Samsung doesn’t like to be left out, and given how opportunistic the company has been in recent years, its foray into wireless audio is hardly a surprise. The Gear IconX is the latest attempt at entering a category that still has plenty of room to grow.
Wireless earbuds already do exist, where a cord bonds the two earpieces, yet connects to the playback device via Bluetooth. The truly cord-free, like the Gear IconX, are smaller in number. Crowdfunded models like the Earin and Bragi Dash have made things interesting, and Samsung’s model only serves to raise awareness for all involved.
The Gear IconX is designed for simplicity, yet packed with features that are supposed to go beyond the music. A number of sensors are built-in for fitness tracking, including a heart rate monitor, making this a pair of earbuds that tell a health story as much as they output audio. It’s a pretty full package, except the sum of those parts doesn’t always feel complete because of the short lifespan.
Credit to Samsung, this is a nice looking product. The carrying case that doubles as a charger is refined and elegant, almost like something a woman would unearth from her purse. Two indicator LEDs in the front show the charging level for both earbuds, while another in the back does the same for the case itself when plugged in through the microUSB port in the back.
The earbuds themselves are tastefully designed and smartly built to take away some manual control. For example, taking them out of the case turns them on, and when I did it the first time, they were already in pairing mode. If I took them off for 10 seconds, they would shut off. All of that is clearly indicated by audio prompts. Given the inherent battery life challenges here, anything to save some juice is welcome.
To cater to different ear types, three sizes of buds and wingtips are included in the box. The fit is comfortable and stable, even during movement, ensuring that one doesn’t fall out inadvertently.
The outer surface for each bud is touch-sensitive. Touch-to-hold can initiate tracking a workout. Swiping up or down controls volume. A simple tap plays or pauses. Double-tapping skips a track. Triple-tapping goes back a track.
The free Gear app for Android is the easiest way to manage the Gear IconX. Here, I chose the right ear for phone calls and recording exercise data. I could choose which notifications would get through or block them altogether. If I wanted ambient sound to come through in order to hear my surroundings, I could turn that on as well, though as I’ll explain later, there isn’t much need for that mode.
Since Samsung squeezed in 4GB of internal storage into this (3.5GB actually being free), it means music can be stored and played without the need to carry a phone around. There was no visual cue for me to select what to play, so the only real use case was to start a playlist and let it go from there, skipping a track or two along the way.
Naturally, something this small is going to have its limitations. Booming bass? The Gear IconX doesn’t have it. Indeed, it is weak in the low-end of the audio spectrum, yet still clear and resonant. For a good run or workout, the audio quality should suffice. I would only caution that hip hop and electronica fans probably won’t like how tilted the spectrum sounds.
The other issue is volume, or lack thereof. The app always defaults the IconX to a certain volume every time it has shut off, never remembering where it was before. This even happened when taking a phone call, forcing me to raise the volume each time. The swiping method in doing so isn’t as intuitive as it could be, either. The device paused the music half the time.
Even so, the volume is too low to start with anyway. I’m not hard of hearing, and I had to push the IconX to max on the app, along with the paired Galaxy S7 edge to about 75 percent. I got verbal warnings about it, but was left with little choice. The ambient sound option is a nice way to stay safe and listen to background noise while running or working out, but simply lowering the volume achieved the same thing — and improved battery life to boot.
The battery is the shadow that looms over the product. Samsung has it rated at three hours on standby and 90 minutes for music playback. At the volume levels I was consistently at, it barely broke past an hour. That’s probably not going to be good enough for most gym workouts. With only 47mAh of battery to work with (the case is 315mAh), it’s hardly surprising, though no less disappointing.
Talking on the phone saps it just the same. While incredibly convenient to go hands-free anywhere from outdoors, in the car or even at home, drawn-out conversations will inevitably be interrupted with low battery warnings.
Fitness and health
The lack of battery life does impact the health and fitness aspect, too. There is no GPS or pedometer on the unit, so the accelerometer steps in to collect the kinetic data. I found it reasonably accurate and appreciated the verbal updates that came through. The heart rate monitor was also consistently good.
The one problem was that I could initiate a workout without specifying what kind of exercise it was. If it was the bike, an elliptical or out for a run, the Gear IconX didn’t know the difference, and I couldn’t do anything through the app, either. Hence, these earbuds are good for tracking the basics but are far off from an alternative to a more well-rounded fitness tracker.
Plus, the battery anxiety has a psychological effect on any exercise. If they weren’t fully charged, I was hesitant to take them to the gym for fear I would hear silence after a short while.
While Samsung allows for these to work with other Android devices, there is no iPhone compatibility. Couple that with the weak battery, and the Gear IconX doesn’t seem so easy to adopt.
The price also has a role in that. At $279.99, these don’t come cheap, and it’s hard to justify the cost when the a pair of wireless earbuds (with a cord attaching them) and fitness tracker could be had together for that much. Samsung managed to engineer something clever and creative here, but the next version of the Gear IconX will likely offer better battery life whenever the company brings it to market.