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Samsung beat Apple to the punch when it unveiled its first "truly wireless" headphones back in June 2016, six months before the now-iconic AirPods. And unlike Apple, Samsung's original Gear IconX headphones included heart-rate monitoring, too. But those first-gen models had a serious drawback: Battery life was a meager 90 minutes between charges in the included battery case.
For the second-generation Gear IconX 2018 ($200, £200, AU$300), Samsung removed the heart-rate monitor. Doing so not only improved battery life, it made the headphone smaller and more comfortable than its predecessor. I still like the Airpods better, but the IconX is now a very good choice too, especially for owners of Samsung phones who can take full advantage of its features.
The new IconX measures 21.8 by 18.9 by 22.8 mm, compared to the 2016 version at 18.9 mm by 26.4 mm by 26.0 mm. With the extra room, Samsung was able to go from a 47mAh to a bigger 82mAh battery.
Samsung also shrunk the charging case, which incorporates a 340mAh battery vs. the 315mAh battery found in the previous charging case.
Both the case and the buds have a smooth, soft-to-touch finish with just the right amount of grippiness. The buds fit snugly -- I got a tight seal from a medium tip -- and the included fins, which are easier to get on and off, help keep the earphones securely in your ears.
The IconX 2018 can do double-duty as everyday headphones and sports headphones, whether you're just working out at the gym or running outside (they're sweat-resistant). They have a noise-isolating design -- you jam the tips into your ears -- but there's an Ambient Sound mode that lets you hear the outside world, a good safety feature for runners.
You access that mode from the earphones' touch controls, which are a bit hit or miss, particularly when it comes to raising and lowering volume with a swipe down or up (it doesn't always work). You tap on a bud to pause or play music and double-tap to advance tracks forward. Tap and hold and you call up Google Assistant, Siri or Samsung's Bixby assistant, or toggle through a few other audible menu options.
Like their predecessors, these guys work fine with iOS devices for streaming music via Bluetooth and taking calls, but they're primarily designed to work with Samsung's own phones -- and other Android devices -- running Android 4.4 and above.
Some of the fancier features, like the ability to track your exercise and transfer music to the 4GB of onboard storage, require Samsung's S Health and Android-only Gear app. You also need the Gear app to update the earphones' firmware. However, there is a workaround for Apple users. You can do music transfers and firmware upgrades, but you have to do it from your computer, which is a bit more of a process. It's also worth mentioning that I didn't have a problem activating the Voice Assistant (Siri), Ambient Sound mode, and Running Coach (more on that in a minute) while using the headphones with an iOS device.
The Icon X 2018 now has 5 hours of battery life when streaming audio from a phone, and the battery case -- itself chargeable with the included USB-C cable -- can deliver nearly a full recharge to the buds. And like a lot of new wireless headphones today, this one has quick charge feature that gives you about an hour of battery life from 10 minutes of charging in the case.
You get an extra hour of playback time in "standalone" mode. Instead of pairing the buds to your phone, Android users can load digital music files onto the internal storage (4GB). Going this route means you can listen to music without involving your phone and not worrying about Bluetooth connectivity glitches. It's great for a quick jog.
Another plus for runners: tapping the headphone activates the Running Coach feature, which provides aural feedback on your progress. The battery does drain a little faster in one of the buds (you chose which one in the Gear app), leaving you with about 30 minutes less battery life in that bud.
An idiosyncrasy worth mentioning is that the buds only shut off when you put them back in their charging case; there's no power button. That didn't really bother me, but you do have to remember to put them back in the case or your battery will drain. They automatically turn on when you take them out of the case.
I didn't have any problem pairing and repairing the IconX 2018 with a Galaxy S8 Plus and the iPhone X. I also thought they worked reasonably well as a headset for making calls. I encountered the occasional Bluetooth glitch and interference issues when walking around New York City, which is notoriously hard on these types of totally wireless earphones, thanks to all the wireless signals bouncing around. The glitches were infrequent enough not be an issue, however, and I encountered more interference with the Jaybird Run, for example.
Sound quality is decent for this type of totally wireless headphones, but not up to the level of the more expensive and richer-sounding Bose SoundSport Free and Sony WF-1000X. I also thought the Jaybird Run delivered a little bit fuller sound with deeper bass, but that may have been because my ears got a perfect seal with the Run. The AirPods sound a touch cleaner and more open -- but they let in a lot of ambient sound, which is a serious problem in noisier environments.
The truth is you can find wired earbuds that cost $30 -- or even affordable wireless earphones -- that sound as good as these. While the sound is pretty well balanced with a reasonable amount of clarity and bass, if you're more serious about your sound, you're going to find these aren't quite as natural or dynamic sounding as you might hope. I wore them for a couple of weeks on my daily commute to and from work and came away liking them, both for their overall performance and discreet design, but I preferred listening to them in shorter spurts.
At $150 (the price has dropped from $200), they're right in line with the AirPods' pricing. And while they're less attractive to iPhone owners, with all the improvements, they're a compelling totally wireless headphone option for Samsung fans.