Samsung's plan to launch its own "premium" portable audio line was unveiled long before Apple nabbed Beats. I must admit I did an eye roll reading the announcement, given the names of the products in the Level line: On, Over, In and Box. The group offers options for all listening preferences, with appropriately named on-ear, over-ear, in-ear and Bluetooth speaker options at prices that certainly rank at the higher end. After two weeks with the lot, I'm not ready to part with my Beats Pill XL or B&O H6s for Sammy's new kit. Here's why.
IRL: Samsung Level portable audio series
Level Over Headphones
Let's start at the top with the $350 Level Over Bluetooth headphones. While mostly plastic, these cans do have some nice faux-leather ear cups and a stitched headband. There are some silver accents, too. In fact, I'd argue the entire line keeps up the premium appearance a lot better than some of Samsung's other devices, which, rightly or wrongly, have earned a reputation for feeling chintzy. That's not the case here, though.
The Level Over has the usual bulkiness you'd expect from wireless over-ears, but once I got used to the weight (my usual pair isn't nearly as heavy), they're actually quite comfy. They don't feel like they're pinching my head, and the ear cups and headband are both nicely padded. What about the audio? Well, I actually prefer the Level On to these. The Level Over headphones, while far from the best I've heard, provide clear tones and are capable of a blistering volume (if you can handle it) without distorting when plugged in. Those who scoff at Beats' bass-heavy tuning will find solace here, but I tend to prefer a bit more bump than the Over has to offer. Treble and the mid-range are instead favored, and it's particularly noticeable when streaming hip-hop tracks, like the last Kendrick Lamar LP, for example.
Pairing the headphones with a MacBook Air, iPhone 5s and Moto X didn't produce a max volume that I'd think some would favor -- it's somewhere close to the middle when the unit is plugged in. Connecting via NFC is an option too, with a properly outfitted device (same goes for the Level Box). If you're after the Bluetooth chops, there are much better options that will provide better sound. There's a touchpad on the right ear cup for on-board volume control, but even with that cranked all the way up, I could've used a few more decibels than Spotify on my Motorola handset could muster. After about a day and a half, I was looking for an outlet to recharge -- a process that takes a couple of hours to complete.
Of course, there's the Samsung Level app for tweaking the EQ on mobile devices, but it makes modest improvements to the audio experience, so I tended to skip it entirely. It also requires the cans to be connected via Bluetooth to make adjustments -- as does that volume slider. The same can be said for the built-in microphone: while it works just fine, I prefer to make calls the old-fashioned way.
Level On Headphones
These were actually my favorite of the bunch. The Level On headphones share the same dapper stylings as the Level Over (save for the headband stitching) and wear really comfortably. I recently used the new Beats Solo2 set for a couple weeks only to find my head feeling pinched about 15 minutes into each session. That's far from what I found here; the On is relatively light and doesn't feel like it's clamping down in-use, despite taking some small aesthetic cues from Dr. Dre's recent offering. What can I say? The fit is just really nice.
In terms of sound, I prefer these are my top pick here. Having the volume dial fixed halfway from my laptop or phone was the sweet spot, offering a smidge more bass that its pricier stablemate. Unfortunately, cranking it up further makes for a treble-heavy mess that's a little painful to endure. So long as you're not looking to blast out your eardrums, the audio is actually pretty solid. I did find that the in-line remote here (and on the Level Over) wasn't of any use to adjust volume on my Moto X or MacBook. But if I'm honest, I don't tend to use that feature while seated at my desk or traveling. That gripe aside, the $180 price seems fair.
Level In Headphones
If I were you, I'd skip these entirely. The Level In headphones have a rather bland silver and black exterior to them, but that's really the only good thing I have to say. The buds are quite large and, given that bulk, didn't stay in my ears well if I was doing anything other than sitting still. I put on bigger plastic tips to no avail, and trying to wear these on a run turned out to be quite frustrating. I'd be willing to overlook that major issue if the sound quality were respectable, but it's not. There are loads of options for half the price (or less) that handle tones much better than the Level In. Actually, I have a pair of $50 UE in-ears that put these to shame. Samsung's Level In headphones do have the usual in-line remote you'd expect from a set of $150 earbuds, if you're still considering making the leap.
Level Box Speaker
Finally we arrive at the Level Box, Samsung's compact new Bluetooth speaker. At $170, it's more expensive than the similarly sized (and infinitely customizable) Jawbone Jambox and the UE Mini Boom. The Box does have a solid aluminum top that certainly contributes to the high-end look, but as I found with the Level Over, looks can be deceiving. The unit pairs quickly and easily and features accessible top-mounted controls, but once I started listening in, it didn't take long to go back to the super-sized Beats Pill. I'd compare the sound quality here to Jawbone's popular speaker: It's serviceable, but that's about it. And you certainly won't have to contend with too much bass.
While it's a convenient device to pack for a day trip, the audio just isn't good enough to make it a desktop or bookshelf staple. I did find the 15 hours of promised battery life to be accurate; I could always get through at least a full day before needing a charge. As I've already mentioned, there are other wireless speakers I prefer -- of course, the one I use most is $130 more -- and for an extra 30 bucks, the regular UE Boom is a solid alternative. For those looking for a capable gadget, though, the Box may do just fine, but folks seeking quality audio will need to look elsewhere. And yes, you can use it to wrangle those speakerphone calls too.
After two weeks with the entire group, I can honestly say that none of the options are must-haves. While I do like the Level On headphones the best, on account of their comfort and overall sound quality, they don't make a strong enough case for me to ditch my trusty B&Os. As for the other items in the set, there are far better choices for the same or a little less money. Frankly, the in-ears are way overpriced and the Bluetooth speaker is average at best. And at $300, I'd expect a lot more out of a set of wireless over-ear headphones than what's offered here, even if the touch controls are quite handy. I will say this, though: I'm curious to see how the next round of "premium" audio devices from Samsung develops. The company's done a respectable job on the design here (aside from the Level In), but I'd like to see audio improvements next time around.