Samsung announced its new Galaxy Buds true wireless earphones earlier this week, and they’re obviously designed for Samsung’s own Galaxy phones. (As a neat trick, you can even use the upcoming Galaxy S10 to charge the Galaxy Buds.) In design and price, though, Samsung is clearly attempting to make these little guys an attractive alternative to Apple’s AirPods—perhaps even for iPhone users.
So are they? We managed to get our hands on a pair of Galaxy Buds ahead of the March 7 release date, and I formed a few impressions of how well they work with an iPhone XS Max. In some cases, yes, they actually come out ahead. In others, they’re a reminder that the AirPods are a far greater value than we often give them credit for.
The Galaxy Buds cost $130 while Apple’s AirPods cost $160. There’s no contest here. If you merely want to save money, the Galaxy Buds are the clear winners. But that doesn’t mean they’re the best value.
The Galaxy Buds case is both thicker and longer than the AirPods case. It’s not a huge difference when you see them side by side on a table, but I definitely notice when I put the bigger Buds case in my pocket. The AirPods case has a definite advantage here.
The Galaxy Buds case has a few advantages of its own. The biggest is that you can charge it wirelessly with any Qi-certified charger, and a small outside light informs you that the case is charging. You have to look at your iPhone’s widgets to see the battery level of the AirPods case, although both have a light inside the case that reports whether the earpieces themselves are charged.
We’ll supposedly see a new AirPods case that supports wireless charging later this year, but for now it remains in the realm of rumor. A wirelessly charging case is a definite plus for the Galaxy Buds, and I like that you can charge them with a USB-C cable if you wish. The AirPods still require Lightning cables.
I admire the presentation of the Galaxy Buds in its case, but I find it’s a lot easier to get to the AirPods when I need them. Forgive the analogy, but removing an AirPod is as easy as pulling a cigarette from its box. I’m still struggling to get a good grip on the Galaxy Buds when I remove them from the case, which makes me worry that I’ll drop them if I’m trying to use them on a bumpy bus ride.
Overall, the Galaxy Buds case probably comes out on top here because of the wireless charging, but it’s a very close call.
Installation and pairing
There’s no contest here, at least if you plan on using the Galaxy Buds with an iPhone. Apple’s W1 chip makes it insanely easy to pair AirPods with your iPhone, and then it also pairs them with every other device tied to your Apple ID. You can go into your iPhone’s Bluetooth menu and customize them further.
With an iPhone, at least, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds pair like any other device. You’ll get easier pairing and more customization on Samsung phones with special apps, but with an iPhone you’re basically stuck using them as they come out of the box.
The Galaxy Buds feature a cool tap system that lets you play or pause music after tapping a bud once. You can also tap twice to skip to the next song or tap thrice to go back to the previous one. And yes, you can even hold down a Galaxy bud to talk to Siri (which I mainly use for making calls).
The problem is that, on an iPhone at least, you can’t customize these taps. You can at least customize the “hold down” action on a Samsung phone with a special app, but on an iPhone you’re largely stuck with what comes out of the box.
With AirPods, you can customize the double-tap actions through the iPhone’s Bluetooth menu, and I personally keep mine set to Siri on the left and playing/pausing on the right. Unlike the AirPods, unfortunately, the Galaxy Buds don’t briefly stop playing music if you take them out of your ears.
Those last two features make the AirPods the clear winners when using an iPhone, but this is one case in which the advantage largely comes from using the proper operating system. Just as AirPods don’t have all their nifty features on Android phones, we shouldn’t expect that the Galaxy Buds would shine to their full potential on an iPhone.
Samsung says the Galaxy Buds deliver around six hours of music streaming on a single charge, which initially looks like a big improvement over the five hours offered by the AirPods.
This isn’t as big of a deal as it sounds. One of the AirPods’ biggest advantages is that the case can deliver around 19 extra hours of power while the Galaxy Buds case only gives you seven. You can get three hours of use out of AirPods if you charge them in the case for a mere 15 minutes. To my knowledge, we haven’t heard a similar statement from Samsung.
For my purposes, the AirPods are the clear winners here. I wear my AirPods every day, but I mainly wear them on my bus and sidewalk commute and while walking through the city. I almost never have them on for six hours straight. And, of course, once I put them away, they immediately start charging again. I can usually go a couple of days without having to worry about charging the case.
The Galaxy Buds don’t sound awful, but the AirPods offer a substantially better auditory experience while listening to music. Regardless of whether I was listening to Metallica, Eminem, Bach, or the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, the music coming from the Galaxy Buds lacked bass and even sounded tinny on some tracks. Favorite details in specific tracks disappeared into the noise.
This remained true even when I choose different equalizer presets through Apple Music. So surprised was I by the quality, in fact, that I tried using the Galaxy Buds on a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and found the experience was much the same. You’ll have a much better experience with music that doesn’t have a lot of bass, but even so, it’s worth paying the extra $30 to get some AirPods if you care about good sound.
The AirPods also score an easy win with their microphones when making calls. They’re simply better. You don’t have to take my word for it in this case; you can hear the difference in our video above. The difference wasn’t as extreme when I used the Galaxy Buds and AirPods indoors, but it was massive outside.
Fit and comfort
I’m one of those people with ears that seem perfectly made for the AirPods. They won’t fall out even when I shake my head, and they hang so perfectly that I’ll often forget I’m wearing them with the music is off.
The Galaxy Buds, though, come with interchangeable rubber attachments for both the ear tips and the wingtips. You’ll almost certainly find an attachment that’s perfect for your ears, and that alone marks an improvement over the AirPods.
As a side benefit, the ear tips in particular allow for a good degree of passive noise cancelling because they essentially seal off your ears. The AirPods famously have nothing like that, although I personally prefer them that way, as I like being aware of cars and other hazards as I’m walking the sidewalks of San Francisco. If you typically wear your earbuds at home or at the gym, this isn’t as much of an issue.
Still, in terms of customizing a good fit and passive noise cancelling, the Galaxy Buds have a clear advantage.
At the moment, at least, the Galaxy Buds have the edge. You can get them in an Apple-friendly white, but you can also get them in black. There’s also a yellow option for some countries. On the bright (or dark?) side, we’re supposedly getting a black case with the updated AirPods later this year.
Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are a reminder of what a great job Apple did with the AirPods. These buds cost “only” $30 less than the AirPods, but Apple’s true wireless earbuds deliver much better speaker and audio quality on the iPhone, along with customizable taps, easy pairing, and a case that offers many hours of charging.
The Galaxy Buds have clear advantages in fit, passive noise cancellation, a wirelessly charging case, and price, but the limitations are such that I still feel safe in recommending that you skip these and pick up the AirPods with an iPhone instead.
Leif is a San Francisco-based tech journalist. He's a big fan of fantasy RPGs, and you can find his previous work on IGN, Rolling Stone, VICE, PC Gamer, Playboy, Mac|Life, TechRadar, and numerous other publications.