People can get very attached to the way certain earbuds fit into and feel in their ears. When design changes do inevitably happen, manufacturers often tell us journalists how much consideration went into the smallest of tweaks — and they love to discuss how much data (and how many ear scans) informed those decisions. But you know what? There will always be a subset of customers who preferred the old way instead. And this is where Samsung’s new noise-canceling Galaxy Buds FE come in.
Priced at only $99.99, they’re now the company’s entry-level earbuds. The lower price naturally means you’re getting a smaller set of features compared to the flagship Galaxy Buds 2 Pro. Trading frills for a good baseline value is what the Samsung FE product family is all about. But the most intriguing thing about these buds is their design: unlike Samsung’s more recent rounded efforts, the Galaxy Buds FE are a spiritual successor to the Galaxy Buds Plus and come with silicone “wings” that help them stay firmly planted in place. Their flattened touchpad area is also easier to press and makes controlling them more foolproof.
Let’s get the omissions out of the way, the Buds FE go without Samsung’s 360 Audio (read: spatial audio) features, there’s no conversation mode, and they lack more advanced gesture controls like the ability to tap your cheek near the earbuds instead of actually thumping the buds themselves. I suspect what’s most important to potential buyers is that they don’t include wireless charging. That’s outside the norm for Samsung earbuds — the aforementioned Buds Plus offered Qi charging back in 2020 — and the clearest sign of cost cutting that went into the FE. Another is their ruggedness: these buds are rated just IPX2 for water resistance compared to the status quo IPX4 (or the IPX7 of the Buds 2 Pro).
But Samsung still preserves the essentials like active noise cancellation and a transparency mode for ambient sound passthrough. The former is quite good considering what the Buds FE cost, but the transparency mode is a step down from the Buds 2 Pro and sounds more artificial. Turns out you need to spend more than $100 if you want the outside world to sound convincingly natural. Samsung also throws in game mode (for reduced latency) and auto-switching between Galaxy devices, so all isn’t lost on the software front. Sadly, they don’t include true multipoint Bluetooth, and I don’t view fast-switching within Samsung’s own ecosystem as a great substitute. With the company’s SmartThings app, you can locate the buds and get notifications if you leave them behind somewhere.
But what’s with the setup process here? I continue to be dumbfounded by Samsung’s approach to setting up earbuds through its Galaxy Wearable app. The first step is downloading that app, which makes sense. Every earbud manufacturer has its own companion software these days. But then, you’ve got to download an add-on that specifically enables support for the Galaxy Buds FE. Why is this a multistep process? Shouldn’t everything just be built into the Wearable app? I can’t think of any other company that does things this way in 2023. What’s even stranger is that it works the same way on Samsung phones, where you’d expect there to be more native integration.
The entry-tier Buds FE only come in black or white; there’s no flashy purple color here. Three sizes of ear tips and two pairs of wing tips come in the box; you’ll want to try both sizes of the latter to see if the fins prove beneficial for a more stable fit. The glossy white carrying case is so close in shape and size to that of the Galaxy Buds 2 Pro, Buds 2, and Buds Live that accessories for those cases will likely be compatible with this one.
Sound quality is improved compared to the older Galaxy Buds Plus but not quite on par with the Buds 2 Pro. The Buds FE follow Samsung’s standard tuning curve, which most listeners will find perfectly enjoyable. Treble feels a little recessed on these out of the box compared to the Pro buds, but this also helps avoid unpleasant sibilance. And you can always customize the audio with several EQ presets in the Galaxy Wearable app. The Buds FE don’t include head-tracking spatial audio; that’s reserved for Samsung’s pricier earbuds, but I can honestly take or leave the feature at this point; it feels gimmicky much more often than not. Overall, the Buds 2 Pro provide richer fidelity and wider instrument separation, but the Buds FE are no slouch — especially for $100. Voice call performance was satisfactory over a few phone chats and Google Meet sessions, and you can configure the buds so it’s easier to hear yourself during calls.
Battery life is another strength, with the Buds FE advertised for up to six hours of listening time with ANC on and 8.5 hours with it off. (The case brings these totals to 21 hours and 30 hours, respectively.) My real-world experience was a bit shorter than Samsung’s estimates, but I still clocked over five hours of continuous playback with the earbuds on several occasions. They never left me wanting for more, which is all I really ask of earbud endurance.
With the Galaxy Buds FE, Samsung is filling out its earbuds lineup with a much-needed entry-level model. If you’re still carrying around a pair of the Buds Plus with battery life that isn’t what it used to be, these are a very sensible upgrade. I’d still opt for the Buds 2 Pro for the broader set of features and higher fidelity sound — and the fins on these earbuds don’t offer much benefit in my case.
But for a lot of people, a comfortable fit ranks above all else. And if Samsung’s past-gen earbuds were a better match for your ears than the current crop, the Galaxy Buds FE will be a welcome return to that older design. There doesn’t always need to be some flashy new feature. These are already a good, dependable bargain at $99.99, and should they come down further over the holidays, they’ll be a no-brainer for Android users who want a solid pair of buds without breaking the bank.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge