Samsung Galaxy Buds Live Review: Tasty design with room for improvement
There are only so many ways you can do something uniquely; after a point, you’re bound to make a repetition that could cause your product to start resembling some of the key characteristics for that established product segment. Smartphones are rectangular glass slabs, laptops are slabs with keyboards, and truly wireless earbuds are either circular or have a stem on them. So when a product comes along that strays away from the established order, we’re bound to take note. That’s precisely what is happening with the
Galaxy Beans Galaxy Buds Live.
When the Buds Live first leaked in their stemless, kidney-bean design, I was more than intrigued. I had so many questions: How do they fit in the ear? How big are they? How do they fit in the case, and how do they stay in there? How easily do they fall out? Will they be uncomfortable? How would they noise isolate? And would they feature noise cancellation? While Samsung’s official launch and accompanying marketing and advertisements have answered a fair few of these questions, I hope to bring some of my own perspectives after having used the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, alongside the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ and the Sony WF-1000XM3.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live: Specifications
|Specification||Samsung Galaxy Buds Live|
|Dimensions & Weight|
|Battery and Charging|
|Speaker and Mic|
|Sensors and other features|
|Colors||Mystic Bronze, Mystic White, Mystic Black|
Note: Samsung India loaned us the Galaxy Buds Live for this review. This review is after twelve days of use. Samsung has no inputs in the contents of this article.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live — Design and Build
While the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ are pretty much the same as the original Galaxy Buds, the Galaxy Buds Live are unlike anything you have seen in the market. The shape has a stark resemblance to kidney beans, and Samsung wanted to call them Beans at some point too. It is a unique design for sure, with the exterior surface of the Bean-like earbud coming in with a glossy finish, and the interior surface having a more muted matte-finish. The Mystic Black color variant that I have does get some fingerprints onto the shiny surface, but they aren’t prominently visible. The matte finish alleviates some of that cheaper-feel that was much more apparent on the Buds+, and that’s good because these earphones aren’t cheap.
There is a specific way that you need to wear the Galaxy Buds Live. Most earphones are quite intuitive in this regard, but the Buds Live have such a unique form factor that you do need some assistance to figure it out. For larger ears, the Buds Live needs to settle at the very bottom of your ear, almost running parallel to the ground (but not entirely). This way, the two speaker grilles are the deepest and closest to your ear’s auditory canal. There is a protruding wing tip towards the top of the matte side, which along with the bean-shape, press the Buds Live flush against your pinna (if you want to be more specific, at the bottom of the concha in your auricle). Samsung includes another larger pair of wingtips, but I found that the default was the better fit for me and the larger ones were quicker to cause discomfort. For smaller ears, the Buds Live settle into a more upright position.
With the way that the Buds Live are shaped and how they sit and press, it does present a sensation of underconfidence if you are wearing them wrong — it feels like they will fall out if you move around too much. If you do it correctly (and depending on the shape and size of your ears), the Buds Live will sit in almost flush, and the underconfidence will vanish. In my usage, once I figured out how they need to be put in, the Buds Live never actually fell out. They are snug to the point that I have gone on small runs without them falling out. But your mileage may vary simply because of how different our bodies can be at an individual level.
As far as comfort is concerned, I do feel comfortable wearing the earphones for about 4 hours at best. Beyond this time point, the snug fit on the pinna starts causing soreness and discomfort. The Buds Live only has rubber elements on the wingtips, and the rest of the body is hard plastic, so all the tolerance needs to come from your body. If you have smaller ears, I can see this being a problem, even though Samsung claims that it has extensively tested the Buds Live and its design on a wide variety of ear shapes and sizes. To Samsung’s credit, the Buds Live are lightweight, with a weight lower than even the Buds+, so you don’t feel any heaviness in your ears.
The Buds Live comes in a rounded-square case, which is easily pocketable. The resting cradle for the Buds Live within the case is not very deep, but the earbuds do not fall off because the magnets do a good enough job at it. The magnets for keeping the lid shut are stronger than those holding the buds in place — just a curious observation. Continuing my nitpick, the magnetic snapping action when putting the earbuds back into the case is stronger than it was on the Buds+ but still underwhelming compared to the Sony WF-1000XM3, but I concede that this is just a personal nitpick. I prefer the pill-shaped case for the Buds+ over the jewelry-box-like case of the Buds Live, but there is nothing that is fundamentally wrong with the Buds Live’s case shape, so both the options are correct. What I would wish for Samsung to change is the glossy finish, as it does not do justice to a premium product and makes it feel cheaper than what it can punch.
The Galaxy Buds Live case has an LED indicator on the inside to indicate the charging status of the earbuds, and another LED indicator on the outside to indicate the charging status of the case. There is an indentation/gap that runs around the case separating the two halves, so you can easily open the case without needing to hold it in any specific way. The USB Type-C port exists below the hinge on the outside. You can use the port for charging the case, or you can choose to charge using a Qi-certified wireless charger. Samsung includes a short USB Type-A to Type-C cable in the box, so you have the means to charge them up right out of the box.
The Buds Live continues with the IPX2 rating from the predecessor, meaning it can resist light splashes of water. So that is light sweat, but that’s about it. You don’t want to take them out when it’s raining. I hope Samsung considers making the next generation better in terms of water resistance, considering how much it rains in my region.
To wrap up the section, the Galaxy Buds Live have a unique design, one that does set it apart and ensures that no one mistakes them for an AirPod or any other TWS on the market. The design works out for short and medium wear durations for me. But because the TWS are so different, the comfort and the fit does boil down to the individual and the shape and size of their ear. It’s difficult to label it “good” or “bad”; it’s just “different” with no real mainstream comparison. Samsung wanted to give the earbuds its own identity, and they have been pretty successful to that end.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live — Features
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live shares a lot of its software features with the Galaxy Buds+. The first pairing process is super simple: You have to open the lid, and the Galaxy Buds Live are already in pairing mode, meaning that you do not need to undertake any complicated pairing gestures or actions to use them with your first device. From that point, you can enter in manual pairing mode by placing the buds back into the case and reopening the lid (you don’t need to take out the Buds). You can also touch and hold both earbuds for three seconds to enter pairing mode if you don’t want to place them back into the case.
If you have a Samsung smartphone with the Samsung SmartThings app installed, the pairing process is even more straightforward. The Galaxy Buds Live also does not support Google’s Fast Pair. Note that you can use either of the earbuds individually for playback, too.
Much like the Galaxy Buds+ (post their updates), the Galaxy Buds Live are capable of multi-device switching. It’s not as seamless as Bluetooth multipoint that can shift audio focus intelligently. Still, it’s a lot less friction against entirely unpairing/disconnecting from one device to connect to another. Presuming that you have connected with the devices once before, you can tap on the Buds Live entry on the desired device, and the Buds Live will receive their audio input from them. Just to be clear, there’s definite room for improvement, but if you are hopping around a few devices through the day, at least you won’t have to pair your Buds multiple times throughout the day. I definitely wish to see Bluetooth multipoint in the next generation, though.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live have a touch sensor located on the top part, but I found that touching squarely around the middle guaranteed a response. There’s no clear demarcation for the touch area, but since the buds aren’t too large by themselves, you will confidently get touch inputs correct unless you make an active effort to touch the top edges only. Like the Galaxy Buds+, a single tap on either bud plays and pauses tracks. A double-tap will play the next track, and a triple tap will play the previous track. If a call is incoming, you can double-tap to accept. And once accepted, you can double-tap to end the call. Touch and hold lets you decline calls.
The Samsung Wearable app lets you reconfigure the single touch and hold command on the left and right earbud individually to any of the following four options: Voice command, Active Noise Cancellation, Spotify, or Volume Control (Right earbud for Volume Up, Left earbud for Volume Down). Note that the Galaxy Buds Live, like the Buds+, do not have auto-pause on removal/auto-play on insertion, even though they can detect when they are removed. On the flip side, you can’t really not touch the touchpad while removing or inserting the earbud.
You can lock the touch controls too. But unlike the Buds+, there is no “Double Tap Earbud Edge” feature here. I don’t really miss its absence either way, but just something to note if you are invested in it.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live support Bluetooth 5.0 for connecting to devices. For codecs, the Buds Live, the Buds+, and the Buds support SBC, AAC, and the scalable Samsung codec (proprietary). You can only take advantage of the Samsung scalable codec on Samsung’s devices, and as mentioned before, an ecosystem lock-in becomes crucial to experience the best sound out of these earbuds.
For wireless range, I can get an uninterrupted connection for around 10 meters. Performance on this end is at par with other truly wireless solutions. Latency is also an issue with the Buds Live, and I get about a 150ms delay in sounds. You can live with it if you are just casually watching videos, but perhaps not so much for live gaming as you are likely to be at a small disadvantage. I’ve found that turning off Active Noise Cancellation helps improve the latency marginally, bringing it down to about a ballpark of 120ms. There is no Gaming Mode to be found on non-Samsung devices, so keep that in mind too.
On Samsung devices (like the Samsung Galaxy M31s that I tested these on), you do get a Gaming Mode that claims to minimize audio delay, and that lets me get it down to under 100ms with ANC and even lower without ANC.
Galaxy Wearable App
The Galaxy Wearable app is a recommended download for unlocking certain customizations on Samsung’s wearables, but you don’t necessarily need it for basic functions and controls. A lot of these features overlap with what is experienced with the Buds+ too.
The app is primarily used when you need to read a precise measurement of the battery level on the individual buds and the case. You also need it to download and install firmware updates for the TWS. With past earbuds, some of these updates brought along useful functions, so I do recommend keeping the app installed and checking it regularly. You can also reset the earbuds from within the app.
There is also an equalizer within the app with a few presets. However, you cannot fine-tune the settings or create a custom profile, which continues to be a major oversight on Samsung’s hearables. There are third-party apps that can do this, though. Further, you can also have the Galaxy Buds Live read your notifications aloud to you. This can be done either in a summary format (just the name of the app) or in detail (with the notification content). You can set the feature up on a per-app basis, too. The Galaxy Wearable app also has a Find My Earbuds feature which plays a loud beep on the earphones. Frankly, if you have actually lost your earbud, the feature is practically useless as you can barely hear the sound unless the earbud is within 10cm of your ears. You can also switch on Ambient Sound mode to relieve some pressure in your ears, but the effect is weak, as I mention in the next section.
Active Noise Cancellation
One of the highlight features on the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live is that they finally bring Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) to Samsung’s most popular hearable lineup. While the Buds+ featured a toggle within the Galaxy Wearable app for toggling Ambient Sound, the Buds Live replaces this toggle with one for ANC.
Active Noise Cancellation on the Buds Live does work, technically speaking. When you pop in the earbuds and toggle the ANC, you get the signature pop in your ears, bringing about a feeling of change in pressure. However, because of the Buds Live’s unique design that doesn’t completely seal the ear, there is very little noise isolation that they can experientially offer. As a result, the ANC’s net effect feels weak — the pop is weaker, and the degree to which noise is canceled is significantly weak.
In comparison, the Sony WF-1000XM3 continues to be my personal benchmark for the right combination of passive noise isolation and hard-working active noise cancellation. I have an overhead fan at my desk, and with the Sony’s, I can barely hear it at about 10% of the noise it makes, while still keeping the audio volume on the lower end. With the Galaxy Buds+ at a moderate volume setting, I can drown out some of the noise because of the noise isolation alone and hear about 60-70% of the noise it makes. With the Galaxy Buds Live at a moderate volume setting, I can still hear the fan at a good 50-60%. The Active Noise Cancellation does a good job, but it’s just not enough to really make a difference compared to shipping just an effective noise isolation system. The gains as against the Galaxy Buds+ are marginal at best. Switching off ANC on the Buds Live brings the fan back into focus with as much as 90% of its noise being audible. ANC is doing some heavy lifting, but it also needs its buddy, noise isolation, to truly deliver a stellar experience. As it currently stands, the Buds Live are not very good at muting your surroundings.
Samsung is on the right path, though, and I look forward to an audio accessory that incorporates both noise isolation and active noise cancellation. Perhaps they can incorporate noise isolation within this unique design for the next generation? A man can hope.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live — Sound Quality and Voice Quality
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live feature a 12mm driver tuned by AKG. I still consider myself an amateur in audio assessment. To my “average consumer” audio perception, the Galaxy Buds Live does a good job but do get held back because of the lack of perceptible noise isolation.
Using this thread from the Head-Fi forums as a reference, the sub-bass on the Buds Live come off better than they did on the Buds+. The same audio from the Halo theme that I previously commented on being not as majestic on the Buds+ now sounds punchier on the Buds Live. The bass kicks on the Dogfighter theme have a decent kick to them, but nothing that gets a bass lover excited. The sub-bass is also more substantial, like on the Cowboy Bebop theme, but not enough to overpower the vocals. These are improvements over the Buds+, but not class-defining for the TWS category as the Buds+ had a lot of ground to cover. Other areas are closer to the Buds +’s excellent performance, namely vocals, mids, and highs. The Buds Live handles them very well, so overall, sound quality by itself is an upgrade over the Buds+. However, the lack of noise isolation can be felt throughout, so you should enjoy your music in a relatively quiet environment.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live continue on the legacy from the Buds+ when it comes to mic performance. My experience with voice calls has been great on the Buds Live, as it did on the Buds+ too. Samsung has figured out voice call quality much better than Sony and a lot of others have, and the Buds Live gets a thumbs up as well. They’re pretty good for talking on the phone without needing to touch your phone.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live — Battery Life
The Galaxy Buds Live claim to offer a battery life of up to 6 hours on a single charge with ANC turned on, and the claim seem to be holding up. I can wear the Galaxy Buds for a maximum of 4 hours and some minutes before the discomfort forces me to pop them back in, and I usually end up with over 25% battery in the Buds Live left at that stage — the math checks out. The case adds in another two and a half cycles (claimed 20 hours in total). The net battery backup is marginally better on the Buds Live than it was on the Buds+. To compare, the Buds+ lasted longer without needing to be put back into the case, but the case itself had lower battery capacity compared to that on the Buds Live.
Once you run out of juice on the case, you can charge it up through the USB Type-C port or through a Qi-compatible wireless charger. Wireless charging is a nice touch for a TWS accessory, and it works out well if you are invested in the wireless charging ecosystem.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live — Concluding Note
When I concluded my Galaxy Buds+ review, I noted how I missed the Sony WF-1000XM3’s sweet active noise cancellation. That set high hopes for the Galaxy Buds Live and its active noise cancellation as the highlighting feature. When looked at through this myopic lens, the Buds Live are underwhelming, and you’d be disappointed if you bought them only to experience ANC in its glory. The sound quality is good, but the lack of noise isolation is a regular speed breaker in your journey of tranquility.
What the Galaxy Buds Live does well is stand out from the crowd of AirPod-clones and Buds-wannabes. The main focus of the Buds Live is its design — it’s funny to look at, but it works well enough to the point of genuine surprise. They always feel like they will fall off your ears, but they don’t — and that’s a testimony to Samsung’s engineering behind this new design. The kidney bean-like shape (rajma, as it is called in Hindi) is a good conversation starter, and every friend that has seen these in my ears has requested a closer look and to wear them too, much to my annoyance in this COVID world.
Are the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live a good upgrade over the Galaxy Buds+? I say no. Not because the Buds Live are bad per se, but because the Buds+ are still pretty darn good. The Galaxy Buds+ have now fallen in price in India, retailing at ₹10,490 (~$142) while the USA still gets them for $150. The Galaxy Buds Live, on the other hand, are more expensive at ₹14,990 (~$204) in India and $170 in the USA. Based on my experiences with both, the Buds+ are easier to recommend to just about every average consumer. They are a better value purchase and much more evergreen in that sense. The Buds Live are for the consumer who values bleeding-edge design and isn’t afraid of taking risks, and that isn’t every consumer.
Where does Samsung go from here? There’s one direction that makes sense to me, and that is figuring out that sweet spot of Active Noise Cancellation alongside Passive Noise Isolation. Whether that comes with adding an in-ear rubber tip, or by migrating to a new design, or by packing in ANC in the Buds+ design — that is something to watch out for in 2021.