Samsung Galaxy Buds Review (or The AirPods Cage Match We’ve All Been Waiting For)
I recently published my Galaxy S10e review and made a point of making that article mention the iPhone as few times as possible. I’m taking a different approach here; this entire review is going to be a comparison to Apple’s industry-leading and pop culture phenomenon. Let just jump right in.
Yes, we’re starting with the experience of using these, since that’s what makes AirPods special. People aren’t buying them up in droves because they sound amazing or have a billion features, they’re getting them because using them is an effing delight.
My overall feelings about my time with the Galaxy Buds are mostly positive. I think they look good and they have a nice charging case, and using them brings me a lot of the same “I don’t miss wires at all” feeling that AirPods brought me when I first got them. I’m a big fan of the touch surfaces on each earbud, which makes controlling media a breeze and easier than it is on AirPods.
That said, there are some fundamental issues that keep these from ascending to AirPod-level heights. Connection issues have plagued my pair, reminding me that wireless technology is an achievement, not something that magically “just works” like AirPods. Weird pairing issues and notification oddities also mar the overall experience and have lead to numerous cases of me troubleshooting my headphones when all I want to do is listen to some music.
Oh, and I should probably mention audio quality! Well, if you’re heard AirPods, you’ve heard these too. The only advantage they have is that they block out ambient noise better than AirPods.
Setup is pretty quick, and while it’s not the one-tap setup that AirPods have, it’s certainly better than most Bluetooth devices. You open the case and just like AirPods, your nearby, unlocked phone sees them and asks if you would like to connect.
Once you choose your buds the Galaxy Wearable app opens and lets you set some preferences for the buds and walks you through some of the basic controls. The experience is pretty smooth and was done within a minute.
Just like with AirPods, these work with any Bluetooth device, so you can use these with non-Samsung Android phones and iPhones as well, and the process will be slightly more traditional there. I never did this so I can’t speak to how smooth this is, though.
The Galaxy Buds look good and fit pretty well in my ears. They also sound totally fine, but are nothing special. In terms of looks, well the picture above shows how they look and in my opinion, they look pretty good. I have the black ones and they are definitely a more subtle look than AirPods. I’ve never had a problem with how AirPods look, so it’s a wash for me, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who will prefer this look.
In terms of fit, this is almost needless to talk about in a review since it’s so personal, but these fit okay in my ears. I have gone for runs in them and they stayed securely in my ears, as do AirPods. They go into your ears with a kinda fun little twist motion and they really feel like they’re locking into place. It’s cool!
One serious disadvantage in terms of fit for me is that these really start to hurt my ears if I wear them for more than 30 minutes at a time. I don’t enjoy wearing in-ear earbuds in the first place, and that combined with the rubber fin that pushes into the top of my ear means they get very uncomfortable for me after a while. Again, this is a me thing, so take it with a grain of salt, but AirPods fit perfectly in my ears and don’t get uncomfortable even if I wear them all day. If you feel the same about AirPods, then this is relevant info for you, but if not, sorry.
One big advantage Galaxy Buds have over AirPods is in how you control media. AirPods have an accelerometer that you need to tap to do things. Apple limits one action to each bud, so you can choose between play/pause, next track, previous track, and Siri. You may pick two and the rest need to be done with your phone.
Galaxy buds have touch-sensitive sides and use pretty standard tap patterns for media controls. on either bud you can tap once to play/pause, twice to go to the next track, and tap three times to go to the previous track. This means you can always perform all actions, even if you’re only wearing a single bud at a time.
In addition, there is a “tap and hold” action that can be assigned to either:
- Voice assistant (Bixby in the Galaxy S10e’s case…shudder)
- Volume controls (left can be set to down, right to up)
- Quick ambient sound
That last option is the most interesting. If you want to hear the world around you better for a moment, you can tap and hold to have the earbuds use their microphones to amplify the sound around you and turn down you music.
What I chose to do is irrelevant because this tap and hold action basically never works for me. Maybe this is an issue with my buds, but the other tap controls work perfectly but this one almost never seems to kick in.
That said, I quite prefer these touch controls to AirPods’ “bang on my ear” interactions. Unlike Google’s Pixel Buds, which made me hate touch controls, these work very well…at least for taps.
And finally there’s the audio quality, which I found to be completely average in every way. I use AirPods every single day of my life and have for over 2 years. I know precisely what the things I listen to sound like in those earbuds. When I started playing things through the Galaxy Buds I honestly had to check my ears to make sure I had the right earbuds in. They sound exactly the same to my ears.
The only real advantage they have over AirPods in terms of sound quality is that they isolate you better, which is good for using them in noisy environments. For example, AirPods are almost useless on an airplane since all you hear is the plane noise, but these are a good amount better.
And if you don’t like the default sound, there are 5 total settings you can select from, ranging from tons of treble to tons of bass. I’m not one to mess with equalizers, but I thought everything besides the default setting sounded bad. These have very little bass (probably the only notable difference from AirPods, which has more bass than you’d expect), so the “bass boost” mode really just sounds like they are turning down the highs even though the bess stays exactly the same.
One of the cool features of Pixel Buds was that they would read your notifications to you if you wanted. This was probably my favorite feature on those otherwise terribly flawed earbuds, and Samsung has a similar, but much less useful version of this on the Galaxy Buds.
You can turn on notification alerts in the earbud settings, and this will just call out the name of apps as they deliver notifications to you. Someone sends you a text message? Your music will drop out and Bixby will say, “Messages.” Get an email? Bixby will say, “Gmail.” There is no way I can see to get the content of these notifications, which I don’t find super useful. But it’s here if you’d like it.
A large part of what makes AirPods so great is the case that you use to carry them around. The case is tiny, fun to use, and provides plenty of recharges. Samsung’s case checks more boxes than most, but is not up to AirPods standards. Let’s hit them up one at a time.
The case is indeed small, and it’s the first headphones case I’ve used that fits in the little coin pocket thing in my jeans. The AirPods case slides in without effort, and the Galaxy Buds one takes a little more effort, but gets in there too. It’s quite a bit longer than the AirPods case, but not to a detrimental degree.
In terms of “funness”1 the Galaxy Buds case isn’t nearly there. It’s totally functional and works, but the AirPods case is a delight to spin around in your hand, open and close to hear that satisfying “SNAP” sound, and has super-satisfying motions for both placing the buds in the case as well as taking them out. Every action is fun and makes you enjoy them before they even get into your ears.
Galaxy Buds’ case technically has the same stuff, but the buds kind of just fall into place and I can’t help but fumble with them when I take them out of the case. The hinge on the lid is also very loose so it flops around as you handle the case. None of this is a deal-breaker, and it’s not something you really need from a case, but AirPods have raised the bar so high here that it’s hard not to notice the differences in user experience.
And then there is the charging aspect. You can plug these into a USB-C cable and charge them up, of place them on any Qi charger out there and they’ll charge up wirelessly. And as Samsung really wants you to know, you can use your Galaxy S10 to wireless charge them as well. This is really cool, and something I am glad I can now also do this with AirPods2.
The Buds case disappoints in how much charge it holds, though. AirPods get 5-6 hours of charge and the case holds about 4-5 full charges. This effectively means you can use AirPods for upwards of 30 hours before needing to top up the charge. The Galaxy Buds last the same 5-6 hours per charge, but the case only has a single charge in it, so you get 12 hours tops out of these before needing a charge. It’s not a big deal, and having wireless charging means I’m more likely to just drop it on a pad when I get home, but it’s still a pretty stark difference.
My time with Galaxy Buds has been mostly smooth sailing, but there have been enough problems to warrant their own section in this review.
First and most common, is that the Bluetooth connection seems to be pretty spotty. I never lost connection completely, but I somewhat regularly have instances of the audio cutting in and out briefly when my phone is in my pocket. This isn’t great, and when it gets bad it makes it impossible to listen to anything. If I take my phone out of my pocket it goes away immediately.
Along those same lines, I’ve had a few times where only one earbud would connect to my phone. For example, the left one would connect and start playing audio, but the right one would just stay dead. The phone claimed to not see it and no amount of putting the bud in and out of the case would get it to connect. Each time this happened I had to reboot my phone, at which point it would connect immediately and work fine.
These buds have gotten two software updates since I bought them a few weeks ago and these are a bit of a pain too. I put them in once and my phone showed me a notification that I would not be able to use my earbuds until I performed the update. Having updates is good, but blocking me from using my headphones until I install them is dumb.
Also on the update front, the case needs to remain open while updates install. If you have the gal to close the case while it’s trying to update, your phone will show you a warning that says it is unable to connect to your Buds. You need to keep the case open or take the buds out of the case while the update is performed.
Finally, that notification feature mentioned above is crazy unreliable. Most apps don’t even seem to work with it, despite my settings saying they should work. For example, Gmail notifications get through to me, but Outlook does not. Messages works but Signal doesn’t. It’s totally random and the settings page where you can turn specific apps on or off doesn’t seem to do much at all.
I think that AirPods are a better earbud for Android, despite being made by Apple and losing a lot of their extra fancy features on Android. Enough of the experience is still superior that it makes it hard for me to personally choose the Galaxy Buds over them.
That said, Galaxy Buds are $129, while AirPods are $1993 so the price difference is pretty significant. Also, if AirPods don’t fit in your ears, there’s a good chance Galaxy Buds fit better. And if you want better media controls or more sound isolation, then the Galaxy Buds will be your best…er, buds.
This all comes down to personal preference, so take my opinionated review with a grain of salt. No, these are not as good as AirPods in the ways that matter most to me, but they are certainly good enough to make a lot of people happy. My biggest concern is not with the actual feature set but with reliability. If these didn’t have connection issues and pairing problems then I’d give these en enthusiastic endorsement. Given that I have gotten two updates already, I have high hopes that Samsung will keep plugging these holes and make these more reliable. There’s no guarantee of that of course, and I can only review these as they exist today.
- My writing app tells me that isn’t a word, but I’m sticking with it. ↩
- Well, as soon as I update my AirPods. My original ones are still fine so I’m holding off. My wife got the new case though since she managed to discolor her case quite a bit. Makeup spills in purses are not fun… ↩
- $159 if you don’t want the wireless charging case. ↩