Samsung Galaxy Buds+ Are Perfect Lockdown Tech

Why the AirPods are not for me

Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with headphones. I’m terrible at multitasking, so I love my giant Sennheiser over-ear headphones, which allow me to enclose myself in a distraction-free sonic bubble when I’m trying to get work done.

I’ve always hated the little white corded headphones that come with iPhones and Android handsets. They feel like some kind of weird, too-short leash binding me to my phone. In-ear Bluetooth headphones from the early 2000s always seemed too dorky-looking to actually use in daily life. As Kate Losse writes in her essay on the history of headphone design, the early ’00s were the era when “the khaki-wearing, office-park-inhabiting businessman was sporting his earpiece anti-fashion with pride.”

Starting in 2016, as electronics began to miniaturize and Bluetooth audio improved, Apple folks got their sleek, discreet AirPods. Around 2019, AirPods started popping up everywhere. For the Android set, though, there wasn’t really an equivalent. I had serious headphone envy.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+, a set of wireless in-ear headphones that pair natively with my Galaxy phone, have solid audio, and don’t look terrible. I got a pair earlier this year and quickly discovered that they’re not just great headphones—surprisingly, they’re also the perfect tech for weathering the Covid-19 lockdown.

Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+ cost $149.99 if you buy them directly from Samsung, but they are cheaper elsewhere. A slightly updated version called Galaxy Buds Live (which adds active noise-canceling technology and has a new design but is otherwise similar to the Buds+) sells for 169.99. The Galaxy Buds+ come with a nifty pill-shaped storage case that protects the buds and charges them with a built-in battery. I carry the case in my pocket, and it’s plenty strong enough to stop my keys from destroying my Buds.

The inside of your ear is a surprisingly intimate place to jam an electronic device, so if you’re not accustomed to in-ear headphones, they can take a little getting used to.

The Buds themselves have an 11-hour-rated battery life, though I find it’s a bit less in reality. Popping them into the charging case to juice them up adds another 11 hours. In my testing, which involved blasting Moana to drain the Buds’ battery before recharging them on a timer, they took about two hours to fully recharge. When the case’s battery is depleted, you can charge it using a USB connection, a Samsung Qi wireless charging pad, or the back of a compatible phone—a nifty trick that makes charging the Buds super convenient. I drop my case on a fast-charge pad at the end of the day; by morning, both the case and the Buds are fully charged and ready for the day.

In my experience, Android hardware does a dismal job of pairing with Android phones, so I was pleasantly surprised that my Buds paired with my Galaxy phone seamlessly using Samsung’s Galaxy Wearable app. I can’t vouch for how they do with non-Samsung handsets.

The Wearable app allows you to adjust the sound—I use the Bass Boost setting to add a bit of oomph, since in-ear headphones have tiny speakers and tend to sound tinny. It also lets you enable and disable features like Ambient Aware, a setting that lets a user-controllable amount of ambient sound into your headphones, so you’re not totally cut off from your surroundings and can better avoid things like walking into oncoming traffic.

The experience of wearing the Buds is reasonably comfortable. The inside of your ear is a surprisingly intimate place to jam an electronic device, so if you’re not accustomed to in-ear headphones, they can take a little getting used to. To ensure the Buds fit well and don’t fall out, Samsung includes swappable silicone earpieces of varying sizes.

Choosing the right size is crucial for comfort and optimal sound. To get the best sound, you need to achieve a good seal with the inside of your ear. I found I needed a slightly larger size than the stock earpieces that come attached to the Buds. But once I found my fit, I’ve never had an issue with the Buds falling out, even during exercise. Samsung’s app reminds you to clean the Buds routinely “to make sure you’re always getting full volume and rich, balanced sound.” It says nothing about doing this to “avoid the buildup of nasty earwax,” but I feel this is also important.

Once the Buds are in your ears, you can control them using a series of coded taps on a touch-sensitive pad on each Bud’s side. One tap plays and pauses music, a second answers calls or skips tracks, a third goes back to a previous track, and a long press triggers a “user-set function.” For my Buds, that feature appears to be “attempt to summon Bixby on my phone so it can show me so many disclaimers and terms-of-service popups that I give up and do something else.” I don’t use this function very much.

If you avoid long presses, though, the Buds work extremely well. I got them expecting to use them for occasionally listening to music while walking the dog. But I’ve found they go beyond that — turns out they’re the perfect gadget for making it through the drudgery and monotony of Covid-19 lockdowns and the challenges of remote work.

Firstly, like much larger over-ear headphones, you can use them to encase yourself in your own little bubble of sound whenever you want. Even if you’re not listening to anything, the Buds fill your ears like a pair of old-school earplugs, lowering the sound level on everything around you in a way that can be very pleasant and meditative. During Covid-19, silence and self-care are more important than ever.

Music is also one of the things that makes the monotony of lockdowns tolerable. The Buds make it easy to add more music to your day by complementing whatever you’re already doing. There’s something about pairing your actions with the Decemberists’ rousing ballad “Make You Better” or Elton John’s powerful, swelling “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” that makes those actions feel much more consequential — even if your most exciting action of the day is “washing dishes.” And everything, lockdowns included, goes better with Joni Mitchell’s Blue album — a fact that YouTube Music loves to hammer into me by playing it literally every time I enter my car or put in my Buds.

Does the bean-like design of the Galaxy Buds Live seem more appropriate for a cassoulet than an audio device? Absolutely.

Where the Buds really prove themselves as a gadget for our times, though, is on Zoom calls. If you’ve never taken an audio-only Zoom call while wandering hands-free around your house — unconstrained by proximity to your phone yet enjoying perfect audio — then you’ve never really lived. This was one of the most surprising benefits of the Buds for me. I knew they had a built-in microphone, but I didn’t know how good it would be — or how helpful in-ear headphones are for remote work.

The Buds actually have three different microphones: one on the inside of the device and two on the outside. This allows everyone on your Zoom call to hear your voice clearly, even when the Buds are perched inside your ears, several inches from your mouth. It also lets the Buds’ onboard software cancel out background noise, isolating what you’re saying from the ambient din around you.

The end result is that you can speak naturally and be heard on your Zoom call — wirelessly — even when there’s a bunch of other noisy stuff happening in your world. This has revolutionized how I do remote meetings. I’ve taken to accepting calls while walking around a reservoir near my house, strolling near a busy road, riding in the car (as a passenger), or holding my five-month-old.

I’m confident that my Buds will block out any background noise and I’ll sound fine (or, at least I’ll sound as bad as everyone else sounds on Zoom). Even when I’m in the office, it’s still super helpful to use the Buds to free up my hands for other things, like typing notes or running a PowerPoint. The Buds can apparently pair with a Bluetooth-enabled computer, too, though I haven’t tested this function.

Are the Buds as carefully honed and styled as Apple’s AirPods? No. Do they make me think of marijuana instead of productivity every time I hear their name? Yes. Does the bean-like design of the Galaxy Buds Live seem more appropriate for a cassoulet than an audio device? Absolutely.

But I’ve found the Galaxy Buds+ to be substantially more versatile than I originally expected. With the Buds, I was hoping to get some nice headphones for music and YouTube. Instead, I got a gadget that has genuinely changed the way I work — and made the reality of Covid-19 life just a bit more livable.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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