Even if you still have a phone with a headphone jack, chances are you’re interested in true wireless earbuds — they’re the ones without a cable connecting the two nubs that go into your ears — because who actually likes wires?
At $199, they’re pricier than AirPods, too. So how do they stack up?
The IconX 2018’s are Samsung’s second stab at true wireless earbuds. The original ones took a fitness-first approach, cramming in a heart rate sensor inside.
It was a neat idea that differentiated the IconX from other non-smart wireless buds, but the sensor also meant less room for battery. And if there’s any one thing that wireless earbuds needs to nail, it’s long battery life.
Much-improved battery life
Thankfully, Samsung actually seems to be paying attention these days, because on the IconX 2018’s the heart rate sensor’s gone and battery life has jumped from about 1.5 hours to five hours for streaming music from your phone.
And if you listen to music directly from the IconX’s 4GB of internal storage (it holds about 1,000 songs), they should last up to seven hours compared to the 3.5 hours from the old model.
The IconX 2018’s lasted almost exactly five hours.
I put them to the test for a few days and they held up to Samsung’s battery claims. Streaming music from Spotify on a Galaxy S8, the IconX 2018’s lasted almost exactly five hours. On a few occasions, they lasted just a few minutes more, which is on-par with what I’ve seen on AirPods.
Some people may bemoan the loss of the heart rate sensor, but I’m happier without it. With AirPods lasting five hours on a single charge, Samsung had no choice but to match that or one-up them.
As fantastic as five hours of battery life is, the IconX’s still can’t compare to the AirPods in two key ways: fast charging and charging case capacity.
If you’re short on time, a 15-minute charge within the case gets you three hours of listening time on the AirPods. A 10-minute charge in the IconX 2018’s only gets you a hour of listening time. That’s a huge gulf there.
Worse, the IconX’s charging case only holds about one extra charge good for another five hours. In comparison, the AirPods case is good for up to an additional 19 hours of battery life, which works out to just a little under four extra charges.
It’s already bad enough that I have to charge up my phone and smartwatch every night, so it would be nice to not have to charge up my wireless earbuds with them.
With AirPods, I can go a few days without needing to juice them back up if I’m running them down all day long (they last a week or longer if I’m only using them during my commutes).
But with Samsung’s wireless earbuds, charging them up nearly every night is virtually a must if you want to be sure they’ll last.
Consumer sound quality
If you made it this far, you’re probably wondering why sound-quality isn’t at the top of my critique list. And there’s a good answer for that: they sound average, just like the AirPods.
Okay, they sound a little better than AirPods with slightly deeper bass and mids and highs that are just barely clearer. But this is mainly because of the better sealing from the in-ear tips than dramatically better drivers.
That’s just the reality of true wireless earbuds that cost $200 or less. Most of them sound average, barely better than the cheap pack-in wired buds that come with some phones.
The IconX sound good for what they cost, so long as you don’t expect any audio fidelity that’ll blow you away.
On the plus side, there’s still an ambient sound mode (activated by pressing and holding on either earbud’s touchpad until you cycle through its menu), which lets you listen to music and still hear what’s happening around you.
It’s really useful for when you’re walking down the street and still want to hear oncoming traffic. It’s a little weird at first because when you speak it sounds like you’re in a small echo chamber, but I quickly got used to it.
AirPods are still king
As dorky as AirPods look (and they do look cheesy with the long stems), they’re more suitable for most people if only because they last so much longer with the included case.
Though they cost an extra $40, Samsung’s IconX 2018’s aren’t too shabby. They’ve got decent sound, fair battery life, and fit snug in the ears (they never fell out once). I feel AirPods connect with iPhones better and faster, but once you have the IconX 2018’s paired up to a Samsung phone, connecting is as simple as opening the Samsung Gear app.
There are a few things I prefer on the IconX 2018’s over the AirPods. I like that there are touchpad controls on both earbuds, and you can swipe up and down to control volume and tap to play and pause. Double-tapping and triple-tapping with two fingers to skip to the next and previous tracks, respectively, felt less intuitive. Why can’t I just swipe forwards or backwards?
And while the heart rate sensor’s been cut, there’s a new virtual trainer that’ll motivate you to pick up the pace when you’re running. I guess it’s a nice feature, but I would have preferred longer battery life instead.
There’s also another thing that annoys me: the case. It’s kind of big. The AirPods case is the size of a pack of dental floss. Samsung’s IconX 2018 case is more compact than the original’s and nowhere near as large as the case that comes with the Bose SoundSport Frees, but it’s large. If it’s going to be this big, it had better come with lots of charges, and unfortunately, it doesn’t.
If you’re deep within Samsung’s device ecosystem, then these might be perfect. After all, they’re designed to play better with Samsung phones and smartwatches.
They’re also fine for hitting the gym or for a quick run. But if you’re doing longer fitness rounds, I’d look into Beats’ PowerBeats 3 or BeatsX, which last up to 12 hours and 8 hours, respectively. These aren’t true wireless earuds (they’ve got a wire), but they’re more suitable for sweating all over. Plus, there’s absolutely no way they’ll fall out of your ears on a run.
Samsung Gear IconX 2018
Snug, comfy fit that doesn’t fall out • Convenient touchpad controls • Longer battery life than original
Large battery case • Battery case only holds about one charge
The Bottom Line
The Gear IconX 2018’s are better than the original, but not the longest-lasting true wireless earbuds.