Galaxy Buds Live stay in my ears better than AirPods, but noise canceling needs some work
- Unique, eye-catching design
- Comfortable ergonomic fit
- Compact charging case with wireless charging
- Open sound with good bass and detail
- Good noise reduction when making calls
- IPX2 waterproof
I do not like it
- The noise suppression is comparatively mild
- Open design lets in ambient noise
- Small distortion at high volume
Say what you want to say about the bean-shaped design of Samsung Galaxy Buds Live – yes, they are affectionately known as beans – but they are possibly the most innovative new true wireless earbuds of the year. Available in three colors: mystical white, black and bronze. They definitely look noticeable and have a chrome-like finish in which you can see your reflection in the mirror.
At $ 170 (£ 179, AU $ 319), they cost a little more than the standard Apple AirPods. And like the AirPods, they have an open design – you don’t put an earplug in your ear – and they’re very comfortable to wear. Plus, they’re very discreet and basically sit flush with your ear with no little white tube sticking out of them. And finally, they have active noise cancellation. More on that in a minute.
I took one look at the bud and my first instinct was to stick the piece with the rubber ring in my ear. But it’s actually the opposite. You stick the other side – the one with the little speaker and bass port – down into your ear and wedge the rest of the bean in your ear at an angle.
Samsung shows you how to get them into your ears in an animation that you can find in Buds Live’s companion apps – it’s the Galaxy Buds app for iOS, but Galaxy Wear for Android. The way they sat at a lesser angle than the animation in my ears seemed wrong. But that’s how they fit in my ears – and they fit well – so I just left them that way. For better or worse, I think you have to go with the shape of your ear that gives you. I managed to dip the speaker side of the earplug into my ear canal, which seemed to be the most important to me.
This rubber ring mentioned above – both small and large versions are included – replaces wing tips that would normally anchor these type of earbuds. I used the larger of the two, and the earbuds just snuggled nicely and securely in my ears, with just enough extra traction to keep them in place. That said, I wouldn’t have minded if Samsung had put in a more traditional sports wing that really blocks the buds in your ears.
They stayed more secure in my ears than the standard AirPods (the standard AirPods slip out of my ears when I run or even walk briskly with them). I’ve been able to run and bike with the Galaxy Buds Live and although they are only IPX2 water resistant, which makes them splash proof from certain angles, they are sweat resistant and can be used for exercise. The earlier Galaxy Buds Plus are also IPX2 waterproof, while the AirPods Pro are IPX4 certified (splash-proof) and the standard AirPods are not waterproof, although people still walk – and sweat – with them.
I really liked the Galaxy Buds Plus, which has a noise isolating design (meaning it presses into your ear canal). They are a great fit for me too and I thought they sounded really good for the money. I figured if Samsung made noise canceling earbuds it would do something very similar to the Buds Plus and add noise canceling and call them Buds Pro or something like that.
Instead, it’s these Buds Live earbuds that have active noise cancellation. Samsung calls it “ANC for Open Type”. However, I can’t say it’s that effective. There have been some open or semi-open design earbuds with noise canceling, but I’ve always found that you need a very tight seal for noise canceling to really work.
These are supposed to reduce the noise in the lower frequencies, and Samsung says they block the sound while driving on a train or bus. But I just didn’t feel like they had much of an impact on reducing ambient noise. It’s pretty mild. They help a little so that you can listen to your music and make calls a little better in noisy environments. The AirPods Pro, Sony WF-1000XM3, Technics EAH-AZ70W, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 and several other true wireless earbuds with noise isolation and active noise cancellation are significantly better at reducing ambient noise. So don’t buy these for noise canceling or you may be disappointed. On the other hand, if you are someone who is sensitive to active noise cancellation, you shouldn’t worry – some people feel uncomfortable pressure on their eardrum.
As with the Galaxy Buds Plus, I liked how these sounded. No wonder, they sound open-ended – and that’s where the name Live comes from (it should give you the feeling of a live concert, says Samsung). Their open, airy sound doesn’t feel like it’s stuck in your head. They have 12mm drivers and a large bass port. The bass is plump, yet powerful, just the way I like it – and there are nice details in the mids and highs. They definitely sound lively. Dynamic is the word I usually use to describe headphones like this.
In terms of sound, these are not quite there with the best sounding real wireless earbuds like Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2 or Sony’s WF-1000XM3. But they are really solid and pleasant to hear. You can use the preset EQ settings to make some sound tweaks in the Galaxy Buds Companion app for iOS and Android. I mainly stuck to the standard “Normal” mode.
I’ve noticed that the bass drops a bit at higher volumes and things don’t sound quite as good when you turn the volume all the way up, especially if you’re listening to a track with a lot of instruments that are played once. While this goes without saying for Bluetooth earbuds, most noise isolating earbuds let you keep the volume down to 80% or less. But because these are open, I tended to turn up the volume to compete with any ambient noise.
For additional functionality, Galaxy device owners are given some options that Apple and non-Samsung Android users do not have. This is not surprising given that AirPods are partially there to sell more iPhones. So it shouldn’t shock anyone that Samsung would have some special features for its users.
If you have a Galaxy phone or tablet, you get some additional features, including a low-latency gaming mode. This was available for the Galaxy Buds Plus in the Labs section of the app but has been improved, according to a Samsung spokesperson, and is useful for Galaxy Note 20 users who want to play. Galaxy owners can also use Bixby, Samsung’s voice assistant, hands-free without using the Buds’ touch controls, which work and respond well. Activate it by saying, “Hello, Bixby.” This is similar to the Siri speakerphone option for AirPods.
When you use Bixby for hands-free calling, you lose some battery life. These are designed for up to 8 hours with noise cancellation switched off and 6 hours with noise cancellation switched on. It drops to 5.5 with the noise cancellation with Bixby always there waiting for you to wake it up. The compact case charges wirelessly or via USB-C and offers around 2.5 additional charges.
Bluetooth pairing is very flexible depending on which devices you are using. If you have multiple Galaxy devices, you can Buddy pair all of them and automatically switch between devices as long as they are all under the same Samsung account. iOS and Android users can pair the Buds with multiple devices, but you’ll have to switch between them manually. They don’t seem to pair with two devices at the same time, but one of the newer Galaxy devices can pair with two Buds Live pairs at the same time. Windows 10 users can use Microsoft Swift Pair to link these to their PCs. Mac users only need to put the buds in pairing mode to do the same thing (you tap and hold each bud at the same time for a few seconds to go into pairing mode).
The Galaxy Buds Plus did a good job of reducing background noise when I spoke to them on the phone, and this one too. There are two microphones on the outside of each bud and one on the inside. Although the buds don’t completely attenuate the sound around you, they are good at blocking out ambient noise and picking up your voice too. People I spoke to said they could hear me well even with street noise from a YouTube feed playing quite loudly in the background (I’m not in New York City these days so I have to simulate street noise). You can use a single bud to make phone calls.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the sound and characteristics of these earbuds, but it is really their design that is the standout feature. I get a lot of these types of earbuds to review and this is the first one in a while that I thought was really innovative and different. They look quite unique, are discreet and not only fit securely, but are also comfortable to wear for a long time. Unfortunately, the noise cancellation isn’t what I was hoping for, but it’s a challenge to work with open earbuds like this. Even so, they easily rank among the best earbuds of 2020.
Originally published August 6th