Someone get the can opener, because the beans are in. The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live have attracted plenty of media attention for their kidney bean-shaped design, and rightfully so: these non-sealing, noise cancelling earbuds are unlike any other earbuds on the market. Samsung may have bitten off more than it can chew with the Galaxy Buds Live, so we’re going to see how these buds held up in the real world. Grab your spoons, and let’s dig in.
Editor’s note: this Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review was updated on October 16, 2020, to address the Mystic Red color variant, and the trade-in program.
Who should get the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live?
- Samsung Galaxy smartphone owners will benefit the most from the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, because the company’s handsets support the Samsung Scalable Codec for optimal audio quality and connection stability. Samsung smartphone users also get to use Wireless PowerShare; otherwise, the experience is very similar on Android and iOS.
- Anyone considering the AirPods should get the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live instead. These have the same open-air fit that allows you to remain aware of your surroundings, but don’t fall out of your ears.
Using the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live are meant to afford a luxurious and simple user experience, which is generally the case. Your first interaction with the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live isn’t with the earbuds at all; rather, the experience starts with the squared-off, plastic charging case. Don’t let the material choice turn you off to the buds, though: it has a nice sheen and semi-matte finish that makes it enjoyable to use, especially compared to the glossy veneer of the Galaxy Buds Live. No buttons exist on the or in the case, just two LEDs to indicate the case and earbuds’ respective battery levels.
Each half of the jewelry box-inspired charging case has a lip that makes it very easy to open the case with one or both hands. Samsung added an extra reflective finish to the Mystic Bronze color variant, but the Mystic Black, Mystic White, and Mystic Red options are treated with the same glossy finish. When I opened the earbuds for the first time, it felt like I’d just unboxed a pair of earrings or a ring box.
Magnets keep the earbuds in place, which allowed me to be imprecise about dropping the buds into their cutouts. Sometimes, though, I had to push the earbuds up, so the contacts would touch the pin connectors for charging.
How do the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live fit?
Now, onto the earbuds. They’re shaped like beans, and I was skeptical about the fit. The earbuds lack ear tips, which means they don’t seal to your ear canal and passively block background noise out. Knowing that, I thought these would be even less comfortable and less stable than the AirPods, which I can’t wear. Yet, I was happily proven wrong: the Galaxy Buds Live stayed in my ears during an assortment of exercises like rock climbing, and running. No matter how much I jumped or shook my head, they never fell out.
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They weren’t always comfortable: the one-size-fits-all approach is nice in theory, but leaves a lot of us unsatisfied. After 1.5 hours, I had to remove the earbuds, because my outer ears were a little sore. This happened whether I used the small or large-sized ear stays. There’s a learning curve to placing the earbuds in correctly, but it soon becomes rote memory. If you’re unsure of how to install the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, Samsung provides directions on how to wear them in the Galaxy Wearable application.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live chipped away at my skepticism, and proved to be a fine pair of buds for the right consumer.
Touch panels make it easy to operate controls without reaching for your phone, and someone out there is could be excited to know that direct voice access to Bixby is here. Non-Samsung users can control media playback, make volume adjustments, and toggle noise-cancelling all from the headset. The inward-facing IR sensors also detect when the earbuds are in and out of your ears, which allows for auto-pause functionality. To resume playback, you must tap either earbud. Automatic ear detection isn’t the Galaxy Buds’ strong suit, and pales in comparison to the OnePlus Buds’ response time. If you want to remap any of the controls or delve further into the earphones’ feature set, get the companion app.
Should you get the Samsung Galaxy Wearable app?
The Samsung Galaxy Wearable app is worth downloading if only for firmware update access. You may also select from six EQ presets (Normal, Bass boost, Soft, Dynamic, Clear, and Treble boost), remap the touch controls, enable incoming notifications to be read aloud, toggle hands-free Bixby access on/off, and enter the Galaxy Labs tab where Samsung stores experimental features.
Galaxy Labs is where you’ll find Gaming mode which minimizes audio-visual lag, perfect for gaming and video streaming. Labs also has an ambient sound option that is supposed to mitigate that clogged-ear feeling. Of course, you can also update the earbuds’ software and take a guided tour of your earbuds via the illustrated user manual.
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iOS and Android users can access the app, but some features are limited to Android (e.g. direct Spotify access, and notification readouts). Only Samsung Galaxy devices support hands-free, direct Bixby access with the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live noise cancelling works
Editor’s note: because testing an unsealed ear necessarily introduces a type of selection bias, we’ve opted to hold off on publishing measurements on the ANC performance of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live. Instead we will post scores, but no charts. We absolutely do not want this kind of thing passed around until we can verify a range of reasonably representative outcomes in normal use. The problem is twofold: because the earphones don’t seal the ear, a number of variables we can’t control (like the size and shape of your ear, distance of the Buds to your ear canal, etc.) will dramatically change the performance for you—much more so than earphones that seal the ear canal. Because whatever chart we posted would not reflect your experience, its utility is very limited here.
While the noise cancelling doesn’t meet the hubristic claim of muting 0-600Hz frequencies, the technology quiets low-frequency noises to the point where they sound about 1/2 as loud as they would without ANC enabled. The ability to dispel low frequencies without a proper seal is no small achievement: having an unsealed ear canal makes it nearly impossible to combat outside noise in real time. Let’s not mince words—the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live’s noise cancelling performance is nowhere near the best, but it is impressive when you consider the conditions it operates under. The software has to work much harder to reduce background noise without the help of good passive isolation.
Samsung braved new ground with its earbuds, and took a risk in a time when everyone is following Apple's lead.
The noise cancelling performance is impressive given the conditions, but there’s no getting around the fact that passive isolation is the cornerstone of all the best cancelling headsets, and that requires a proper seal to form between the earbuds and your ear canal. If said seal isn’t created, well, that introduces outside noise to your music. No matter how effective a noise cancellation system is, it can’t completely make up for a tenuous fit.
I prefer traditional noise cancelling earbuds, but I understood the Galaxy Buds Live’s appeal most when walking around. I really enjoy being able to hear my surroundings without any sort of software passthrough, which normally sounds unnatural and grating. Even then, I didn’t notice a big difference between enabling and disabling noise-cancelling, I just really enjoyed the fit.
You can learn about the ins and outs of feedforward and feedback noise cancelling, but all you have to know from this Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review is this: the noise cancelling works, but will not mute your surroundings.
How to pair the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live on Android
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus streamlines the pairing process with Android devices running Android 5.0 and later, much like the Google Pixel Buds (2020). All you have to do to pair the earbuds is enable Bluetooth on your Android smartphone, and open the charging case. A pop-up card will appear and read, “My Galaxy Buds Live” at the top. Once you tap “Connect,” a connection will then establish between your smartphone and the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live.
Streamlined pairing processes like this make wireless headsets accessible. Even the least tech-savvy among us can get to using the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live right out of the box with little effort.
Unfortunately, the Samsung Galaxy Buds lineup still doesn’t support Bluetooth multipoint, so you must manually switch from one device to another. Device switching is very easy though: just select the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live from the desired source device’s Bluetooth menu. This quick switching requires you to have already established an initial connection between the headset and smartphone, though.
How to pair the earphones with an iPhone
Pairing the Bluetooth earbuds with an iPhone is a bit more involved, but easy nonetheless.
- Enable Bluetooth on your iPhone.
- Open the charging case.
- Select “Galaxy Buds Live” from the list of available devices in your iPhone’s Bluetooth menu.
- A connection will then establish between your iPhone and the earbuds.
To enter pairing mode directly from the onboard touch controls, tap-and-hold both touch panels at the same time until a beep resonantes. Then, follow the steps for your respective device.
Connection quality is reliable over the Samsung Scalable Codec
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live uses Bluetooth 5.0 firmware and forgoes aptX support in favor of AAC, which is good news for iPhone users interested in these earbuds. Samsung’s Scalable Codec is also supported, and rather than hopping between static streaming rates, the Scalable Codec operates on a sliding scale from 96-512kbps. It balances sound quality and connection stability, so listeners using a Samsung device experience few if any connection stutters.
This proved true during my review period as I used my personal Samsung Galaxy S10e and experienced only a few hiccups, namely when in my backyard and my phone nearly five meters away from me. When streaming from my Microsoft Surface Book, connection pauses were more prevalent but were generally a non-issue.
Absent aptX support isn’t as big of a deal as you might expect
Although the absence of aptX support is disappointing, its presence wouldn’t have made much of a practical difference: high-quality Bluetooth codecs require all of the basics to be optimized first. In other words, you need to achieve a proper fit with a seal between the earbuds and your ear canal. Music is subjected to plenty of auditory masking: loud external sounds make it hard to perceive relatively quiet sounds, and even quiet ones will impact sound quality to varying degrees.
This means any detail gained by using a high-quality Bluetooth codec to stream your music (compared to SBC) would be rendered null, because environmental noise masks music detail. In this particular instance, AAC, SBC, and the Samsung Scalable Codec are fine for sound quality purposes; no high-quality codec will magically make audio from the Galaxy Buds Live make you forget an audiophile setup.
Battery life is good for ANC earbuds
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live lasted 5 hours, 15 minutes on a single charge with noise cancelling enabled. Our testing methodology subjects every audio product to the same rigors: a constant 75dB(SPL) output until battery depletion, so if you listen at quieter volumes, you’re bound to get closer to the specified 6-hour playtime from the earphones. Quick charging the earbuds takes just five minutes for one hour of listening.
Listeners who plan to exclusively listen with ANC enabled will enjoy an additional 2.5 charge cycles from the branded case, while disabling ANC entirely affords approximately 8 hours of standalone playtime and 2.63 extra charge cycles. Samsung’s case retains wireless charging capabilities, and is Qi wireless compliant. You may also top up the case directly from your Samsung Galaxy smartphone via Wireless PowerShare.
Do true wireless earbuds batteries degrade over time?
Yes, true wireless earbuds use lithium ion batteries which are vulnerable to capacity degradation over time. This decrease in capacity is exacerbated by the constant deplete-and-recharge nature of true wireless batteries. Most all of us place the earbuds back in the case when we’re not using them. While this makes for a convenient organizational tool, it also means the earbuds are always charging to 100%, and rarely hitting 0%. Right now, most totally wireless earbuds have a similar expiration date, around the two-year mark.
Apple is leading the way by remedying this issue with software: its iOS update now instructs the AirPods line of earbuds to communicate with the case, preventing them from charging beyond 80% capacity, until you plan to use them. This slows down the degradation process by learning your usage habits. If you consistently listen to your earbuds on the train to and from work during the week, the earbuds will only top-up in preparation for that event. That’s just one example of the technology, and it will become familiar with each user’s habits over time.
Music lacks clarity, and isn’t accurately reproduced
Sound quality is relatively okay from the Galaxy Buds Live, but again: your mileage will vary based on fit, outside noise, and other consequences of an unsealed ear canal. The 12mm dynamic drivers have been tuned by AKG and have a consumer-friendly sound that bodes well for popular genres of music like hip-hop, pop, and rock, but we suggest playing around with the app if you find that the sound isn’t what you want out of the box. Obviously, these are not audiophile products given their likely use, but not everyone needs a set of high-performance audio products when they’re out and about.
We’re going to caution you again to take any charts posted of the measurements with a fistful of salt, because the nature of an unsealed ear canal means that the fit cannot be controlled for. However, the most repeatable result is shown above. You’re unlikely hear your music quite as the chart depicts because of how auditory masking works: the loud external noises of your environment make it hard to process the sounds from your music. This happens because our brains have limited bandwidth for auditory processing, and they prioritize threatening sounds (e.g. a screeching car, or a roommate washing dishes) over quieter ones (e.g. music playback). Our brains do this as a means of survival, but it can make it difficult to enjoy music to the fullest when out and about.
The sound is good for general consumers, and falls in line with what we’re accustomed to hearing: amplified bass and high notes. Bass emphasis isn’t as egregious as I expected it to be, though voices are hard to hear during instrumentally busy parts of any song like choruses.
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When you’re listening to your music out on the street, or even as your roommate goes about loading up the washing machine, clarity will be lost; your brain will be more focused on picking up those external, loud sounds than on parsing apart tonal resonances.
These bean-shaped buds stayed in my ears while exercising—which didn’t happen when I wore the Apple AirPods.
That said, the familiar sound will attract listeners of all sorts. Bass emphasis like this actually helps your ability to drown out noise near you, given that at your ear canal they’re about 1.5 times louder than low-midrange notes, which masks some instrumental detail and vocal resonances. How AKG tuned these 12mm dynamic drivers won’t give you a surgically-accurate representation of what your music sounds like, but it’s a pretty typical sound target for consumer audio products. If you usually buy your audio products from big box stores, you’ll be at home with this kind of sound that plays kindly with pop, hip-hop, and electronic music.
Lows, mids, and highs
Angie McMahon’s song Slow Mover begins with a C-F chord riff on electric guitar, and the on the upstroke of the strumming pattern, string-muting is audible, but just barely. This sound is relayed very clearly through the AKG K371 headphones. What’s more, the reverb effect from the guitar amp is also very hard to hear when listening to Slow Mover.
McMahon’s low register is reproduced rather well enough, and her high pitched resonances are reproduced well. To hear this, skip ahead to 1:26, as she sings, “He thinks we can make it work.” Here her pitch raises at the end of the word “work,” and you can hear the squeak of the letter -k. Throughout most of the song, though vocal detail is masked by the accompanying instruments. It’s easy to forget the voice is a sort of string instrument, and has resonances of its own which often fall victim of the Galaxy Buds Live open-type design. Highs were difficult for me to discern during the song’s chorus, too, particularly cymbal hits at 1:58.
This Samsung’s best embedded mic system yet
Microphone quality is excellent, as Samsung used an advanced array with its noise cancelling true wireless earbuds. Each earbud is decked out with internal hardware, among which are three microphones. Two of the microphones are beam forming and the third is an inward-facing voice pickup unit; this is a fancy name for an accelerometer that detects vibrations from your jawbone and uses bone conduction to turn it into audio signals. All of this combines to transmit clear audio while rejecting background noise. Microphone quality is one of those things that improves over time with firmware updates, so I expect this will only get better as the months pass.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live microphone demo:
Background noise rejection is pretty good when inside, but like all embedded microphone systems, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live struggle with combating wind noise. If you like to pass personal calls by going on walks, make sure you check the weather first. A gust of wind may not be so loud to you but could irritate your friend on the other end of the call.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live vs. Apple AirPods
Now, nothing about the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live makes sense, because anyone who had a hand in engineering the audio portion of the Galaxy Buds Live knows that noise cancelling is at its most effective with a good seal. Clearly there’s no illusion of that here: the open-fit is marketed as a huge plus, and the noise cancelling promises the best of both worlds. Still it seems an odd move by Samsung, but a calculated one to compete with the AirPods. It had to find a way to regain its foothold in the audio market, and settled on this fibrous bean.
The Galaxy Buds Live provide a more stable fit than the AirPods
Neither the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live nor the Apple AirPods provide a comfortable all-day fit or award-winning sound quality, but I would recommend the Galaxy Buds Live over the AirPods any day of the week. It all boils down to fit, and the Apple AirPods and nearly any variant of its design fail to stick in my ears. If you’re someone who can run and jump around without them falling out, disregard this: the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live stay in my ears, and the AirPods don’t. It’s as simple as that.
If you want to break down other features, the AirPods don’t have noise cancelling but that’s what the AirPods Pro are for. Sound quality is clearer with the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, and are more durable than the AirPods which don’t warrant an IP rating.
Apple’s UI is smoother than Samsung’s
User experience is very smooth on each headset’s main operating system, and microphone quality is similar between headsets. Battery life is better with the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, even with noise cancelling enabled. Fast charging is supported by both headsets, and its performed at the same rate. The AirPods (2019) require you to select—and pay more for—the wireless charging case, while Samsung includes that to boot.
For the best look at Sony or the AirPods Pro
For the best portable noise cancelling experience, don’t even consider the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live. Instead, get the Sony WF-1000XM3 or Apple AirPods Pro—both of which fit most consumers well and have much better sound quality than the Galaxy Buds Live and AirPods.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live?
This is tough, because the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live warrant much of the attention they’ve gathered but still may not be worth buying. Before purchasing you should consider the pros and cons: do you really want noise-cancelling that only works a little bit? Technologically, it’s very impressive, but its functionality doesn’t seem as versatile as Samsung’s marketing claims. When using the earbuds, I often found myself wishing I either had my Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus earbuds, or Shure AONIC 50 noise cancelling headphones.
Had the earbuds been billed as a non-noise cancelling pair of open-type buds, I’d be more eager to recommend them: they’d be more affordable and less gimmicky. Still, Samsung deserves credit for its hail mary attempt at innovation, and these are the only open-type pair of earbuds that work for my ears. There are still some people who will be drawn to the buds, and that’s great, so long as you go in with the proper expectations of the noise cancelling capabilities and limitations. The new Galaxy Buds Live are even more appealing thanks to the trade-in program (begins October 17): customers get a $30 discount when they trade in any wired or wireless headset.
Editor’s note: this review was first written when using software version R180XXU0ATG5.
Don’t need ANC? Get the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus are $30 cheaper than the Galaxy Buds Live, and outperform the Galaxy Buds Live when it comes to sound quality, fit, and battery life. Our same testing recorded 11 hours, 44 minutes of playtime with the Galaxy Buds Plus which runs circles around the ANC earbuds’ battery life, even with ANC off. The old earbuds lack noise cancelling, but do a better job of mitigating high-frequency sounds.
You can customize the controls, EQ the sound, and more through the Galaxy Wearable app; and the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus case supports Wireless PowerShare and quick charging. Microphone quality is a hair better with the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, though. For the best value within the Samsung family, get the Galaxy Buds Plus.
Frequently Asked Questions
The trouble with personal audio products that don't create a seal is that anyone around you can hear your music too if it's loud enough. Of course, it won't be very loud, but it's still audible if you're close enough or it's quiet enough where you're listening. This is one of the reasons we generally avoid recommending this type of product if you want to listen in a noisy environment.