Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

Everybody loves to compare the new Samsung Galaxy Buds to Apple’s AirPods. It’s pretty obvious. Samsung and Apple make popular phones, and now both companies have truly wireless earbuds to pair with them. I’ve spent two weeks with the $130 Galaxy Buds. They’re frankly pretty awesome. But are they better than AirPods? That depends on who’s using them.

Here’s the long and short of it. The Galaxy Buds work well. They connect well to any device. They feel good in your ears. They feature six hours of battery life on a single charge, which is an hour longer than AirPods. (It should be noted that the extra charge Galaxy Buds case had brings their total battery life up to 13 hours, while Apple says AirPods will last 24 hours with their charging case.)

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They sound terrific, although not as terrific as the more expensive $170 Jabra Elite 65t and certainly not as good as the $300 Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless. The Galaxy Buds even do a decent job when you’re using them for phone calls, thanks to four microphones—two on the inside by your head and two on the outside.

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At the end of the day, though, all of the good things about the Galaxy Buds are offset by a few caveats, which you should expect from a pair of $130 truly wireless earbuds. (They’re free if you pre-order the Galaxy S10 and 10+ as well as the Galaxy Fold. Update: The deal is now over, sorry!) None of these things are dealbreakers in my mind, but they’re important to consider when you can get better earbuds for just a bit more money.

For starters, the Galaxy Buds are attractive but finicky little sound nuggets. Each bud is about as big as a medium-sized piece of popcorn, as opposed to slightly larger popcorn-like designs from competitors. The Galaxy Buds also fit tightly into your ear canal with silicone tips and low-profile wings. By that, I mean that the rubber pieces don’t reach for the upper part of your ear. This design decision means that they might not look as secure as earbuds with big bits of rubber, but the Galaxy Buds are actually incredibly secure—once you get them in right, which always felt like a bit of a struggle in my experience.

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This brings me to one of the few bad things I have to say about the Galaxy Buds. They’re just kinda awkward to stuff in your ear. It might be because they’re sort of small compared to many other truly wireless earbuds with the same form factor. The lack of larger silicone wings or a jaunty little microphone bit like the one on the Jabra Elite 65t earbuds also means the Galaxy Buds are kind of hard to grab onto when taking them out of your ears. It’s possible not everyone will have this problem. I might have fat fingers. Still, I found it took a little effort to get them nested nicely and securely.

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

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On top of that, the touch controls drove me crazy. In principle, controlling the Galaxy Buds should work just like controlling the AirPods. You touch the outside of the bud to start and stop your music. Multiple touches let you do other things like skip tracks and answer phone calls. But when you have to jam these things into your head and adjust them, there’s a strong chance you’re going to start or stop your music without intending to. I also found that I’d activate the touch controls at random times, like that cold day that I wore a hood and my music kept starting and stopping.

Connectivity can be a mixed bag with the Galaxy Buds, too. The earbuds feature the latest Bluetooth 5 standard, which is great although it doesn’t have the proprietary pizzazz as the Apple W1 chip in the AirPods. Nevertheless, Samsung designed the Galaxy Buds to pair quickly to Android devices much like the AirPods magically find other Apple devices. It’s a nice idea that didn’t really work out for me.

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Samsung says that if you own a newer Android device the pairing experience should be as easy as opening the case, seeing a popup on your phone’s display, and hitting pair. Again, this is a lot like how pairing works with AirPods. But it actually took me a lot of effort to get this popup pairing experience. First of all, you’re supposed to have the Samsung Smart Things app installed on your phone for this popup trick to work (which is rude), and even when I had the app on a Galaxy S9, the popup seemed to appear sort of randomly, although they paired just fine when I did. The Galaxy Buds also paired by going down the traditional route: opening Bluetooth settings, finding the Galaxy Buds, and hitting pair. That’s how all non-AirPod wireless earbuds pair, and it’s always just a little bit annoying.

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

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Quite ironically, I didn’t have to pair the Galaxy buds with my iPhone XS at all. I simply took them out of the case, tapped the side, and my latest podcast started streaming from my iPhone. Why was pairing these Samsung earbuds with an iPhone easier than it was with a Galaxy phone? I have no idea.

Regardless of the method, getting the Galaxy Buds up and running was easy enough. And whenever I went to use them, the buds would connect to the last device I’d used them with and work seamlessly. What I really loved, though, was that switching between devices was equally as seamless. If I’d been listening to music on my iPhone and wanted to switch to my laptop to watch a video, I just had to hit connect, and the buds would follow. This simple task is often frustrating with Bluetooth headphones that want to stay connected to multiple devices, which sometimes means they’re not connected to the devices you want them to be connected to. With the Galaxy Buds, when you make the switch, the Galaxy Buds go with you.

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But like I said before, there are caveats. While they work fine inside and standing still, the Galaxy Buds can really struggle in areas with a lot of radio traffic, like New York City. Walking through a column of cabs left the Galaxy Buds’ audio ping-ponging from one side of my head to another, and at other times, I experienced general interference that made the earbuds do weird things. At one point, I was listening to a podcast, and there was a slight delay between either earbud. So I’d hear the podcaster start saying something in my right ear, and then hear the same thing in my left ear a half second later. The effect made me feel like I was on bad drugs. These sorts of hiccups aren’t exclusive to the Galaxy Buds. Interference is pretty common in a lot of cheap wireless earbuds, but it’s something I never have to worry about with AirPods or the Jabra Elite 65t.

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

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Now let’s get down to sound. The Galaxy Buds sound pretty great for pretty cheap wireless earbuds. Their range is undeniably limited. The bass response is pretty wimpy, and the high end lacks brightness. The Galaxy Buds also lack support for codecs like aptX and AAC. If you don’t know what these standards are, you probably won’t notice that their missing. If you think they’re essential, you have cause to complain.

But it’s hard for me to complain too much, when I realize that the Galaxy Buds are almost a budget option in the truly wireless earbuds market. Some wireless earbuds, like the $300 Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless and the $300 Master & Dynamic MW07, sound utterly amazing. The Galaxy Buds do not, but they’re better than a lot of others I’ve tried. They’re also on par with the Apple AirPods, although I’d give the Samsung buds a slight edge thanks to the in-ear design which does good job of keeping out background noise.

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Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

If you want to get more specific, the Galaxy Buds (powered by AKG technology) feature nicely balanced tuning that makes almost any genre shine. The warbling vocals and chirping strings on “Elephant Gun” by Beirut feel full, although not quite immersive, through the Galaxy Buds. “Old Thing Back” by Matoma sounds bright and bass enough—but certainly not as rumbling as it would with a big subwoofer. Freddie Mercury’s vocals sound fantastic, however not entirely atmospheric, on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Of course, Freddie Mercury always sounds fantastic.

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My point is that the Galaxy Buds sound pretty damn for their tiny design. They can’t handle thundering bass, probably because they’re tiny. They struggle a bit when they’re loud—again, they’re tiny. However, at this $130 price point, the Galaxy Buds are some of the better sounding truly wireless earbuds I’ve tested.

Fact of the matter is, I like these little earbuds, and I can mostly deal with the caveats. Having had plenty of bad experiences with truly wireless earbuds, the Galaxy Buds feel refreshing thanks to their comfortable design, decent sound quality, and—perhaps above all else—their low price. The interference thing really sucks, though, and I’d think twice about buying the Galaxy Buds if you plan to use them in a city.

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Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

I still can’t say they’re better than AirPods, though. If you’re a Samsung user, you can enjoy the more seamless connectivity between the Galaxy Buds and your Galaxy phone. If you’re an iPhone user, you might actually prefer the tight in-ear feel of the Galaxy Buds over the AirPods, and you might really love saving $30. However, on the whole, the Galaxy Buds still feel imperfect compared to Apple’s AirPods and a lot of other higher priced truly wireless earbuds.

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Oh but one thing I didn’t mention: the Galaxy Buds look a lot less obnoxious than the AirPods. If you want your earbuds to hang on your lobes and pretend to be a fashion statement, that’s your decision. But if you’re one of those never-AirPods people who wants earbuds that will practically disappear when you put them in your ears and you don’t spend your days dodging taxis in downtown Manhattan and decent audio is decent enough for you, give the Galaxy Buds a try. They’re a good deal.

README

  • Pleasantly lightweight design feels nice in your head, though it’s tough to get the Galaxy Buds in there just right
  • Finicky connectivity in areas with a lot of radio noise
  • Good sound, not great
  • Good deal

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