This is the year of the truly wireless earbuds — we’ve had Bluetooth in-ear headphones for a while, but never anything that cut even the cord between the two earpieces. We’ve seen these from Jabra, Earin, Apple, and a few others so far, but one of the first to hit the market was the Samsung Gear IconX, which rolled out internationally over July and August. Like Jabra, Samsung’s earbuds are made for exercise, combining secure fit with a step counter and an optical heart rate tracker. And, like other wireless earbuds, they come with a wireless charging case that can provide a few full charges before it needs to be recharged, too. We’ve had a chance to try them out over a few weeks, and while there are some positives — particularly fit — they’re overall an indication that not just the IconX, but the entire product category is still at least a year or two away from viability.
It’s odd to do an audio review where sound quality isn’t the primary concern, but as we’ll get to later, that’s a problem with everyone’s completely wireless earbuds, not just the IconX. The sound quality isn’t bad, all things considered. There’s a bit of distortion at higher volumes, but only when going past the recommended safe levels (the buds provide a voice warning at that point). More complex tracks can be a little muddy and the IconX lack bass response overall, but for most mainstream music, they’re clear enough for an exercise product. The earbuds create a natural seal that blocks out background noise very well, but Samsung has left an option in the Gear app to activate a microphone on the earbuds that will allow a little bit of background noise to filter in, if you want to stay aware of your surroundings.
So far, the IconX are your average pair of exercise-friendly Bluetooth headphones, with the addition of a step counter and a heart rate tracker. But, connectivity is where things go off the rails a bit. I’ll break all the issues down, but in general, the completely wireless earbud system can go wrong in too many ways to be reliable.
There are two ways to listen to music using the IconX — by streaming over Bluetooth or storing music on the buds’ 4 GB of internal storage. For streaming, the buds will work with iOS or Android phones, to an extent. If you use them with an iPhone, you won’t be able to adjust any settings or use the exercise features — while you’ll be able to hear fitness stats while running, there will be no way to sync those stats to an iPhone, so the IconX will just be straightforward wireless earbuds. With an Android phone, all of those features are available. Once they’ve been paired initially, the buds will connect automatically when you put them in your ears. To connect them to another device, they’ll need to be unpaired, put in their charging case, and taken back out to reactivate pairing mode.
Bluetooth streaming isn’t great on the IconX. It doesn’t use the AptX codec, so sound quality is more negatively affected. But, the combination of the need for a Bluetooth connection and a wireless connection between the buds means double the problems. The buds occasionally de-synced or disconnected from my phone while running or walking. In one especially puzzling incident, the buds connected and disconnected repeatedly, giving me a steady stream of “connected” and “disconnected” voice prompts. Finally, in a telling experience, I started streaming music to the IconX minutes before a half marathon, all to have them disconnect a minute afterwards. I put them in my pocket and got out the wired in-ear headphones I had brought with me as backup. They didn’t disconnect.
Listening to music stored on the IconX can save battery life, since Bluetooth connectivity won’t make the battery drain faster. To upload tracks to the IconX, you’ll need to put the buds in their charging case and connect them to either a PC or a Samsung Galaxy phone using an included adapter. If you use a PC, the buds will have software stored on them that needs to be installed. That program must be used to upload music to the buds — each one of the buds has 4 GB of storage, and the songs uploaded are stored on both, then synced when played. If you don’t use the program and upload a song to only one bud, it’ll only play through that bud, and if you manually upload a song to both buds, you run the risk of the song not syncing properly. Using the program to upload songs, I never experienced any issues with songs getting out of sync. The only frustrating part is that on the PC program, the songs are ordered alphabetically with no way to reorder them. You can either shuffle them on the mobile Gear app or play them alphabetically, skipping through tracks manually while running.
So, how do you skip tracks? That’s actually one of the best features of the IconX. The surface of each bud is touch sensitive. Tap once to pause/play, twice to skip forward, and three times to skip back. It’s also possible to swipe up and down to adjust the volume. Holding a finger down on the surface of one of the buds activates exercise mode, prompting the IconX to record steps taken, distance traveled, and heart rate. The touch controls are terrific — they feel natural and work reliably.
Those exercise features also seem reliable. I took them out on my usual running route, and the distance traveled and steps taken looked about right. Heart rate, at the very least, looks like it can be representative if not completely accurate — my heart rate was highest when I first started running, then decreased along with my pace as I continued. Fitness tracking can be used without connection to a phone, and the buds will automatically sync any data recorded the next time they are connected. They won’t be able to do GPS tracking without a phone and another run tracking app, though.
The fitness features bring us to battery life, which is unsurprisingly short. Each bud has a 47 mAh battery, and the wireless charging cradle has a 315 mAh battery, which provides another five or six charges. Battery life is about three hours if you’re playing music from storage, one and a half hours at best streaming, and an hour or less if streaming while recording fitness stats. Making matters worse, the buds don’t drain evenly. In the Gear app, you’re required to designate a control earbud — that one will be connected to the phone via Bluetooth, while the other bud will simply sync itself with the other. The Bluetooth-connected earbud drained almost twice as fast, and when that one goes, they both go.
Settings can be adjusted on the Gear mobile app, available for Android phones. Here, you can change music playback settings, designate left or right as the control earbud, activate ambient sound mode, view exercise stats, change language settings, change exercise settings, and designate which voice notifications you want to receive from your phone. You can also check remaining battery life for each earbud. I tested the IconX using a OnePlus 3 running the latest software update, and couldn’t get the IconX to maintain a stable connection with the app. The earbuds would stay connected for the purposes of listening to music, but I could rarely make much use of the app. It’s possible that this won’t be a problem with Samsung Galaxy phones, but I don’t have one to test the IconX with.
There’s better news here. The IconX have a soft rubberized exterior that make them comfortable to wear in the ear. The shape, the silicone ear tips, and the in-ear loops all work together to make the IconX the best-fitting wireless earbuds we’ve tried yet (they come with a few sizes of loops and silicone tips). Not only did the IconX never fall out during a run, I never felt them even come loose. Considering one of the biggest concerns about true wireless earbuds is that they’ll fall out and get lost, that’s a huge win for the IconX.
Admittedly, the IconX look pretty big in your ears, but considering that both buds need to have 4 GB of internal storage, Bluetooth circuitry, a battery, and the sound drivers, we’re not sure we can expect much else (unless you take the Apple route and use stems to store some of that hardware). I wouldn’t count that as a knock on the IconX, especially because they fit so well and so comfortably anyway.
The IconX aren’t explicitly sweat-resistant, which is a bit odd for an exercise-oriented product. But, I don’t think I ever had any connectivity problems related to moisture — the connectivity problems seemed more random, happening at the beginning, middle, and end of use alike.