- Unique, eye-catching design
- Comfortable ergonomic fit
- Compact charging case with wireless charging
- Open sound with good bass and detail
- Good noise reduction when making calls
- IPX2 water-resistant
- Noise canceling is comparatively mild
- Open design lets some ambient sound in
- Little bit of distortion at high volume
Say what you will about Samsung's Galaxy Buds Live bean-shaped design -- yes, they're affectionately known as the Beans -- but they might just be the most innovative new true wireless earbuds of the year. Available in three colors: mystic white, black and bronze, they certainly look flashy, with a chrome-like finish that you can see your reflection in.
At $170 (£179, AU$319), they cost slightly more than the standard Apple AirPods. And like the AirPods, they have an open design -- you don't jam an ear tip into your ear -- and they're quite comfortable to wear. Additionally, they're really discreet and basically sit flush with your ear without a little white pipe extending out from them. And finally, they feature active noise canceling. More about that in a minute.
I took one look at the bud and my first instinct was to put the part with rubber ring in my ear. But it's actually the opposite. You stick the other side -- the one with the little speaker and bass port -- in your ear facing downward and wedge the rest of the bean in your ear at an angle.
Samsung shows you just how they're supposed to go in your ears in an animation that you can find in the Buds Live's companion apps -- it's the Galaxy Buds app for iOS, but Galaxy Wear for Android. The way they were sitting in my ears at less of an angle than in the animation appeared to be wrong. But that's how they fit in my ears -- and they did fit well -- so I just left them that way. For better or worse, I think you have to go with what the shape of your ear gives you. I did manage to get the speaker side of the ear tip to dip into my ear canal, which seemed like the most important thing.
That aforementioned rubber ring -- small and large versions are included in the box -- takes the place of wingtips that would ordinarily anchor these sort of earbuds. I used the larger of the two, and the earbuds just nestled nicely and securely in my ears with just enough added traction to keep them in place. That said, I wouldn't have minded if Samsung had included a more traditional sport wing that would really lock the buds in your ears.
They did stay in my ears more securely than the standard AirPods (the standard AirPods slip out of my ears if I run or even walk briskly with them). I was able to run and bike with the Galaxy Buds Live and while they only have IPX2 water-resistance, which makes them splash-resistant from certain angles, they are sweat-resistant and you can use them for working out. The earlier Galaxy Buds Plus are also IPX2 water-resistant, while the AirPods Pro are IPX4 rated (splashproof) and the standard AirPods have no water-resistance rating though people still run -- and sweat -- with them.
I really liked the Galaxy Buds Plus, which have a noise-isolating design (meaning, they push into your ear canal). They also fit me well and I thought they sounded really good for the money. I figured that when Samsung did noise-canceling earbuds, it would make something very similar to the Buds Plus and add noise canceling and call them the Buds Pro or something like that.
But instead it's these Buds Live earbuds that have the active noise canceling. Samsung calls it "ANC for Open Type." I can't say it's all that effective, however. There have been a few earbuds that have an open or semi-open design that have noise canceling but I've always found that you need a really tight seal to have noise canceling really work.
These are supposed to reduce some noise in the lower frequencies, and Samsung talks about them blocking sound while riding on a train or bus. But I just didn't feel they made a big impact on reducing ambient noise. It's pretty mild. They do help a bit, allowing you to hear your music and make voice calls a little better in noisy environments. But the AirPods Pro, Sony WF-1000XM3, Technics EAH-AZ70W, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 and several other noise-isolation true wireless earbuds that have active noise canceling do a significantly better job reducing ambient sound. So don't buy these for noise canceling or you may be disappointed. On the flip side, if you're someone's who's sensitive to active noise canceling -- some folks experience uncomfortable pressure on their eardrums -- these shouldn't bother you.
Like the Galaxy Buds Plus, I did like how these sounded. No surprise, they do sound open -- and that's where the Live name comes from (it's supposed to give you the feel of a live concert, Samsung says). Their open, airy sound doesn't feel like it's stuck in your head. They've got 12mm drivers and a big bass port. The bass is plump yet punchy, which is how I like it -- and there's nice detail in the mids and highs. They're certainly lively-sounding. Dynamic is the word I usually use to describe headphones like these.
Soundwise, these aren't quite there with the best-sounding true wireless earbuds like Sennheiser's Momentum True Wireless 2 or Sony's WF-1000XM3. But they're really solid and pleasant to listen to. And you can make some sound tweaks in the Galaxy Buds companion app for iOS and Android using the preset EQ settings. I mainly stuck to the default "Normal" mode.
I did notice that the bass rolls off a little bit at higher volumes and things don't sound quite as well defined when you push the volume all the way up, especially if you're listening to a track with a lot of instruments playing at once. While that tends to be par for the course for Bluetooth earbuds, with most noise-isolating earbuds you can keep the volume at 80% or less. But because these are open, I had a tendency to push the volume to compete with any ambient sound.
As for extra features, Galaxy device owners get a few options not available to Apple and non-Samsung Android users. That's not surprising since AirPods partially exist to help sell more iPhones. So it shouldn't shock anyone that Samsung would have some special features for its users.
If you own a Galaxy phone or tablet, you get a couple of extra features, including a low-latency gaming mode. That was available for the Galaxy Buds Plus under the "Labs" section of the app but it's been improved, according to a Samsung spokesperson, and will come in handy for Galaxy Note 20 users who want to play . Galaxy owners can also use Bixby, Samsung's voice assistant, hands-free without using the Buds' touch controls, which do work well and are responsive. Activate it by saying, "Hi, Bixby." That's similar to the hands-free option for Siri for AirPods.
If you use hands-free Bixby, you lose a little bit of battery life. These are rated at up to 8 hours with noise canceling off and 6 hours with it on. It drops to 5.5 with noise canceling with Bixby always there, waiting for you to wake it up. The compact case charges wirelessly or via USB-C and gives you about 2.5 extra charges.
Bluetooth pairing is pretty flexible, depending on which devices you're using. If you have multiple Galaxy devices, you can pair them all to the buds and automatically switch between devices as long as they all are under the same Samsung account. iOS and Android users can pair the buds to multiple devices but you have to manually switch between them. They don't seem to pair simultaneously to two devices, but one of the newer Galaxy devices can simultaneously pair with two pairs of Buds Live. Windows 10 users can use Microsoft Swift pair to link these to their PCs. Mac users just have to put the buds into pairing mode to do the same (you tap and hold each bud simultaneously for a few seconds to go into pairing mode).
The Galaxy Buds Plus did a good job of reducing background noise when I was making calls with them and these do, too. There are two microphones on the outside of each bud and one on the inside and while the buds don't completely muffle sound around you, they do a good job of tamping down ambient noise and also picking up your voice. People I spoke with said they could hear me well even when I had street noise playing pretty loudly in the background from a YouTube feed (I'm not in New York City these days so I have to simulate street noise). You can use a single bud for making calls.
I've spent a lot of time talking about the sound and the features of these earbuds, but it's really their design that's the standout feature. I get a lot of these types of earbuds in for review and this is the first one in a while that I thought was really innovative and different. They're pretty unique-looking, discreet and not only do they fit securely but they're comfortable to wear for long periods. Alas, the noise canceling isn't what I hoped it would be, but it is a challenge to do with open earbuds like these. Even so, they're easily among the best earbuds of 2020.
First published Aug. 6.