FULLY WIRELESS EARBUDS are the closest thing you’ll get to piping music directly into your brain. While there are a number of options out there, Samsung’s latest IconX (2018) headphones are the company’s second bite of the apple. They’re far from perfect, but these buds get a lot of things right.
They have acceptable sound quality, for one. The bass won’t thump as loud as a great pair of (cheaper) wired headphones, and tracks will occasionally sound shallow and synthetic, like your music is being run through a few filters, but it didn’t keep me from enjoying my favorite songs.
They also come with more than two times the battery life of their 2016 predecessors—a little more than 4 hours of battery life most days I used them.
Like last year, the IconX are still discrete and subdued in appearance (unless you buy them in neon pink) with a plain plastic exterior and swappable silicone eartips and wingtips. The wingtips help the top of the buds snap into the upper portion of your outer ear. The default tips fit well in my ear, but depending on the shape of your ear’s antihelix (there’s a new word for you), you may have to dip into the alternate wingtip sizes to get a solid fit.
There are no buttons on the IconX, but oh how I wish there were. Instead of buttons, the earbuds have dinky touchpads on the sides, and they’re fickle as heck. After a week of use, it still takes me two or three tries to successfully swipe up or down to change the volume. I’ve finally developed the muscle memory to get to the next track (two taps) and the previous track (three taps), but I don’t think I’ll ever successfully pull off more complex gestures. I feel like I deserve a graduate certificate in Morse code after using these.
SAMSUNG GEAR ICONX (2018)
Small and light enough that you forget you’re wearing them. Fully wireless with decent sound quality. Battery life hovers around 4 hours while streaming. Charging clamshell case provides an extra two charges. Includes a voice coach with fitness tracking and motivation
Touch control is too touchy. Charging case is bulky and you’ll need to carry it around. $200 is a lot to spend on earbuds, wireless or not
The most useful gesture is Tap and Hold, which lets you cycle through the menu options: Voice Command, Ambient Sound and Start a Workout. Voice Command leverages Bixby or Google Assistant to give you answers, though the assistant’s voice often seems muffled.
Ambient Sound amplifies the noises around you, so you can still hear things while wearing the buds. Like any snug-fit earbuds, the IconX tend to hush the sounds of say, incoming traffic. Look both ways, and enable this feature when you need it.
The buds don’t track heart rate like last year’s model, but they will give you a rough (very rough) approximation of the distance you traveled and steps you took during a workout. Samsung’s Bixby woman-like voice talks to you while you run, encouraging you to speed up and updating you on your distance. To get a better idea of your workout in progress, I recommend bringing along a phone or Gear Sport watch.
The downside to the fitness coaching feature is that one of your earbuds will drain a lot faster than the other. The choice of which Samsung leaves up to you, but expect a half hour less juice from one of your buds.
The complex gestures and 4-hour battery life would be more forgivable if the Gear IconX had a power button. Annoyingly, you can’t power either earbud up or shut them off without carrying an accessory: the included clamshell charging case. It’s about the size of a fat, short pill bottle that pops open and snaps closed. The buds only turn off once they’re inside it, and on when they are pulled out. That’s also the only way to re-pair them with your phone via Bluetooth.
The case provides about two full charges before you need to plug it into the wall and juice it up, which is nice. My hangup with this included accessory is that it’s just a little too big to slip into a pocket with my usual accoutrements. And it’s less of an accessory than a necessity.
My buds didn’t last long outside of their box. It’s strange that even though the buds know when they’re out of my ears thanks to a sensor, they aren’t intelligent enough to automatically shut off, too. They seem to keep getting notifications, and if I start a workout and they’re within distance, they pretend they’re my running buddy, knowing full-well I’m not wearing them. Shouldn’t they be smarter than that? Just sitting on my coffee table, unused with a 75% charge, both drained in under a work day’s time.
The best advice I can give you to conserve battery is to load up the 4GB of onboard storage on the IconX with MP3s instead of streaming music and turn off all notifications. That’ll give you an extra couple hours of juice, according to Samsung.
These buds also worked best when I used them with a Galaxy S8. On another Android phone, the connection was less reliable, cutting out for a second whenever I pocketed my phone. They’re also compatible with iPhones, but you’ll have access to fewer features.
At $200, the Gear IconX (2018) are $40 more than Apple’s now-famous AirPods, but overall aren’t wildly expensive, given their capabilities. They offer some solid fitness features and 4+ hours of battery life per charge. I just wish I didn’t feel the need to lug the bulky clamshell with me every time I use them.