Highlight - The Samsung Gear IconX earbuds are the perfect gym companion
Back at the start of June, Samsung held an event in New York where they unveiled a number of products. For the more audio-focused consumers, the one product that most likely stood out was the Samsung Gear IconX earbuds. These are not just Samsung earphones, but are actually ones which make use of a ‘true’ wireless experience which essentially means they are absent of all cables. You just have two earbuds and that's it. Although that wire-free experience from Samsung does come at a price as these earbuds do come with a full retail cost of $199.99.
The Samsung Gear IconX are earbuds which offer a frequency range of 20 - 20 kHz, a sensitivity of 89.5 dB and operate on a 16 ohm impedance. Although these earphones are able to establish a connection with a device over Bluetooth (version 4.1), they are also earphones which come with their own 4GB internal storage included. An amount of storage which Samsung state is able to accommodate up to 1000 audio tracks. Additional features on offer including a splash-resistant P2i nano coating, various sensors (including a hear rate monitor and accelerometer) and an internal 47 mAh battery. Audio file support extends to MP3, M4A, AAC, WAV, WMA (WMA v9) and each earbud measures 18.9 mm by 26.4 mm by 26.0 mm
In the Box
Generally speaking, you are getting everything you will need to be up and running in no time with the Gear IconX. In addition to the actual earbuds, you also can expect to receive a small carry case which doubles as a charger, a microUSB to USB cable, a microUSB to USB adapter, a selection of additional earbud tips and wings, a quick start guide and a health and safety guide.
Design & Hardware
In reality, Samsung does not really have that many earphone products on the market. There are a few, but none which adopt a true wireless experience. Which makes these a debut product for the company. The problem with a debut product is that there is little to compare the Gear IconX to, without comparing them directly to a tried and tested personal audio brand. However, in spite of this being Samsung's first foray into the true wireless market, it is a move which they have made extremely well with the Gear IconX. While these are just earbuds, you might think that there is not much you can comment on when it comes to the design. After all, you slot them into your ear and that’s that. But there are enough clear differentiators here to highlight that Samsung has thought things through with the Gear IconX.
In terms of their overall design, these are whole units. Meaning that while you can pull off the ear tip and replace it, the rest of the unit is largely a molded piece. The obvious benefit to this is that these are highly sweatproof. Their molded design coupled with their nano coating means that working out too much or running in the rain should not prove problematic in any way. You can simply wipe them down and be good to go again. Besides their removable tips, each Gear IconX earbud also comes with a hooked upper piece which in reality does not do much other than give you a true north ( although they can also help to keep them fit more securely in the ears) - which incidentally, is needed to best make use of the added-value features.
Near to the eartip you will also find a small number of contacts which are used to connect the earbuds to their case.
And that is about it. Well, in terms of obvious design traits as this is where things get interesting. While the side of the earphones (the bit sticking out of your ear) does highlight a dedicated and defined area, there are no indications that there is anything actually here - it simply is a very plain-looking space. But this is where the user button is. Simply interacting with this side space will fully control the earbuds and depending on how you interact with the side panel, will determine the control. So touch-pressing the side will play music, pause the music and stop the music. Swiping up (determined by that true north hooked aspect) will increase the volume and likewise, swiping down will decrease it. Double tapping the side panel will skip forward a song and triple tapping will skip back. While this might sound a little confusing, after a brief adjustment period it does start to become second-nature and in truth, works very well.
You might therefore be wondering where the power button is? Well, there is not one per se, which neatly takes us to the next design element as the lower inside of each earbud does include an additional sensor (which looks like a black panel and can be seen in the image below). This is essentially the power button as once the earbuds are placed in your ear and that sensor recognizes their in-ear placement, the earbuds automatically turn on. By the same token, once you remove them from your ear, they automatically power down again. One of many of their neat and futuristic tricks the Gear IconX has up their sleeves. Not to mention, a very effective battery-saving tool - which with these earbuds, is a welcomed addition.
Moving on and these are Bluetooth earphones which also come with their own travel case. Although, this case also doubles as the charging station for the earbuds. When they are in the case, the earbuds can be charged directly form the case (while on the go) or when the case is connected to a wall socket. The case itself matches the colors of the earbuds (depends on which color earbuds you opt for) and is designed to be as portable as possible.
Adopting a torpedo shape, the case is rather small and in total measures 35.3 mm by 30.3 mm by 92 mm. Generally speaking, the case is rather bland with just the Samsung wording across the top, a small microUSB charge port on the back and a small eject button on the front. Although, accompanying that eject button are two small LED lights which indicate the current battery status of each earbud. Battery status being defined as charged (green) or not charged (red). Which does mean you are fully aware if one earbud is less charged than the other.
Another one of the clever additions with the Gear IconX is that the case automatically enters charging mode as soon as it is closed. Inside, there is only enough room to sit the two earbuds in their respective correct positions and the case lid barely closes when the earbuds are present. This does mean that the lid essentially forces the earbuds to make contact with the contacts and immediately starts the charging process. So there is never a need to manually start charging the earbuds and you can always just assume that (as long as the case has power) the earbuds are fully charged or in the process of being charged - which does mean there is that added benefit of never forgetting to charge the earbuds. Although, one downside is that you do have to close to lid to charge them. You cannot really just leave them on the table in the open position and have the earbuds charging.
Overall, the Gear IconX are extremely well-designed earphones. They do seem to be designed to be simplistic in nature and yet there is nothing simple about them. While they may come lacking cables, visible controls, buttons and just about everything else, they are packed full of features and controls and certainly do more than many competing options currently available. Likewise, while they seem rather bland in their design, they are surprisingly very comfortable earbuds. They do provide a very snug fit in the ear and during testing did seem to be reasonably adept at staying in the ear. You do have to become quite active before you start to worry about them maintaining their position and falling out of place. It is worth noting that this comfort is a real comfort - that is to say they do not only fit well, but they feel good when in the ear. You know they are there, but in a comfortable way.
Sound Quality & Performance
There is a good chance that expectations will be high with these earbuds and simply because they are a Samsung product. Although, easily as much expectation will likely be set just because they are a $200 product. While Samsung is not commonly thought of as an audio company, they are thought of as a premium company and so it stands to reason there will be some expectations. In truth, the Gear IconX do not disappoint. The sound quality on offer with the Gear IconX is excellent. That is, excellent for Samsung, for a $200 product and for an audio product in general.
In fact, after recently testing out a number of other high-profile products like the JBL UA Wireless Earphones, it is fairly easy to say that the sound on offer with the Gear IconX is as good as those leading options, if not better. One area in particular where the Gear IconX offer an enhanced experience (compared to market-leading brands and products) is in terms of volume. Much of the high-end earphones currently available can at times be limited in the levels of volume they offer. Whether that is to save on battery life or simply to protect the earbuds from overworking, they are limited. That is not the case with the Gear IconX as these offer a very nice upper volume ceiling and certainly one which will be sufficient for most people and just as importantly, a volume ceiling which does not impact on the quality of the sound being outputted.
The frequency range listed comes in at 20 - 20 kHz and that does sound about right. While the bass is not extraordinary by any measure, it is there and does come through cleanly enough. Likewise, the mids and tops are also defined fairly well and in fact, the overall sound is one which does feel (and obviously sound) very well-balanced. So nothing is either too pronounced or sounding like it is missing. This is just a very clean and rounded sound overall.
Which is a statement that can be largely attributed to the performance in general. There are no major issues with the performance of the Gear IconX and generally speaking, they perform probably as good as you would expect from a Samsung product. While occasionally you might encounter a slight performance issue, there are no immediate ones which spring to mind and more importantly, no recurring issues that were noted during testing. These are just a very good performing and reliable set of earphones and ones which produce a rich and balanced sound.
App & Software
With this being a Samsung product, the ideal scenario does seem to be to couple the Gear IconX with a Samsung smartphone. However, by any measure they are not limited to Samsung smartphones and those interested in using these earbuds with other devices can in a very basic manner connect easily over Bluetooth - much like what you would do with any Bluetooth-enabled audio product. However, these are about more than just establishing a Bluetooth connection and thanks to the Samsung Gear application which is freely available in the Google Play Store, downloading and installing the app on non-Samsung devices does offer access to most of the Gear IconX's additional functionality.
For instance, with the app downloaded and running on a non-Samsung smartphone you are able to control almost all aspects of the Gear IconX including their volume, the settings, and much more.
One of the added benefits of making use of the Gear app is that the app allows you to transfer music directly to the earbuds. These are earphones which are listed to come with 4GB of storage, although only 3.5GB of that storage is actually usable for audio files. Once the app is on you phone, you simply connect the earbuds case (with the earbuds inside) to your smartphone (via the included adapter) and you can navigate the app to transfer or manage the songs that are stored locally on the earbuds.
While it is easy enough to transfer the songs from your smartphone to your Gear IconX earbuds, there is a little legwork which needs to be done the first time, as you do need to connect the earphones to your PC and install the Gear IconX PC Manager first. This part is not that well explained (without reading the manual) as the PC Manager software does not seem to be available online. To get the software you need to connect the earbud case to your PC (with the original cable) and then you will find the PC Manager software application located under ‘Tools” on either of the earbud's recognized drives. Once the application is installed, the software will launch and you will have access to the PC software as well as being able to add songs directly from your PC’s library as well.
It is briefly worth mentioning that if you are using the Gear IconX earbuds with a non-Samsung smartphone then whether you can transfer songs from your smartphone directly, does seem to be largely determined by whether your smartphone has a USB Type-C port or not. During testing, it seemed to be the case that you can only connect to smartphones using the official Samsung cable which comes in the box. As this is a microUSB to USB cable, there does not seem to be any way (out of the box) to connect to a USB Type-C supported device. So if you own a newer smartphone with a Type-C port and do not have an official Samsung USB Type-C cable or adapter, you will most likely only be able to transfer songs using the PC software. Which is a little disappointing.
In addition to being able to connect to the Gear app, the Gear IconX is also able to connect to Samsung's S Health app and again, regardless of whether you are using a Samsung smartphone or not. Once connected the earbuds are able to make use of an increased and more integrated usage of Samsung's health tracking software. Of course, much of the Gear IconX's focus is not actually on having to be dependent on other services, apps or even devices. So while the Gear IconX is able to connect to the Gear and S Health apps, it does not need to. As well as being able to make use of the internal storage for music playback, the Gear IconX earbuds are also able to provide you with on-the-spot feedback for your workout. By holding down the side panel button for a few seconds the health tracking features start up and provide you with an audio rundown of what is on offer. As you continue to hold the button down, the audio feedback will cycle through the various commands including 'start workout', 'workout details' and 'end workout'. When you hear the prompt you want to initiate, taking your finger off the button issues the command. Once the workout is in progress and you do cycle through to workout details, the audio feedback provides you with information on various health aspects including your heart rate, calories burned, speed, duration and so on. For those that want to be in greater control of the audio feedback received, much of this can be further customized through the app.
Overall, herein seems to be the balance that the Gear IconX is looking to achieve. For those that want more of a standalone product, the Gear IconX earbuds are able to provide it. The overall experience is a little more basic when used in a standalone fashion but certainly sufficient for most people's needs. However, for those who do want a more engaging and enriched experience, the Gear IconX earbuds are able to provide that as well. Their ability to sync with the apps, although not necessary, does provide a greater degree of functionality and builds on the standalone features. While everything is achievable through just using the earbuds, it is all a little easier to navigate and control when using the apps. For instance, there are a number of additional features thrown in for good measure like Ambient mode - which looks to offer the user a greater degree of awareness of their surroundings. This is a feature which is able to be manually activated using just the Gear IconX but it is far easier to fire up the app and active the feature that way. In fact, without the app being used it is likely that some users would find themselves completely unaware that features like Ambient Sound mode are available. So while these earbuds are more than able to act in a standalone fashion, and to a pretty good degree, they certainly do benefit from being paired with the Samsung Gear and S Health apps.
Battery Life & Connectivity
To cut to the chase, battery life is going to be one of the areas of concern here... for some. Even by Samsung’s own reckoning, the Gear IconX are not battery powerhouse earphones and the level you can expect to get from these will not rival other options from other manufacturers and even ones that are available at a lower price, let alone at the $200 level. So if battery life is the be-all-and-end-all for you, then these earbuds are not for you.
However, they are not designed to be battery-satisfying. Instead, they are designed to be a solution for those who regularly head out to the gym or go running and in that respect, it is hard to criticize the battery life in any meaningful manner. During testing, the Gear IconX proved consistently sufficient for an average gym visit. If you happen to spend a couple of hours each time in the gym, then you will struggle getting through a visit due to their 47 mAh capacity. However, if you are more of the sixty to ninety minutes (or less) type of gym visitor, then these should prove to be easily able to accommodate your gym visits on a daily basis.
It is also worth keeping in mind that the level noted is based on when being directly connected to a smartphone over Bluetooth. As these are designed with their own storage levels, they are also designed as a unit which is best used with that storage. And when doing so, you can further expect that minimal level to be increased. Not drastically so, but you can expect to add at least another 30 minutes to the 'sixty to ninety minute' baseline level.
It also does need to be kept in mind that while the Gear IconX are limited in actual battery capacity, they do come with a dedicated carry case. One which can further charge the earphones again. This is a carry case which comes equipped with a fairly large 315 mAh capacity and this does mean that you should expect to be able to charge the earbuds four to six times before the case needs to be charged itself. So once you are done in the gym and the earbuds are back in their case, they automatically start to charge again. In testing, recharge times took about two hours (or a little under) and so when used in this sort of way, battery level was never really seen as an issue. The way the Gear IconX work and are designed proved to work well with the earbuds always ready to go again and without the user ever having to actually think about charging them at home or the night before.
Due to the frequency of how often these were used during testing, the case did typically only provide about three full charges before the case itself needed to be recharged - as it does seem to naturally deplete when not in use. Therefore, one way to look at what you could expect with the case - is that the case did not need to be recharged more than once a week during testing. If you are a three (maybe four) times a week gym person, then you can probably expect to charge the case once a week. If you frequent the gym more times a week, then you should probably expect one to two case recharges per week and so on.
Either way and to sum up the battery life of the Gear IconX, although they have received some criticism for lacking in battery levels, when you factor their purpose-designed use as the main use, the battery life is more than sufficient. These are earbuds which are not just designed for gym and exercise use, but are actually perfect for those use cases. If you are looking for earphones for more casual and daily usage, again, these are not really designed for you.
In terms of connectivity, like the already noted performance in general, there is little to complain about here. Which is something worth noting in itself. These are ‘true’ wireless earphones and as this means they make use of no cables, it also means they do not make use of a cable to connect to each other. And therein is often where similar products like this can encounter a very obvious and off-putting flaw. Typically speaking, one Bluetooth earbud connects to your Bluetooth streaming device and the other earbud connects to the first earbud. This often results in the second earbud receiving a less-consistent and reliable connection and can result in cutouts in the quality of the listening experience for that secondary connected earbud. This is not the case with the Gear IconX and although they do seem to adopt the same chain connection method to your smartphone, all indications point to these being extremely reliable earphones in this respect.
This is even more obvious when you dig into the settings menu in the Gear IconX app as the app allows you to select which is the 'master' earbud. With the ability to connect to either the left or the right as the master, this does mean that both earbuds do independently support direct earbud-to-phone connections - which is a very good thing as the end result is largely a seamless and error-free listening experience. On the very rarest of occasions, the earphones would momentarily cutout but this was rare and never identified as an actual issue
Overall, there are some aspects of the Samsung Gear IconX which will be clear reasons for some consumers not to buy them. For instance, the battery is not the best and you certainly will find longer-lasting options for the same price, if not cheaper. Speaking of which, the price is also likely going to be a deterrent for some as $199.99 is a high price to pay for a pair of earphones and again, you will find very good quality options at a much better price point.
However, if you are someone who is specifically looking for a pair of earphones to use at the gym or when out running, then you are unlikely to find a better pair for the money at the moment. After all, their use as a gym-solution is their primary objective and they perform extremely well in that respect. For those thinking about picking the Gear IconX earbuds up, it is important to understand that they are not earphones which are designed for everyday normal use and/or offer extended levels of battery life. These are purpose-designed for that hour you will be at the gym and for that purpose, the Gear IconX are an excellent option to go for. Sound quality is very good, their ability to establish and maintain a connection is excellent and their overall performance is (largely) flawless.
The takeaway here is this - for what these are designed to do and for who these are designed for, they will exceed expectations. For everyone else, it will be about whether the compromise on battery life and the high price is worth it or not.