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AKG N700NC review: Serious audio chops to compete with Sony and Bose

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Here's some merger and acquisition news you may have missed: two years ago, Samsung bought audio brand Harman Kardon. Harman had previously bought AKG, the Austrian audio company known primarily for headphones and mics. That makes Samsung the parent company of AKG, which is part of the reason why Galaxy smartphones now ship with AKG earphones.

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8.1

AKG N700NC

The Good

The AKG N700NC sounds excellent for a wireless noise-canceling headphone, is built sturdily and is comfortable to wear. Its noise-canceling is quite effective and there's an Ambient Aware feature that lets you hear the outside world. Battery life is decent.

The Bad

Not quite as comfortable as competing models from Sony and Bose. Its case is a little big.

The Bottom Line

This is an excellent noise-canceling headphone, but if Samsung-owned AKG wants to see it on more people's heads, it's going to have to lower its price to create some separation from top models from Bose and Sony.

The AKG N700NC isn't a Samsung headphone per se, but it marks the company's entry into the highly competitive premium noise-canceling headphone arena. This is where you'll find such models as the Bose QuietComfort 35 IISony WH-1000XM3Beats Studio3 Wireless, Microsoft Surface Headphones and Sennheiser PXC 550. All these headphones, including the AKG N700NC, carry a list price of $350. (The N700NC costs £309 in the UK. It isn't yet available in Australia, where that would convert to about AU$540.)

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The AKG N700NC costs the same as other premium noise-canceling headphones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The N700NC is a worthy contender. For starters it sounds excellent. It's right up there with the Sony in terms of sound quality, which is saying a lot. With memory foam earcups, it's comfortable, although not quite as comfortable as the Sony or the Bose. It's also slightly heavier, weighing in at 9.2 ounces (261 grams; the Bose is the lightest at 235 grams).

Despite the fact that the headphone is mostly plastic, the build quality seems good. There's a metal hinge and the headphone both folds up and folds flat. I thought the way the headphones folded onto their side made the case a little too bulky.

There's adequate padding at the top of the headband, with a strip of Ultrasuede material that's similar to what you'll find on the Bose headband. The headphones don't put too much pressure on the crown of your head though they do fit a little snugly.

AKG N700NC headphones take on Bose, Sony and Beats

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Some headphones, such as those from Sony and Microsoft, have touch controls. This AKG does not. The track and volume control are on the left earcup. Hold down the volume up to advance a track forward; hold down the volume down button to go back a track. The small pause/play button between the volume buttons also doubles as an answer/end button for calls and enables your voice assistant (Siri or Google Assistant) when you double tap it. 

My only complaint would be that that the buttons are a little small and sometimes I had to run my finger over them a couple of times to make sure I was pressing the right button.

On the right earcup is a power button along with the "Smart Ambient" button. Via the AKG app (for Android and iOS) you can assign the button to activate an "Ambient Aware" mode, which turns off noise canceling and lets sound into the headphones, or a "TalkThru" mode. The latter mode mutes whatever you're listening to, turns on Ambient Aware and lets you talk to someone while wearing the headphones. It would be useful if you were on a plane and wanted to talk to a flight attendant without taking your headphones off.

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The Ambient Aware button (right) can also be programmed to activate the TalkThru feature.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Effective noise canceling

I didn't use the N700NC on a plane, but I did use it on the noisy streets of New York and the noise canceling worked well. Bose used to be significantly ahead in the noise-canceling department, but now everyone seems to be catching up. Like the Sony WH-1000XM3, the AKG features adaptive noise cancelling and I was generally impressed with it. I think the Sony is slightly better, but the AKG isn't far behind.

There are no additional noise-canceling settings, but you can set the headphone to turn of automatically after 10 minutes if you're not listening to anything to help preserve battery life. Some people like to use noise-canceling headphones just to muffle noise (without listening to anything) in which case you'd to turn off the auto-off feature.

In the app you can also create your own custom EQ setting, tweaking the bass, treble and mids to your liking. I was personally fine with the default sound, which comes across as well balanced with clear highs, natural sounding mids and tight, punchy base. The Sony WH-1000XM3 is a slightly warmer headphone, with plumper bass and a touch more openness.

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The headphones fold up in the case on their side (instead of flat), which makes the case a little bulky.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's hard to say which sounds better. The Sony delivers a little more energy to bass-heavy tracks (hip hop, EDM and so on), but the AKG provides more sparkle and does a good job of letting you hear each instrument distinctly.

Call quality seemed good. Callers said they could hear me well and I had no trouble hearing them. I also had no trouble pairing and re-pairing with an iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus. I experienced minimal Bluetooth glitches during my week or so of testing.

I experienced solid battery life. The box says you can get 23 hours of listening with Bluetooth and noise canceling turned on and up to 36 hours with Bluetooth turned off in wired mode. I've seen other specs that note the battery life at 20 hours with Bluetooth. I managed to go several days without recharging, but I only used it for 2-3 hours a day. The headphone charges via a standard Micro-USB cable, not USB-C like the Sony and Microsoft Surface Headphones.

Excellent, but not better

I think the AKG N700NC is an excellent noise-canceling headphone. The only problem is that I wouldn't tell you to buy it over the Sony WH-1000XM3, which is the same price. The Sony is more comfortable to wear for longer periods, sounds equally good (although different) and has some nice extra features, like touch controls.

As I said, this is a worthy contender, but if Samsung wants to see it on more people's heads, it's going to have to lower its price to create some separation from top models from Bose and Sony. Beats has had to do it with its Studio3 Wireless, which I often see in the $250-$280 range. The Sennheiser PXC 550 can also be found for $270. And that's where this headphone probably needs to be priced.   

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8.1

AKG N700NC

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Sound 9Value 7