Samsung is no stranger when it comes to making true wireless earbuds, having released its first pair—the original Gear IconX—back in 2016 (nearly six months before AirPods were even a thing). But with the new $170 Galaxy Buds Live, Samsung decided to remix its latest earbuds to create something refreshingly unique and quite convincing.
The design of the Galaxy Buds Live immediately sets them apart from other earbuds. Let’s not play around, they’re freaking legumes, especially when clad in Samsung’s signature Mystic Bronze colo, which makes them kinda look like sci-fi pinto beans. That said, the Galaxy Buds Live’s shape is integral to its performance because unlike standard earbuds, you don’t actually shove them into your ear canal. Instead, you sort of twist them into place so that they get wedged between the tragus (the little nub that sticks out from in front of your ear canal) and your concha (which is the semi-circular depression that typically reflects sound into your ear canal).
For people who prefer headphones like the standard AirPods because they don’t protrude deep into your ears, the GBL’s deliver a similar, less invasive fit that serves as a critical distinction separating the Beans from a lot of other earbuds, including Samsung’s own Galaxy Buds+. But even for someone like me who has never had issues with traditional earbuds, the Galaxy Buds Live are quite comfortable, and when combined with their relatively petite dimensions and low profile, they are some of the most unobtrusive wireless headphones on the market. In fact, I’ve even fallen asleep while wearing them and they are right up there with the Pixel Buds as being one of the most comfortable earbuds in my ears. And when it comes to staying in place during exercise, even after a sweaty one-mile run, the Galaxy Beans never budged.
However, The Bean’s design also comes with a trade-off, because by not completely sealing off your ear canals, the Galaxy Buds Live also lets in a fair bit of ambient noise. Now, to Samsung credit, this choice was intentional. By incorporating air vents into the body of the Galaxy Beans, Samsung is able to prevent air pressure from building up in places like cars, elevators, or airplanes, which can give people headaches, often without them realizing what’s happening. The other major benefit of this more open-backed design is that you can still hear important noises like sirens or loudspeakers, which was actually kind of helpful after I got held up on the subway and was wondering what was going on. When the conductor announced that we were being held up by the train’s dispatcher I could hear the announcement clearly and without having to fiddle with anything.
The obvious downside to this is that you can still very much hear sounds from the outside like car horns. But wait second, don’t the Galaxy Buds Live have active noise cancellation? Why yes they do. The kind of noise cancellation it has is what Samsung calls ANC for open type, which tries to reduce low-band background noise like the whirring of a fan or the rumbling coming from my upstairs neighbor, whose child seems to be driving their Fisher-Price Power Wheels around inside. Fun vroom vroom for them, but not very conducive to writing reviews.
Thankfully, the Galaxy Buds Live’s open ANC is somewhat successful at drowning out persistent low-frequency disturbances, however because of their more open design and lack of passive noise sealing, they don’t do much to stop higher-pitched sounds like voices. Overall, the effect can be quite subtle, so you’re still going to hear that baby crying or that one dog barking, which means if you’re looking for headphones to put a muffle on the world and transport you into a silent little cocoon, these just aren’t the headphones for you. These are more for everyday use or commuters, who appreciate a little bit of noise cancellation to help cut down on distractions but still want to retain their spatial awareness.
Just know that turning on ANC reduces total battery life from about eight hours per charge down to seven or maybe six if you have a bunch of special features activated like Samsung’s always-on voice wake up for Bixby. I would suggest disabling that though, because no one really needs that kind of instant access to Samsung’s digital assistant. And when it comes time to recharge, you can get enough power for an hour of music with just a five-minute charge, with the Galaxy Buds case holding another 21 or 22 hours of juice, along with support for USB-C and Qi wireless charging.
As for the Galaxy Buds Live sound quality, Samsung has done a pretty solid job. At first, I thought things sounded slightly muddy in the mids, but once I played around with a few of the preset EQs, I ended up picking one that offered a good balance of crisp highs and deep, but not overly pronounced lows. However, for more picky audiophiles, the lack of a customizable EQ might be a bit of a downer. Meanwhile, for anyone using the Galaxy Beans when paired with a recent Samsung device, Samsung has created a couple of experimental sounds modes like Gaming Mode, which seeks to reduce audio latency even more so there’s less lag between hearing someone sneak up on your in PUBG Mobile and spinning around and 360 no scoping their face. Only it’s hard to tell how effective Game Mode actually is. I often questioned if it was just the placebo effect playing tricks on my mind, or if I was actually reacting more quickly.
Elsewhere, like most modern wireless earbuds, the Galaxy Beans include support for touch controls. You can play or pause with a single tap, double-tap to go forward, or triple-tap to skip back a track. You can also customize what the Buds Live do when you tap and hold. Options include: toggling on ANC, raising or lowering the volume, or summoning a digital assistant. On Samsung phones, your only choice is Bixby, but on other Android phones you can choose the Google Assistant, or even Siri on iOS. Samsung devices even have the option of setting the long press to open Spotify directly, for those times when you need music, like immediately, to blast your dome with beats and drown out the world. The one thing I do miss though is support for swipe gestures for volume, so I wasn’t forced to choose between having a convenient way to turn on ANC and having an easy to adjust audio up and down.
Ok, now we get to the hard part, how do the Galaxy Buds Live compare to other wireless earbuds? Priced at $170, the Galaxy Buds Live aren’t really true alternatives to Apple’s $250 AirPods Pro. Sure, they’re cheaper, but they don’t have anywhere near the same level of active noise cancellation. Same goes for Sony’s $230 WF-1000XM3. Conversely, on the more affordable side of things, Samsung’s own Galaxy Buds+ can be had for $150 (or quite often less), and feature longer battery life and tighter fit that provides much better passive noise cancellation.
That means what we really have here are rivals to Apple’s standard AirPods and Google’s second-gen Pixel Buds, and in that regard, Samsung has made a really solid competitor. While I wish the Galaxy Buds Live’s ANC were, ya know, a bit better at actually canceling noise, the Beans do offer better battery life than both, just as good if not better audio quality, and the flexibility to work on multiple platforms.
And for me, they’re a hell of a lot more comfortable than standard AirPods too, and on the same level as the Pixel Buds. The Galaxy Buds also offered way more reliability than the Pixel Buds, as I didn’t lose connection once throughout a full week of testing (even in NYC, which is notorious for causing Bluetooth to drop out). So even though Samsung’s newest earbuds aren’t a complete home run, they get a lot of the big stuff right, and if you’re someone who doesn’t mind letting some of the outside world in when you’re commuting or just walking around in the city, there’s a lot to like about these sweet little beans.
[Update 1:45PM ET] A recent update just arrived for the Samsung Galaxy Wearable app that gave the Galaxy Buds Live a noticeable improvement in ANC performance, especially when reducing things like road and traffic noise. I’ve reached out to Samsung to ask about any further software updates, and will update the review if we hear back.
- The Galaxy Buds Live work on a number of different platforms including Android and iOS, though you will need to pair them to a Samsung device to get access to experimental features like Game Mode.
- Because the Galaxy Buds Live have an air vent to reduce air pressure build up, they don’t have quite the same level of active noise canceling you get from AirPods Pro or full ANC cans like the Sony WH-1000XM4
- Battery life lasts between 6 and 8 hours between charges, with the charging case holding enough juice for another 20 to 22 hours of usage.
- Unlike most earbuds, the Galaxy Buds Live don’t actually go into your ear canals, but instead rest on the outside cartilage (between the concha and tragus), with Samsung providing two sets of wingtips (small/large) to help adjust the fit.
- Turning ANC and Bixby Voice Wake-up off improves battery life from 6 hours to 8 hours.