Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro review: Mostly impressive but fit isn't perfect
Samsung's new noise-canceling earbuds feature excellent sound and call quality, but their fit could impact noise-canceling performance.
Updated Jan. 15, 2021 8:00 a.m. PT
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David CarnoyExecutive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
Yes (IPX7 -- can be submerged for 30 minutes up to 1 meter)
Attractive design with small charging case
Active noise canceling
Good headset performance for calls
IPX 7 water-resistance (fully waterproof)
360 virtual surround for Galaxy S21 models
May not fit everyone's ears equally well
Without a tight seal, noise-canceling performance drops
Currently, 360 Audio virtual surround only works with new S21 models
While Bluetooth audio works with iPhones, Galaxy Buds app for iOS isn't supported
I've been a fan of
recent Galaxy true-wireless earbuds. The Galaxy Buds Plus fit my ears really well and has become one of the better true-wireless values, selling for less than $100 online. And the Galaxy Buds Live, also discounted a bit since its original debut, feature a discreet and innovative "open" design and I like to use them for running and biking. Now the Galaxy Buds Pro -- Samsung's long-awaited active noise-canceling model -- has arrived with upgraded sound and high expectations. (Yes, the Buds Live also have noise canceling, but it's pretty modest.) They're available now for $200 (£219, AU$349). I'm mostly impressed, but just how good you think they are will ultimately depend on how well they fit your ears.
The Galaxy Buds Pro have a totally new design. They sort of seem like a cross between the Galaxy Buds Plus and the Galaxy Buds Live and while the earbuds look different from the Buds Live, the charging case is essentially the same. It's nice and compact -- it looks a little like a ring box -- and has USB-C and wireless charging.
The Buds Pro come in three color options -- phantom black, silver and violet -- and they're fully waterproof, with an IPX7 rating that's the highest yet for a set of Samsung earbuds. (IPX means they can be fully submerged in 3 feet of water for 30 minutes.) I got the black version and the buds fit my ears securely -- I was able to run with them without a problem. But the Buds Plus fit me a little better overall. They just kind of nestle in my ears and they have a little rubber fin that helps lock them into place. There's no fin on the Buds Pro.
Samsung told me that some people felt the Buds Plus' tips probed into their ear canal a little too deeply. So it went with this new design that doesn't have quite as deep a fit. The problem is, however, that I couldn't get a really tight seal with any of the included ear tips. The nozzles and tips have an oval shape and for whatever reason, I didn't get a tight seal and it really impacted the noise-canceling performance more so than the sound quality. I thought to myself, "Damn, the noise canceling sucks even though Samsung says it cancels out up to 99% of external background noise." I had some similar issues with the Jabra Elite 85t earbuds, which also have oval nozzles and tips.
Since I know my ears are unique to me and that this problem might only affect a small percentage of users, I went hunting for some new tips, which I happen to have a lot of because I'm always testing new earbuds. I ended up trying an extra-large pair of tips from the Beats Flex, stretching them over the oval nozzle, which allowed me to get a tight seal (and the buds still fit in the charging case even with the jumbo tips). Suddenly the noise canceling worked a lot better.
I have a noisy HVAC unit in my apartment that blows air and I went from hearing it a little too clearly to having the sound muffled really well, basically on par with the noise canceling of the
. The noise canceling isn't as effective, however, as in the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, which is currently the best noise canceling in the true-wireless category.
You may very well get a good fit with the included ear tips, but I'm just pointing all this out because it's pretty crucial to get a tight seal, especially when it comes to noise canceling.
As far as the sound goes, I did lose a little bass without a tight seal, but after I switched over to the bass boost mode in the app, they sounded just fine. And once I stuck on the big Beats tips, I turned off bass boost to get more balanced sound.
Samsung told me it's focused a lot on the sound quality and says these have an 11-millimeter woofer for deeper bass and a 6.5-millimeter tweeter for richer treble. I did hear the difference in my listening tests and they do sound better than both the Buds Plus and Buds Live. The bass is a little deeper and is better defined than the bass on the Buds Plus and the treble does have a little more sparkle to it. The Buds Plus still sound quite good. They just end up coming across as warmer, more forgiving headphones if you compare them to the Buds Pro.
The Buds Pro aren't quite there with some of the very top-sounding true wireless buds like the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless II and Grado GT220, which offer slightly more refined sound. But with a tight seal they're among the best sounding true wireless earbuds, particularly under $200, and they sound more detailed and dynamic than the AirPods Pro, with punchy bass and relatively open sound. They should work well with a variety of music genres and, as I mentioned, you can tweak the sound in the app a bit with some equalizer preset modes. Aside from Bass Boost, I mainly stuck with the default sound profile.
You can also customize the touch controls a bit in the app. As with the Galaxy Buds Plus and Buds Live, the touch controls work well and are responsive, but if you fiddle with an earbud to get it to sit better in your ear, you can end up pausing your music. If you want, you can turn off the touch controls in the app.
OK, let's move on to features. Along with the active noise canceling, you get an Ambient mode that lets you hear the outside world, as well as a couple of notable bonus features. The first recognizes when you're talking and automatically lowers the volume of your music and fires up Ambient mode, so you can have a chat with someone. It's the same feature that's on the Sony WH-1000XM4 over-ear noise-canceling headphones and it's pretty cool unless you talk out loud to yourself a lot or have frequent one-sided conversations with your pets. In that case, you'll want to turn it off in the app.
The feature works with all Android
, not just Samsung's Galaxy models, but it isn't supported with
devices. That's because unlike the Galaxy Buds Plus and Galaxy Buds Live, these earbuds don't link up with the Galaxy Buds app for iOS, though you can stream
audio just fine from an
(you just don't get any extra features).
I should point out something about the Ambient mode. You can adjust the amount of amplification, with the low setting sounding more like a transparency mode that lets you hear the outside in a more natural way while the extra high mode really does amp up the amplification and augments little sounds. That said, the Ambient mode even in the low setting doesn't sound as natural as the AirPods Pro's transparency mode, which is arguably best-in-class.
The other bonus feature is something similar to
's Spatial Audio virtual surround feature, called 360 Audio. Samsung says it features Dolby Head Tracking technology, which enables you to stay at the center of the scene when you're watching a movie or TV show. I haven't tested it yet, because it currently only works with the brand new Galaxy S21 models and isn't available yet for legacy Samsung smartphones and
like the Note 10 or Tab S6 that I'm using. That'll happen down the road, with the Note 20 probably next in line for an update for 360 Audio. And sadly, it doesn't work with any non-Samsung Android devices. As soon as I try it, I'll update this review with comparisons to Apple's spatial audio, but apologies for not covering it in depth at this time. (CNET's Patrick Holland, who is reviewing the Galaxy S21 models, has tried 360 Audio and says it does work, but he hasn't spent time comparing it yet to the AirPods Pro's spatial audio.)
Like with previous Galaxy Buds, there's also a low-latency gaming mode, and the earbuds will automatically switch between your Galaxy devices and automatically pause your music when you take one out of your ear. There's no true multipoint Bluetooth pairing, however, for switching between say, a computer and your phone. While these support Samsung's proprietary Scalable codec streaming audio format for Galaxy devices, they don't support the aptX streaming audio codec that is supported with some Android devices. It's also worth noting that you can use the left or right bud independently as a single bud. Some people like to use a single bud for making calls or just listening to audio in one ear.
Not surprisingly, the Buds Pro performed very well in my voice-calling tests. Samsung says they have three microphones, plus a Voice Pickup Unit, and they're equipped with noise reduction technology that helps eliminate wind noise in particular. Callers said my voice sounded a touch clearer when I was using the AirPods Pro, but the noise reduction was good with the Buds Pro and people said they could hear me well even in fairly noisy environments.
Battery life with noise canceling on may seem a bit disappointing to Buds Plus owners. You can get up to five hours of playback at moderate volume levels with ANC and Bixby voice wake-up on, and you get 13 hours extra battery life in the charging case. The number jumps to eight hours with noise canceling and Bixby wake-up off, and you get 20 hours extra battery life in the charging case.
That noise-canceling number is similar to what you get from other noise-canceling buds like the AirPods Pro. But the Buds Plus are known for having stellar battery life -- up to around 11 hours at moderate volume levels.
In the end, I'd have to say that the best thing about the Galaxy Buds Pro is their sound and call quality. Their noise canceling is also effective if you have a tight seal. They fit me pretty comfortably, but as I said, the Buds Plus fit me a little more comfortably.
If you own the original Galaxy Buds, you should strongly consider upgrading to the Buds Pro or the Buds Plus, which are a nice value at around $100 or even less online. If I owned the Buds Plus, I'd certainly be tempted to get these, because they are a step up in sound quality, but after using them for several days, I wouldn't necessarily be racing out to buy them.
For those who don't have the Buds Plus or Buds Live and have been waiting for the Buds Pro to arrive, these are mostly excellent and should improve with firmware updates and also come down in price a bit. But like the Buds Live, which fit some ears better than others, as I said, how they fit will ultimately determine just how good you think they are.
Galaxy Buds Pro specs
According to Samsung:
Speaker: Two-way (11mm woofer + 6.5mm tweeter)
Earbud weight: 0.2 ounces (6.3 grams)
Charging case weight: 1.58 ounces (44.9 grams)
Microphones: Three mics (two outer and one inner), voice pickup unit and wind shield
ANC: Cuts up to 99% of external background noise, adjustable to two levels
Ambient sound: Amplifies up to 20 decibels, four adjustable levels, voice detect
Battery life with ANC or Bixby voice wake-up on: 5 hours with 13 hours extra battery life in charging case
Battery life with ANC and Bixby voice wake-up off: 8 hours with 20 hours extra battery life in charging case