Comparing the high-end cans from the names you know
I have a weird fetish for headphones. I have a handful of sets of my own, ranging from ones I spent too much money on to ones that were cheap but sound surprisingly good. Recently, Samsung sent me a sampling of their new Level Audio gear, and I just knew we had to compare the top-of-the-line Level Over headphones to a set from another company familiar to everyone interested in mobile — Apple's Beats Studio Wireless.
While neither of these headphones are going to suit the serious audiophile (or anyone who likes to play one on the Internet), I can't lie and say either is a bad purchase. Yes, if you came to knock either or both brands and are looking for someone to validate that, you didn't find the right place. Both companies have built headphones designed to be driven by something small — like a smartphone — and they each have their own unique sound. There's a very good chance that you'll really enjoy the sound from either of these headphones, so let's take a look and put them head to head in the categories that matter.
Construction, design and features
Samsung has stuck to the basics with the Level Over design. The white and tan model could easily have looked gaudy and over the top, but the combination of quality materials and craftsmanship give them a very understated beauty. You instantly get the feeling that you're using a premium product when you first open the box and put them on. While they're constructed mostly of plastic — like most all headphones — the finish and fit is excellent. We should expect this (and more) from a $350 pair of headphones.
The headband is a faux leather with an attractive cross-stitch pattern. There's a generous amount of padding on both the headband and the closed-back ear pads themselves, and you'll appreciate this with any prolonged use. The headband is adjustable, and will fit most everyone, and the Level Overs fit nicely into their supplied carrying case, though it is a bit large. Hopefully the next version will fold to save some space.
On the left-side ear pad, you'll find the USB port to charge the built-in battery, and an NFC tag for easy pairing with any NFC-equipped Android device. On the right ear pad you'll find a 3.5mm jack for the wired connection, a status light and the power switch. There's also a button that can toggle the noice cancelling or initiate Bluetooth pairing. Both earpads have small microphones used both for taking voice calls and part of the active noise-cancelling features. One of the coolest features is on the right-side ear cup — a touch sensitive control pad that lets you swipe forwards or back to change tracks, or tap the center to play or pause playback while you're connected via Bluetooth.
The Level Over headphones will connect via Bluetooth 3.0 and include apt-X technology for "lossless" audio over a wireless connection. Of course, as a Bluetooth headset they also work with Voice Actions or Samsung's S Voice.
Beats headphones have their own iconic, great look, and the latest Studio model hasn't changed too much. They have been slightly redesigned so that they aren't as wide as previous models, and this doesn't seem to sacrifice any audio quality. When you see a pair of the new model Beats Studios Wireless, you still know you're seeing Beats high-end at it's finest. The matte black model I'm using for this comparison look especially nice. Besides looking good, they also are extremely well-crafted and feel like a $350 pair of headphones should feel.
The synthetic leather used in the headband and ear cups is soft and supple, with plenty of padding. The ear cups are the standard closed back design you would expect from a pair of Beats headphones, and everything feels very nicely built. The adjustment is more than adequate to fit just about everyone, and the tri-fold design fits them neatly into the included carrying case.
The right ear pad has the single power button, a micro USB connector to charge the internal battery, and a handy set of LEDs that act as a battery fuel gauge and pairing indicator lights. The power button can also enable active noise cancellation without audio playback if you just want to use them to tone down some outside noise. The left earpad has a 3.5mm jack for a wired connection, and the "b" logo acts as a mute button to stop audio playback and disengage the active noise cancelling while it's held in.
The Beats Studio model also connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth 3.0 with apt-x, and act as a standard Bluetooth speakerphone with access to voice actions, but I had issues getting S Voice on my Note 3 to work until I headed into the forums and found a solution. It's worth noting that Siri works, but you need to start Siri via the button on your iPhone.
The first round goes to the Beats. Both pairs of headphones are extremely well built using grade-A materials. Both have plenty of features, some you didn't even know you wanted or needed until you used them — like a set of LEDs that acts as a battery gauge. And the matte finish on the Beats pair just puts it over the edge. I had to think about this one, because the touch controls on the Level Overs were a very nice addition. But knowing if I need to charge before I leave the house is more important in the long run.
Comfort and usability
The Samsung Level Over cans are some of the most comfortable headphones I've ever used. They hold in place well, but don't squeeze your head too tightly. The pleather covering of the ear cups and headband can get a little sweaty, but they seem to wick away some of the moisture and don't get slick and nasty. You'll be able to wear the Level Overs all day without any sore spots or headaches.
Speaking of all day, the Level Over headphones have decent battery life. With noise cancelling active, you'll get about 10-12 hours of use over a wireless connection. With noise cancelling turned off, you can double that. I prefer to use the built-in passive noise cancelling that a pair of solid-back headphones offers, and was very satisfied with the battery life from the Level Overs. Of course, over a wire they last forever.
The controls work as expected, especially once you've installed the Samsung Level companion app. Calls sound just like they would on any other good Bluetooth headset — a little robotic and distant. I could use the Level Overs on a long trip and have zero issues. The controls on the cord work with Android (and Windows Phone and every phone not made by Apple) as you would expect.
I found the new model Beats Studios a little uncomfortable to wear. They offer plenty of padding, but they tend to squeeze my melon a little more than I would like. This could be perfect if someone wanted to use them while exercising, but when reclined in a chair and listening to some music I had to remove them after a few hours. I have plenty of hair and a big head, so this may be a non-issue for you.
Battery life was excellent, and over Bluetooth you'll be able to use the Beats Studios for about 15 hours with audio playing. I would estimate that a full charge would last for several days in noise cancelling mode without any audio connection — I gave up after 12 hours and still had a "full" charge on the battery meter LEDs. Unfortunately, you can't use the Studios over a wire unless they are charged. The good news is that the battery also seems to last forever when used this way.
As a Bluetooth headset, all the basic functions work fine. Calls sound as good as they did on the Level Overs, and basic voice actions (OK Google) worked when Google Search was set to accept commands over Bluetooth. S Voice was more hit or miss, but worked fiarly well using this tutorial from Hghlndr in the AC forums. Thanks, Hghlndr! It's not surprising, but the in-line controls only work with Apple products. There's some science here — Apple switches the positioning of a 220 Ohm and 600 Ohm resistor so that they need a different set of controls. Think Different.
Samsung wins this round. The Level Overs are simply more comfortable to wear. Both sets of headphones worked as expected, and fit snugly enough to stay in place, but the Beats Studios were just a bit too tight for my liking. If you have a large head — or even worse a small hoop earring or two — think about how this could affect you.
The real deciding factor was the ability to use the Level Overs (with no noise cancelling) while the battery is dead via the cable. You might hate using a cable with your headphones, but you probably hate not being able to use them at all even more.
This is what it all comes down to, right? Each of the models here deliver excellent sound in their own way. No, it's not the "flat" sound you would expect from a pair of studio monitors, but consumer-grade audio equipment is rarely designed to deliver that. Both Samsung and Apple's new engineers have tuned the sound to provide a gentle curve in the hopes that the target audience — that's you and me! — will enjoy what they've done.
I'll be upfront about it — I like the sound from the Level Overs. It feels like Samsung has tuned the audio fairly close to how I would tune the EQ on my stereo when listening with my Sony monitors. That's going to bring a little bias into this showdown, but I can't help that.
I found the Level Overs to deliver great (read: excellent!) mid-range sound. You can hear each instrument clearly, and vocals were great. The high-end sounds (think a cymbal crash or high-pitched lead guitar) were a little off, but not muddled or distorted. There is a bit more bass than I care for, but it's not at an unacceptable level. It's close when listening to 1980's progressive rock music, but things sound much better when listening to something like a RUN DMC track where you want a bit of kick in your bass.
The Level Overs sound best over a cable, but Bluetooth audio was also very nice. They have been designed so that even a small source like your smartphone can deliver big sound, and you'll have no problems driving them from just about any source. Active noise cancelling produced a barely noticeable hiss between tracks, but nothing that was audible to me while music was playing.
While the Beats Studio cans weren't able to deliver quite the sound I'm looking for with the music I like to listen to, I can't say they sounded bad at all. The DSP has been retuned with the new model to kill some of the overbearing bass, and when listening to certain tracks — Billie Jean by Michael Jackson is a great example — they sound as good or better than the Level Overs.
Your mids sound great as long as the music you're listening to doesn't have a lot of deep bass, and the highs actually sound a bit better than the Level Overs when you can hear them on their own. The real difference is with the bass sounds. Beats still emphasises them a lot, and they can overpower everything else if the music you're listening to runs the full range from 20Hz to 20KHz. For some kinds of music, this is not a good sound. For others it is. With music like Hip Hop or some serious Funk, it's awesome. Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel have never sounded better. Just don't try to listen to the Philadelphia Orchestra through them, because it doesn't sound very good.
Like the Level Overs, sound was also very good over Bluetooth. Apt-X is a fickle beast, but the combo of the LG G3 and Beats Studios (as well as the Samsungs) work well, and while I still say a wired connection sounds better, Bluetooth was rich and full with no static or crumbling that you'll find with older equipment.
There is one huge issue with the Beats Studios, and I found it to be the same no matter the source. The active noise cancelling produces one hell of a hiss. You'll hear it between tracks (that's not uncommon) but you'll also hear it while you're listening to some music unless you have the volume at about 50% or higher. When I'm kicked back in my Lay-Z-Boy chilling to some soft music, I do not want to hear a hiss over the top of every note. For me, this makes the Beats Studios a non-starter.
That hiss. There's nothing I can say to make it any better and I'm not going to sugar-coat anything when talking about an expensive set of headphones. I can't deal with it and the Level Overs are the clear winner in audio quality because of it.
The final verdict
Most of the things we talk about when we say audio quality are based on preferences. You may not like the same sort of music that I do, and the full-on bass from the Beats cans may be exactly what you're looking for. I'm no audio snob, and there were plenty of songs that I loved hearing through the Studios, as long as I had the volume cranked up so that things didn't hiss.
But when it comes down to comfort and the active noise cancellation feature, the Samsungs are simply the better choice. They feel better when wearing them, and have none of the issues Beats has with ANC hiss. If you listen to a lot of music, you'll appreciate both of these points.
Would I buy or recommend them? To me, the Samsung Level Overs offer great full sound without any EQ fiddling. I love they way they sound when using them with my smartphone, and the full day battery life fits right in with a full-day of comfortable wearing. They aren't audiophile-perfect by any means, but if you want to buy a premium set of headphones and expect premium sound, I say they are a great purchase. I'd love to have a pair of my own for my gear bag because they sound so good out of the box with my phone.