As the headphone jack disappears from more and more devices, the push towards Bluetooth headphones is a continually growing market. With that comes the push for more unique and futuristic designs that will make people happy about ditching cables, such as true wireless earbuds. There are plenty of options available ranging from small off-brand models you can find online, to some of the biggest companies in the world. Of course, there are options like the Apple AirPods, but Samsung released an impressive pair of true wireless earbuds dubbed the Gear IconX. These have plenty of fanfare around them, and they have a lot of great features. Then again, those benefits come at a hefty cost, so should you suck it up and get a pair anyway?
Who are the Samsung Gear IconX for?
- Android users (preferably Samsung). Though you can connect these to an iOS device without a problem, some of its best features like real-time coaching and ambient sound pass-through are only available via the Android app.
- The average gym go-er. If you’re a hardcore gym rat, these might not do it for you because of their sub-par battery life. They simply won’t last as long as you might need them to. That said, the fit and sound quality is good enough that if you only exercise for 45 minutes after work, the battery might be worth dealing with.
Connecting to the Gear IconX
Let’s start off with one of the more important aspects of true wireless headphones: connecting to them. I was using the iPhone X and connecting was just as simple as connecting to any other Bluetooth device. There’s a small Bluetooth pairing button on the back of the pill-shaped charging case that allows you to connect to it pretty quickly. Obviously, it isn’t as fast and seamless as connecting to the AirPods with an iOS device, but the Gear IconX have a few other tricks up their sleeves that’s not available on iPhones so I guess we can call it even. I’ll explain some of these in the paragraphs to come, but here’s the full list via Samsung.
Once paired, the earbuds automatically turn on and connect to your phone as soon as you take them out of the case, which is always something I expect with true wireless earbuds. Furthermore, Samsung decided to only put in the Samsung Scalable Codec, so unless you have a compatible Android phone, you’re going to be downgraded to the standard SBC codec. This is especially true with iOS devices as they only have AAC compatibility. We’ll get more into what this means for the sound quality later, but while we’re on the subject make sure to check out the full codec explainer article to understand why they’re so important.
As far as playback controls go, nothing is OS-specific. Whether you’re on Android or iOS: you’ll be able to pause or play music with a single tap, skip between songs with a double or triple tap, and adjust volume by swiping up or down. Double-tapping answers a phone call, and tapping once and holding rejects a call. You can also double tap and hold to choose between playlists, because the Gear Icon X has 4GB of built-in storage. This means that you can exercise without your phone.
Of course, doing this requires the use of the Android app—sorry Apple users, you’re out of luck. You’ll have to transfer music the old-fashioned way—via your computer and the included USB cable. That isn’t the only feature you’ll miss out on if you’re rocking an iOS device. You also don’t get some of the health tracking features like real-time coaching. And you’ll also miss out on ambient noise passthrough, which lets you hear what’s going on around you through the headphones. That feature is so buried in the settings with no apparent shortcut on the earbuds that I don’t think too many people will miss it. Though it is useful if you’re going to be going for a run outside. Playback was also fairly solid with only a few dropped connections in during my testing period. Though they did occur, I don’t think they were frequent enough to be of any concern.
How’s the build quality?
Samsung has a good reputation when it comes to build quality, and the Samsung Gear IconX is no exception. The charging case is small and made of a smooth plastic; though, because of the pill shape, it’s a little awkward to carry around. I find it easier to chuck it into a backpack instead of finding space in my pockets. Once you open the case, you’ll get the earbuds which are IPX2 sweat-resistant, so you won’t have to worry about damaging them during an intense workout.
In my opinion, one of the best features of these earbuds is the fit. They’re small, so they don’t stick out of your ears in the same ridiculous way others do, and the silicone ear tips keep each earbud firmly in place during exercise. I went trail running and didn’t feel the need to adjust them at all, even throughout the sloping hills and occasional trip-ups. Normally I’d have to swap out the ear tips for some Comply memory foam ones, but that wasn’t the case here. Of course, they do come with some other options, so you can find which one works best for you. They come in black, white, or pink, so you can choose which one best matches your workout clothes (all-black everything in my case). Since there aren’t buttons on the earbuds, it maintains a minimal design.
Which brings me to one of my biggest complaints about these earbuds: the playback controls. Rather than buttons, Samsung went with small, touch-sensitive pads on the earbuds. And they suck. Either the touch area is too small or my fingers are too big (unlikely), but I almost always end up pausing the music when I’m trying to skip to the next song… or skipping to the next song when I’m trying to adjust the volume. I’m sure that memorizing the different combination of taps will help to some extent, but I think the controls are fundamentally flawed. To the point where if someone came up to ask me something, I would just take the earbuds out of my ear rather than bother trying to tap them.
And then there’s the battery life
If the Samsung Gear IconX has one fatal flaw, it’s the battery life. Whoever it was at Samsung that designed these earbuds and dipped them into the River Styx must have been holding them by the battery. Though Samsung claims about five hours of constant streaming, we barely managed to scrape 1.5 hours in each of our three test runs. The chart seen below is borrowed from our true wireless list and makes it clear how bad the battery life is.
We did the testing by adjusting the volume to an output of 75dB. While this won’t damage your hearing, it’s about the maximum level you’d want to listen at if you want to avoid damage to your stereocilia. Then we let them play until they died. On three separate occasions, they died well before the second hour. I also used these for our weekly team meeting on a group call and though the quality was fine, but the right earbud died one hour into the meeting. On the bright side, these do have quick charging, so only 10 minutes in the charging case gives you another hour of juice. Speaking of which, the case charges via USB Type-C, which is especially good if you have a relatively new Android phone as they all pretty much charge via the same cable now.
Let’s talk sound
As we mentioned earlier the Samsung Gear IconX doesn’t have any high-quality codecs, so anything you listen to is going to be streamed via SBC—the lowest common denominator in terms of data delivery. But despite the technical limitation, the IconX sound surprisingly good. We tested the frequency response and, as you can see in the chart below, they’re fairly flat.
This means that if you choose to EQ your music via the Samsung Gear app you can achieve some meaningful tweaks. I didn’t make any changes, so everything in this section was done with the sound the Samsung Gear IconX have fresh out of the box.
The higher notes were decently separated considering these are wireless earbuds. You can hear this about 2:34 minutes into the song American Teen by Khalid where the detail in the echoes and reverb of the random percussion elements and snaps can be distinctly heard over the vocals. This isn’t just limited to the treble, though; the same can be said about the vocals in the song The Cave by Mumford & Sons.
Even when things get a little crowded about a minute and a half into the song, vocals and the guitar are easy to make out. To be fair, the banjo gets lost, so the level of detail isn’t perfect or amazing in any way, just impressive considering the small size here. I will say that my least favorite part of these might be the lower notes. In songs that rely on strong sub-bass, the IconX end up trying a little too hard to make it work resulting in what can only be described as faking it.
You can hear this in the song Take by Arin Ray, where the sub-bass that’s supposed to be weaving everything together in the background ends up sounding more up front like the main melody. Something that becomes even more apparent when the beat switches up at 2:44, and the bass is basically all you can make out.
The Samsung Gear IconX are so close to being my favorite pair of true wireless earbuds. I can see why so many people like them. They sound just as good if not better than other earbuds on the market, they have a great sweat-proof build, helpful fitness features, as well as a minimal design that won’t make you look like a wannabe robot from the future. But there are some fatal flaws that I just can’t get behind. I might be able to dismiss the fact that plenty of key features are missing on iOS devices, because—as annoying as it is—that seems to be the norm when it comes to rival tech companies. Then there are the playback controls which, in my experience, were inconsistent and basically useless. But the battery life is inexcusable.
I run at least twice a week, and I don’t even consider myself a runner. But these don’t even have enough juice to last until the end of my run. I can only imagine how annoying it would be for someone who is actually in great shape and needs headphones that will last as long as their workouts. If you exercise often but don’t usually spend more than two hours in the gym, then you might be able to make these work. For all of the true fitness buffs out there, be prepared to throw them back in the case for a quick 10-minute charge every hour and a half.