clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro review: the right balance

They don’t win at any one thing, but they strike a great mix in terms of sound quality, ANC, and comfort

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Let’s just get to it: Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Pro are the best true wireless earbuds that the company has made yet. For their $200 asking price, you get a comfortable fit, effective active noise cancellation, and good, punchy sound quality. These earbuds improve on Samsung’s prior efforts with clever features like a speech detection mode that automatically lowers your music and lets you hear the outside world as soon as you start talking.

But they also inch Samsung closer to a siloed-off world, not unlike Apple, where the best experience is reserved for people who stick to Samsung-branded devices. A few features like 3D audio and automatic device switching — sound familiar? — only work if you’re using these earbuds with a Samsung phone or tablet. Most people aren’t going to be cross-shopping the Galaxy Buds Pro and AirPods Pro since they’re designed for different mobile operating systems, but Samsung has never leaned into its own ecosystem with earbuds quite like this. Thankfully, there’s enough good for everyone else that the Galaxy Buds Pro still come out a success.

The Buds Pro are an amalgam of the Galaxy Buds Plus — they have an in-ear design with silicone tips — and the open-air Galaxy Buds Live, from which they borrow some style cues. The outer casing is a tasteful mix of glossy and matte finishes and has been redesigned to protrude less from your ear. Samsung says this revamped shell also “reduces the contact area between your ear and the bud, improving comfort and minimizing any clogged-up feeling.”

The wing tips from the Galaxy Buds Plus are gone; Samsung got the message that some customers experienced discomfort from those over time. Instead, you get the usual three sizes of silicone ear tips, which are a bit shorter than before to help with the low-profile design. Samsung tells me it has considered including foam tips but has so far held off. You’ll also notice a section of mesh on the outside. This covers one of the three built-in microphones and is there to act as a wind shield for voice calls. (More on that later.)

I really like how these earbuds fit. They feel stable and twist into place for a good seal in my ear canal, without making my ears feel too plugged up. The air vent and reduced contact area really do seem to make a difference there, and I appreciate that the Buds Pro don’t noticeably jut out from my ears like some competitors. If I have one critique, it’s an old one: more than a few times, I accidentally activated the touch-sensitive controls when trying to adjust the fit of an earbud. Such is life with tap gestures, I suppose. The controls can be turned off if this proves a problem for you.

According to Samsung, the Galaxy Buds Plus are rated IPX7 for water and sweat resistance, which means they can survive a half-hour swim in fresh water — so even your sweatiest runs and workouts shouldn’t present any problem. That’s the highest rating among any of Samsung’s earbuds and beats out the AirPods Pro, Jabra Elite 85t, and Bose Sport Earbuds, which are all IPX4. Either earbud can be used independently with mono audio if you prefer that option for voice calls or biking.

The wonderfully pocketable Buds Pro charging case is so close in size and shape to the Buds Live case that accessories for the latter will fit the former, and it still charges over both USB-C and Qi wireless charging. But endurance is one area where these earbuds settle for very average numbers. Samsung promises up to five hours of playback with ANC enabled (or eight with it off). Case top-offs put you at 18 hours of total battery life or 28 without noise cancellation. That’s basically on par with the rest of the field, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the 11 hours of continuous audio that the Galaxy Buds Plus are capable of. Alas, it turns out the Buds Pro have a smaller battery capacity (61mAh for each bud versus 85mAh) on top of their more power-hungry ANC feature.

The Galaxy Buds Pro have two-way speakers in each earbud: there’s an 11-millimeter woofer and 6.5mm tweeter. Those are larger than what was in the Buds Plus, though smaller than the single 12mm driver from the Buds Live; in that instance, Samsung was most focused on getting satisfactory bass out of an open-style earbud. Here, it’s aiming for “the most comprehensive sound in the Galaxy Buds line yet.” I can’t speak to what “comprehensive” is supposed to mean, but the Buds Pro are enjoyable to listen to, with a good bass thump, crisp treble, and a pleasant soundstage / imaging.

A lot of earbuds can make it feel like everything is happening in the middle of your head, but these do a solid job keeping instrumentation and vocals distinct. Sturgill Simpson’s “Oh Sarah” and Troye Sivan’s “Easy” (with Kacey Musgraves and Mark Ronson) make for nice showcases — in very different genres — of how layered the Buds Pro can get.

Bass heads might want to go for the “bass boost” EQ setting, and the tweeters can occasionally give off a little too much brightness and sibilance for some tracks like Jason Isbell’s “Be Afraid,” but for the most part I was very pleased with the sound signature. I don’t think Samsung hits the same fidelity as something like Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2, but those are nearly $100 more expensive. I’d be perfectly content with the Buds Pro as my daily earbuds.

The Galaxy Buds Pro blend design aspects of the Galaxy Buds Plus and Galaxy Buds Live.

The active noise cancellation on the Galaxy Buds Pro is much better than the Galaxy Buds Live, where it seems to barely do anything since there’s so much outside noise to contend with. Samsung claims that the Buds Pro can cut down on “up to 99 percent” of noise “at 118.43Hz,” which is wildly specific and won’t mean much to most people. In my experience, Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds, Sony’s WF-1000XM3 earbuds, and the AirPods Pro all outperform Samsung at quieting the world around you, but Samsung does a perfectly adequate job at muffling street noise and household distractions. You can choose between high and low levels of noise cancellation in case you’re sensitive to the effect.

Samsung’s latest transparency / ambient mode still doesn’t sound as natural as what Apple and Bose have achieved, but it’s a definite improvement over the very digitized version from the Galaxy Buds Plus. And the fantastic “voice detect” feature, which automatically lowers audio volume and switches from ANC to ambient mode when you start talking, is one of the best things about the Galaxy Buds Pro. Sony did something similar on its 1000XM4 headphones, but I haven’t seen this convenient trick in many earbuds, and now I wish all of them at least had the option.

Samsung uses a “voice pickup unit” — basically an accelerometer that senses jaw movement — to know that it’s you talking and not someone nearby. After a few seconds of no more talking, ANC returns and your music gets turned back up. Voice detect works as expected, but if you’ve got a tendency to talk to yourself or sing to your music, you might want to keep it disabled and assign ambient sound to a long press of one of the earbuds. Controls work the same way as other Samsung buds, with a single tap to pause / play, double to skip to the next song, triple to go back, and a customizable long press that can be used for volume, voice assistants, or ambient mode.

For voice calls, Samsung has a three-mic system and uses beamforming to isolate your voice from your environment. The lower profile of the Buds Pro helps combat wind noise, and the mesh-covered chamber does a good job filtering out any gusts if you’re talking with someone outside. Clarity is also good, as you should be able to hear in Becca’s video review above. Speaking of voice, the Galaxy Buds Pro still have hands-free “Hey Bixby” capabilities.

Pro as in… AirPods Pro?

There’s no denying that a few features of the Galaxy Buds Pro are heavily influenced by Apple’s AirPods Pro. The first of these is 3D audio, which is Samsung’s take on the immersive spatial audio capabilities of the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Load up a movie with Dolby surround, and the Buds Pro will attempt to cram a surround sound listening experience into a pair of earbuds.

Samsung says that 360 audio uses Dolby head tracking technology, which “enables you to stay at the center of the scene when you’re watching a movie or TV show.” In concept, this sounds similar to Apple’s approach, which uses sensors like accelerometers and gyroscopes in the earbuds and your iPhone or iPad to keep the sound source anchored to your device — even when you turn your head side to side.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how convincing Samsung’s 3D audio is or whether it compares favorably to spatial audio because it requires OneUI 3.1, which for now is only available on the new Galaxy S21 lineup. The $1,300 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra that Samsung sent for this review doesn’t have that update yet.

The second AirPods feature that Samsung has tried to directly counter is automatic switching. Apple’s earbuds can hop between an iPhone, iPad, or Mac depending on which one you’re using in that moment without you having to manually make the change. Samsung says it has now pulled off the same trick, so the Buds Pro should automatically switch between your Galaxy smartphone and tablet. Unfortunately, the laptop gets left out of Samsung’s equation completely, which makes the feature somewhat less helpful. I wish that more earbuds would just give us proper multipoint Bluetooth pairing to two devices at once; Jabra continues to be the standout there. Automatic switching feels like a makeshift solution until Samsung can get to multipoint.

Both of these capabilities require you to be fairly entrenched in Samsung’s ecosystem. 3D audio only works on Samsung hardware, so if your Android phone is from a different brand, you lose out on it altogether. Same goes for auto-switching. If neither feature is important to you, that might not matter, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Also worth mentioning is that Samsung isn’t extending the same level of iOS support it has maintained for the Buds Plus and Buds Live: the existing iOS app doesn’t work with the Buds Pro, so you can’t use features like voice detect on iPhone. I’m not sure what the reasoning is there, but maybe Samsung’s internal data shows that not many people are pairing its earbuds to Apple devices. You can still pair them and use noise canceling and ambient modes — much like the way AirPods Pro function on Android.

The Galaxy Buds Pro face stiff competition everywhere you look, and you can find superior ANC and sound quality elsewhere. But with these latest earbuds, Samsung has blended much of what worked best about the Buds Plus and Buds Live. Battery life is merely average, but that’s the only real gripe I’ve got. They don’t necessarily win at any one category, but the Galaxy Buds Pro strike an excellent all-around balance. And you can clearly see Samsung trying to recreate some of the ecosystem “magic” that AirPods owners are now used to.

The Buds Pro feel great in your ears, sound better than any Samsung earbuds to date, and have convenient tricks to complement their decent noise cancellation. There’s still a place for the Galaxy Buds Plus if all you want are wireless earbuds with a battery that just goes and goes, and the Buds Live remain the better pick if you need environmental awareness at all times. But if you’re nabbing the Buds Pro as a preorder bonus for a new Galaxy S21, you should be more than satisfied.

Reviews

Levels Health review: optimize your fitness with a $400 glucose tracker

Apple

The best streaming device to buy right now

Apple

The best phone to buy right now

View all stories in Reviews