A well-rounded pair of truly wireless earbuds

One year after Samsung stepped into the nascent market of truly wireless earbuds with the Gear IconX, the company has released an updated version with the same name. This time around, Samsung says it focused on the first generation’s misses: the battery life has been improved and better wireless performance has been promised.

With Apple’s AirPods leading a field full of truly wireless earbuds that are laughably cheap (and, often, laughably crude) or expensive, one-trick options like the Bose SoundSport Free, the question is how (and how well) will Samsung carve out some room for itself with the new version of the IconX?

After a little more than a week of using them, the new IconX earbuds are clearly much more capable than their predecessors. They don’t offer the most exquisite sound, they don’t do all the things, and the $200 price tag is on the high side. But they’re going to please far more than they disappoint, because Samsung has executed on the basics and snuck in a few other ideas and features that make these earbuds fun to use.Perhaps the thing I like the most about Samsung’s Gear IconX earbuds is their low profile. These are some of the smallest truly wireless earbuds available, all without the usual sacrifices like short battery life, poor sound quality, or an unreliable Bluetooth connection. They’re mostly comfortable, too; if I twist them a bit too far to wedge them deep in my ears, they can wind up aching a bit. But they’re otherwise pleasant and light.

The battery life and Bluetooth were the most glaring weakness of the first version of the IconX, but Samsung’s taken care of both problems this time around. I dealt with few audio dropouts, save for the occasional moment where the left earbud would dip and immediately come back. This happened maybe once or twice a session, but not every time I used them, so it doesn’t feel like a deal-breaker kind of problem. This is Bluetooth we’re talking about, after all.

As for the battery life, it’s fantastic. It’s genuinely hard to run up against the complete, advertised seven hours of playback time, but it’s mostly there. Running them straight through will get you something more like six or six and a half (on the lower side when you’re streaming, a bit more if you’re listening locally). It’s more than enough for earbuds like these, and a huge leap from the two hours and change I remember getting on the original pair.

The best thing about the IconX’s battery performance, though, might be that Samsung added a clever little quick charging feature to these earbuds, since the case uses a USB Type-C connector. You can get around an hour of playback with as little as about 10 minutes in the charging case, which is really valuable in a pinch when you’ve discovered that the buds have died. Knowing exactly how much battery you have is tricky, though; the app only shows battery life in a small graphic. I also wish the carrying / charging case was flatter instead of pill-shaped. It’s small enough to fit in most pockets, but it might not be very comfortable in some.

Sound from the old Gear IconX earbuds was as good as you could expect from Bluetooth headphones, and the new ones are no different. Music is vibrant and clear, with no obvious sacrifices in the bass, mid, or high ranges. There’s some lossiness that comes across if you listen intently, and it’s clear that Samsung’s doing some heavy processing to make these tiny earbuds sound as good as they do.

That means, compared to the new wireless earbud audio quality standard set by Bose SoundSport Free, music sounds less alive. It lacks some warmth and depth. But the IconX still sound better than most other truly wireless earbuds, and are above my usually low expectations for Bluetooth sound quality. For all the times I’ve noticed this digital sheen on the music playing in my ears with the IconX, I’ve spent twice the time (or more) bopping my head in ignorance.

This is all somewhat dependent on the way the earbuds fit your ears: if the speakers aren’t aimed right down your canal, the sound quality noticeably suffers. I never had much trouble acquiring and securing a snug fit, however, so the music listening experience was almost always enjoyable. And unlike the Bose SoundSport Free, the audio signal delay on the IconX is low, making them reliable for watching video in my experience. (Samsung warns on its website that this depends on the “smartphone model and application” you’re using, though.)

Streaming audio is just part of the experience with the IconX. There’s more going on here, as Samsung has polished up the ideas it introduced with original version in 2016.

For one thing, the earbuds have 4GB of onboard storage so that you can listen to music without your phone. That comes in handy if you want to use the IconX earbuds for running or other workouts (which Samsung heavily advertises that you do). And just like the original version, the earbuds, of course, have some basic run tracking ability.

There’s no heart rate monitoring like you’ll find on the Bragi Dash or Dash Pro, but the earbuds work with the Samsung Health app to track your runs and walks and tell you stats like duration, distance traveled, speed, and an estimate of how many calories you’ve burned. They do this even without the phone, too; just know that those numbers are always going to be less accurate.

What is new is a running “coach” feature, which is basically just a voice that issues different prompts or tips during each session. It will give commands like “walk briskly during warmup,” or “lengthening your stride can increase your pace, give it a try.” And it also reads out things like how much time has elapsed, or how many minutes until you’re supposed to start the next phase of a run.

Once you’re in the middle of a running session, the voice coach shifts over to more inspirational cues. They’re sort of a nice idea — who couldn’t use a little push when they’re starting to feel fatigued in the middle of a long run? — but I never found them especially inspiring. Like most digital assistants, the voice is hollow and robotic, sounds barely semi-present, and so cheery suggestions like “Focus on your goal. Believe in yourself!” ultimately fell flat.

But if you’re a beginner, like me, when it comes to running, it’s still a helpful feature. I’ve never bothered reading about why or when I should do things like change my pace during a run, so that information coming from the IconX has some immediate value. More seasoned runners will probably balk at the basic fitness tracking or the coaching features, but even they would still have the benefit of great performance and sound while on the go.

If you think the IconX are going to have some kind of special connection to Bixby, Samsung’s voice assistant, you’d be wrong. You can trigger Bixby if you’re using the IconX with a phone that has it with a tap-and-hold on either earbud, but there’s no ambient wake word feature or other magic happening here.

Using Bixby on the IconX was a predictably mixed experience. Bixby’s audio always also sounded low compared to the volume I had any music set to, which meant I often had to check the phone anyway to understand what it was saying or see what kinds of results it was serving up.

Voice recognition was as bad as it usually is with digital assistants. There were a lot of misses, and I wound up repeating myself a lot. You also run into the same frustrations that Bixby presents on the phone. When I asked it “who won the baseball game last night,” referring to the World Series game played the night before, it served up schedule information for the next one being played and didn’t speak any details about the outcome of the contest I was curious about. Fortunately, you can change the default assistant to Google for slightly better results, and it works with Siri if you use the IconX with an iPhone.

Bixby’s not the only source of frustration for me with the IconX. Another is the touch interface. It’s nice that it’s on both earbuds (and works the same with each), but the touch recognition and the beeps that confirm your swipes and taps could be a bit quicker in some places. There were more than a few moments where the slight hesitation made me trip up and tap twice when it had already accepted the first. There were also times when it would read my swipes up or down as taps, meaning I wound up pausing the music I was trying to modulate.

These could just be learning curve problems; there are more than a half dozen ways to touch, tap, and swipe. I like the slightly more fluid touch-based interface of the Dash and Dash Pro, and broadly prefer touch controls to buttons that force you to push earbuds further into your ear. Samsung’s implementation just feels a bit clumsier.

Since the IconX earbuds create such a snug fit, Samsung allows you to pick one of the two earbuds in the Gear app as the dedicated one for workouts if you want to be able to hear your surroundings. If, like me, you are stubborn and would rather use both, there is an audio passthrough mode. But you can only turn it on or off inside the Gear smartphone app, and the toggle is a page deep into the settings. There’s no shortcut to this on the earbuds themselves, which seems like a total oversight considering how many other touch interactions there are. The audio passthrough mode is also a very blunt tool: it’s just on or off, there’s no way to adjust the amount of audio coming in through the earbuds via the microphones.

And then there’s the small caveat that the fitness features are specific to when they’re being used with Samsung phones. They only play music or other audio when used with an iPhone. Samsung’s not the only company behaving like this. In fact, most of the major phone companies are pushing some form of wireless earbuds that have exclusive features or perform in a certain way only when you use them with that company’s phones. It’s a byproduct of the big push away from a universal standard — the 3.5mm headphone jack — to one that’s less open and easier to tinker with, wireless Bluetooth audio.

Open standards ranting aside, the new IconX are almost everything you could want from Samsung when it comes to truly wireless earbuds. They crush the basics with terrific battery life, and a more than reliable connection with your smartphone. They offer a slightly deeper suite of features than some of the competition, like fitness tracking, which I found to be pretty useful even if it wasn’t thoroughly data-rich. And they sound really good, even if they fall short of the new benchmark for audio quality set by Bose in this space.

Would I like the idea of the IconX more if they were priced more competitively? Of course I would. But the fact that that’s one of the only major concerns I have with these earbuds is a sign that they’re pretty great otherwise. It’s also kind of hard to see how you’d be disappointed with these at a price tag of $200 if you use them heavily.

The new IconX are good enough to encourage such heavy use in a way that the original pair never did. They may not have the kind of magic touches of something like AirPods’ instant and effortless pairing, or the rich sound of the Bose SoundSport Free, and Samsung isn’t throwing in everything but the kitchen sink like Bragi does with the Dash. Instead, Samsung’s found a sweet spot between all three, and that idea sounds really good.

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