Samsung Level Over Noise-Cancelling Bluetooth Headphone

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Real Competition For the Bose QC-15?


One of the frustrations for me as a headphone reviewer -- and as a fan of noise-cancelling headphones -- is that it's been so hard to recommend any over-ear NC model other than the Bose QC-15. The QC-15 has a winning combination of excellent comfort, unbeatable noise cancelling, very good sound quality and portability. You can find better-sounding NC headphones (like the PSB M4U 2) and more compact NC headphones (like the AKG K490 NC), but you can't find something that's as satisfying overall at the QC-15.

I sure didn't expect that a headphone from Samsung might be the first to truly challenge the QC-15. Sure, Samsung's a leader in consumer electronics, but headphones is one of the few areas in which it hasn't been a player. But when I gave the Level Over a quick listen, my enthusiasm kicked in fast.

I didn't get a chance to do an extensive evaluation the Level Over, but I did run a few measurements and run all my favorite test tracks through it. Here's what I found.

Overall, the Level Over has a generally flat and neutral sound, which is exactly what I (and, probably, most listeners) want in a headphone. The mids, in particular, were surprisingly clean. Vocals sounded much more natural than with most noise-cancelling headphones, more in the line of what I'm used to hearing from good passive headphones. The one sonic coloration I heard in vocals was tiny, and welcome: a slight boost or "presence peak" in the lower treble, around 3 kHz. This made smooth-sounding vocalists like James Taylor a bit easier to understand, although it also made bright-sounding vocal recordings like Toto's "Rosanna" sound a tad brighter than I'd prefer. It also made Taylor's acoustic guitar sound slightly edgy. But again, these are the kinds of colorations you'd find in even the very best headphones in this price range.

There wasn't much difference in the sound with the noise cancelling on or off. I actually liked it a bit better with NC on. The NC seemed to tighten up the bass just a bit, giving a nearly perfect mix (for my taste, at least) of tunefulness and power. With NC off, the bass sounded a little bit boomy.

I doubt anyone will rave about the Level Over's upper treble detail and air, but no one will call it edgy or harsh. The upper treble seems just a bit muted, not enough to change the tonal balance, but enough that the sound wasn't all that spacious for me. But it rarely is with noise cancelling headphones, the PSB M4U 2 being the only exception I can think of.

Overall, I would say this is one of the better-sounding NC phones I've heard -- not as good as the M4U2, but pretty close. Is it better than the QC-15? I didn't have a QC-15 on hand for comparison, but the Level Over did seem to sound a little more involving than what I remember from my flights wearing a QC-15.

Now let's see how it measures........

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Level Over Measurements: Freqeuncy Response

Brent Butterworth

To measure the Level Over, I used my G.R.A.S. 43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio 10 FW audio analyzer, a laptop computer running TrueRTA software with an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I calibrated the frequency response measurements for ear reference point (ERP), roughly the point in space where your palm intersects with the axis of your ear canal when you press your hand against your ear.

The chart above shows how the response of the headphone varies with frequency. The green trace is the response with NC off, the blue trace is with NC on. The jury's still out on what constitutes a "correct" headphone response. But a headphone that delivers a response that's close to a flat line, with maybe a little boost in the bass and another boost around roughly 3 kHz, usually sounds pretty good.

The Level Over's response is surprisingly flat, with a mild dip in the midrange between about 400 Hz and 2 kHz (or a mild boost everywhere else, depending on how you look at it). What's perhaps more important is that the response barely changes with NC on or off. PSB's Paul Barton tells me that's really, really hard to do, and the fact that I so seldom see these measurements match so closely is evidence that he's right -- and that there's some serious engineering effort behind the Level Over.

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Level Over Measurements: Isolation

Brent Butterworth

This chart shows the isolation (or noise cancelling capability) of the Level Over (blue trace) versus the Bose QC-15 (green trace). Levels below 75 dB indicate attenuation of outside noise -- i.e., 65 dB on the chart means a -10 dB reduction in outside sounds at that sound frequency. The lower the line is on the chart, the better.

To the best of my recollection, the Level Over is the only headphone I've tested that more or less matches the noise cancelling capability of the QC-15 in the "jet engine band" between about 100 and 200 Hz. According to measurements I've taken in airplanes, this is where most of the droning of jet engines resides, and the Level Over does a great job of attenuating it. It also gives the QC-15 a run for its money at frequencies higher than 1 kHz, although the QC-15 has a clear advantage between 200 Hz and 1 kHz, and below 100 Hz. A quick listen to the pink noise coming from my test rig confirmed that the Level Over's noise cancelling is well above average. (Again, I didn't have a QC-15 on hand for a subjective comparison.)

From the standpoint of ergonomics, the Level Over seems a couple of steps down from the QC-15, mainly because it doesn't fold flat so it's relatively bulky to transport and too big to fit comfortably in most laptop bags.

But from the standpoint of features, the Level Over easily beats the QC-15. The Level Over still works (and still sounds good, even) when its rechargeable battery runs down, which the QC-15 does not. And the Level Over has Bluetooth wireless, which despite what some people have told you actually sounds pretty good, as you can hear in my online blind listening test.

I wish I'd had more time to spend with the Level Over -- and even better, a flight to take it on. Maybe another day...