Bluetooth earbuds have a single job: to deliver audio wirelessly from somewhere else. We muse about the quality of that audio and the battery life of the various products delivering that audio to help determine which is "best" for everyone. Sometimes we find models with nice things like touch controls or the ability to connect with Google Now, but the core feature of your average Bluetooth headset is to deliver audio wirelessly.
Samsung upended that idea with the Gear IconX earbuds, because looking at these as simply Bluetooth earbuds kind of misses the point. They work as fitness trackers, a MP3 players, audio filters, and while delivering audio wirelessly from somewhere else. Packing all of that into something that all but disappears into your ear is no small task, and like all first generation products some sacrifices are made along the way.
An absurd but useful set up process
The small pill-shaped container that slides out of the IconX box is everything you need to get started. The microUSB port on the back of the case and three small LED lights — one for each earbud and one for the case itself — tell you everything you need to know about the status of your earbuds. This little battery case slides into your pocket or your bag until it's time to slide the separate earbuds into your ears. A handful of pin connectors on the earbuds themselves rest on charging contacts, keeping each of the two buds charged while the lid is closed.
You need a PC to update these headphones, something you should never see in 2016.
Once the earbuds are removed from the casing, the infrared sensor on the body waits until skin is detected, and a quiet tone confirms to the user that these earbuds are ready to use. These are small earbuds with a simple set of instructions — push and twist. The small, flexible fin squishes the earbuds into place as you twist, and no amount of shaking your head or jogging will dislodge them. The earbuds just barely escape the ear profile, making them just difficult enough to see that you look extra crazy when talking on the phone in public.
Any other Bluetooth earbuds would be ready for pairing at this point. But Samsung instructs users to install the Gear Manager app and adjust settings accordingly. This is both tedious and incredibly important. It's tedious because Samsung will immediately prompt you to install software updates on the Gear IconX by connecting the battery case to a computer and installing a separate app, something no Bluetooth anything should ever do in 2016. Once you get over that hurdle, though, you're able to designate a "primary" earbud and access settings for things like having notifications read to you and workout guidance when in fitness mode.
There are no buttons on these earbuds, which is perhaps the most impressive part of the execution.
Setting a primary earbud is only important if you're ever planning to use your IconX as a Bluetooth headset, because that becomes the earbud used for calls. You can switch back and forth at will, and if you drain the battery on one you can easily switch to the other, but it's an important setting to be aware of when using them. This primary earbud connects to the phone, while the other connects directly to the other earbud. If there's a delay in audio created by connecting earbuds this way, I certainly couldn't hear it. Never once in the two weeks of testing these earbuds did the audio ever fall out of sync.
There are no buttons on these earbuds, which is perhaps the most impressive part of the execution. The outer shell is a touch surface, which allows you to control audio by swiping up and down, skip tracks by swiping left and right, and pause by tapping anywhere. If you want to access settings from inside this interface, you press your finger to the pad and listen as options are read off to you. When you get to the option you want, remove your finger and the option will be activated. It works very well given how small the touch area is on these earbuds, unless of course your hair gets stuck in between you and the touch pad.
The same sensor that detects when you've inserted the earbuds into your ear acts as a fitness tracker that plays nice with Samsung's S Health app. With the earbuds connected you get a constant stream of heart rate data during workouts, and the earbuds work with the app to keep you informed of your progress. When you tell S Health you're going to go a certain distance, you get notifications when you reach the half way point, and weird robotic encouragement messages when you get close to the virtual finish line. This kind of extra data is fantastic if you're actively using S Health, but it's limited to only chatting with that app right now.
Basically, these earbuds are great if you're only using them for a commute or if you're hitting the gym before or after work.
On top of logging fitness data, you can store up to 4GB of music in the earbuds themselves and go running without bringing your phone along. You load music by connecting the battery case to a PC with the Gear Manager app or directly to your phone with an adapter cable. This is a little outdated and tedious, but the end result is an MP3 player baked in to your earbuds, which is quite useful. The same touch controls exist in this standalone playback mode, which works great even when you're running. You lose access to the cheery robot messages and the GPS data that comes from having your phone in your pocket, but it's a nice option if you'd prefer to avoid strapping something as big as an S7 Edge to your arm for a run.
If you're the type to run to a specific location, maybe for a bottle of water or a snack break, the Gear IconX offers another fantastic feature to help you out. Press and hold on the earbuds to activate audio pass through mode, and the microphones on the earbuds will let you hear the world around you. This works really well, especially if you're going to be speaking to other people. It means you don't have to remove the earbuds, and can quickly get back to the task at hand. It'd be nice if every Bluetooth headset could offer this, but since it requires decent stereo microphones in order to do it well it's not surprising that so many don't.
Mediocre music for minutes
It's a good thing these earbuds do so much more than play music, because they don't do that particularly well. Even compared to other Samsung Bluetooth earbuds, which admittedly all include cables and batteries in conveniently stashed places that don't exist on the Gear Icon X, the experience is lacking. There's no bass to these earbuds at all, and the highs couldn't get much more tinny if they were $10 at Radio Shack. It could be argued that no Bluetooth headphones produce "great" audio, but this experience is especially lacking.
If you're looking for earbuds that will get you through an entire day of music listening, these are not what you want.
Unfortunately, the same can be said for battery life. If you manage three hours of constant audio streaming with your Gear Icon X, consider yourself fortunate. The average is around 2.5 hours on a single charge, after which you'll need to put the earbuds back into the battery case to charge. The case itself is good for at least one full charge, but it's going to take nearly an hour, and you can't use the earbuds at all during this process. Once you reconnect the earbuds you're good for another couple of hours, but if you find yourself needing a second charge there's a good chance you'll come back to one one earbud being mostly charged.
Basically, these earbuds are great if you're only using them for a commute or if you're hitting the gym before or after work. If you're looking for earbuds that will get you through an entire day of music listening, these are just not what you want.
Should you buy this? Probably not
Samsung has crammed a ton of great ideas into a very small space. These earbuds easily outpace all of the other earbuds out there when it comes to features, especially when it comes to acting as a fitness accessory. If you're looking for earbuds that help you when you work out, these might be for you.
If you're looking for the traditional Bluetooth earbud for listening to music all day, this isn't for you. There are other, cheaper options with better audio that aren't limited to Samsung's hardware. But a second generation IconX that addresses some of these issues is something you should absolutely keep your eye out for.
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