Samsung’s first pair of fully wireless earbuds, the Gear IconX, were a welcome addition to the burgeoning segment when they debuted last year, packing a wealth of features into a sleek and sporty package. But weak-kneed battery life of less than two hours made the IconX all but dead on arrival, leaving Apple’s latecomer AirPods to dominate the market (as per usual).
For the IconX 2018, Samsung has nearly tripled the battery life, while adding new features to compete against the cutthroat throng of competitors vying to usurp Apple. In our Samsung Gear IconX 2018 review, we put Samsung’s latest buds through their paces to find out whether this pair can rise above the pack.
Out of the box
The IconX 2018 look almost identical to last year’s pair from the outset, arriving in a nimble, plastic charging case that’s similar in its pill-box size and design to the AirPod case (or should we say that the other way around?). Dual LEDs up front indicate earbud charging status, and more around back indicate the case’s battery level, next to a USB-C port and a Bluetooth pairing button.
The earbuds arrive with a welcome selection of tips and earhooks to keep them secure in virtually any scenario.
Samsung’s case is impressively small and light, but it can’t match Apple when it comes to elegance in design or ease of use. While the AirPods slide gracefully in their respective charging stands and the case snaps shut with a nudge of your thumb, the IconX are a bit more difficult to seat, and the case’s light lid is prone to pop open like an over-packed suitcase if you don’t exert some real force. Unlike many other brands, the charging stands lack magnets to secure the buds, making them harder to keep in place.
On the other hand, the IconX are also more fundamentally “earbud-like” than Apple’s golf-tee design, and similar to sportier designs like Bragi’s Dash Pro, they arrive with a welcome selection of tips and earhooks to keep them in your ears in virtually any scenario. Also in the package is a USB-C to Micro USB cable, and two adapters to connect said cable to a phone via USB-C or Micro USB.
Setup for the IconX 2018 is a bit more difficult than most true wireless buds, but for good reason. Among their lengthy features set, the buds offer 4GB of internal storage (3.4GBs of which is usable), so you can work out phone-free if you so desire. As such, you must first mount the earbuds in their case and plug it into your Mac or (more likely for Android users) PC via the included cable.
The storage feature mirrors Bragi’s Dash and Dash Pro (and this won’t be the last time we reference them) which also offer 4GB of storage each. Oddly, Samsung’s earbuds show up on on a computer as two separate drives for both the left and right buds, while Bragi’s appear as one.
It’s here that we encountered our first hiccup with the IconX 2018: After plugging in, we couldn’t eject the drives from our Mac. Every time we tried, the drives would disappear and quickly reappear, and the only way to disconnect was to simply pull the case or the earbuds free, soliciting a “disk not ejected properly” warning. We had no such trouble via PC, though, one of many indications that — as we might have guessed given their pedigree — the IconX 2018 aren’t exactly designed around the Apple faithful. We used an LG V30 for our review to access the Android-only features.
Other than the eject issue, the earbuds are relatively straightforward to set up for the moderately tech-savvy user, instructing you to download Samsung’s Health app and Gear manager, the latter of which walks you through pairing to your phone in seconds.
Design and controls
The IconX 2018 come in three colors, including black, grey, and pink (last year’s blue and white models went bye-bye). Our DT colleague thought it would be funny to order up the pink model for a male reviewer, and he was right. But hey, if former NFL running back Chris Johnson can rock a pink Bimmer, we can roll with pink earbuds. Just be warned — this color is not for the timid.
The IconX offer plenty of features you won’t find on more basic options.
Other than the Barbie aesthetic, the IconX 2018 design is similar to a lot of fitness earbuds — though they unfortunately aren’t water resistant like many of their peers. The silicon earhooks and eartips in small, medium, and large sizes are easy to swap out to create a tight and secure fit, but you’ve got to push them in pretty tightly to make sure the sensors on the interior make contact with your ears. As such, wearing them for more than an hour or two can be fairly uncomfortable.
On the exterior of each bud are touchpad controls for everything from summoning voice assistants (compatible with Samsung Voice, Google Assistant, and Siri), to fielding phone calls, accessing fitness features, and, of course, playing music. Like most buds with touchpads, a series of taps moves you through options like play/pause, calling, and song skip, while a swipe up or down controls volume.
The tap controls for the IconX are generally pretty accurate, but we went through waves in which they had trouble registering volume swipes. One solution is to simply move your head up and down instead of your finger, but the buds still ended up reading our swipes as taps about a third of the time.
With around 4 to 5 hours per charge for Bluetooth streaming, and as much as 7 hours for onboard music playback, the GearX now stand toe-to-toe with peers like the Dash Pro, AirPods, and Jabra Elite Sport. To get there, Samsung dumped the heart rate monitor, but we’d say that’s a fair tradeoff.
Unlike the above choices, however, Samsung’s wireless charging case curiously offers just a single recharge on the go, totaling up to 10 hours. Nearly every major competitor offers more, including up to 29 hours of total playback time for the AirPods. It’s not a deal breaker, however; the case will quick-charge your buds for an estimated hour of juice in 10 minutes, and The Headphone from Bragi nabbed the top spot in our Best True Wireless Headphones list without a charging case. Still, we wish the IconX 2018 aimed a bit higher there.
Interestingly, we also noticed battery life doesn’t drain equally between earbuds, running out more quickly on the right bud, which we selected as the primary bud for fitness tracking and also used most often for control taps. That appears to be part and parcel with the IconX design, as it’s shown the same way on Samsung’s IconX webpage.
Along with the battery boost, the IconX offer some other new features — mostly for Android users — that you won’t find on more basic options like The Headphone and the AirPods. For instance, a personal “Coach” will help Android users through workouts like a 30-minute brisk walk, in which a female voice gives you encouragement: “Way to pick up your stride!”
The Gear app tracks metrics like workout duration and steps taken thanks to the buds’ built-in accelerometer, and the data can then be synced with Samsung’s Health app for long-term tracking. While it can be difficult to actually quit a workout early via the buds alone, requiring an extra-long hold on the touchpad, the features work well overall and should appeal to runners — especially those who need some extra motivation.
As mentioned, you can also upload music to your IconX from either your Mac or PC, or your Android phone via the included cable — a nice convenience for runners who don’t have room for a phone on the path. New this year, you can also transfer tracks from your phone via Bluetooth. It takes around 30 seconds per track, however, and there’s no batch transferring so the feature is really only good for a song or two when you’re on the move.
The IconX 2018’s Ambient sound feature, which allows you to listen to the outside world while you jam out, was greyed out from within the Gear app when we first tried to use it. We finally realized our left ear wasn’t quite making contact with the sensor on the earbud’s inner wall, and after forcing it in deeper, finally got the feature working. Frankly, we’re usually less than impressed with such features in wireless earbuds anyway, and engaging it here elicited a distinct whistling noise and a severe delay in audio especially notable indoors that made it annoying to use. Samsung claims this may be an issue with our review unit, and is sending another pair – we’ll update this space if that bears out.
Perhaps one of the coolest and most functional features is “Find My Gear,” which, like Apple’s Find My Airpods feature, elicits a tone from the earbuds so you can dig them out of the couch or armchair.
Audio and wireless performance
While Apple’s AirPods aren’t the best-sounding earbuds, one attribute that ranks them near the top is that, unlike a lot of competitors, Bluetooth streaming is virtually always consistent and solid. That may not sound like much of a compliment, but streaming audio from a phone to a microbud — and then through the human brain to that earbud’s counterpart — is easier said than done.
A lot of earlier (and cheaper) true wireless earbud models like the Earin suffered from stereo channel wobbling, as do some Bluetooth speakers when paired together. Samsung’s IconX 2018 share that affliction. On multiple occasions during our testing, audio playback wandered between the two earbuds, piling audio into the left or right channel. Not everyone will be bothered by this, but diehard audio fans will definitely want to take note.
Sound tends to wander between stereo channels, piling audio into the left or right side.
On the bright side, we had virtually zero dropouts between the IconX 2018 and our V30, even when we placed the phone in our back pocket, which is something many true wireless buds still struggle with.
Apart from the stereo channel issues, the IconX offer a generally pleasant sound signature, highlighted by a clear and prominent midrange with some decent detail revelation, and enough bass to bring some flavor to the table without overcrowding it.
There’s a crispy, synthetic touch to the upper midrange, especially present in organic instruments, including snare drum and cymbals, and piano, which sounds especially tinny. The buds also give an edgy quality to male vocals. Fidelity also tends to break down quickly in the higher frequencies. Ultra-clear treble instruments like the jangling bells in Radiohead’s Daydreaming are particular offenders, losing clarity and textural detail up high.
Performance actually steps up notably when listening to music loaded directly into the buds, though, which may well stem from the fact that Samsung doesn’t include aptX or other Bluetooth codecs aimed at improving streaming resolution.
Call quality is generally pretty impressive, especially from the earbuds side to other callers. From the wearer’s side, though, the issue with the stereo channels is still in play, and hearing voices wandering off center can be rather distracting.
Overall, the IconX 2018 are definitely good enough to get the job done, especially for your daily workout or fielding a quick phone call. But you won’t likely be reveling in the performance of your favorite prog rock or jazz bands.
Samsung’s IconX 2018 are a definite step in the right direction, packing in loads of features for Android users in a sleek and compact package. But lingering functionality and battery issues and less than stellar audio fidelity keep them out of the running for our list of top contenders.
Is there a better alternative?
We’ve made no bones about the fact that we still think true wireless earbuds are for diehard first adopters only. But if you have to have them, we suggest going with Apple’s AirPods, which are the most functional in the field. Or, if you don’t mind leaving the battery case behind, The Headphone from Bragi offer the best sound hands down. Both models cost less than the IconX, and suffer from fewer issues.
If workout features are your bag, we’d suggest checking out Jabra’s Elite Sport are extremely functional, offer solid audio performance, and even throw in a heart rate monitor. If you can deal with a tether between your buds, Jabra’s Sport Pulse wireless offer excellent features and are more affordable than all of these models.
How long will it last?
While the IconX 2018 appear to be solidly built, the relatively low overall battery life and stereo image issues make them more ephemeral than other choices.
Should you buy it?
For Android users who absolutely have to have true wireless earbuds, and also have the need to work out without their phone, Samsung’s IconX could be a viable option. For most other users, there are better true wireless options at the same price or less, and the field will only grow in the coming months and years.