Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review: A step backward

samsung galaxy buds live review 5

Samsung Galaxy Buds Live

“Samsung took a risk with the Buds Live, but not all risks pay dividends.”
  • Unique, comfortable design
  • Good battery life
  • Good call quality
  • Poor overall audio quality
  • Ineffective noise canceling
  • Lack of physical customization
  • Zero noise isolation
MSRP $170.00

The most useful product review isn’t necessarily the first one, nor is it the longest. It’s the most honest and the most thorough — and quality can take time, especially in the world of audio. To review such products, we study their sound quality with an experienced ear and pore over the execution of promised features. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the hype surrounding the latest, shiniest product. But does it do what it claims? And does it do it well?

With the Galaxy Buds Live, we went a step further and tested them with a group of editors. We talked together about expectations and performance and agonized over the details. We know that these buds are going to be polarizing because they are so different. Samsung took some serious risks here, deviated from their very good Galaxy Buds+, and gave us something completely new. The Galaxy Buds Live have a unique shape and the promise of a more comfortable fit. I went into my time with the Buds Live with an open mind, ready to be converted to the outer-ear design.

With a long specification list that boasts considerable features for their $170 price, the Galaxy Buds Live are an intriguing option in the heavily competitive personal audio space. So how are they? Let’s get into it.

What’s in the box?

Much like the Apple AirPods Pro, the Galaxy Buds Live are packaged very simply. You get the buds, the charging case, a charging cable, a pair of ear wingtips, and some literature. That’s it, and that feels particularly odd in a segment that is including more materials with earbuds, not less.

As a result, there is no customization offered for these buds, but that’s entirely by design. Instead of including a set of eartips like all earbuds do these days, the design of the buds is specifically made to work with anyone’s ear. We’ll get more into that below.

Aside from a few small strips of clear plastic, the box and contents appear fully recyclable. I don’t know that the little plastic strips of film were necessary, but they seem to be in almost every high-end product these days. We would like to see those disappear.

Design and fit

Let’s talk about the design of these buds because it’s very different from most everything else on the market.

After some adjustment and time, I found them to be pretty comfortable.

Instead of sitting inside your ear canal, the Galaxy Buds Live instead rest outside the canal and against the inside of your concha. For those who find that having silicon eartips sitting inside of your ear canal feels uncomfortable, the Buds Live are a great alternative.

Jaron Schneider / Digital Trends

At first, the way the buds sit in your ear is weird and it takes some getting used to. But after some adjustment and time, I found them to be pretty comfortable.

It’s hard to say if this design choice is more or less comfortable overall than a traditional earbud shape. In one sense, it’s certainly less tiring on your ear canal because it doesn’t use it at all. However, it is still putting pressure on your ear, just in a different spot. For me, I could wear these about the same amount of time I can wear the AirPods Pro before feeling some fatigue. It’s not the same fatigue, but it’s still there.

As mentioned, the Buds Live can’t be adjusted to your specific ear, with Samsung designing them to work with any ear. This was a risky move, and though so far they seem to work for everyone I know who has tried them, I have to think that there is no way they will work for everyone. Until that time comes though, I suppose this particular risk is paying off.

Right around that little dot is the touch-sensitive area. Jaron Schneider / Digital Trends

The Buds Live have a touch-sensitive area on them that allows you to play/pause/skip music, adjust volume, call up a voice assistant, and pick up and hang up phone calls. You can adjust the functionality of the touch controls via the Galaxy Wear app on Samsung devices and the Galaxy Buds app on iOS. More on that in a moment.

Unfortunately, the tiny size of the buds makes accidentally hitting that touch-sensitive area very easy, as it occupies a large portion of the exterior surface area. If you ever have to adjust them while listening to music, you are all but assured to pause audio by accident. If you are putting them in your ear, odds are high you’ll initiate play while getting them into position. You can of course turn off the touch controls via the app, but doing so would only require you to later go and turn them back on if you want on-earbud control of what you’re listening to (which, let’s be honest, you do want).

Features

What should be the standout feature of the Galaxy Buds Live, on paper, is their active noise canceling (ANC). The biggest competitor of the Buds Live are the Apple AirPods Pro, and the ANC in those buds is our favorite of any on the market right now. If Samsung wants to swipe customers away from Apple, adding ANC was an absolute must, so seeing it included in the Live was hugely important.

Unfortunately, the ANC in the Galaxy Buds Live is a crushing disappointment. Because the buds don’t isolate sound very well — as the design doesn’t seal inside your ear canal — it means that any ANC tech is fighting a losing battle with noise that simply will go around the buds, circumventing any work they would do. The result is ANC that in many situations you will wonder if it’s even on.

There are some cases where it will mildly reduce some low-end sound, but running water, the sound a car makes while on the freeway, or a fan or air conditioner are not reduced at all. Compared to even the worst noise-canceling we’ve tested in other earbuds, the Galaxy Buds Live come in with even less performance: This is the new low.

On the plus side, as mentioned the Buds Live do have app support on both iOS and Android. Through that app you can do some minor customization to how the Buds Live project sound. There are six equalizer options: Normal, Bass Boost, Soft, Dynamic, Clear, and Treble Boost. I tried all six and Dynamic ended up being my personal favorite.

You can additionally use a “Find My Earbuds” feature that will make the Buds Live chirp loudly and makes them a cinch to find if you misplace them (which is easy to do: They’re very small).

Audio Quality

I’m just going to come out and say it: I am unimpressed with the Galaxy Buds Live when it comes to sound quality. Though they do have a surprising amount of bass for buds that can’t sit in your ear canal, that is about all they do reasonably well. Though you can clearly hear music and movies, the sound reproduction lacks depth and warmth. The soundstage is narrow and flat, leaving you feeling like something is definitely missing from the EQ mix.

I have bad news: The Galaxy Buds Live sound a lot like the stock speakers on a laptop from 2009.

The buds perform best when you’re in a quiet room all by yourself. In those cases, you can actually find the music enjoyable, especially if your expectations are low. If you were fine with how music sounds out of the original Apple earbuds or the original AirPods, you probably won’t be turned off by what you hear out of the Buds Live.

Jaron Schneider / Digital Trends

But if you are like me and never liked the shallow and hollow music reproduction of those headphones, I have bad news: The Galaxy Buds Live sound a lot like the stock speakers on a laptop from 2009.

I mentioned I stuck with the Dynamic EQ after going through all the options, and that’s because the mix feels particularly empty without the extra oomph from the bass you find there or in Bass Boost. Treble Boost, for example, is almost painful to listen to as the entire backbone of audio is stripped away.

Aside from the audio not sounding particularly good, it’s also not particularly loud. You really have to crank the volume to get anything close to blocking out exterior noise, and when you do that you run into another major issue: if you can hear what the Galaxy Buds Live are playing, so can everyone around you.

Another downside to poor isolation is that these buds leak sound worse than any other earbud I’ve ever encountered. I tend to listen to the same songs over and over again across the headphones I review, and so my wife is very much sick of “Circles” by Of Monsters and Men. Unfortunately for her, while evaluating the Buds Live she could hear every word from the song when the buds were in my ears as clearly as if she was wearing them herself. This has led to some tension in the “office.”

If you plan to use these in any kind of work environment (work from home or work in the office), be prepared to share everything you’re listening to with everyone around you.

Battery Life

Battery life can be a bit of a wild card due to how dramatically it can change if you decide to use all of the available features. If you choose to have Bixby Wake Word on — and we have no idea why you would want to do that — as well as noise-canceling, you can expect about 5 hours of battery out of the buds and 19 total hours including the charging case.

Jaron Schneider / Digital Trends

If you turn both of those things off, you can get about 8 hours of use out of them and almost 29 hours total with the case, but with just ANC on, you can get about 6 hours and 20 minutes or so of listening, and it’s bumped down to 21 hours with the case.

Because the ANC, as mentioned, does basically nothing and, let’s be honest, you aren’t going to use Bixby, then we recommend turning both those features off to get the most mileage out of the Buds Live.

Call quality

Making calls with the Galaxy Buds Live is, overall, a good experience. The sound quality isn’t as good as other earbuds like the Apple AirPods Pro, but for $80 less perhaps they don’t have to be. What’s important is that those listening on the other end of the line will be able to clearly hear your voice, it just might not sound its best. One person I spoke to said my voice sounded more echo-y than other headphones I’ve used.

If you’re experiencing louder than normal background noise, such as running a sink while doing dishes, I am pleased to report that the person on the other end of the line will hear none of it. The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live do an extraordinary job eliminating background noise during calls.

On your end, everything is as clear as it needs to be. The buds propensity for the higher registers actually helps make vocals clearer, so even in louder environments, you shouldn’t have a problem hearing conversations.

Our take

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live are going to be polarizing. There are many folks who will hail these as their favorite, or near favorite, buds on the market. They probably like the look, the small size, the feel of the buds’ fit, and the battery life (especially with Bixby wake word off). If those things are great, then that’s all they are looking for.

But here at Digital Trends, we judge earbuds mainly by audio quality because, well, you’re going to be listening to music. When buds offer ANC, we expect it to work. With the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live falling short in both regards, it makes it hard for me to love them.

Is there a better alternative?

If you really want solid Samsung integration, I am going to recommend the Samsung Galaxy Buds+. Even though they lack ANC, they are excellent earbuds that work just as well with your Galaxy device as the Live and boast even better battery life. If you want the same sleek look as the Buds Live, but want better sound quality, then the Jabra Elite 75t are great. We also recommend the Google Pixel Buds 2.

How long will they last?

Samsung covers the Galaxy Buds Live with a pretty standard one-year warranty. The build quality is solid though, so I’m not particularly worried about these breaking.

Should you buy them?

If you ask me and senior editor Caleb Denison (who did an excellent video comparing the Buds Live and the AirPods Pro), the answer is no. We just can’t justify the $170 asking price when the ANC is worthless and the sound quality lags significantly behind buds that are cheaper. But if a slim profile, Samsung integration, and long battery life are the only things you care about, then you’ll probably love the Galaxy Buds Live.

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