(Pocket-lint) - Samsung hasn't always been the most exciting brand when it comes to headphones. The last two efforts - the Galaxy Buds - have been fairly typical, with little difference to any other true wireless headphones on the market.
With the Galaxy Buds Live, Samsung has taken a turn in a different direction, using a design that's unique, but not in a way that offends. The result is a pair of headphones that, while not perfect, do have a lot of merits.
Designed to be different
- Dimensions: 27.3 x 16.5 x 14.9mm
- Weight (per 'bud): 5.6g
- Bean-style design
- Compact case
Most of the conversation around the Buds Live will be centred on the design - and rightly so. The Buds Live have a unique design, with that bean-like shape being distinctive. It's a departure from the normal tip-and-body design that so many true wireless headphones offer.
Some quirky headphone designs don't work - that might be increasing the bulk outside the ear or some other twist - but much to our surprise, the Buds Live design works. Those beans slip into the ear really comfortably.
What these 'buds don't offer is the same level of isolation that you get from headphones like the Apple AirPods Pro. Instead Samsung's design nestle into the ear, the shape helping for a snug fit. There's one area of each 'buds that's rubberised towards the top of the inside, which seems to just help the positioning when in the ear.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live fit really comfortably - so you can wear these in-ears for hours and hours without feeling like you need to give your ears a break. That's a really positive point to come out of the design - that it's not just design for design's sake.
The 'buds come in an included compact case, small enough to slip into a pocket, but still good for extending the life of the Buds Live by up to 28 hours. It's a simple and no-nonsense approach, thanks to a unique design - and we're all for it.
Connection and Galaxy Wearable app
- Galaxy Wearable or Galaxy Buds app
To connect the Buds Live to your phone, you'll need the app from Samsung. This is included with Samsung phones, but you'll have to download it for Android or iPhones. The app will help you connect - which we found to be a seamless process on the Samsung and Nokia phone that we tested the Buds Live with.
Across those two devices we've also found connectivity to be solid, free from drop outs or other interference, and fast to establish a connection upon opening the case. That's one thing to watch out for - if you leave the case sitting around the house slightly open then your phone will stay connected to your headphones.
The app does a lot more than just help you connect - it also lets you manage the settings for the Buds Live, which is an important part of making these headphones behave the way you want.
There are no buttons, so instead it works on a series of taps on the body of each 'buds once they're in your ears. It's a fairly standard arrangement: one tap to play/pause, two taps to play the next track or accept/reject a call, three taps to skip back a track, and finally tap-and-hold for a customisable action.
The options for touch-and-hold include active noise cancelling (ANC), volume control, voice command (Google Assistant, Bixby or Alexa (if installed on your phone)) and finally Spotify. You can assign these options to either 'bud, meaning you can have two press-and-hold shortcuts, with one exception - if you choose volume control that defaults to volume up on one side and volume down on the other.
The ANC option is a toggle, so you can turn it on or off on the fly, rather than toggling it in the app, which is a potentially useful addition. Finally, the Spotify option is fun, because it will launch Spotify and resume playing if you trigger that action, without having to get your phone out of your pocket. Of course, you could do that via voice control, but we like having a Spotify trigger at our fingertips.
Control overall is simple, but those taps need to be a little more substantial than you might initially think. It takes a little getting used to, but that's not a problem after a few days of use.
There's also the option to have your notifications read aloud, which is also controlled through the Galaxy Wearable app. By default, it's a selection of native Samsung apps, but you can open up the whole selection and choose those things you actually want to be notified about.
Sound quality and noise cancelling
- Active noise cancellation
- Equaliser presets
- Experimental ambient sound mode
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live set off on an ambitious feature arc, offering that active noise cancellation, as well as the option for ambient sound passthrough via the "Labs" section of the Galaxy Wearable app.
But this is all undermined by the design: as we said above, these headphones don't isolate like those with a silicone tip, which ultimately affects the effectiveness of all these features. This is likely to be slightly different depending on the shape of your ear and how tightly the Buds Live fit in them, but for us, because there isn't a precise seal, it can't offer such precise ANC.
But let's start with sound quality. In truth, the audio performance of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live is good. Having an EQ in the app with a range of presets means you can skip through and boost or reduce the bass, for example, and we've had no problem with getting a sweet sound across a full range of music types and spoken word. It's a much better experience than the original Galaxy Buds in terms of audio performance.
Take that into a noisy environment and other factors come into play. We could hear more background noise through the Buds Live than we could through a pair of headphones that seal, such as our Jabra Elite Active 75t daily drivers.
Some people prefer some degree of ambient noise - that's one of the aims of the Google Pixel Buds 2 - although we'd say that that the Buds Live are better than Google's headphones.
Turn on the ANC and there's some reduction, but not a huge amount. Again, this will depend on fit and we found we can detect a slight change in pressurisation in the ears when ANC is turned on. At least that means there's some seal, if not to the extent that you might get from some other headphones.
The ambient sound boost option in Labs is interesting. We've used these features from the likes of Jabra and Sony in the past, but the same premise applies. It can only do so much without the isolating seal - in this case, for us, the ambient sound option does little, apart from increase the level of hiss we can hear when wearing the headphones.
- Approx 6 hours battery life
- 28 hours total from case
- 22 hours with ANC
- Wireless charging
You'll get about 7 hours of charge from the Buds Live, reduced to 6 hours when using ANC. The real-world figures we've experienced are close to those Samsung suggests. That's extended by the case to 28 hours - or 22 hours if you're using the noise cancellation. That's not the longest, but given the compact format of these headphones, we think it's perfectly reasonable.
The other trick that the Galaxy Buds Live have is wireless charging through that case. If you own a recent Samsung phone, that means you can use reverse wireless charging to give them a boost. Given that the battery is pretty small overall, it doesn't take long for a top-up.
Samsung says you'll get an hour of playback from 5 minutes using Wireless Powershare. If you don't want to use wireless charging, there's a USB-C connection on the case for a wired connection.
While we enjoy wearing the Galaxy Buds Live for hours at a time and we're happy with the sound quality, the downfall, for us, is the fit and how effective the seal is between 'buds and ear canal. Ultimately, that will come down to the shape of your ears.
So if your primary interest is in having a pair of active noise-cancelling headphones to reduce background disturbances - be that in the office, or on the commute - then you might want to look elsewhere for a more exacting/personalised fit.
But if you don't find yourself disturbed by background noise and want a pair of headphones that look great and offer some advanced features, then the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live offer plenty - and we think make more sense than the Google Pixel Buds 2.
Jabra Elite 75t
The Jabra Elite 75t didn't offer active noise-cancellation at launch, but it's been added as a software update to boost these attractive headphones. Good battery life, a compact design and decent sound quality make the Jabra a solid bet.