Samsung Galaxy Buds: underwhelming as ear buds

Samsung Galaxy Buds: underwhelming as ear buds

Dominik Bärlocher
Zurich, on 22.03.2019
The release of Samsung’s Galaxy Buds seems to be the company’s way of telling Apple to watch out. And the Buds certainly look like they’re designed to knock the current wireless in-ear headphones off the top spot. It’s quite possible they’ll manage that but they need a bit more work first.

Samsung’s in-ear headphones, called Galaxy Bud, are actually supposed to be better. That’s because Samsung bought the audio company Harman International Industries in 2016. Harman International meanwhile had already acquired the audio company called AKG that’s responsible for the Buds in 1994.

In which case, why is the sound so weak?

Trying to give Apple a run for their money

It’s obvious that the Galaxy Buds are Samsung’s attempt to take the bread out of Apple’s mouth. Bear in mind that the AirPods – also wireless and also in-ear – were initially ridiculed and now, thanks to compactness, comfort and their good sound, the AirPods are very much accepted. Of course, Samsung wants its own piece of the pie. The company would be crazy if it didn’t.

And when you think about it, headphones are probably the key survival tool in every commuter’s toolbox. Because let’s face it, we all get bombarded with sounds at an ungodly hour in the morning – usually before we’ve even had coffee. Cars honk their horns, trams squeal, people babble. Grabbing five more minutes of quiet in the outside world before the day begins sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? No wonder then that Samsung wants to get involved. They’d be crazy if they didn’t.

no information available about this image

In all honesty, the perfect recipe for commuters is fairly simple:

  • Good sound insulation to block out outside noises
  • Good sound and high volume ceiling
  • Good battery life
  • Fast charging times

These headphones are really quick to charge. When I first plugged the pill-shaped Buds case into a USB-C charger, I quite frankly didn’t know how long it’d take them to go from 0% to 100%. And I can tell you now, it’s blooming quick. Or to put it into perspective, I plugged them in before a meeting and they were all charged up by the end of it. The specs on this massive earplug mention a 58 mAh battery in the Buds themselves and 252mAh in the case. That gives you about six hours of listening pleasure and a bit less than that for phoning. For commuters, that’s fine given that the average Swiss person spends 30.6 minutes traveling each way to work, equating to 61.2 minutes every day, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. If that’s the case, you’d only need to charge the Buds about once a week.

*Samsung Galaxy S10 und S10+**: Der letzte Aufschrei einer Generation?video

Samsung Galaxy S10 und S10+: Der letzte Aufschrei einer Generation?

Just like the Samsung Active Watch and the S10 smartphone series, these Buds can also be charged wirelessly. If you have an S10, you can even charge the Buds wirelessly using your phone.

That all sounds great. And the wireless charging gives Samsung the upper hand over Apple. Even the pill-shaped case is arguably better looking than Apple’s dental floss container. Moreover, the buds come with replaceable rubber eartips so your ear doesn’t have to adapt to the one size Apple thinks it should be so the earplugs fit. I say that even though Apple has got the wireless in-ear headphone thing down to a T.

What doesn’t sound so good on these headphones is the quality from the Buds themselves.

From unstable to flat

All in all, the issues with the Galaxy Buds aren’t at catastrophic level. They just highlight the fact this is an unfinished product. A mid-March 2019 update offers a more stable Bluetooth connection. Before that the connection was OK in closed rooms but outside it was a bit crackly. Hopefully it has now been improved. It seems to be better, at least.

Sound insulation to the outside isn’t particularly good
Sound insulation to the outside isn’t particularly good

But sound is what makes these Buds headphones. I mean, just thinking they look nice isn’t much use and wouldn’t make them headphones. For one thing, they’re not particularly good at masking external sounds. In other words, you can still hear your colleagues sneezing or someone on the number 14 tram chattering away on their phone. Do they really have to do that at 6.30am? I mean come on. I’m not interested in hearing it took you ages to dye your hair. I just want my coffee.

The bass controller on the Samsung Wearable app with Galaxy Buds Plugin
The bass controller on the Samsung Wearable app with Galaxy Buds Plugin

Just like its big competitors, such as Sony, Samsung doesn’t rely on out-of-the-box sound. That means you can configure the sound – bass, trebles and so on – via an app and optimise it to your acoustics. The app is now called Samsung Wearable rather than Samsung Gear (Android with aGalaxy Buds Plugin. There’s no app for Apple devices but it also works without it, although it doesn’t allow you to use additional features.) The Samsung Wearable app gives you loads of options that are designed to tailor the sound to your ears. It’s essentially a switch that takes you from «Bass Boost» to «Dynamic» and «Treble Boost». The problem is that even with the bass boost, the Buds make the sound shaky and flat. If you’re a fan of bass, like me, you can score these headphones off your wish list. Rich sound jangles in my ears alongside fragments of conversation and I start to wonder if I’m better off just listening to stories about colouring hair.

But there’s one thing Samsung has got just right and that’s comfort. Within a few minutes of using the Buds I can hardly tell they’re there. It’s not really surprising when you consider that one headphone piece only weighs 5.6 grammes. They also stay in your ear incredibly well. I can just close my eyes, lean against the window, hope for a few minutes’ sleep and waking up on time, and let bustling Zurich fly past me.

What takes a bit more effort is operating the headphones using gestures, which are admittedly irrelevant when you’re half-asleep. The Buds are sensitive to touch.

  • Tap once: play/pause
  • Tap twice: next track or start/end a call
  • Tap three times: previous track
  • Tap and hold down: user-defined/decline call

The issue is that play/pause, in other words tapping once, is extremely sensitive. You have to tap twice or three times really quickly so that the command is read correctly. A relaxed operating system it is not. But it’s nice to see that the commands are starting to become standardised across various brands. For instance, the commands for the Buds are the same as those on Microsoft’s Surface headphones.

However, I think a lot of these problems could be fixed with software updates. The bass isn’t just a hardware issue. The connection has already been improved and the tapping speed should also just be one value in a programming line. Once Samsung gets that sorted, the Galaxy Buds should prove serious competition for Apple’s AirPods – and not just on price. But in their mid-March 2019 state, these headphones are only for people who don’t care about sound quality or consumers who want to take a stance on brand politics. Otherwise, your only wireless option is over-ear headphones: Sony’s WH-1000XM3 or Microsoft’s Surface headphones, for instance. Or AirPods or Jabra Elite 65t if you absolutely have to have the in-ear kind. By all accounts, they’re also quite good.

And that’s a wrap. Phew. All the apps for individual sound settings make life for an audio reviewer quite difficult, don’t you think?

22 people like this article

Dominik Bärlocher
Dominik Bärlocher
Senior Editor, Zurich
Journalist. Author. Hacker. A storyteller searching for boundaries, secrets and taboos – putting the world to paper. Not because I can but because I can’t not.

These articles might also interest you