[Academic Tech] Samsung Galaxy Buds Live (vs Sony WF-1000xm3) review

When the Galaxy buds live were announced, I was excited that they might be all that I’m looking for in a pair of truly wireless earbuds (TWE); comfortable, modern, with active noise cancellation (ANC) and with good mics. The initial reviews seemed to corroborate this, with some caveats, so I ordered a pair to give them a try.

I wrote recently about the Sony WF-1000xm3 wireless earbuds. While I was enamoured with the sound quality and premium feel, the mics were a big let down. I was hoping the Galaxy buds Live would have similar sound quality, acceptable ANC, but much better mics than the Sony buds. With both sets of buds in front of me, this review will be heavy with the comparisons, hence the ‘vs’ in the title.

In the Box

Alongside the earbuds in their case is a USB-C cable, quickstart guide, and two extra rubber rings that can slightly adjust the fit of the earbuds.

Appearance/Build Quality

I got the ‘mystic bronze’ colour. It blends into my skin colour a bit better than the black or white buds – or it would if Samsung hadn’t gone for an exceptionally shiny, metallic finish. The metallic look doesn’t work for me – it makes them look like chromed plastic. They’re also fingerprint magnets.

However, these things are small. The case is less than half the size of the Sony case, yet packs more battery life.

Galaxy Buds Live in their case, next to the Sony WF-1000XM3

This obviously makes carrying them around in the pocket far more palatable (though possibly also increases the chance of me losing them!)

The buds themselves are also about half the size of the Sonys.

Buds out of their cases, you can see the massive size difference.

Rather than sitting suspended in the ear canal by a foam tip, the Buds Live rest in the outer ear.

This is very, very comfortable. It’s also surprisingly secure – I can run in the Samsung Buds Live, but if I try to do so with the Sonys, they fall out very easily. The biggest thing is weight distribution and bulk – With the Sony’s it feels like you’ve got something sticking out of your ear. I’ve caught the Sony’s multiple times on things (my hand, the cable for the lawnmower, etc), and you certainly can’t lay on your side with them in. The Galaxy Buds Live, however, are snug and almost weightless. You barely notice you’ve got them in, and laying on your side on a relatively soft pillow is entirely comfortable.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live sit in the outer ear, rather than poking into the ear canal like the Sony WF-1000xm3

It’s worth noting that the Buds Live didn’t fit so comfortably in my wife’s much smaller ears (but then she also has problems with the Sonys).

Unlike the in-ear buds, it doesn’t create a seal, so you can still hear things around you almost as clearly as if you didn’t have the buds in at all. Presumably that’s why they added ANC, but we’ll come to that later.

One downside to sitting in the ear, and having the entire shiny surface be touch controls, is that it’s really hard to adjust them without accidentally playing/pausing music, or invoking Bixby.

Sound Quality

If there’s one thing earbuds are for, it’s for listening to stuff. The sound quality is pretty good, but after sitting for several hours listening to music and swapping between Samsung and Sony buds, I’d say the Samsung’s simply aren’t as good. Mostly, I think that comes from being non-sealed buds, but whatever the cause, the sound isn’t as rich, it’s a little tinnier, and the apparent sound stage seems more constrained and flat than the Sonys.

It’s not bad, by any means. I’d even say it’s good. But if I’m paying >£150 for a pair of earbuds, I want it to sound amazing. My first thought when I first tried the Sony earbuds was ‘wow!’. My first thought when I heard the Samsung’s was ‘Oh. That’s a shame.’

We’ll come to customizing the sound when I talk about software, below.

I will mention here that there is significant noise leakage. My wife could easily hear the music I was listening to when she stood next to me.

Noise Cancellation

One of the selling points of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live is the Active Noise Cancellation. I have no idea why – It’s borderline non-existent. I have tried hanging out near the dishwasher, the washing machine, the road, and the ANC has failed to noticeably block out or even quieten anything. It might be that it’s great if you’re on a train or aeroplane, but I imagine all it does then is accentuate voices of people around you.

I knew going in that the ANC would be weaker than the Sony’s because the Galaxy Buds Live don’t make a seal, but it really is pointless here. I went back and read my Sony WF-1000xm3 review and realise now I found the ANC slightly dissapointing, but in light of the Samsung buds, I completely reverse that reassessment. It now feels like with the Sony’s I can activate noise-cancellation and block out almost everything between the seal and the ANC.

This is the biggest disappointment of the Galaxy Buds Live, far below my already moderate expectations for it.

Software

Pairing the buds with my Note 8 was straightforward – Open and close the case, then a window pops up on the phone. Click connect, and it downloads the Galaxy Wearable app, which is used to set settings and so on. Connecting to my Surface Go was similarly easy.

The app is nicely designed, as most of Samsung’s software is:

What I really like is that you can change just what the long press does, and individually for each earbud, this remains a sticking point with the Sony app. You’ve a standard single, double, triple tap for play/pause, skip, and previous, but then you can long press for ANC on/off, Bixby, Volume, or Spotify. Yes, you read and saw that right – you can only invoke Bixby, even if you have another assistant (Alexa, Google) set as default.

What I dislike is the limited ability to fine-tune the sound. Where the Sony app has a full equalizer and many pre-sets, the Buds Live only have six options; Normal, Bass Boost, Soft, Dynamic, Clear, and Treble Boost. To be honest, there really isn’t much different between them.

There’s an ‘ambient sound’ mode under ‘Labs’, but given how open the buds are to sound already, it’s pretty pointless.

Microphone

The biggest weakness of the Sony earbuds was the mic, which – much like the ANC on the Buds Live – is borderline useless.

It is much better on the Galaxy Buds Live:

Surface Go Mic, followed by the Galaxy Buds Live

Summary:

The compactness, and competence of the Buds Live is really impressive. It’s a completely novel design that is very comfortable and secure.

Build quality is good, and sound quality is good, but not amazing.

The mics are very strong, and would be great for zoom chats etc, or calls on the go.

The ANC is literally useless though, and sound leakage is on the embarrassing side, both results of the more open nature of the buds.

I’m in a quandary as to whether I keep the Galaxy Buds Live or the Sony WF-1000xm3. I’ll give it a few more days with both, but I’m currently leaning towards keeping the Sonys. I love the form factor and comfort of the Samsungs, and the mic is actually decent. However, the main thing I use earbuds for is listening to music and blocking out the outside world, and for that the Sonys are a clear winner.


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