Samsung Galaxy Buds review: A waste of good design

Affordable true wireless earbuds mired in frustration.

Apple has the AirPods for the iPhone, and now Samsung has a true wireless headphone made specifically for its Galaxy lineup. The Galaxy Buds offer a lot of the same features as most other true wireless earbuds: charging case, on-board controls, audio transparency, easy access to virtual assistants and more. There's one major caveat though: Unless you own one of Samsung's recent Galaxy handsets or an Android device, key features on the $130 Galaxy Buds won't be available to you.

Samsung isn't new to the true wireless game. The company has already made a few models, including two versions of its IconX line that the Galaxy Buds succeed. But the Galaxy Buds are noticeably smaller and, for that matter, smaller than most other true wireless earbuds I've tested. The more compact size means these hardly stick out of your ear at all, and if they do, it will be a lot less than the Jabra Elite 65t, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless and others. The smaller size also means increased comfort, partially due to them not hanging out of your ear. But also because they're lighter than most.

Smaller earbuds also means a smaller case. The one included with the Galaxy Buds takes up less space than much of the competition. That may not sound like a big deal, but the difference is noticeable when carrying it in my jeans pocket. There is a trade-off though: This case only holds one full charge, whereas most of the competition offers two full charges with the charging accessory.

Samsung Galaxy Buds review

There are charging indicators both inside the case and out that tell you the status of the buds and case itself, respectively. A green light means you're fully charged or battery level is at 60 percent or higher, yellow is between 30 and 60 percent and red means you're charging or below 30 percent. It's not ideal, but at least gives you a ballpark idea until you can check your phone for a precise percentage.

When you open up the Galaxy Buds case for the first time with a Galaxy S10 nearby, you'll see a pop-up message on the phone, asking if you want to connect. It's similar to what iPhone users encounter with AirPods or any W1-equipped Beats headphones. However, with iOS, the process is much quicker. With the Galaxy Buds and an S10+, it took about 10-15 seconds from the time I opened the case until I saw the notification on screen. Sure, this was the first time I paired, but it still felt slow. Once the Galaxy Buds are paired, any other time I opened the case I was greeted with a "now connected" message instead, complete with battery levels for each earbud.

On an S9+, I had to perform the setup entirely through the Galaxy Wearable app. Once I did, I saw the same pop-ups for connecting the Galaxy Buds when I opened the case just like I did on the S10+. I never saw the "found nearby" prompt that guides you through the initial connection like I did on the S10+ until after I had sorted things myself inside the companion app. I also noticed those messages appeared much faster on the S9+ than on the newest phone, popping up consistently in under five seconds.

After pairing is complete, the Galaxy Wearable app is where most of the magic happens. You can expect to install an update to the app itself right off the bat, which should take about 5-10 minutes. From there, the software walks you through the on-board controls, explaining what various taps will do. After that guide, I had to install a firmware update for the Galaxy Buds themselves -- a process which took another 3-5 minutes.

These updates weren't that frustrating, but it does take up some extra time; it's annoying when you just want to get the music going. Having to install an update to wireless headphones right out of the box is required from time to time, but it's pretty rare. And I test a lot of headphones.

The Galaxy Wearable app is where you'll find battery levels, EQ presets, the option to customize the press-and-hold function and a Find My Earbuds tool. As far as EQ tweaks go, there's only a handful of options: Bass Boost, Soft, Dynamic (default), Clear and Treble Boost. (You can also turn the feature off entirely.) During my testing, I found the Dynamic setting to be the best. It's an evenly tuned mix of bass, mids and treble that has noticeably more oomph than using nothing at all. The others are fine, but this was the only one I used more than a few seconds.

Samsung Galaxy Buds review

There's also a tap-and-hold feature, which you have a limited ability to customize. You have a few options to choose from, and you can set different options for each earbud. Voice command, quick ambient sound (transparency mode) and volume controls are the choices here. I found putting access to Bixby or Google Assistant on one side and the quick ambient sound tool on the other was the most useful. However, this meant I had no on-board volume control, which is, frankly, terrible. And it gets worse.

The app forces you to put the volume down control on the left bud and the volume up on the right. There's only a single touch pad on each earbud, so there's no way to have up and down on one side. If you do want both, you're taking up both of the tap-and-hold slots on the Galaxy Buds. Having to give up handy features in favor of something basic like volume control is a major issue for me. I got more angry every time I had to reach for my phone to turn down music or a podcast.

That's not the end of the frustration. You have to choose between voice control/virtual assistant, ambient sound or volume controls for the tap-and-hold slots, but the other tap combinations function the same on both sides. It's terrible for the user experience. I'd much rather have some of those controls dedicated to something I really need, like volume, than to have so much repetition.

At any rate, a single tap will play/pause whatever you're listening to, double tap plays the next track or answers/ends a call and a triple tap plays the previous track. The first two work reliably, but the third -- the triple tap -- was a source of constant struggle. Basically, without fail, the first few times I'd try it, the Galaxy Buds would read the triple tap as a double tap, or even a single tap. I got better with practice, but I still can't consistently skip back to the previous track when I want.

Samsung Galaxy Buds review

Another feature that caused frustration is automatic pause. It only works when you remove both earbuds at the same time. Other true wireless earbuds I've tried pause when you remove one or the other, which means you can quickly pull one out to listen to or respond to people and then resume your music. Speaking of which, the Galaxy Buds don't automatically restart when you put them back in. You have to single tap on either side to resume whatever was playing. There's also the quick ambient sound feature available if you set the earbuds up that way -- another option if you need to have a quick chat. Even then, that feature doesn't pause the music, and you'll still be able to hear it subtly while you're ordering your latte or talking to your running mates.

If you like to live dangerously, the tap controls do work on iOS, but I wouldn't recommend them for iPhone owners. The Galaxy Wearables app isn't available for iOS, so you'll lose a lot of the key features available through the software. You can't tweak that tap-and-hold behavior and mess with EQ presets. Those handy pop-ups don't display when you connect the Galaxy Buds either. Basically, you'll get the core functionality, but the more unique features are only accessible on Android. And still others, like PowerShare and the connection pop-ups, are only available on Samsung phones.

I've seen reports of basic Bluetooth connectivity issues on other Android devices, specifically the Pixel 3 XL. I tested the Galaxy Buds with the OnePlus 6T and didn't experience any of the drop-outs or disconnection woes I've read about. Once I had the Galaxy Wearable app and the Galaxy Buds plug-in installed, everything worked fine. I haven't done enough testing to say if this is a wider Android issue or just Google's latest phone, but either way, you might want to proceed with caution.

Samsung Galaxy Buds review

With Samsung subsidiary AKG handling the audio on the Galaxy Buds, I hoped the sound quality would at least be above average. And for the most part, it is. For a $130 pair of true wireless earbuds, these sound pretty good. But again, they do sound best with that Dynamic EQ preset switched on. When that's enabled, there's a bit more depth to the sound than the default tuning. Highs, mids and lows all pop a little more, and there's more openness to everything -- it doesn't seem so flat.

You can really tell the difference on booming or layered tracks like Punch Brothers' "Movement and Location," Florence + The Machine's "What Kind Of Man" and Run The Jewels' "Mean Demeanor." The Alice In Chains MTV Unplugged album also sounds really good on the Galaxy Buds thanks to that Dynamic setting. The acoustic guitars sound big and deep, and even though the drums are restrained, there's still plenty of pop to the kick drum and snap to the snare. Styles like rock, bluegrass and country sounded the best on the Galaxy Buds, but they don't perform well across all genres.

Bass-heavy genres like hip-hop and some electronic tracks I tested on the Galaxy Buds did lack a bit of thump. It's probably enough for some, and I'll admit l demand more than most, but some songs lack depth and full sound that more bass would allow. I could also use a couple more levels of volume too. Again, the maximum setting is likely just fine for a lot of folks, I just like to get super hype at times -- like at the gym. That requires extra decibels, of course.

While the audio here is solid, it's not anywhere close to the best. As far as I'm concerned the best-sounding true wireless earbuds are still Sennheiser's Momentum True Wireless, with Master & Dynamic's MW07 in second. However, both of those are more than double the price of the Galaxy Buds. With that considered, I'd imagine most people would opt for "good" over "the best" if it means saving around $170 and getting a few device- and Android specific features.

Samsung insists that the Galaxy Buds are for talking just as much as they are for listening. Thanks to so-called "dual adaptive microphones," one on the inside and one on the outside of each earbud, the company says the person on the other end of your calls will hear you more clearly. That's because the earbuds can pickup on your surroundings and automatically switch between the two sets of mics to reduce background noise for whoever you're talking to.

That's easier said than done. I found the audio quality here to actually be worse than what I get on the Jabra Elite 65t -- based on recorded audio samples. The Galaxy Buds picked up more of the background noise, like my dog stomping around and the heating system in my house, than the Elite 65t. Jabra's true wireless option was more focused on my voice, despite Samsung boasting about its microphone setup. This was yet another disappointment.

Samsung says you can expect up to six hours use on a charge. I was only able to manage about five and half before having to put the Galaxy Buds in their case. But I was also listening at full volume pretty much the entire time. If you're optimal level is closer to 50 percent, you'll probably be able to stretch that listening time to be more on par with the company's rating. There's also a quick-charge feature that will give you up to 1.5 hours of listening time in 15 minutes, which should get you through a workout or a conference call. The charging case offers seven additional hours of listening time, or basically one full charge and a few top ups. Most of the competition also last about five hours, but offer two or three additional charges via the case.

Samsung Galaxy Buds review

If you're pairing the Galaxy Buds with an S10 or S10+, you'll have the option of charging the earbuds (while in the case) with the phones' PowerShare feature. This worked as advertised, at least once I figured out how little room for error there is when it comes to placing the case down. It has to be right in the center of the phone or it won't work. When you hit the target, the phone will vibrate, and you'll hear a notification chime (if you have the volume turned up). And while the charging status will be displayed in the notifications swipe down menu, it's awkward to flip the phone over to check while also holding the Galaxy Buds case in the right place to maintain its connection. You're better off relying on the case's lights to check your status.

Earbuds will only ever be so comfortable. You're jamming something in your ear after all, and like most buds, Samsung includes three sizes of tips in the box. And if you're not a fan of the wing that helps keep the Galaxy Buds in place, you don't have to use it. I found the wing did help keep them in place, and it's more comfortable than most because it's shorter than what you typically see on sports earbuds. Even with the most comfy of the three tip sizes in place, I still started to feel some discomfort after about an hour. Again, that isn't a knock against the Galaxy Buds, but rather just something I have to live with when it comes to these true wireless devices in general.

Samsung Galaxy Buds review

The Galaxy Buds are a direct response to Apple's $159 AirPods, only designed for Galaxy devices. Sure, they work well on Android and are passable on iOS gear, but the full experience is limited to Samsung's phones. Rival products that both sound and work better are much more expensive -- like the models from Sennheiser and Master & Dynamic I mentioned. If you have an Android device, the Galaxy Buds are a good option that's more affordable than a lot of the other contenders. If you have a Galaxy S10 or S10+, these should be your first consideration due to the features like PowerShare and the connectivity pop-ups. Not an Android user? Jabra's $170 Elite 65t are still the best all-around choice for both casual and active use, in my opinion.

While the Galaxy Buds are a solid set of true wireless earbuds, they're definitely designed to be used with Samsung's recent phones. The S10 and S10+ have key tools like PowerShare that older phones don't offer, and a lot of the other features are only available through the Galaxy Wearables app on Android devices. Even then, frustrating touch controls and the lack of certain key features hinder the overall experience for an otherwise capable audio accessory. Sure, the $130 price tag is attractive, but just know that discount requires some sacrifice.