(Pocket-lint) - Samsung was one of the first companies to dive into creating wire-free earphones - before it could even be called a bandwagon, given how many other models have appeared since - with its imperfect Icon X. Since then, following a few generations of refinement, we've now arrived at the slimmed-down Galaxy Buds.
What's interesting with the Buds - apart from some of the nifty features, like a wireless charging case - is that it further amplifies the shift away from the Gear brand. Like its latest watches, Samsung has leveraged the strength of the Galaxy name - most commonly associated with its phones, like the S10+ - and latched it onto its earphones.
Just as key is the move in price point. While the 2018 Icon X had a £200 asking price - making those in-ears more than Apple's AirPods - the Galaxy Buds are priced at £140, yet promise longer battery life and better design than before. Is it the perfect recipe?
Slimmed down, with a nifty case
- Earbuds weigh 6g each, case weighs 40g
- Case measures 26.5 x 70 x 38.8mm
- Built-in wireless charging
Despite the new name, there's still something very familiar about the design of the Galaxy Buds. Like the Gear-branded predecessors, the outer part of the earbud still has that 'rounded triangle' look, except this time finished with a shimmering, shiny plastic.
There are other slightly more significant changes though. For instance, the overall footprint has been slimmed down, making these more comfortable to wear. Similarly, the in-ear fin that grips onto the ear is much smaller, therefore far more subtle than the loop style one that featured on the Icon X.
As with all in-ears, there's still that feel of something being inserted into your ear canal. It's not uncomfortable though, avoiding creating that horrible pressure vacuum you sometimes get with such devices. We were able to wear the Buds comfortably for a couple of hours without struggling, or feeling like our ears were stretching. More importantly, these in-ears didn't once feel like they might fall out - the fit is very secure.
The case still has that pill-shaped design - the white one looks like a giant pain-killer tablet - but it's smaller and sleeker than in previous forms.
The most important changes to the case, however, aren't as obvious. First off, the lid closes using only magnets - there's no small, flimsy clip in sight. Secondly, there's wireless charging - so if you have a Galaxy S10, you can activate wireless power-sharing, turn the phone upside down and just place the earbuds case onto the back of the device and let it charge. Of course, that's not its only method of charging: you can plug in using a Type-C cable too.
The earbuds are held in place within the case using some fairly weak magnets, which can be both good and bad. It means they're fairly easy to shake out, which is great if you just want to get to them quickly. However, it also means that they could fall out quite easily when the case is open. Given how strong the lid magnet is, however, that never proved to be an issue during our use.
Simple setup... if you have a Samsung
- Galaxy S10 showed up "nearby device" window
- Other phones require Wearable app
If you have a new Samsung device, the setup of the Galaxy Buds is really simple and intuitive. In fact, it's very similar to pairing an iPhone with a pair of W1 Chip-equipped earphones, like the AirPods or some of the more recent Beats models.
Simply open the case, then once your Galaxy S10 detects the earphones nearby, a popup window appears on its screen asking if you want to pair. It then launches a Galaxy Gear screen to update the phone to support the earphones' full capabilities and asks which notifications you'd like to hear in your ears when wearing them.
Pairing with our Pixel 3 was a slightly different experience. First, we had to download the Galaxy Wearables app, choose the device we wanted to pair, then download the appropriate plugin, before going through the pairing process. So, while the Buds work with all devices, they're at their best with a Samsung phone.
Slimmed feature list, but decent sound
- Simple dial-based EQ
- Notifications are read out
- "Find my earbuds" feature
The Gear Icon X tried to do a little too much. It was a branded and marketed as a fitness product, with built-in motion sensors for counting steps and to help you track your exercise sessions. The only problem was there was no heart-rate sensor, so it was quite a limiting experience.
For the Galaxy Buds, Samsung has - quite rightly - slimmed the feature list down to focus on just music and performance. That means there's no fitness tracking of any kind. Its features are all centred on what you hear and how well you hear it.
In the companion app you can adjust the sound profile by using a simple dial to switch from bassy, to dynamic (our mode of choice), and all the way up to full treble mode. Sadly, for the audiophile, there's no fine-tuning to be had, there's no granular equaliser (EQ). Instead you can choose bass boost, soft, dynamic, clear or treble boost.
Sound quality is decent too. Granted, these in-ears don't quite have the punch or presence of some more expensive earphones, but they're certainly good enough. Being critical we'd suggest a bit more separation of bass, mid and treble, to make the sound profile less 'woolly'. And there's some lack to the bass.
One really useful feature is the notifications. You can choose which apps you want the earphones to give audio notifications for, and choose whether you simply want it to read out the name of the app the notification is from, or whether you want the full message.
Indeed, the app is full of useful features, without being over-saturated with them. You can choose to lock the Touchpads so that they don't accidentally activate a feature, or use the app to find lost Galaxy Buds. Plus, using the built-in exterior microphones, you can have ambient noise pass-through too.
Performance and battery
- Bluetooth 5.0 (LE)
- Up to 6hrs playback out of case
- A full charge in the case
Thanks to the slimmed-down feature list and Bluetooth 5.0 (plus LE), the Galaxy Buds are very battery efficient. Samsung claims up to six hours of music playback outside of the case on a full charge. For a wire-free pair, that's some boast. We roughly made it to five-and-a-half hours before battery had depleted to an anxiety-producing low level, which is really good.
But the battery story isn't all sunshine and unicorns. Reading the spec sheet of the Galaxy Buds versus the real-life experience poses something of a conundrum. The case holds more than 250mAh of power for charging the earbuds. The earbuds themselves have 58mAh. In theory then, you'd hope the case could charge the earbuds a further two times. Sadly, it can't.
Even in Samsung's spec list, it claims you get seven hours of extra playback from placing depleted Galaxy Buds into a fully charged case. In reality, that essentially means you only get one full charge from it, meaning roughly 12 hours of music playback total. That's still pretty good, but we'd hoped the case would output more.
That said, we easily got into the routine of plonking the Buds down on a wireless charging pad, so charging never worried us.
Older wire-free in-ears tend to suffer with inconsistent connection performance. Despite having three generations to get it right, the Galaxy Buds aren't perfect either. Sure, you can listen to music at home, by your desk, or sit on a bus or train and you'll likely get a flawless experience.
But as soon as we were listening outside, placing a connected phone into a pocket, the music would cut out intermittently. It's not constant, but it's an issue we don't have with many other in-ears. Moving the phone to a higher pocket to decrease the distance between source and earbuds helped a little, but it wasn't perfectly reliable even then.
By stripping away the fitness-tracking smarts and focusing on the key features - namely battery life and comfort - Samsung has made a genuine AirPod contender at an even lower price point.
If it wasn't for spotty Bluetooth performance then these wire-frees would be a very easy recommendation. But the wireless connection when on the go just isn't quite good enough. It's not the worst we've experienced, but we don't expect any break in connection - especially considering how well some other competitors perform in this regard.
Overall, the Galaxy Buds are a great pair of sensibly priced wire-frees that can last for hours outside of their charging case. Boost the wireless reliability for the next round and Samsung has a near perfect product on its hands.
Alternatives to consider
Clearly, Apple's AirPods are the direct competition for Samsung here. It's a pair of earphones designed to work best with the company's own products, and one with some useful features. They're more expensive than Samsung's, but for iPhone users, they're among the most convenient products you can buy.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless
To get a great-sounding pair of wire-frees, you do need to spend more money. There are a few out there, but among the best are the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless. They're sensibly styled, sound great, and are equipped with aptX and Bluetooth 5.0, plus really intuitive EQ adjustment.