voice dialer on non-Samsung phones, but that's pretty useless.
How well do the gestures work? Surprisingly well, actually. I love them, and though the next / previous track gesture sometimes activated accidentally when I went to shift the headphones or take them off, it's something I got used to and was able to avoid after using them for a week.
Like the Studio Wireless, the Level Overs feature active noise cancellation, activated via a somewhat annoyingly small button below the power switch (on the Studio Wireless, ANC is always on, so the Over's toggle is a definite upgrade). The ANC on these headphones, though, is simply outstanding. Samsung's hybrid noise-cancellation system utilizes a microphone inside the headphones along with one outside, and then generates the noise-cancelling... noise... based on those inputs. It works amazingly well. I actually took these on a flight last week, and while the noise of the plane wasn't completely muted, it was so quiet and inoffensive that was I legitimately befuddled by Samsung's apparent sound-killing witchcraft. It is scary good, and the amount of ANC hiss is very low.
Like any ANC headphone, the Overs won't magically mute voices, random and sudden loud noises, or other sound sources that aren't relatively constant. That said, it seems a lot better than other ANC headphones I've tried. It does help that the Level Overs have great passive isolation, being a big set of over-ear headphones and all.
There's also a Level app you can install on most Android smartphones. It shows your remaining battery, has an ANC toggle, an EQ, and you can set up TTS notifications for Samsung apps and a few non-Samsung ones too ("message" and "schedule" were all I saw on my G3). Finally, the Level Overs have NFC on the left ear cup for quick and easy Bluetooth pairing. They charge via microUSB, and Samsung claims 15 hours of wireless listening per charge.
Beyond the tech, of course, is sound. The Level Overs sound decidedly better than the Ons, like a real, quality headphone. Compared to my Grado SR80i on-ears, the Overs have comparable fidelity, though do sound a bit muted and mid-heavy to my ears. They're not overly bassy, surprisingly. The difference between sound wired versus over Bluetooth was also surprisingly small. The same 320Kbps MP3s played over Bluetooth versus a direct line from my PC's stereo / DAC setup sounded strikingly similar, though I could perceive a noticeable loss in fidelity (tracks over Bluetooth simply felt less textured and "tight"). If you're comparing the audio out of a smartphone's headphone jack to Bluetooth on the Level Overs, though, I doubt you'll hear the difference.
Compared to huge audiophile fan favorites like V Moda's Crossfade, of course the Level Overs aren't going to stand up favorably. This is clearly a headphone built to a price point and an aesthetic, not to please headphone fanatics. That said, the Level Overs do sound genuinely good, just not $350 worth if it were my money.
Once you turn on ANC, generally all bets are off in regard to sound quality. ANC by its nature distorts sound, and soundstage on complex tracks gets kind of nuked when you flip that switch. For people who want ANC headphones, this isn't a problem - music is still perfectly listenable and fairly detailed with the ANC activated, it just isn't quite as good. It's not a problem because this is true of literally any ANC headphone in existence. I will say that using ANC while listening to audio over the wired connection is a bad idea - things get very distorted and the loudness and line noise get cranked way up. If you're using the ANC, definitely only do so in combination with Bluetooth.
If I were to change any one thing about the Overs, it would be the addition of a smart on-off technology. Parrot's Zik headphones are able to detect when they're not on your ears, and pause playback when you take them off. Even better would be a similar technology that knows to turn the headphones off if they've been off your ears for more than a few minutes. Because they're ANC headphones, the Overs will stay on in ANC mode if you forget to turn them off via the power switch, and that uses up the battery. Sitting idle with ANC off probably isn't going to drain much, but people tend to use ANC on these kinds of headphones most of the time.
As for comfort - one of the key points to address on any over-ear headphone - the Level Overs are exceptional. I had virtually zero fatigue wearing them for hours at a time, these are truly nice headphones to wear from an ergonomic perspective. They did sometimes feel like they'd slide off the back of my head when I'd lean back, though they never actually did, and you probably just get used to this feeling eventually.
Level On ($180)
The Level Ons are, surprisingly, a perfectly respectable on-ear headphone for the style-conscious consumer. Their folding mechanism and fashion-forward looks (basically a shameless copy of the Beats Solo 2) make them a totally practical portable solution, and while the sound isn't going to win Samsung any awards, it's not bad at all.
A quick breakdown of their features:
- Folding mechanism for portability
- Modular cord setup (cable can detach from headphone)
- Soft leather headband and ear cups
- Cable with full inline controls (functionality only guaranteed on Samsung devices) and microphone
- Included hard-shell case
I compared the Level On to my Grado SR80is. For those unfamiliar, Grado makes open-back on-ear headphones, meaning that there's no noise isolation in them, so not only does sound from the outside world get in while you're wearing them, people can actually hear the music you're playing in quieter environments pretty easily. The Grados also have a really, really long and thick non-detachable cable, don't fold up, and aren't especially rugged. So, we're looking at two polar opposites of the on-ear spectrum here.
Compared to the $100 Grados, the Ons sounded much more muffled, had less fidelity (particularly when it comes to treble), muddier and less detailed mids, and much sloppier, more emphasized bass. This makes things sound worse than they are, though - the Grados are an exceptional value and have a genuine cult following because of it. They really are the best sound for dollar on the market, so comparing the much more style/image-focused Level On to them isn't exactly fair.
Having reviewed at least one pair of Beats headphones, I will say the Level Ons don't pump the bass like Dr. Dre, and they aren't so shaped in their sound as to actively distort your music into oblivion. Do they sound as good as their primary competitor, the Beats Solo 2? I frankly can't answer that. I'd guess they're probably somewhat comparable, if only because Samsung is so clearly targeting Beats with these headphones.
I will say the Level On have very good passive noise isolation for an on-ear, are extremely comfortable, and I'm perfectly happy listening to music on them. They are not at all a bad headphone, but like their pop-culture phenom competition, they are unabashedly overpriced. Unlike Beats, however, you can probably expect the price for the Level Ons to drop precipitously in the coming months, especially around the holidays. If you can grab a pair of Level Ons for around or under $120 because you like the looks and want a very comfortable, stylish headphone, I can't blame you. They look and feel premium (the soft leather is absolutely delightful on your ears), and if you're not a fan of white, they're available in all-black too.
Level In ($150)
Don't bother. The Level In is, frankly, the worst $100+ headphone I've listened to since Samsung's last attempt at premium earbuds, the craptacular EHS-71s. Samsung's Level Ins were apparently tuned underwater, because there is simply no bass, reverb, or even midrange on these headphones. Highs aren't just tinny, they're practically scratchy with the treble tuned so sharp - music literally becomes grating with these on.
I compared the Level Ins with the cheaper ($120) RHA-MA750s, and it was no contest. The MA750s provided actual bass, mid-range was balanced divinely, and highs were more than detailed enough for an in-ear monitor in this price bracket. The sad thing about the Level Ins is that, for all their high-strung treble, they really don't seem to capture much detail, so it's not like they're extremely "flat" or anything - they just flat-out suck.
Granted, anyone coming from headphones included with their smartphone or even sub-$30 cheapies will probably hear an upgrade with these. They may not match the bass of some low-end / no-name earbuds, but the fidelity, soundstage, and separation will almost undoubtedly be superior. Samsung's using a 3-piece hybrid balanced armature and dynamic driver setup for the Ins, so they're still perfectly capable of providing a better listening experience compared to the earbuds most people are wearing these days (which is to say really terrible ones).
If the sound doesn't turn you off, by the way, the fit will. These are among the least comfortable earbuds I've ever worn, and probably the most difficult to get a seal on. I did not like wearing them.
At $150, the Level Ins are an obvious "no buy" from an informed consumer standpoint - you're simply throwing your money away.
The Level Box is about the size of Beats Pill 2.0 and is clearly positioned to compete with it. It boasts 15 hours of battery life and costs 15% less than the Pill, at $170. The Level Box gets pretty loud, and it has surprisingly decent low-end grunt for something the size of a Jambox. The clarity is also quite good considering its size. Frankly, I've not used the Beats Pill 2.0, so I'm not in a position to make a comparison here. That said, reviews of the Pill 2.0 haven't been too great, and I'd be inclined to call the Level Box 2.0 a pretty good small Bluetooth speaker. Whether it's as good as the much-loved Logitech UE Boom, though, I'm not sure - Logitech's portable BT speakers have earned a reputation as being among the best value in the business, and I'm not convinced Samsung will be dethroning them any time soon.
That said, I think anyone who buys a Level Box will be pleased. Its premium aluminum structure, nice physical buttons and great battery life, along with totally respectable sound (and speakerphone support) make it a product with few real pitfalls. It also has NFC pairing, which is a pretty nice convenience if you ask me.
Sadly, for whatever reason the Level Box isn't compatible with Samsung's Level app in the Play Store, which makes no sense at all to me. It doesn't have a battery readout, and a speakerphone toggle would be nice, too - the kind of things an app could help with.
On The Level
Samsung's first serious foray into the premium personal audio market is promising, for the most part. While its earbuds still leave pretty much everything to be desired, its on-ear headphones and Bluetooth speaker are surprisingly on-point for a first effort. Are the headphones overpriced? Sure. But in a market where people pay $200 or more for Beats, Samsung thinks it can get in on some of that money, and I bet they have a real chance in some markets.
The Level On, despite not being a fantastic headphone, is reasonably good-looking (unless you're Artem, who declares them a "baby poop brown" monstrosity) and produce audio that is totally respectable. They're super comfy, too. They also come in black if you're not digging the pure luxury (TM) look. The build quality on them seems quite good - from the folding mechanism to the plastic frame down to the super-soft leather headband insert and ear cups. Nothing about them says "cheap" - even the cord and inline controls feel premium.
The Level Over is, I think, Samsung's big triumph of the four products they released. The gesture controls, NFC, excellent noise cancellation, very good sound, and comfortable fit make them a great all-rounder premium headphone for chic travellers and executives, exactly the market Beats goes after with the Studio Wireless. I honestly think Samsung has Beats beat on all fronts with these headphones, though I'd have to compare the sound to be really sure.
The Level In is the obvious weak point in the lineup, and I have my doubts about their making a return when the line inevitably gets a refresh next year. Samsung simply isn't good at in-ear headphones. Perhaps they should partner with someone with a little IEM know-how and co-brand the Level buds for a little more audio street cred - they certainly couldn't make them sound much worse than they do now. Which is to say bad. Seriously Samsung, these are awful.
The Level Box seems like a solid product in the premium mini-Bluetooth speaker segment, and I have a feeling Samsung's going to sell a lot of these things. They come in cheaper than the Beats Pill or Bose (though I'm guessing the Bose sounds much nicer), and Samsung's retail clout with both carriers and big-box electronics stores will get this product a lot of exposure. I'm not certain it's worth $170, but probably pretty close - this is a surprisingly decent little speaker.
It seems like Samsung is definitely doing more than dipping its toes in the premium audio segment with Level, so I look forward to seeing what they come up with next. After all, Beats could use a little competition.