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Samsung Galaxy Buds review: imperfectly acceptable

Getting as many things right as wrong

When I was in high school, shopping for new earphones with a single £20 note as my budget, I used to dream of earbuds without the wire. It wasn’t a complicated fantasy, just my ultra basic Sony buds sans fil, as the French would put it. It took a decade and a half, but in 2016, candidates like the Bragi Dash and Apple’s AirPods started surfacing, each of them embodying some sort of physical compromise to accommodate a battery, speaker, and wireless radio into the same tiny enclosure. The wait kept going all the way until last month when Samsung unveiled its Galaxy Buds alongside the Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Fold reveal.

My dream earphones had arrived.

The Galaxy Buds are the most forgettable true wireless earbuds I’ve yet tried. I put them in, and they’re so light that I can forget I’m wearing them. That can also be said of the AirPods, except any nearby reflective surface will remind me of their presence on my head. Samsung’s Buds are as slimmed down and discreet as any earphones of this kind. Should you like them to be shouty, Samsung also offers them in a canary yellow that matches the Galaxy S10E. That physical minimalism extends to the Galaxy Buds case, which is the smallest I’ve come across outside of the floss container that Apple houses the AirPods in.

As if all of that good stuff wasn’t enough, Samsung also endows the Galaxy Buds with wireless charging and prices them at $129.99, undercutting the AirPods. Anyone preordering a Galaxy S10 or Galaxy Fold device gets a pair for free. Well, it turns out that, in fact, the beautiful first impression that these earbuds make isn’t enough. These are easily Samsung’s best true wireless earphones, but they suffer from a few too many engineering missteps to be considered a serious contender.

The Galaxy Buds are capable of being two very different products. Get them as a freebie with your Samsung phone, and you’ll be delighted. They’ll perform to the best of their abilities, they’ll give you AirPod-like instant pairing, and they won’t have cost you an extra penny. But try using them with another Android phone, as I did, or with an iPhone, and you’ll be less enthused. It’s a weird reversal of traditional roles between Apple and Samsung: the AirPods maintain an outstanding, hassle-free connection no matter what phone I hook them up to, whereas the Galaxy Buds are finicky and work best with Samsung hardware.

In my testing, I tried using the Galaxy Buds with a Pixel 3 XL, and that pairing quickly devolved into a nightmare. I was assaulted with a barrage of connection drop-offs and disconnects while casually walking down the street with the phone in my pocket. No other pair of wireless headphones has given me this much of a headache, but Google’s had its own woes with Bluetooth in the past, so let’s call that an unfortunate combination.

Things improve when I have the Galaxy Buds hooked up to my MacBook Pro, but I still get an irritatingly frequent blip in the connection between the two Buds. It’s just a half-second of only having one bud playing, but even small foibles like that grow into big annoyances over the course of hours of listening. My colleagues Dan Seifert and Dieter Bohn have also experienced this latter type of connection flakiness on other sets of Buds, including when they are connected to a shiny new Galaxy S10.

Irrespective of the device connected to the Galaxy Buds, they exhibit unimpressive connection range and stability. This is disappointing in light of how much work Samsung has put into the matter, having developed its own scalable codec for audio transmission. Running on a Broadcom chip, the Galaxy Buds lack support for Qualcomm’s AptX or AptX HD, and there’s no LDAC to be found here, either. Apple’s AAC is supported, but that doesn’t help the Galaxy Buds keep up with video on an iPhone: there’s an ugly and pervasive lag. That lag is less apparent on the Google Pixel and entirely absent when watching anything on a Samsung device.

Given these downsides, is there anything to salvage the Galaxy Buds for a person not already in the Samsung ecosystem? Well, there remain advantages to these earbuds that anyone can enjoy. The comfort of the Galaxy Buds is seemingly everlasting, their touch controls are quick and responsive, and they offer the best combo of sound isolation and undemanding fit I’ve yet encountered among true wireless buds. With the AirPods, Apple chose to make easy fit a priority, losing sound isolation, while most other companies swing the other way, accepting imperfect comfort as the trade-off for superior noise isolation.

Samsung also does better than I expected on the sound front. Though I’m damning with faint praise here because I expected the sound to be a deal-breaking disaster, the “sound by AKG” branding on the case of these earphones seems to be for real. I definitely enjoy listening to music on the Galaxy Buds — when they can keep it playing without a wireless fault.

The one substantial weakness to the sound is a detectable shortage of bass that makes music sound like a puddle: splashy and shallow. It’s not in any way an offensive sound signature, but it’s far from the thick, satisfying rumble of something like the Jabra Elite 65t or the Audio-Technica SPORT7TW. I’d say Samsung’s sound is acceptable, pushing at the upper limits of average.

Battery life is a strength for the Galaxy Buds, which marks a major upgrade from the company’s first true wireless effort, the Gear Icon earphones that lasted a feeble 1.5 hours. I never listened to the Buds for the full advertised six hours at a stretch, but prolonged listening sessions gave me battery readouts that were in line with Samsung’s promise. Plus, the case’s seven-hour reserve tops the Buds up quickly and refreshes the clock any time I store them away. This case also accepts wireless charging, while being as light and diminutive as it is, which I consider a minor engineering miracle.

Every Samsung flagship phone owner should have a wireless charger by now, and 2019 will see many others making the switch, so Galaxy Buds buyers probably won’t need to buy extra equipment just for their earphones. (USB-C is the fallback wired charging option, in any case.) With wireless charging, the convenience of just being able to leave the Buds on a platform that keeps them permanently topped up is not to be underestimated. It makes their 13 total hours of battery life feel like more because you’ll rarely come close to draining both the earphones and the case.

Also worth noting about the Galaxy Buds case: outside of the AirPods, this is the first time where I’ve unthinkingly put the case for a pair of wireless earphones into my jeans pocket and headed out the door. Samsung has managed to get under the threshold at which I consider a case to be a thing I should carry in a backpack instead of a pocket, and that’s an achievement in itself.

In equivocating about where to land with my conclusion on these earbuds, I was ultimately swayed by their microphone performance. They clearly have their pros and cons, and a great mic could have tipped them over into the territory of a good product with forgivable mistakes. Alas, the mic is pretty terrible. Samsung invested time and money into this as well: the company put four microphones on its buds, with two of them on the interior, designed to pick up the user’s voice from inside their head. In test recordings I made with the Buds, there was a fuzzy background noise that wasn’t picked up by the distinctly average mic on my MacBook Pro, and my voice was thinned out and rendered with an echo.

The simplicity of my naive childhood dream of true wireless earphones belies a huge raft of technical challenges that the tech industry is still overcoming. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are the latest illustration of how hard it is to make a device in this category that’s successful along every parameter, though they also show how fast manufacturers are improving.

These are, by far, the most compact and unobtrusive true wireless earphones I’ve tested, and I commend Samsung’s advances on the miniaturization front. The things I saw and heard during CES this January tell me that 2019 will be rich on more true wireless buds in the same size and weight and battery-life class as Samsung’s Galaxy Buds. And I suspect that, because they’ll be designed in a more universal fashion rather than tailored to work best with one company’s hardware, they’ll end up being better products in the end.

Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are probably the best freebie that a company has ever bundled with a smartphone preorder, but they fall significantly short of claiming the title of best true wireless earbuds. Great for Samsung owners, but everyone else should look elsewhere.

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