Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review: Beans battle Apple

by tobiniumu
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Update, September 16, 2020: This review was updated to address the Mystic Red color variant, and the new Samsung Galaxy Buds Live trade-in program.

Get your can openers ready, because the beans are finally here. The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live have garnered a great deal of attention for their kidney bean shape, and these buds immediately separate themselves from the swarm of AirPods dopplegangers. Many believe Samsung bit off more than it can chew with the Galaxy Buds Live, so we’re going to see how these open-fit, noise-cancelling earbuds perform in the real world. Grab those spoons: it’s time to dig in.

Samsung Galaxy Buds Live Noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds that make a statement

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live are the third-generation of Galaxy Buds true wireless earphones, and take on a completely new design with their bean-shaped shells. The earbuds are IPX2 water-resistant, and the USB-C case supports wireless charging and Wireless PowerShare with Samsung devices.

Who should get the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live?

A picture of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise cancelling true wireless earbuds in the case being held in a hand.

  • Samsung Galaxy smartphone users will get the most use out of these earbuds, because the phones support the proprietary Samsung Scalable Codec for high-quality audio and reliable connection strength. Samsung devices that support Wireless PowerShare can also charge the case by just placing the earbuds on top of it.
  • Anyone considering the Apple AirPods may want to instead get the Galaxy Buds Live. Samsung’s earphones use a similar open-type design that AirPods users love and they actually stay in your ears.

What’s it like to use the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live?

A picture of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise cancelling true wireless earbuds bean shaped, reflective exteriors.

Listeners are afforded a premium and simple experience with the Galaxy Buds Live, and this is immediately made apparent by the jewelry box-inspired charging case. Its plastic design may read as cheap to some, but this choice keeps everything lightweight and more affordable than an alternative like metal. You won’t find any tactile buttons on the Galaxy Buds Live case or earbuds. The outside of the case is decorated with a single LED, and houses a USB-C input on the backside.

A seam encompassing the case made it easy to open with one or both hands; though, admittedly, I did fumble a few times and I spilled the buds onto the floor. Samsung nailed the jewelry-inspired design, because the experience was akin to opening an earring box. Our review unit happened to be Mystic Bronze, but you have your pick of Mystic Black, Mystic White, and Mystic Red too.

How do they fit?

A picture of a woman wearing the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise cancelling true wireless earbuds in Mystic Bronze.

The earbuds bear a strong resemblance to the fiber-rich kidney beans, and while there are plenty of bean-related puns to be made, the fit is no joke: the Galaxy Buds Live earbuds provide a stable fit. They even stayed in place as I exercised, whether I was skateboarding, rock climbing, or jogging.

By nature of the earbuds’ purported universal fit, there are bound to be listeners who will find the buds uncomfortable — this will be especially true for listeners with small ears. My ears appear pretty average, and the earbuds became uncomfortable after 1.5 hours of wear, whether I used the small or large rubber ear stays. Learning how to wear the earbuds required a little patience, but after a handful of times it became second nature. Most users will require guidance on how to wear the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, which is why Samsung makes it very clear in the Galaxy Wearable app.

The upper half of each earbud functions as a touch panel, allowing users to adjust volume levels, control playback, toggle noise cancelling, and more. After a month of use, it’s become clear that the touch panels are far too sensitive for my liking, and I’ve since disabled touch controls from the Galaxy Wearable app. When you remove the earbuds simultaneously, media playback pauses, but doesn’t resume when re-inserted. Instead, you must tap either bud to continue your music. Automatic ear detection isn’t as responsive as the open-type fit OnePlus Buds, but I’ll happily forfeit that for earbuds that actually stay in place.

Should you get the Samsung Galaxy Wearable app?

You should download the Samsung Galaxy Wearable app (Play Store/App Store) because it allows you to download software updates for the earbuds. That’s not all it’s good for though; you may also toggle hands-free Bixby access, remap the touch controls for alternative virtual assistant access, enable incoming notification readouts, choose from six EQ presets (Normal, Bass boost, Soft, Dynamic, Clear, and Treble boost), and access Galaxy Labs for experimental features.

Samsung is breaking new ground with its earbuds, and took a risk in a time when everyone is following Apple’s lead.

Galaxy Labs hosts Gaming mode, which minimizes latency between audio and video playback; this is ideal for gamers and anyone who streams plenty of video. There’s also an ambient sound option for mitigating that clogged-ear feeling. Although, the build of the buds already does this because they don’t seal to the ear anyway.

Also read: Headphones updates limited to certain phones — a cheap move by smartphone makers

Both iOS and Android users have app access for firmware updates, but some features are exclusive to Android, such as notification readouts and direct Spotify access. Only Samsung devices support direct voice access to Bixby with the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, but that news shouldn’t ruin anyone’s day. All other virtual assistants require users to use the touch controls to gain access.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise-cancelling works, a little

A picture of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise cancelling true wireless earbuds wing tips, air vents, and IR sensors.
The Galaxy Buds Live’ active noise-cancelling works — though, to what degree depends heavily on how the earbuds are worn and if they fit your ears well. An unsealed ear canal is a huge challenge to overcome for noise-cancelling technology, making it very difficult to combat external noise in real time. The software has to work much harder to reduce background noise without the help of good passive isolation, the cornerstone of any great noise-cancelling headset.

Passive isolation is poor on the Galaxy Buds Live, but it’s a natural consequence of an open-type fit. You’ll hear most outside sounds when wearing the Buds Live with ANC disabled, and most sounds will make it through even when ANC is enabled. While that may not be the best kind of performance for air travel, it can be advantageous for outdoor athletes and people who walk on busy streets. Plus, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live aren’t meant to compete directly with traditional noise-cancelling earbuds. Samsung already has conventional ANC earbuds under its subsidiary AKG. Instead, the company took a risk with the Galaxy Buds Live and for that it deserves recognition.

Learn more: How do noise-cancelling headphones work?

Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live appeal to those who want to remain aware of their surroundings while reducing distracting, unimportant sounds. Let’s not mince words: the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise-cancelling only works to a minor degree.

How to pair the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live on Android

A picture of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise cancelling true wireless earbuds in the open case next to a Samsung Galaxy S10e smartphone with quick pairing.

Pairing the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live to an Android device is very easy, so long as it’s running Android 5.0 or later. All you have to do is enable Bluetooth on your smartphone and open the buds’ case. A pop-up card will display on your smartphone, and once you tap “Connect,” a connection will establish between the devices. This kind of pairing process is not only convenient, but makes the earbuds accessible to all consumers — no matter their familiarity with tech.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live don’t support Bluetooth multipoint, so you may only connect to one device at a time. However, Samsung makes up for it with quick device switching. All you need to do is select the Galaxy Buds Live from the desired device’s Bluetooth menu, and the connection will immediately switch from your current device to the desired one. In order to do this, you must have a previously established Bluetooth connection between both the second source device and the Galaxy Buds.

Connection quality is reliable over the Samsung Scalable Codec

A picture of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise cancelling true wireless earbuds in the case against a gray background.

The earbuds use Bluetooth 5.0 firmware and support two high-quality Bluetooth codecs: AAC and the Samsung Scalable Codec. The latter effectively balances high-quality audio (96-512kbps) and connection stability, so listeners experience fewer connection hiccups. This proved true when using the buds with my Samsung Galaxy S10e, however connection issues arose outside. My experience aligns slightly with user-reported connection issues, whereby Galaxy Buds Live owners have pointed to connection inconsistencies when outdoors. This is something that may be remedied by a future update, however.

Although the lack of aptX support is a shame, it isn’t surprising and won’t sully the user experience. High-quality wireless audio relies on an optimal fit, and if the earbuds don’t seal to the ear canal, music detail is subject to auditory masking. This is when a loud sound makes it hard to hear a relatively quiet one. Non-Samsung Android users don’t lose much by choosing between the unstable AAC codec or the standard SBC codec, because no high-quality codec will magically overcome auditory masking.

Battery life is good for ANC earbuds

Few headphone technologies are more demanding than good active noise-cancelling. Yet, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live lasted 5 hours, 15 minutes with ANC on, according to SoundGuys’ battery testing which subjects any headset to a constant 75dB(SPL) output until depletion. This falls short of the official 6-hour battery life with ANC on, but users who listen at quieter outputs will come closer to this mark.

Quick charging the earbuds takes five minutes and yields an hour of playtime, but listeners will get different play times depending on how often they enable noise-cancelling. According to Samsung, if ANC is disabled, you’ll enjoy about 8 hours of constant playback with the case providing an additional 2.63 charge cycles for approximately 29 hours of total listening time. However, with noise cancelling constantly enabled, the case provides 2.5 charge cycles for a totaling up to 21 hours of listening.

The case can be charged on top of a Qi wireless charging pad, or a Samsung device that supports Wireless PowerShare. You can always rely on the trusty USB-C cable to charge the case, too.

Do true wireless earbuds batteries lose their charge?

A picture of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise cancelling true wireless earbuds next to the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus.

Yes, lithium-ion batteries are packed inside your true wireless earbuds and are vulnerable to capacity degradation just the same as your smartphone. The decrease in capacity is exacerbated by the unending charge-deplete cycle to which the earbuds are constantly subjected. Right now, most totally wireless buds have a short lifespan of approximately two years.

Apple is leading the way in true wireless battery optimization: iOS 14 instructs the AirPods to communicate with the case and hold off on charging beyond 80%, until you intend to use them. This feature slows battery capacity degradation, and is said to improve over time as it learns your usage patterns. That’s just one example of the technology, and it seems entirely possible that other smartphone manufacturers with proprietary headsets will follow suit.

Sound quality is consumer-friendly

A chart depicting the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live frequency response; the drivers amplify bass notes and make them sound nearly 2x louder than mids.

Sound quality is okay from the Galaxy Buds Live, but again: your mileage will vary based on fit, outside noise, and other consequences of an unsealed ear canal. The 12mm dynamic drivers have been tuned by AKG and have a consumer-friendly sound that bodes well for popular genres of music like hip-hop, pop, and rock, but we suggest playing around with the app if you find that the sound isn’t what you want out of the box. Obviously, these are not audiophile products given their likely use, but not everyone needs a set of high-performance audio products when they’re out and about.

The sound is good for general consumers, and falls in line with what we’re accustomed to hearing: amplified bass and high notes. Bass emphasis isn’t as egregious as I expected it to be, though voices are hard to hear during instrumentally busy parts of any song, like choruses.

We’re going to caution you to take the chart of our measurements with some salt, because the nature of an unsealed ear canal means that the fit cannot be controlled for. However, the most repeatable result is shown above. What’s more, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear your music exactly how the frequency response chart depicts because of auditory masking. Whether noise-cancelling is on or off, outside noises will still get through to be processed by your brain. Since your wrinkly grey friend only has so much bandwidth for processing stimuli, it prioritizes seemingly threatening (e.g., loud) sounds over less threatening (e.g., quiet) sounds. External sounds are loud, so our brains automatically focus on those rather than straining to hear tonal resonances.

The microphones are very good

Microphone quality is excellent, and Samsung’s advanced microphone array uses two beamforming microphones and one voice-pickup unit, which relies on bone conduction to transmit your voice into audio signals. All of this technology allows for clear vocal transmission even when things are happening all around you.

Galaxy Buds Live microphone demo:

Background noise is rejected effectively when inside, but like nearly all embedded microphones, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live headset can’t nullify moderate winds. If you pass your free time by walking around and making calls, you may want to check the weather to make sure wind won’t be an issue. It could be quite disturbing for people on the other side of the call.

Samsung Galaxy Buds Live vs Apple AirPods

Apple new AirPods 2 outside of the case resting on a book.

Samsung has its sights set on Apple, and maybe the Galaxy Buds Live are the first credible attempt by a third party at taking attention from the AirPods. Both headsets provide an open-type fit whereby a seal isn’t formed, but the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live stay in my ears and the AirPods don’t.

The Apple experience is the smoothest around, and nothing outshines using the AirPods on an iOS device. Both sets of earbuds support fast charging at identical speeds, but only Samsung includes a wireless charging case by default while you have to pay extra for one with the AirPods. Touch controls are a bit smoother on the AirPods as is automatic ear detection, but you need an iPhone to update the AirPods’ software, whereas the Galaxy Buds Live are operating system-agnostic.

Should you get the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live?

A picture of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise cancelling true wireless earbuds outside of the closed case and on a black surface.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live are certainly headline worthy, but don’t throw your money at them without carefully considering the pros and cons — just like you should with any large purchase. There were many times when I would have preferred to use my Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus or Shure Aonic 50 headsets. The Galaxy Buds Plus are easier to insert, have better battery life, and are more comfortable for all-day wear; while the Shure Aonic 50 have stellar noise-cancelling and remain comfortable even with glasses.

At the very least, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live are worth consideration, and Samsung deserves credit for an attempt at real innovation. While the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live aren’t for everyone, listeners who purchase the buds with realistic expectations of their noise-cancelling abilities will be perfectly happy to have a new set of earphones. The new Galaxy Buds Live are even more appealing thanks to the trade-in program: customers get a $30 discount when they trade in any wired or wireless headset.

For a better value, get the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus instead

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus are not being replaced by the Galaxy Buds Live; both headsets will coexist within the Samsung Galaxy Buds line. Listeners who want a better fit, with exceptionally good battery life (almost 12 hours) should get the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus. These earphones are just as durable as the Galaxy Buds Live, feature the same wireless charging capabilities, and block out a similar amount of noise (and occasionally more) in practice than the Buds Live.

This Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review comes from the audio experts at our sister site SoundGuys. Check out their in-depth take on the Galaxy Buds Live. This review was first written when using software version R180XXU0ATG5.

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