To Samsung’s credit, the worst thing about the new Galaxy Buds Live is the name.
Here at Techskylight, we fell in love with the “Galaxy Beans,” as they were originally known, when that codename first emerged in early leaks this past July. It’s funny, it’s catchy, it’s descriptive, and it’s charming as hell. So, of course, Samsung went with the soul-crushingly boring moniker Galaxy Buds Live presumably to maintain brand consistency.
Now that I’ve aired that grievance, I can tell you that Samsung’s noise-cancelling answer to AirPods Pro absolutely has the punching weight to take on Apple. The bean-shaped earbuds don’t get everything right (including one major selling point), but they nail enough of the basics and then some — all at a cheaper price than Apple’s flagship buds — that even iPhone owners should give them a serious look.
The good: Terrific sound, natural in-ear fit, strong customization options
The Buds Live have plenty of fun bells and whistles to play around with, but none of them would matter if the earbuds’ sound quality didn’t justify the price. That was the problem I encountered with LG’s Tone Free earbuds which came out earlier this summer. But I am happy to report that is decidedly not a problem for the Buds Live.
Samsung combined a 12mm speaker with a visible bass duct and a small air vent to make some of the best-sounding wireless earbuds I’ve used in the past year. It didn’t take long for me to realize it, either. While wearing the Buds Live, the first song my Spotify shuffled to was the seminal Beastie Boys classic “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” and right away, the thumping bass might as well have sucker-punched me in the face. It hit so much harder than I expected, even in a song I’ve heard a million times.
The overall level of depth in the Buds Live’s sound is impressive. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to music in nice, over-ear headphones, and the gulf in quality between between those and the Buds Live is much smaller than it usually is with wireless earbuds.
Sturgill Simpson’s “Remember to Breathe” layers a bunch of somewhat harsh, grungy noises on top of a snazzy bassline with crunchy percussion — all of which the Buds Live bring out beautifully.
If, for some reason, you’re unsatisfied with the default audio output, the companion app (known as Galaxy Wearable on Android and Galaxy Buds app on iOS) gives you a nice amount of control over the way the Buds Live sound and function. Within the app, you’ll find a battery level indicator, a toggle for active noise cancellation, an equalizer with six different sound presets, and a handful of options that you can mess with. For instance, you can turn on voice dictation for push notifications or force the Buds to play a loud noise with a “Find My Earbuds” feature in the app.
Perhaps the most important of these is the ability to customize the function of a long press on each earbud. A one-second touch-and-hold can toggle ANC on or off, trigger a voice assistant, adjust the volume, or even launch Spotify on Android. That Spotify shortcut doesn’t work on iPhones, but the rest of the quick actions do.
The only real day-to-day functions iPhone users will miss out on are the ability to have notifications read aloud and that handy Spotify shortcut. There’s also one other bonus for Android users: an option to reduce audio latency in mobile games.
By the way, the Buds Live feature a pretty standard set of touch commands. In addition to the previously mentioned long press, users can single-tap to pause playback, double-tap to skip ahead by a track, and triple-tap to skip backward. A double-tap will also answer or end phone calls.
Speaking of phone calls, there are three microphones on each earbud and a “Voice Pickup Unit” that Samsung promises can filter out external noise if you call someone from a loud environment. This feature got the seal of approval from my dad who said he couldn’t hear the noise happening around me (my loud, rattly air conditioner and ESPN with the volume up way too high) and that I specifically created for testing purposes.
Now that we’ve established that the Buds Live sound great, it’s time to address their odd design. The “Beans” codename was appropriate given their obvious kidney-bean-like form factor, with rounded edges all around. Unlike most wireless earbuds, there’s no protruding point on the Buds Live that you need to jam into your ear. Instead, you put the entire bean inside your ear, placing the bottom side in first. There are small rubber wingtips on the inner top side to hold them in place.
Against all odds, this actually works. The Galaxy Buds Live fit naturally in my ears, and never threatened to fall out despite their lack of less pronounced physical anchor points. I never had to fidget with them at all. In fact, they’re so secure that pulling them out was marginally harder than putting them in. They do ship with multiple sizes for the rubber wingtips, but the default was perfect for me.
Unfortunately, a good “fit” doesn’t always translate to “comfort.”
The bad: Middling charging case battery and long-term comfort, hit or miss ANC
There’s really only one reason why I wouldn’t immediately recommend the Galaxy Buds Live to someone who is in the market for wireless earbuds, and that has to do with long-term, in-ear comfort. As I said, they nestle nicely into the ear. However, the fact that you’re jamming a big hunk of plastic into your ear with next to no silicone or rubber insulation means the Buds Live might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
The skin on the inside of my ear is pretty sensitive and there were a few instances where it was mildly tender to the touch after wearing the Buds Live for a couple of hours. I wouldn’t call it a sharp or debilitating amount of pain, but it was enough that I felt the need to take breaks every now and then. Maybe a silicone coating similar to that on the AirPods Pro would’ve helped, but then Samsung would’ve had to totally redesign the Buds Live.
One minor benefit, though, is that they attract way less earwax than normal wireless earbuds. They’re super easy to clean, too, since there aren’t many small openings to worry about.
Aside from that, the other issues I have with the Buds Live are relatively minor. The active noise cancellation is somewhat weak, as again, there’s no physical component helping to seal the noise out. Samsung’s sales pitch here is that the Buds Live deliberately let some noise in so you don’t miss things you need to hear. But, in practice, I heard more of the outside world than I wanted to on a handful of occasions.
My music or podcasts were never overpowered by ambient noise around me, which is a plus. But, to be perfectly honest, there were a few times when I toggled ANC on and off with noise around me and barely noticed a difference. The Buds Live’s ANC isn’t useless or busted, but it could be much more effective.
Last, I’ll point out that the battery life for the charging case isn’t best in class. The Buds Live, themselves, are rated for between five and eight hours of listening time depending on whether you enable ANC or voice activation for Samsung’s Bixby virtual assistant, which is pretty good! It’s better than the listed five-ish hours of listening time for AirPods Pro.
That said, Samsung claims you’ll get between 20 and 30 hours of battery life with the charging case factored in. Again, that’s roughly in line with the AirPods Pro, but I found myself needing to plug the case in (via USB-C) one time too many during my testing period. That’s not even close to being a deal-breaker. but it certainly isn’t as long-lasting as the $99 Skullcandy Push Ultra’s battery life, which can go above 30 hours with the case factored in.
Minor quibbles aside, Samsung’s latest attempt to compete with the AirPods line is a largely successful one. The Galaxy Buds Live may look weird at first, but there’s a method to the madness. They fit more securely in the ear than you would imagine, even if the feeling of hard plastic against the skin can become a nuisance after a couple of hours.
More importantly, these are some of the best-sounding wireless earbuds in their price range. The audio profile compared more favorably to a nice pair of over-ear headphones than I expected thanks to deep, pounding bass. I’d certainly call it a fuller sound than that of regular AirPods, which are priced similarly. And at $80 less than the AirPods Pro with a comparable feature set, the Buds Live are pretty much a steal.
Even if the active noise cancellation isn’t quite there yet, Samsung might have finally found a wireless earbud form factor it can build on for the future. Our suggestion: At least consider naming the next model Samsung Galaxy Beans. It’s what the people want.