It’s taken a few years for Bluetooth technology to get small enough to fit into earbuds, but since Apple’s AirPods dropped they are coming thick and fast.
Samsung’s second-generation earbuds, the IconX, are a very different product. They are squat little blocks vaguely aimed at fitness with clever touch input and running coaching built in.
As more wireless earbuds hit the market, we were hoping Samsung’s buds would be as good as its phones.
They nearly are – but there’s room for improvement.
Price and availability
The Gear IconX for 2018 cost £199 in the UK and $199.99 in the US direct from Samsung.
Make sure you don’t accidentally buy the old version if you’re shopping around for a cheaper price. We’d recommend buying them from one of the above links.
Design and build
The updated design on the IconX is pretty much what you should expect from wireless earbuds. The familiar rubber ear tip sits on a small blob of a unit that is a mirror image of the other.
Against your ear are small metal contacts present to allow for charging when you put the buds in the neat charging case. The case charges via USB-C with handy light indicators for charging progress.
There’s also a sensor to tell when you have the buds in your ears, so the audio pauses when you take both out.
Like the rubber ear tip, the rubber wing that tucks into the fold of your ear is also removable, and Samsung provides three sizes of each in the box to make sure you get the best fit possible.
The outside of each bud is a plain (in our case black) rounded triangle that is a touch sensitive control pad.
The IconX look a lot like the Jabra Elite Sport, and with such a small design it’s hard to make a design that stands out. But we like the design of the IconX, and they’re more understated than Sony’s ever-catchy named WF-1000X.
Sound quality and features
From first use, we were impressed with the IconX. Pairing with our Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus was (predictably) seamless using the Samsung Gear app and on-screen instructions. Putting each bud in your ear sounds a chime so you know each one is on and connected and meant we didn’t blast our music on the Tube out of the phone accidentally.
And not once did we have to manually connect the IconX – taking them out the case and putting them in our ears is all it takes and you’re ready to go provided you keep Bluetooth on your phone on the whole time after first pairing.
Tapping once on either bud pauses, twice skips track, three goes back and swiping up or down changes the volume. Then it gets complicated given the limited interface.
Double tapping also answers an incoming call and can switch between calls if you have two on the go. You can also long press to use voice commands, decline a call, turn the mic off during a call or read menu options aloud.
Double tap and hold skips playlists, if you have them set up. It’s a lot to remember and we found the music control useful but it’s often easier to action something using your phone.
The sound quality is decent for a small unit. The middle is a tad too sharp for our tastes, but the trebles are not too tinny by any means. As with most earbuds of this size, the bass isn’t anything to write home about but we listened to several familiar albums and were more than happy with the reproduction.
You can upload tracks from your phone or computer directly to the buds’ 3.4GB on-board storage. This works well, but if you don’t have all your music on your phone it can be a faff using the PC Manager software, and we preferred streaming music from our phone.
However we experience a great deal of dropouts and distrupted audio, usually with the left ear. It’s only for a couple of seconds and the audio always came back, but for a £200 product the frequency of it was disappointing.
Audio wise, R.E.M’s ‘Reckoning’ is the perfect level of jangle, though Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ lacks the bite of a more capable set of on-ears with a better sonic range. Then again they handle the bass and bounce of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ with only a hint of flatness.
Bob Dylan’s voice and harmonica sound great on ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ though when you switch gears to The Avalanche’s ‘Since I Left You’, the buds just about keep up with the sonic range but still sound a bit muddy. You can adjust the EQ (or turn the presets off completely) through several settings and it does improve things, but it’s a fiddle in the Gear app.
The IconX do work with iPhones, but the iPhone’s lack of aptX, the high-level Bluetooth codec, means songs sound scratchy and bad. We would not recommend buying the IconX if you’re an iPhone owner, and even if you’re on Android you should definitely check if your phone has aptX or aptX HD built in or the audio experience is not going to be good.
But the IconX are designed to help you work out, so off we begrudgingly trudged on a run to find out how good they are at it. In fact, before we’d done so the buds auto detected a brisk walk and the female voice dutifully told us to keep it up. It’s kind of annoying if you’re just walking and don’t want to hear it but you can turn off detect workouts in the settings.
The other options are for a pace setter, and you can adjust your target in the Samsung Health app. There’s a pleasing number of well thought out coaches, from brisk walking to endurance running and everything in between.
You can also set preference for guide intervals (either per 1 or 5km or 5, 10, 30 or 60 mins) on a combination of duration, distance, calories and speed.
An excellent recently added feature in a software update is ambient sound. Essential if you’re running on busy roads, it filters in ambient noise from around you to make you more aware of your surroundings.
It works excellently on a sliding software scale, with the option to hone in on voices too. We used it on a run and it put our mind at ease that we’d be more aware of cars, buses and people shouting at us to get out the way.
The IconX aren’t noise cancelling, but the buds go quite far into your ear canal for a fit that is comfortable at first but after an hour or two does start to hurt our ears, although they sit far enough down that it’s easy to tap the controls and drive the bud painfully further into your ear.
The wing also sits in our ear fold at an angle that looks a bit wonky but is necessary for the fit. It also hurts a bit after a time and reminds us that no bud will work for every person. We’ve worn more comfortable pairs of headphones with better ergonomic design.
Sony’s WF-1000X are hands down the most comfortable wireless buds we’ve yet tested, with sensible button placement and superior comfort in design with a less intrusive fit.
Battery life on the IconX was decent, and we were only caught without power once. If you get in the habit of charging the case every other day you’ll be fine, and the buds last about five hours on a full charge over Bluetooth true to Samsung’s word.
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