I have to hand it to Samsung for being one of the boldest tech companies out there. From screen innovation to turning the status-quo form factor on its head, they don’t shy away from being “different”.
The latest in their avant-garde experimentation, the Galaxy Buds Live literally laugh at every other in-ear buds we have seen until now. That’s if you hold them horizontally. In their jewellery-box inspired case, they look like stolen kidneys from a gnome and you can have them in Mystic Bronze, black or white. The case itself is nice and compact with charging status being displayed in coloured LEDs. Of course, if you bring them closer to a paired Samsung phone, you’ll be greeted with an animation that shows battery levels of both earbuds and the case. Switching between multiple connected devices is also possible, although, if you’ve used AirPods with iOS14 recently, the experience could be a tad smoother.
A lesson learnt
Reinventing the wheel also means teaching people how to use the new set of wheels. The Buds Live have a bit of learning curve to them as regards to fit. They do come with an extra pair of silicon wingtips if you want to try on a different fit, but regardless of which tip you choose, what’s more important is how you insert them into your ears. Since these are meant to be “live” and not sealed, you have to go against the inherent instinct to push them deeper into your ear canal. Insert-and-twist is the mantra here, which aims the bottom of the Buds into your ear canal while the top portion rests on your outer ear with the help of the silicon tips. How much you twist and how you aim the lower section of the Buds Live will finally dictate the sound quality (and comfort) you achieve from them.
Seems like a lot of work for a simple ‘wear it and forget it’ accessory and that’s where my scepticism starts. If something that will be used extensively on a daily basis can’t be totally effortless, isn’t it being counterproductive? Thankfully, it’s not all that complicated once you start living with the Buds Live. After a couple of days of using them on and off, I started getting the hang of things and the fit..well, that’s something that is entirely dependent on each individual ear shape and size. What might be extremely comfortable for some, might start to cause me pain and that’s what happened with the Buds Live after an hour of use. Being on long phone calls with a variety of people, I started to realise how crucial the fit is. The way you laugh, how loudly you talk, how wide your jaw opens...all of it had a profound effect on the comfort factor and the Buds Live just didn’t want to live in my ears after an hour or so of continuous use. They started hurting my ears enough for me to want to remove them, but might not be the case with other ear shapes perhaps.
Loaded to the kidneys
Active noise cancelling isn’t new but to have it in an open-back design like on the Buds Live is unique indeed. This also means that you may have to reset your expectations of ANC. It’s not nearly as pronounced and aggressive as on higher-end Sony, Sennheisers or even the AirPods Pro. Instead, the philosophy here is to attenuate some amount of low-frequency rumble while letting in higher-frequency sounds that relate to the ambience and surrounding cues. 12mm drivers “tuned by AKG” handle the actual sonic duties and this being a semi-open back design, there is a bass duct that lets out the pressure build-up and doesn’t cause any of the weird, underwater sounding sensation that you get in tightly sealed active ANC buds. These are meant to be worn all-day for everyday things, not by audiophiles while they sip on their after-hours single malt. In that regard, they do sound entertaining and have sufficient verve to get your head bobbing with bass that is plentiful and can be turned up even further up using the app in the Galaxy Wear app.
There are six presets to choose from and you should be able to find one to your tastes. The app doesn’t have playback controls though so you’ll have to come back to your music service, but it does offer you customisation options for touch controls from ANC, voice assistant or volume control. You can even block all touch controls if you find yourself adjusting the fit a lot and don’t want to accidentally pause the music every time you’re tweaking the Buds Live.
A taste of music
Cherry Flavoured from The Neighbourhood sounds hefty with great clarity on the vocals but things at the top end can get a bit too edgy and take away from the overall smoothness of tonal balance. The highs always want to outshine the rest of the frequency spectrum. Call me Back by Young the Giant is delivered with authority and all the ominous-sounding low-end sustain but the vocals have a hard edge that translates into sibilance. It isn’t too pronounced to bother but it just sounds incoherent in relation to the mids and lows. Summer Girl by Haim has a high-hat cymbal that sounds too thin even for a cymbal and lacks body that makes it sound real and not synthesized. On the other hand, play more dance and EDM music and the tonal balance settles down for a more neutral presentation.
Where the Buds Live come into their own though is video content and phone calls. Ready Player One with its multiple action and race sequences just shows how capable the Buds Live are if worn correctly. They sound like much bigger, over-ear headphones with their bass depth and extension. Even the usually brittle highs get camouflaged by the dynamic soundtrack along with dialogues and other elements in the sound design. Along with their unobtrusive look and feel, watching movies discreetly might just be its biggest superpower. YouTube videos similarly, sounded full-bodied and immersive, concealing all the deficiencies that show up during critical music listening. Phone calls are handled with equal finesse and everyone I asked on the other end of the call said they could barely hear passing-by traffic at all. With three mics (2 on the outside, 1 inside) and a voice pickup unit that senses jaw movements and uses that to amplify the audio signal, it’s nifty tech that actually works well.
Anyone looking for an all-day battery life won’t be disappointed with the Buds Live. With up to 6 hours of charge on the Buds and another 14-15 hours in the case, it’s an all-day warrior. Actual amount of battery life will depend on various factors such as ANC on/off, volume, voice assistant usage etc and I wasn’t willing to pay a visit to the ER after wearing these for 6 hours in my own ears, no sir! A quick top up of 5 minutes is claimed to give another hour of juice for an encore. The case is wireless charging ready so PowerShare is an option too if you have a phone with reverse wireless charging capability, making the Buds Live truly a beast of battery life.
There’s a genuine thought here behind making in-ears that take the shape of the ear itself, but it’s a huge gamble that may not pay off. It’s still the first generation of its kind, so like the Galaxy Fold and Flip phones, it too will improve with every iteration. For now though, the Galaxy Buds Live try too hard to reinvent the wheel without the accompanying performance gain. Thankfully, the admission price for this experiment is very tempting and for the same price, they are better sounding than the AirPods (and compatible with iOS). Their battery life is exceptional and call quality is commendable but they also come with too many red flags - will they fit your ears properly, will they provide hours of comfort, will they cancel out noises in your daily environment or commute? All these are questions that I have tried to answer but will vary as per user. If you want to be at the forefront of technology and aesthetic, proceed with caution.