Original article: July 16, 2020 (6PM ET): The can is open, and the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live bean-shaped buds have spilled out from the Samsung Unpacked event. Samsung’s latest member of the Galaxy wearable family strays from its Galaxy Buds lineage by introducing a novel design, active noise-cancelling (ANC), and something we’ve berated the AirPods for: an open-air fit. That’s right, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live do not seal to the ear.
Update: July 13, 2021: We have updated the original article with details addressing rumors about the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2.
Noise-cancelling and Bluetooth technology
Samsung boldly claims its open active noise-cancelling technology will unite the best of both worlds. The company posits frequencies below 700Hz (e.g., trains and buses) will be quieted, while other ambient sounds like a train conductor’s announcement will still be audible. Ambient passthrough isn’t supported because the earbuds physically allow sound in. Samsung’s reasoning for this is that the open fit allows enough background noise, making a software passthrough redundant.
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These earbuds use Bluetooth 5.0 firmware and support three Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC, and the Samsung scalable codec. Samsung’s codec is proprietary, and balances streaming and connection qualities to give listeners the smoothest experience with minimal sacrifice to audio quality. Streaming quality slides from 96-512kbps to achieve this. The scalable codec performed well when using the older Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus with my Samsung Galaxy S10e, and the same should hold true with the Galaxy Buds Live.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live: Fit, design, and sensors
Each bean-shaped earbud weighs 5.6 grams, and the buds are only available in a single size. We’ve seen this play before, and the “one size fits all” approach hardly ever even pans out as “one size fits most” in practice. Even still, Samsung provides two pairs of wing tips (small and large) to secure the earbuds in place along the outer ear, and includes instructions on how to install the earbuds properly for an optimal fit. Samsung asserts these are its most ergonomic earbuds yet, but fellow reviewers and I praised the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus for their comfort. The Galaxy Buds Live, while more comfortable than the Apple AirPods, can’t hold a candle to the Galaxy Buds Plus’ ergonomic fit.
The exterior plate of each bean is touch-capacitive and enables a slew of onboard controls. Users can control playback and volume, call management, and create custom settings that can be chosen from the Galaxy Wearable app. Each earbud has two microphone holes and a bass duct. On the interior side of each earbud are two charging contacts, a spot for wing tip installation, a voice pickup unit (VPU), an air vent, a third microphone, a speaker hole, and an infrared sensor.
Sound quality: AKG tuning with some tweaks
Samsung subsidiary AKG tuned the 12mm dynamic drivers inside the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live. An absence of nozzles gave the Samsung teams plenty of liberties when crafting these earphones: inward-facing air vents work twofold by alleviating the suction sensation created by some ear tips, and creating spatial depth to audio reproduction. The bass-heavy frequency response is necessary to compensate for the open-type fit. In quiet environments, you might notice that the bass is fairly loud but this becomes difficult to hear the moment you step onto a noisy sidewalk.
A phenomenon called auditory masking takes place when a loud sound (e.g. outside noise) makes it hard to hear a relatively quiet one (e.g., your music). We experience this on a regular basis, any time we listen to music and walk down a busy street or wait as our train pulls up. Remember the last time you waited at a train platform. When the train pulled up to you, your music became quieter. You didn’t decrease the volume at that exact moment; you probably didn’t even touch your phone or headset controls. Rather, your brain prioritized the seemingly more threatening sound of a train over your music.
All this is to say, the noise-cancelling needs to be remarkably effective if Samsung wants its buds to combat disruptive sounds such as train rumbles, and unfortunately, that isn’t the case with the Galaxy Buds Live.
A more advanced microphone array
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live use a similar but different microphone system from its predecessors. Just as the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus, the Buds Live rely on a triple-microphone format, two of which are beamforming. In short, these three microphones work to focus on your voice, and are assisted by an inward-facing voice pickup unit (VPU). A VPU is an accelerometer that detects jawbone movement and uses bone conduction technology to convert these vibrations into audio signals. It also helps reduce background noise.
You can listen to our microphone sample here.
Battery life is good but not great
Noise-cancelling is a hungry beast, but the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live are rated to last six hours on a single charge with ANC enabled, and our sister site SoundGuys recorded five hours and 15 minutes of playtime with ANC enabled. The charging case provides an extra 2.5 battery cycles. If you exclusively use ANC, you may listen to the Galaxy Buds Live for up to 21 hours before you have to top the case up. With ANC off entirely, standalone battery life sits at a cozy eight hours, with a total of 29 hours of playtime.
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The earbuds support fast charging: five minutes in the case supplies you with one hour of listening. This efficiency is great for when you’ve arrived at the gym only to realize the buds are out of juice. You may charge the jewel box case via USB-C, Qi wireless charger, or atop a Samsung Wireless PowerShare-supported device.
Spotify integration, Game Mode, and other features
Samsung retained Spotify integration with its noise-cancelling earphones, at least if you’re using the earbuds on an Android device. The same goes for Game Mode, which may be found in the Labs section of the Galaxy Wearable app. Game Mode reduces audio-visual latency, rendering it nil. This lack of iOS support is a small transgression against iPhone users, and another demonstration of smartphone manufacturers limiting functionality to certain handsets.
A group of Samsung smartphone owners may rejoice in knowing that hands-free Bixby access has arrived. The rest of us who rely on Google Assistant or Siri still have to keep our fingers on the buds for assistance. Users may consult the Android or iOS Galaxy Wearable app for noise-cancelling toggles, connection and battery status readouts, touchpad settings, equalizer options, Find My Earbuds functionality, and software updates. Only Android devices may have their notifications read aloud to them, or enable the Spotify shortcut from the touchpads.
Practical features include IPX2 water resistance, so you can lightly sweat in the earbuds without damaging them. You also benefit from quick connection, Music Share (formerly Samsung Dual Audio), and quick device switching — a shame that Bluetooth multipoint functionality is still absent.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live are available for as low as $129 through Amazon, and come in three color variants: Mystic Bronze, Mystic Black, and Mystic White.
Samsung ditches the beans with the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro feature more reliable active noise-cancelling than the Galaxy Buds Live simply due to the sealed design. The Galaxy Buds Pro embrace a more traditional earbud design, one we saw from the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus and Galaxy Buds.
The Galaxy Buds Pro are the most durable in the Samsung Galaxy Buds series, and have an IPX7 rating. You can submerge them for up to 30 minutes without incurring water damage. This makes them a great pair of workout earbuds for athletes.
Other than that, you get many of the same features as you have with older Galaxy Buds headsets in the Samsung Galaxy Wearable app. In the mobile app, you can choose from a few preset EQ profiles, reconfigure the touch controls (or turn them off altogether), and more. If you have a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, and want a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds, the Galaxy Buds Pro are your best bet.
Wait for the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2
Little is known about the rumored Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 but we can expect the price to fall somewhere between $149 and $169 in the US. It’s likely that the Galaxy Buds 2 will come in a familiar squared-off case with a 500mAh battery. According to the FCC listing each earbud will house a 60mAh battery cell. It’s unlikely that the Buds 2 will feature active noise-cancelling, which explains the cheaper anticipated price point.