Table of Contents
At this point, the Samsung Galaxy Buds (original and Plus) have graduated from a “sleeper” status to a set that is widely regarded as the best sounding TWS earphones you can get, trading blows with the much more expensive and equally well-regarded Sony WF-1000XM3. That is, one of the best outside of using something like the TRN BT20S on some high-end wired IEMs, but that probably doesn’t count.
What you may not have known is that as a consequence of Samsung acquiring Harman International (creators of the Harman Target and the reason why the Galaxy Buds are tuned the way they are), Samsung also got AKG as part of the deal. As such, nearly every recent audio product by Samsung has the small tagline of “Tuned by AKG” tacked onto them as an additional marketing boost, given that AKG was one of the better-known audiophile brands in the old days.
AKG themselves have adopted a more low-key approach ever since their acquisition, with transducers like the N5005 and the K371 gaining modest traction within the audiophile community though nowhere close to their heyday during the K701 era. So colour me surprised when AKG announced their own competitor to Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, the N400 TWS earphone, to very little fanfare and hype. Hell, it took me till mid-May to find out about the N400, which went on sale in March.
At the time of writing, the N400 remains as a South Korean exclusive (officially, at least) and I only managed to get a hold of one due to easy parallel import options to my city of Singapore. That said, it seems that this is available for purchase via Amazon for some of you US readers, so this review probably isn’t completely in vain.
You already read the review title so you’re probably itching to know how AKG shows up their bosses. Let’s get right to it.
Product page: https://www.samsung.com/sec/harman-audio/akg-earphone-n400/
(Available on Amazon)
This unit was purchased as a parallel import through Qoo10
MSRP: 185,000 KRW (~$155)
Driver configuration: single DD
Supported Bluetooth codecs: AAC and SBC
Loyal readers of In-Ear Fidelity would know that I almost never go beyond audio analysis unless the product is exceptional in other regards. In this case, I think the N400 sits at a “sweet spot” in terms of build and features and so deserve a proper mention.
Let me start by stating the two big potential dealbreakers of the N400:
- Battery life: the buds themselves last for only 5 hours before needing a charge, with the case holding enough for another 12 hours (generously estimated) of usage. Not great, but also not out of the ordinary in terms of the industry average.
- Lack of high bitrate codec support: the N400 only supports the “bare minimum” of AAC/SBC. If you’re specifically looking for aptX or LDAC support, don’t bother.
The battery life bothers me the most, especially after getting used to the Galaxy Buds+’s massive capacity. I find myself not having to worry about battery with the Buds+, while the N400 has me daily-stressing about whether or not it could survive another day when I forgot to charge it two nights in a row. But while it may be slightly worse than the original Galaxy Buds in terms of single-charge battery life, the stated 5-6 hour battery life of the N400 still beats the laughably-mediocre battery of the AirPods Pro, which barely hits 5 hours of playtime even on an optimistic estimate.
As for the codec limitation… I’ve always been a believer that any adoption of “superior codecs” should not be a necessity, but rather an added bonus. As long as it sounds good, that’s all that matters. So since the N400 already sounds really good despite being “limited” to AAC/SBC, I don’t really care about this so-called downside all too much.
Now, the good points.
- Premium metal build: nearly every aspect of the N400 is built with a sturdy matte-metal finish, from the charging case to the buds themselves.
- Ambient Noise Cancelling: not the best ANC that I’ve heard, but hey, it exists.
- IPX7 rating: personally IPX4 is already enough for a TWS IEM so IPX7 is a nice overkill bonus for those who want to, I don’t know, shower with music or something.
- Decently sized charging case: not the smallest thing out there, but it fits in my pocket and doesn’t feel like I shoved a powerbank in there.
In terms of these four metrics that I’ve highlighted, most TWS buds out there (even the “premium” ones) tend to hit one or two but never the whole deal. Apple’s AirPod Pro and Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless get the closest to the clean sweep, though comes up short on the IPX rating and the somewhat flimsy plastic build (for the APP, at least).
The Sony WF-1000XM3 has that premium build with ANC capabilities (and more effective ANC than the N400 too), but with zero water resistance and a charging case that’s nigh-impractical for people who use pockets rather than bags.
The Galaxy Buds+ probably fare the worst, with pretty much only the charging case size going for it. But its battery life is basically industry-leading so it’s not all doom and gloom for the parent company.
Obviously I can keep going and list out all the TWS buds that I’ve tried, but you get the point. The N400 is probably the most well-rounded TWS earphone in terms of features and build that should satisfy the vast majority of enthusiasts. The form factor of the buds probably wouldn’t make me replace the Galaxy Buds+ as sleeping bedphones, but the N400 have certainly earned its spot as my default outdoors TWS IEM.
Signature & Tonality
In terms of defining the signature of the N400, it’s pretty straightforward: the N400 is tuned to the Harman In-Ear Target (2019). And it comes even closer to the Harman Target than Samsung’s own Galaxy Buds+!
So graph-wankery aside, how does the N400 sound-sound? Well I’ve talked at length about my problems with the Harman target but I’ll summarise for those out of the loop: the Harman target sounds too forward in the upper midrange for my tastes, and the large lower/upper midrange contrast kills too much weight and thickness in the notes for me. In general, most Harman-tuned IEMs tend to sound shouty and shrill (to most people I know, at least), sometimes also lacking airiness due to a hard roll-off past 10kHz.
While the N400 still has all the hallmarks of Harman that I don’t like, it is (for whatever reason outside of frequency response) not as bad as I thought it would be. Sure, vocals can sound a little too in-your-face, and the mid-treble response can make hi-hats and cymbals a tad too fatiguing for longer listening sessions, but the overall tonal balance comes off as pretty neutral. Or at least, neutrality that’s relative to the market as a whole.
I’m only being this harsh on the N400 because of how close it gets to my ideal tonality. With just a little less upper-midrange response I would have absolutely no problems in grading the N400’s tone in the top tiers, but alas AKG has their own interpretation of an ideal tuning. Not saying that they should start tuning to my target curve, but rather acknowledging the subjectivity of the hobby even in its measurable aspects.
But apart from the nitpicks, there’s the N400’s bass response which I absolutely adore. That sub-200Hz rise keeps the bass lines clean whilst projecting satisfying rumble, resulting in deep yet precise bass hits that would never smear into the midrange even on the dirtiest club tracks.
Just to drive the point home further, the N400 has better tuning than most top-of-the-line “audiophile” IEMs out there. Don’t have to tell you which ones in this review, just take a look yourself.
Tonal grade: A+
The N400 actually uses a pretty capable dynamic driver so I don’t have any complaints regarding the overall resolution and detail retrieval. In fact, you could consider the N400 pretty good in this regard, with individual notes coming off as reasonably well-defined with properly-sharp attack, and no sense of “fuzziness” in percussions or plucked strings.
The timbre of the N400 is also acceptable, with no particular nasties in the decay of its notes that are setting off alarm bells in my head. Perhaps the timbre would be leaning ever-so-slightly to the metallic side (where if the Dita Dream would be a 10 and the JVC HA-FDX1 would be a 7, the N400 would be a 6), but nothing too egregious that would make me consider it a dealbreaker.
Imaging is average, as expected. Soundstage doesn’t have a lot of width and the N400 has a bit of that “in your head” effect going on still. Instrumental positioning also isn’t anything out of the ordinary for IEMs (in that it still sounds like IEMs), so no bonus points here.
Overall, the N400’s technicalities are good, not great, but certainly a step up from “above average”. If the Bluetooth codec is a bottleneck, it’s not to the point where it turns the N400 into a mushy mess. It’s plenty capable as it is now.
Technical grade: B
Here’s where I remind everyone that the ranking list is on an absolute scale of performance only. The N400 manages to hold its own against the wired competition and even outperform most of the market. If I were to price it based on sound quality alone, the N400 would probably be an “average” $400-$500 IEM, so its performance at a price tag of ~$155 is far beyond expectations.
“Worth the price”? Without a doubt. “Redefines the price bracket”? I can count with one hand the IEMs that match the N400’s performance at its price, or for cheaper.
But in regards to a third star, we’d then have to ask the question: “is the N400 revolutionary?” The simple answer would be no, it’s just another TWS IEM, just a really well-done one.
Value Rating: ★★
AKG N400 Versus Galaxy Buds Plus
The Galaxy Buds+ and the N400 trade blows in terms of technical ability, with the Buds+ edging out the N400 slightly in terms of overall detailing but then losing ground due to its odd timbre. While the N400 sounds mostly natural and inoffensive in terms of the transient characteristics of its notes, the Buds+ has this almost bitcrushed and telephonic quality to its presentation, particularly evident in its treble response.
(Note that both the Buds+ and N400 were tested on a Samsung S10, where the Buds+ has the advantage with the proprietary SSC codec.)
Next to the N400, there’s something about the Buds+ that triggers my uncanny valley senses. Apart from the mentioned differences in treble quality (that the N400 absolutely curbstomps the Buds+ at), the Buds+ sounds a little more shrill and almost plasticky in a direct A/B comparison test. This is also in the full acknowledgement that both of these IEMs are tuned to the same target curve, so I don’t know what exactly is causing this disparity in subjective impressions.
This is not to say that the Buds+ sounds bad all of a sudden, but I guess there is a reason why I have it rated the lowest (tonally) between it, the original Buds and the N400.
"The Sweet Spot"
This section also serves as a changelog for the TWS Buyer’s Guide.
AKG swoops in and shows their new parents how it’s done.
Where the Galaxy Buds+ was a “one step forward, one step back” situation, the N400 is the whole improvement to the original Buds. The bass response is boosted while maintaining clarity (just like the Buds+) without compromising on tone or treble response; in fact, the treble response is improved as well!
Every other improvement would be in the non-audio qualities so I won’t bring them in here. But as of this moment, purely sound-wise, AKG finally flexes its audiophile pedigree and shows Samsung (and the rest of the TWS market) the new bar to beat.
Special thanks to Riveton/Golvein and Prisma Audio for contributing $1,000 each to my crowdfunding campaign, bringing it to 140% of my initial goal!