Most truly wireless earbuds have one thing in common: At least some portion of the earbud sticks into your ear canal.
That’s not the case with Samsung’s new Galaxy Buds Live, a $170 set of wireless earbuds that look like a plump pair of kidney beans. Instead of reaching into your ear canal, the Galaxy Buds rest right on the edge, curving upward along the contour of your ear. This design is supposed to let you comfortably leave the earbuds in place for hours on end.
The Galaxy Buds Live are indeed pretty comfortable. They also sound great and stay in your ear better than you might expect. But using them involves a learning curve, and noise cancellation is inherently worse than earbuds that plug up your ears. Bucking design convention, while admirable, has its costs.
Don’t wear them wrong
The first problem with Galaxy Buds Live’s funky design is that it’s not immediately clear how to wear them.
I’m ashamed to admit that my first instinct was to put them in upside-down, with the rubberized nubs at one end facing my ear canal. Only upon closer inspection did I realize that the speakers were on the opposite side of the earbuds, and that the nubs are meant to rest against the concha portion of your outer ear.
Even with that matter sorted, angling the earbuds for optimal sound quality takes finagling. As Samsung’s own setup app warns, twisting them too far in the wrong direction can cover up the speakers, and it took me a day or two to feel like I was inserting the Galaxy Buds Live in the best possible way. That’s not an issue with other earbuds.
Once you get the positioning right, though, the Galaxy Buds Live are comfy. They don’t pull on your ears like Apple’s AirPods do, and they don’t create the kind of ear canal pressure you get with silicone-tipped earbuds. All wireless earbuds bother me after about an hour of wear. But I was able to go longer than my typical stint with AirPods before wanting to pull the Galaxy Buds Live out.
Not so much noise canceling
While Galaxy Buds Live are Samsung’s first wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation, their unusual design limits the amount of outside sound they can block out.
With noise canceling on, the Galaxy Buds Live mostly just muted low-frequency sounds. They didn’t stop me from hearing the whir of my desktop computer or the chatter of my kids elsewhere in the house, which is no surprise because Samsung’s new buds don’t plug up your ears.
Samsung argues this is a good thing, noting that you can tune out undesirable frequencies during media playback and still hear what’s happening around you. (“Get lost in an audiobook without missing the train conductor’s announcement,” the company’s press release says.) Fair enough, but as I’m working from home with a full house, tuning out my surroundings is exactly what I’m trying to accomplish.
Bean-like buds for Samsung lovers
I’ll say this much about the Galaxy Buds Live design, though: It doesn’t hinder sound quality. While listening to Cory Wong’s Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul, I heard the kind of fat bass lines that usually require silicon-tipped earbuds or full-sized headphones, along with plenty of high-end clarity.
The Galaxy Buds Live are also tailor-made for Samsung phones in ways that other earbuds are not: The pairing process is instantaneous, and battery percentages appear on the screen when you flip open the case. Samsung’s Wearable app also offers handy EQ settings for music, an experimental low-latency mode for gaming, and—for better or worse—Bixby integration.
This is all part of Samsung’s attempt to build a stickier ecosystem around its hardware, so it’s not a stretch to think weird-looking earbuds are an extension of that strategy. I get the feeling Samsung designed them this way in part just to stand out from a flood of other wireless buds, similar to how Samsung pushed into extra-large displays, curved glass, and foldable screens before anyone else was doing so.
No one’s going to confuse Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live with a pair of AirPods, and I’m not sure they’ll be readily copied by anyone else either. Diehard Samsung fans, if they exist, can embrace the bean as their own—warts and all.