Samsung just announced the Galaxy Buds Pro, its fanciest earbuds yet. The $200 wireless buds have automatic noise cancellation, IPX7 water resistance, and a gaming mode for low latency audio. They also sound great.
But the neatest thing about the Galaxy Buds Pro is the way they handle outside sound. Similar to the “Transparency” mode on Apple’s AirPods Pro and similar features on other high-end earbuds, the Galaxy Buds have an “Ambient” setting that pipes in audio through outward-facing microphones. But instead of making you tap a button to activate this setting, Samsung’s buds can start listening for outside sound automatically when they hear your voice.
It’s the kind of obvious-in-hindsight idea that ought to be copied by practically every high-end earbud maker, even if Samsung’s execution leaves room for improvement.
Tuning in the outside world
Unlike Samsung’s bean-shaped Galaxy Buds Live, the Galaxy Buds Pro have a more traditional design, with three sizes of silicone tips that plug straight into your ear canal. While they’re not as comfortable during prolonged use, they block out external noise instead of just dampening it—hence the need for an ambient audio mode.
The automatic listening feature, called “Voice Detect,” is an optional setting in the Samsung Wearable app. Once enabled, the buds will roll over to Ambient mode for 10 seconds after hearing your voice, and will switch back to noise cancellation after you’ve stopped talking. They’ll also turn down any music that might be playing.
At least that’s how it works in theory. In practice, the Galaxy Buds Pro didn’t always pick up on my voice right away, and in some cases they would revert back to noise cancelling sooner than I expected. Switching the amount of ambient listening time to 15 seconds instead of the default 10 seconds helped, but I would still sometimes get cut off mid-conversation. (Samsung says this may be an isolated issue and has sent another set of earbuds for evaluation.)
I also found myself wishing that Voice Detect would respond to other voices, rather than just my own. To Samsung’s credit, the Galaxy Buds Pro’s active noise cancellation works really well—so well, in fact, that I hadn’t noticed the other day when my wife had walked into my office and started talking to me with my back turned. Voice Detect would really have come in handy in that scenario, but it didn’t work since I wasn’t the one talking.
Granted, turning on ambient mode in response to outside sounds would presumably present some larger challenges—there might need to be some kind of adjustable threshold of speech detection to avoid letting in unwanted noise—but it’s a logical next step if Samsung were to build on the feature.
You can always just turn on the Galaxy Buds Pro’s ambient mode manually by pressing and holding the touchpad on either earbud, but I liked the idea of mapping the touchpads to volume control instead. (I could go on about how wireless earbuds really need more than one point of input, but that’s a whole other story.)
The case for copying
Earbuds makers have a long history of borrowing one another’s feature ideas. Sony, for instance, introduced the ability to let in outside sound with Quick Attention mode on its WF-1000XM3 earbuds in 2019, and the feature quickly became table-stakes on high-end earbuds after Apple introduced the similar Transparency” mode with its AirPods Pro. Apple, meanwhile, introduced personalized equalization settings with Adaptive EQ on the AirPods Pro, and other earbuds makers such as Jabra have started offering similar features. Jabra’s Elite 85t earbuds allow users to adjust the volume level of outside sounds, which is something Samsung now offers in its Galaxy Buds Pro.
With the Galaxy Buds Pro, Voice Detect is the one feature that really helps them stand out from other earbuds (though, if you have a Samsung phone, hassle-free pairing is also a nice bonus). But I hope the idea doesn’t remain exclusive to Samsung earbuds forever.