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Hands on with Samsung’s stylish new AirPods Pro rivals

  • January 15, 2021

There’s not enough in my testing thus far to convince me that the Galaxy Buds Pro will take down our favorite wireless earbuds, the near-perfect Jabra Elite 85t, especially for users of phones not made by Samsung. But with a richer sound profile than their AirPods rivals, plenty of ways to customize via Samsung’s Wear app, and proprietary features for Galaxy phone users like automatic pairing when you open the case, the Galaxy Buds Pro already feel like the natural choice for the Samsung faithful seeking the AirPods Pro experience.

About the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro

Galaxy Buds Pro buds in hand

Before we dig in, here’s a snapshot of the basic specs:

  • Price: $199.99
  • Battery life: up to 5 hours with noise canceling, 8 hours without; up to 18 hours with charging case with ANC, 28 hours without
  • Rapid charging: 5 minutes charge for 60 minutes of playback
  • Wireless charging: yes, Qi-compatible case
  • Colors: Phantom Silver, Phantom Violet, Phantom Black
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
  • Audio codecs: SBC, AAC
  • Water resistance: IPX7
  • Ear tips: three sizes
  • Weight: 6.3 grams per bud, 44.9 grams case

The Galaxy Buds Pro arrive in the kind of micro-sized box we’ve come to expect from modern true wireless earbuds (that is, those without any wires at all). Accessories include three sets of oval-shaped ear tips packed into the teensiest paper box you’ll ever see (you may be seeing a pattern here), and a USB-C to USB-A charging cable.

A cubed charging case the size of a macaron cookie opens to reveal metallic-finished buds that look (unsurprisingly) like a beefed-up pair of Galaxy Buds+. Notable design traits include an 11mm woofer and 6.7mm tweeter in each bud to provide power and clarity across frequencies; a three-microphone system for adjustable active noise cancellation (ANC) and boostable ambient audio; and a wide array of Samsung-only features a la Apple, from 360 Audio to multi-mic recording with a Galaxy device (most of which I haven’t fully explored just yet).

What we like so far

A micro-sized, stylish design

Galaxy Buds Pro case side

The Galaxy Buds Live didn’t add up to the package I look for in a versatile pair of true wireless buds, but their unique design was inspired. As noted in Samsung’s reviewer guide, the Buds Pro take aesthetic cues from both the Live and the Buds+, adding up to stylish micro buds that look familiar, while striking their own chord. The case is nothing short of adorable, and easily fits in any pocket, and the buds look good in your ears without sticking out too far.

As for ergonomics, so far the fit doesn’t quite match my all-time favorites in the genre, but it’s pretty comfy overall. While designed to keep you from the “plugged up feeling” of most earbuds, it’s not as natural feeling as Jabra’s similar design technique. But the Buds Pro slip into the curve of my ear easily, and though they’re a little rigid, the fit is secure and stable without creating any notable pain points.

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A rich and sweet sound profile

Galaxy Buds Pro listening

The Galaxy Buds Pro’s dual drivers do a great job at creating an expansive and powerful sound signature without leaving the details in the dust. The bass is deep and punctual while the midrange is smooth, yet accurate. The treble can get just a little spindly at times, similar to Samsung’s other buds, but it’s never sibilant or sharp and helps create impressive stereo separation and some impressively lyrical moments.

In my listening so far I’ve been impressed with how well the Buds Pro serve up different audio environments, coloring in the details with precision, and letting each instrument fill out its own space. They do a surprisingly good job of giving subtle moments their due, from a powdery ride cymbal to the echo of an acoustic guitar or the long reverb tail of a vocal as it slides from left to right. The overall effect, when added with the silence provided by the noise cancellation, lets you revel in the complexities of well-produced recordings and gives each instrumental attack its own moment in the spotlight from within the soundstage.

While I’m still evaluating, this is a step up from Samsung’s other earbuds and, to put it more simply, it’s been a fun listen so far.

Good call quality

This is definitely still a test-in-progress, but in the few calls I’ve taken, the quality has been crystal clear. I’m interested in spending some more time with this feature, including outside in some wind, but so far so good.

Respectable active noise canceling

Galaxy Buds Pro bud interior

While the Galaxy Buds Live offered a tease of noise cancellation, Samsung needed to focus more fully on snuffing out exterior sounds for the modern, work-from-home user, and the Galaxy Buds Pro finally fill that niche. It can be difficult to rank noise canceling on a granular level, but there’s a vast difference between “mediocre” and “good” in this genre, and the Galaxy Buds Pro definitely reach the latter tier. As we’ve seen from the majority of big brands interested in a shot at the true wireless crown, they provide a viable way to shutter the exterior world.

In my limited testing, the Buds Pro seem to work best at killing drone noises, while letting in sounds like the crunch of leaves or a barking dog to some degree, especially with audio paused. Then again, no wireless earbuds can silence the world entirely. I’ll be continuing to experiment with them in the next few days, but for now, suffice to say they get the job done and, as we’d hoped, are a vast improvement over the Galaxy Buds Live.

Top-notch water resistance

I’ve been patiently waiting for a flagship pair of true wireless noise cancelers to top IPX4 water resistance—designed to shield the buds from splashes and wet, but not jet sprays or dunks—and I was pleasantly surprised to see Samsung take the win with IPX7 water resistance. Only one other pair of ANC earbuds I’ve tried matches up to the Buds Pro here: Jabra’s Elite Active 75t, which added ANC in a firmware update. The majority of rivals are still stuck at IPX4 or worse. And while you may not need dunkable earbuds, a win is a win.

The Wear app keeps getting better

Samsung’s Wear app, your hub for all settings not available via touch controls, has continued to improve with each iteration and it’s never been better than with the Galaxy Buds Pro. From there you can adjust EQ, customize the touch controls (though only one of them can be changed), do a search for your buds, boost ambient sound, and more. The Wear app also lets Galaxy phone users auto pair by simply opening the clamshell case, something Apple developed and Samsung wisely aped.

What we don’t like so far

The onboard controls aren’t comprehensive

Galaxy Buds Pro bud exterior

While I appreciate the Wear app’s intuitive layout and options, I wish Samsung would have deviated from Apple when it comes to onboard controls as well. The flag to follow here comes not from Apple, but Jabra, which offers fully comprehensive controls on its top buds like the 75t and 85t series.

Notably missing is a separate control for volume, which essentially means you’ve got to give up the ability to swap between ANC/Ambient Audio control to get it. All other touch controls besides the long-press function are stuck in the default position and mirrored on each bud. You could ostensibly add just volume up or volume down on one bud and keep the ANC control on the other, but what good is one volume control when your ears get blasted or you can’t hear your podcast?

In addition, I was surprised to find there’s no way to set the earbuds to pause when you pull one out, a nifty feature that comes with most upper-tier buds we evaluate. In its place is Voice Detect, which pauses for 10 seconds when you speak, but thus far I’ve found it to be too sensitive to be useful.

Battery life suffers with ANC

At 5 hours of battery with ANC engaged, and 8 hours without, the Galaxy Buds Pro are perfecty respectable for ANC earbuds. They don’t quite match Jabra’s Elite 85t with ANC (or even Sony’s aging WF-1000XM3), but beat them without it by a full hour (though I haven’t yet put them to the test there). Still, it’s 2021, so it would be nice to see them push that number a bit higher, if only for some breathing room between these buds and the forthcoming generation (such as the AirPods Pro 2, for instance). All that said, 5 hours with ANC beats the AirPods Pro, and should be enough for most use cases—especially with rapid charging.

Still a bit buggy?

As isn’t uncommon during the pandemic, the first pair of Samsung’s new buds that I received were faulty. Specifically, the left earbud made strange squelching noises in an odd cycling pattern at times in the few minutes I spent with them, even after updating the firmware. The new pair have not had any such problem, but they did refuse to advance or pause tracks on Spotify in one instance (fixed by putting them back in the case).

I’m putting this as a placeholder, and will keep testing as it could have been just a Spotify or phone issue, but combined with the troubles with the first earbuds, it was something I felt compelled to mention.

Should you buy it?

So far so good!

Galaxy Bud Pro in-case side

While I still need to put the Galaxy Buds Pro through a few more paces, I’m impressed so far with what appears to be Samsung’s best wireless earbuds on multiple levels. Setting aside the first lemon pair, the Galaxy Buds Pro offer impressive sound, class-leading water resistance, and a micro-sized design that looks as good as it travels. While I still need to spend more time with them, for Samsung Galaxy owners after their own AirPods Pro experience, these appear to be the buds you’re looking for.

Meet the tester

Ryan Waniata

Managing Editor – Electronics


@ryanwaniata

Hailing originally from Montana, Ryan parlayed his time working as a musician and audio engineer into a career in digital media in 2013. Since then he’s had extensive experience as a writer and editor, including everything from op-eds and features to reviews on TVs, audio gear, smart home devices, and more.

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