Say what you will about the truly wireless future — with its wireless charging pads and its smartphones without headphone jacks — but the simple fact of the matter is that we still very much live in a wired world.
Still, as Samsung’s diligent sophomore efforts with the Gear IconX wireless earbuds show, steady progress towards that wireless future isn’t completely out of the question. The 2017 Gear IconX earbuds are relatively comfortable, they sound great and, most importantly, they maintain a steady, stable Bluetooth connection — so long as they’re paired to a compatible Samsung device.
Samsung devices address the issue of Bluetooth annoyance
It might not seem entirely fair to compare a Samsung accessory to its Apple equivalent, but it’s important to address the long shadow cast by the Cupertino computing giant’s wireless AirPods. Yes, AirPods might not provide the highest sound quality in comparison to products in its price category, but Apple’s wireless headphone offerings provide users with a distinct feature: instant connectivity.
While AirPods connect to compatible iPhones via Bluetooth, the connection itself is made almost instantaneous thanks to the presence of the onboard W1 chip. This processor handles most of the Bluetooth legwork, and as soon as you pop open an AirPods charging case, a nearby iPhone knows to prompt a connection.
Sadly, while low-energy Bluetooth connections continue to be researched, developed and implemented, Samsung chose not to include a similar feature with the 2017 IconXs. That lack of instantaneous connection means that wireless Android-centric headphones still lack the fundamental argument necessary to convince users that truly wireless audio is a possibility — and that headphone jacks aren’t essential ports on modern smartphones. That being said, it is a little easier to pair the IconXs to a compatible Samsung phone than it is to pair regular Bluetooth headphones to non-Samsung smartphones. However, users will need to jump through some hoops first.To begin with, users need to make sure they’ve got the latest version of the Samsung Gear app on their phones. After following the step-by-step instructions carefully outlined on the Gear app, the earbuds will then automatically pair to the Samsung device once removed from the charging case.
Once paired, the Gear app can be used to set up workouts, review health data, as well as transfer music to and from the IconX earbuds — a process that can also be accomplished by connecting the IconX charging case to a Samsung device via USB cable.
Thankfully, non-Samsung device owners can connect the IconX earbuds to their Android devices as well. Be warned, however: while the connection isn’t any more difficult to establish than with regular Bluetooth headphones, the connection between the IconXs and non-Samsung Android devices is often choppy. I found that turning my head to the right would cause the earbuds to struggle to maintain a connection — which was an incredibly strange issue that I’ve never encountered before.
A wireless product that delivers almost a full day’s use
Owing to the fact that the Gear IconX earbuds are Bluetooth earbuds and that they’re the earbuds I use to listen to podcasts and music throughout the course of a single workday, I was rather impressed by how long the earbuds were able to last on a single charge.
The IconXs were able to survive for a full day, starting at 7:43 a.m. as I boarded my commuter train to work; surviving through a full day at the office — connected to a laptop, I might add; culminating in a 7 p.m. return home. Granted, Bixby’s voice often told me that each earbud only had about 10 percent of battery capacity left by the time I’d get home, but the 340mAh charging case was able to compensate by providing a complete charge with confidence.
Feature-wise, it should go without saying that the IconXs are designed to be used within Samsung’s ecosystem of products. All of which is to say that the earbuds work best when connected to a Samsung smartphone. Once connected the IconXs can with the Samsung Health app to act as a step counter, as well as a heart rate monitor. The earbuds can even act as a simple fitness trainer, with a voice coach providing users with a collection of simple running and exercise regimens.
Additionally, the IconXs can be used alongside whichever digital assistant acts as the default on your Samsung device. Simply long-press the side of the earbuds and an audio prompt will let you know that the assistant is listening. This feature worked quite well with both Bixby and Google Assistant, but because the IconXs are designed to be used with a Samsung phone, the assistant feature is not available when the earbuds are paired to regular Android devices.
However, with all due respect to Samsung — and modern smartphones for that matter — perhaps the most interesting feature was the fact that the Gear IconX earbuds are capable of acting as a wireless audio player. The earbuds come with 4GB of onboard memory, and songs can be synced using both regular desktops as well as smartphones. Once users load tracks onto the earbuds, the IconXs function similarly to Apple’s iPod Shuffle device.
Users can tap to play, pause, skip ahead, skip back, and even switch playlists — and it all works rather seamlessly. Having adopted my smartphone as my primary portable music device, I’d forgotten how freeing it was to listen to music on a standalone device. Additionally, the pillbox-shaped charging case barely took up room in my pocket, much like the iPods I used to cling to before converting to my modern smartphone set-up.
Acceptable sound, but nothing that will especially stimulate your senses
In a word, the 2017 Gear IconX earbuds produce passable sound. Bass is neither overbearing nor underpowered, while treble tones are neither especially exciting nor particularly unpleasant. In short, the earbuds get the job done.
However, the IconXs are unable to handle one very specific genre of music. Classical music — as well as any music that relies heavily on string ensembles working in conjunction with woodwind and brass notes — just sounds plain bad. And I do mean bad. I first noticed the inadequacy while listening to Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” on YouTube, which was surprising, because YouTube downsamples audio so that it doesn’t drain mobile data.
As a result of this reduced data strain, YouTube audio sounds fine with almost any pair of headphones or earbuds. However, the Gear IconXs aren’t just any pair of earbuds. They cost $299.99 CAD, so it’s not unreasonable should be able to any music — regardless of platform. When I listened to the “Baba Yetu” track that I later downloaded from my Google Play Music app, the classical music problem became even more noticeable.
The song’s early notes played without any issue, but when the track moved to crescendo — when the music built up to a triumphant combination of vocals, strings and brass — the whole ensemble sounded muddy and diluted. At one point, the earbuds even produced a messy static sound.
The ‘Baba Yetu’ fiasco is especially disappointing because I genuinely enjoyed listening to music with the IconXs. Other tracks, like The Classic Crime’s ‘Happy Nihilist,’ Fall Out Boy’s ‘Save Rock and Roll,’ and the original Broadway cast recording of ‘Alexander Hamilton’ sounded great and sometimes even sounded incredible.
Made for some, but not all
Excluding my disappointment when I realized I couldn’t jam out to Christopher Tin, Philip Glass or any of the symphony orchestras -- Toronto, London, Boston, New York Philharmonic or otherwise -- I must be blunt by stating that I rather enjoyed the 2017 Gear IconX earbuds.
They fit comfortably and securely; they pair exceptionally well with a Samsung Galaxy S8 or Note 8 device; they pair reasonably well with non-Samsung Android smartphone; and they also allowed me to indulge in a welcome moment of nostalgia when I used them as independent music players.
They might not compare as favourably as Apple's AirPods, but that's not an entirely equivalent comparison in the first place. After all, I don't recommend pairing the AirPods to any Android smartphone -- it's a waste of both the AirPods and the Android platform.
I digress. At $299.99 CAD, buyers should know that these Samsung headphones, much like all so-called “Truly wireless headphones,” are very much a work-in-progress. The 2017 model is better than the 2016 model, and I have no doubt that the 2018 model will be even better still.
For now, however, those who can afford these headphones will be treated to a glimpse of what will no doubt be a curiously disconnected future. For those who can't, there are other, cheaper options that work just as well and sound even better.
"They might not compare as favourably as Apple's AirPods, but that's not an entirely equivalent comparison in the first place"