Samsung Gear IconX (2018) Review: These Wireless Buds Have Stamina

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Samsung's first pair of cord-free Bluetooth fitness earphones, the original Gear IconX, suffered from one big problem: extremely short battery life. So, for the 2018 model, available for $149, Samsung stripped out the heart rate sensor to cram in a larger battery. Now, the Gear IconX can last for 5 hours with Bluetooth streaming or 7 hours with local music playback, Samsung claims. That's up from 90 minutes of streaming and 3 to 4 hours of local music playback in the older, more expensive model. This and other changes make the 2018 IconX a solid improvement over its predecessor, though it's still not perfect.

Editor's note, June 11:Samsung upgraded its wireless earbud lineup with the $130 Galaxy Buds. These sound better than the Gear IconX, and come up with a wireless charging case that can juice up on the back of a Galaxy S10. If you want a pair of totally wire-free earbuds that work with your Galaxy device, check out our full review of the Galaxy Buds.

New added features

Samsung released a software update on April 10 that introduces new features. These include a new equalizer that lets you choose from five presets (such as Bass Boost and Dynamic). The Ambient Sound function is also improved, as you can now specify how much ambient audio gets let in. There’s a new Voice Focus feature, which amplifies the voices of people around you when indoors.

If you want to take advantage of the 4GB of storage for taking music on the go, you can now wirelessly transfer multiple tracks at once. You can access the upgrade by downloading the updated Samsung Gear app.

We tried out the new features and found the equalizer tools were by far the most useful. The Dynamic setting is the best for most songs. Bass Boost is great for running to a beat. Treble and Clear made music sound a little too tinny.

The Voice Focus feature allows you to hear people talking while you're listening to music without lowering the volume of the song you're listening to. I tested it out with a colleague and found that it made our voices sound like flight attendants making announcements over an airplane's PA system. It was so bizarre that we both cracked up laughing. It also amplified the sound of me typing on a keyboard, which wasn't ideal. With some fine-tuning, this feature could be a little more useful, but I don't see myself relying on it too much.

The new wireless transfer feature, which lets you send multiple songs from a Galaxy smartphone to the Gear IconX earphones, wasn't as streamlined as I had hoped. The connection between the devices kept dropping, making what should've been a quick, smooth process into an arduous one. I kept having to activate the Bluetooth button on the Gear IconX case to force it to connect to the Galaxy S9 so I could transfer another song. It took me 20 minutes to move three songs onto the IconX, which is much too long. Like Voice Focus, wireless transfer needs improvement.

Easy setup, with some limitations

The Samsung Gear IconX earbuds work with both iOS and Android devices, though, as you might expect, you'll get more out of the earphones if you pair them with a Samsung Galaxy phone. With an iPhone, the Gear IconX works just like any other pair of Bluetooth headphones. However, pairing these earphones with a Galaxy device unlocks a suite of features.

Like the first-gen Gear IconX, the updated model comes with an oval-shaped charging case that juices up the buds when you're not using them. The case on the 2018 version has a bigger, 340-mAh battery than the 315-mAh battery in the original, which means it can also last longer on a charge (and provide more fuel to the earbuds). More on that later.

Install the Samsung Gear Manager app on your Android device running version 4.4 of the operating system or later to pair the headphones and then customize the settings. Just open the charging case (with the buds inside) near your phone, select the Gear IconX from the device list, and the headphones will start pairing.

The Gear IconX is the rare pair of cord-free headphones that offers expansive local storage for MP3s — 4GB, or enough for up to 1,000 songs — and can also track your walking and running workouts thanks to an accelerometer. Like the original model, the new Gear IconX features a voice coach for workouts, which you can activate by long-pressing the designated exercise earphone. I chose the right one, but you can customize that in the Gear Manager app.

If Samsung developed a Gear IconX app for iOS that offered all of the same controls, these earphones would be much more versatile and reach a much larger market. Just sayin'.

You'll have to learn some gestures to control the music playback and workout coaching on the IconX, such as one tap on the earbud to pause a track or a long-press to launch a run. The only gesture I had trouble with was the swipe up/down on one earbud to control volume. You have to delicately swipe; otherwise, the device thinks you're tapping to pause. As you might imagine, this is incredibly difficult to do while running, and after I accidentally paused the music enough times, I gave up trying to control the volume from the earphones and relied on my phone's volume rocker instead.

Fitness: These earphones fall short

You also use the IconX app to choose the pace you want to be coached to. Because it lacks a heart rate sensor, the new Gear IconX uses its accelerometer to figure out how fast you're walking or running, and advises you to speed up or slow down according to the pace you've picked in the Gear Manager app. The coach isn't as advanced at stat tracking or as detailed in its advice as the assistants in other sensor-packed fitness headphones, such as LifeBeam's Vi, but it's good enough.

I used the Light Running Coach workout, which advises you to run 2.85 kilometers (1.77 miles) in 30 minutes, including a 5-minute warm-up and a 5-minute cool-down. It was a little too lightweight for my usual running routine, and the coach kept telling me to slow down, but there are more rigorous workouts designed to boost running speed and endurance.

The problem with the Gear IconX's built-in accelerometer is that it overestimates distances by a significant amount. I logged three 3-mile runs wearing the earphones, but each workout was recorded as more than 4 miles. You can view your workout data in the Gear Manager app, but you'll need to install Samsung's S Health app and sync it to Gear Manager to view your running logs. Considering that the workout coach isn't that helpful and the workout data are inaccurate, I wouldn't buy the 2018 Gear IconX as a dedicated fitness tracker.

Comfortable fit, solid sound

The Gear IconX may fall short in fitness tracking, but these earphones excel when it comes to wearability. Samsung nailed the fit of the original Gear IconX, and the company didn't change a thing with the 2018 version. The only other pair of cord-free earphones I've worn that fit comfortably right out of the box without any fuss is Apple's AirPods, but those aren't rated as water-resistant for working out and don't nestle in your ear as tightly as Samsung's earphones. Samsung includes three additional wings and tips to customize the fit.

I took the Gear IconX on a run one blustery October morning and never felt the buds move, not even when my ponytail blew wildly against my ears.

The audio quality is also impressive for a pair of Bluetooth earphones. I couldn't hear any ambient noise as I ran, which felt a little dangerous, but Samsung offers an ambient-noise setting in the Gear Manager app that amplifies environmental noise for situations like that.

Tunes on the go

Like the original Gear IconX, the new version can store up to 1,000 MP3s, so you don't need to be connected to a phone to enjoy your jams. Samsung made it easier to load up the earphones with songs, with a new wireless transfer option to transfer tracks from your Galaxy device via Bluetooth. There's also a USB connector included in the box for connecting the earphones to your Galaxy device for easy offloading, or you can install the Gear IconX PC Manager on your computer if you don't keep MP3s stored on your phone.

If you have a Mac, transferring music is a little tougher, but you can connect the earphones directly to your Mac and then move song files from your iTunes folder to the Gear IconX folder that pops up on your desktop. It's not a sophisticated process, but it gets the job done.

The main problem I had with the music-transfer process is that I just don't have a lot of MP3s anymore. Instead, I use streaming music services to create playlists and save them offline. Unfortunately, the Gear IconX has no integration with streaming music services — not even Google Play Music, which is Samsung's default music application.

Battery goes far

The biggest problem we had with the original Gear IconX was its battery life, which clocked in at a paltry 90 minutes; a long workout and a commute to work would put the buds out of commission. Samsung sacrificed the heart rate sensor to extend the battery to 5 hours of Bluetooth streaming and 7 hours of local music playback.

I used the buds for a 40-minute run, a 45-minute commute and 2 hours of streaming music at my desk, and still didn't come close to draining the battery — it was still at 80 percent. Sticking the pods back in the charging case juices them back up, and you can get by without charging the case for a few days with heavy use.

You can see how charged each earbud is in the Gear Manager app, but you can't see how charged the case itself is, which would be useful. Apple's AirPods show separate battery-life percentages for the case and the pods, so you always know when either accessory needs a charge.

Bottom Line

With improved battery life, Samsung's upgraded Gear IconX is a solid pair of wire-free fitness earphones. The buds fit perfectly (in my experience), sound great and now can last for a few days' worth of workouts on a charge. The deep Galaxy smartphone integration is a bonus for Galaxy owners.

However, the IconX's fitness-tracking features leave a lot to be desired, so if you're looking for a pair of heart-rate-monitoring headphones with advanced workout advice, LifeBeam's Vi headphones are a better bet, though they're not completely wireless. But if you're a Galaxy user who wants a pair of AirPod-like earbuds that can survive a run (and the rest of your day, too), the Gear IconX is a winner.

Credit: Samsung/Tom's Guide

Caitlin is a Senior editor for Gizmodo. She has also worked on Tom's Guide, Macworld, PCWorld and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. When she's not testing out the latest devices, you can find her running around the streets of Los Angeles, putting in morning miles or searching for the best tacos.