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I’ve worn a ton of true wireless earbuds in my day, going all the way back to pioneers like Bragi’s Dash (RIP). But when Samsung finally unveiled the striking, kidney bean-shaped Galaxy Buds Live (available at Amazon for $169.99), I felt something I’ve been missing from true wireless earbuds lately. Could it be … excitement? The Buds Live’s audacious style has everyone buzzing (for better and worse). However, while their clear sound and modern features make them natural AirPods usurpers, bold design like this doesn’t come without some risk.
True wireless earbuds—those without any wires at all—are among the most innovative sonic gadgets on the planet right now, with nearly every major audio brand looking for a piece of the action. But frankly, with only three real design styles: golf tee (thanks, Apple), earhook, and basic bud, the aesthetic is getting stale.
Then there’s Samsung’s wild new earbuds concept-in-the-flesh. Flashy, minimalist, and a bit odd, these beans—sorry, buds—are a breath of fresh air in a visually stagnant segment. But the Buds Live’s “ergonomic” design is bound to be polarizing, and not just for looks. Carved from rigid plastic and designed to sit directly in your ear for “open type” wear, it’s the fit of these earbuds that could make or break them for potential buyers.
About the Galaxy Buds Live
As true wireless earbuds, the Galaxy Buds Live are are part of an evergrowing segment of earphones that are totally wire free. But that’s just the tip of their design innovation.
Before we dig in, here’s a quick look at their basic specs:
- Price: $169.99
- Battery life: up to 6 hours with noise canceling, 21 hours total with the case; up to 8 hours without noise canceling, 29 hours with the case
- Rapid charging: 5 minutes charge for 60 minutes of playtime
- Colors: Mystic White, Mystic Bronze, Mystic Black
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
- Audio codecs: AAC, SBC, Samsung Scalable Codec
- Dust/water resistance: IPX2
- Ear tips: small and large
- Weight: 5.6 grams per bud, 42.2 grams charging case
The Galaxy Buds Live’s curvy shape is eye-popping, but it’s also an engineering concept that allowed Samsung to lay out the electronics horizontally so the buds can sit flush with your ears. The bean shape is also meant to provide an ergonomic fit for “all-day” listening (more on that below).
The Buds Live boast a few other intriguing design touches. Along with three mics for calling and noise canceling, a sensor on each bud is meant to sense your jaw bones’ movement and vibration to improve call clarity and block exterior sounds. Dimples along the shiny exterior reveal a venting system and bass duct meant to foster open sound and rich bass respectively.
Samsung’s Wear app augments mirrored touch pads on each bud for controling a range of functions. While most features are device agnostic, Samsung phone users will enjoy exclusives, including always-ready Bixby voice assistant and quick switching between Galaxy devices signed into a Galaxy account (see the AirPods).
The Galaxy Buds Live ship with two ear tips sizes that attach around the magnet sensors, a compact charging case with wireless charging, and a USB-C charging cable.
What we like
It’s no surprise that design takes pole position—and it’s not just about the bean-curve. Like Google’s Pixel Buds, the Buds Live arrive in an almost shockingly tiny box, and inside sits a similarly tiny charging case that feels as well made as it is pretty. Opening its clamshell lid reveals the buds set on their charging stands like chubby, metallic caterpillars, their mirrored finish sparkling satisfyingly in the light.
While the overall package gives an air of luxury (as flagship earbuds should), the Buds Live look their best when you put them in. They fit flush with your ears as promised, and their flashy finish brings just enough style to catch the eye without calling too much attention.
Sound quality that holds its own
Samsung calls the sound of most traditional earbuds “stuffy.” I’d go with “intimate,” personally, and some of the most rich and satisfying sound I’ve heard derives from disconnection from the outside world, whether it’s my 3D molded UE Pro RM monitors or the luscious Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2.
Samsung has gone the other way with its “open type” design, and at the risk of parroting its press materials, the first word that came to mind when listening is “lively.” It’s not just the openness that gives the Buds Live some sonic vitality, but also the sound signature, which blends relatively firm lower bass with some zesty excitement in the upper registers.
Some of that zest depends on the all-important seating: angling the tiny speaker away from your ear canal turns up the zest (but also the tinniness), while angling them further in ramps up bass and takes away some presence. When properly alligned, I enjoyed the Buds Live’s taut and punchy sound signature, which offers enough detail and clarity to enjoy most musical genres.
One element lacking is instrumental definition. Earbuds like Sony’s WF-1000XM3 give you more of it, along with better clarity and musicality across registers for a more rounded portrait of each element. Panasonic’s RZ-S500W, priced more in line with the Galaxy Buds Live, are also more musical, offering better balance and depth, especially in the lower frequencies.
Still, the Buds Live are pleasant enough to listen to, especially for podcasts and other more austere recordings. Their excitable sound signature, while occasionally tinny up top, serves up some fun without inducing bite or sharpness, and the app’s EQ presets let you mix up the formula.
A bit of noise cancellation (and other welcome add-ons)
While not loaded to the gills, the Buds Live’s feature set easily bests Apple’s standard AirPods, and stands up well to similarly priced new entries like Google’s Pixel Buds.
The big ticket item is Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), but to be clear, this isn’t the shutdown ANC you’ll get from top players like the AirPods Pro, Sony’s WF-1000XM3, or Panasonic’s affordable RZ-S500W. Designed to suppress lower frequencies, Samsung calls its brand “open type” noise canceling, which both accurately describes it and quells expectations. It’s marginally useful for quieting low-end drone sounds, and it also helps open the soundstage a touch.
Samsung’s Wear app unlocks plenty more, from an EQ preset dial (with settings like Soft and Bass boost) to transparency mode to let in more environmental sound, which is as modest as the ANC. Other notable features include always-on Bixby (for Samsung phones only), Find My Earbuds, and Samsung’s Android-only Spotify shortcut.
As for battery life, the earbuds gave me every minute of their relatively impressive 6-hour playback time with noise cancellation on, stretching to around 8 hours without it (matching Sony’s pricier WF-1000XM3). I wasn’t able to test with always-on Bixby, but it decreases playback from 6 hours to 5.5. The case, which adds 2.5 extra charges, plugs in via USB-C and also supports wireless charging.
At this price, there’s not much reason to complain about the features, but I’m going to anyway. The Live’s optical sensor pauses the earbuds when you pull both out, but there appears to be no option for auto-pause with just one bud, which feels like a miss. I also wish the transparency mode was both adjustable and more powerful, though the open-ear design makes that less necessary.
Clear calls and relatively stable connection
Call quality is impressively clear, again recalling Apple’s AirPods. And while Bluetooth connection can often be a gamble with new true wireless buds, it was primarily stable, exhibiting only a few minor shakes when bending over with the phone in my back pocket.
What we don’t like
The fit provides little room for error
For all the talk about ergonomics, the Buds Live just don’t fit me right.
While fit is subjective—and apparently my ears are on the small side—the Buds Live are flat-out uncomfortable for me, especially in the long term. The problem, as I see it, is the combination of a fully seated form factor that’s also rigid, which leaves little room for error in smaller ears. It’s unfortunate, because I love the flush fit as a concept, but I think the buds need some give for ears like mine; I could see this design working brilliantly with some squishy silicone around the edges.
I even went so far as to try flipping the eartips (both sizes) inside out, which provided some relief, but my ears still got sore over time. To be fair, that’s true with almost all true wireless earbuds I’ve tried, but the Buds Live are, for my ears, worse than most. I should also note that the earbuds are meant to be worn more vertically, but pushing them back was the only way I could properly lineup the speakers with my ear canals.
They’re not really meant for workouts
While the fit isn’t comfy for me, the Galaxy Buds Live are great at staying put. Add in their open design that keeps you aware of your surroundings, and it seems a shame they’re not rated above IPX2 water resistance. That means they aren’t really meant for especially rainy or sweaty conditions like jogging or hitting the gym. On the bright side, they worked great when I put them to the test with some particularly pesky yard work.
Perhaps it was the fact that I was constantly trying to reseat the buds, but I set off the touch controls by accident more often than usual. And when I did want to change settings, I found the touch pads were conversely picky about where I placed my fingers, so I had to be quite deliberate.
To be fair, this is a universal struggle with touch controls on true wireless earbuds, leading some brands, like Jabra, to opt for physical controls. But I think the rounded form factor adds to the accuracy trouble here.
In addition, like a lot of buds, volume is not a default control. If you want it on the buds, you’ve got to swap out your choice of three other controls in the app: Voice assistant, Spotify Shortcut, or noise canceling. I’d love for every manufacturer to put volume on by default, but if not, you should be able to rearrange the controls any way you choose.
Should you buy them?
Not if you have small ears
Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live have a lot going for them, from clear sound and compact size to moderate noise cancellation and solid battery life. Not to mention flashy style that looks like nothing else in the genre.
For me, though, the fit is a dealbreaker. I much prefer the more traditional, but pretty dang comfy, Galaxy Buds Plus. For $30 less, they give you similar AirPods-crushing features—making them our go-to Android alternative—and come with as much as 11 hours of playback time per charge. And while their design is simple, their fit is much more universal.
If you want powerful noise cancellation, Panasonic’s RZ-S500W bottle it for just $10 more, and again bring a more adjustable fit and better sound quality. If you just want a nimble pair for your workouts (and more), Jabra’s Elite and Elite Active 75t are both go-to choices thanks to their robust design and tons of features.
All that said, if you love the open-ear buds like Apple’s AirPods—and you can get them to fit—Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live are a stylish, modern, and affordable upgrade. Even if they aren’t for me, I’m excited to see Samsung push the envelope, and hopeful we’ll see more such design leaps in the near future.