Samsung comes back for another attempt at true wireless earbuds with the Gear IconX, aiming to resolve the issues of the previous version.
When Samsung launched its first Gear IconX last year, it entered a market still wide open with fewer competitors. Now, a year later, it’s a larger class to contend with, and they keep improving.
Rather than overhaul the design and functionality, Samsung opted to try fixing what was broken. It turns out to be a valiant attempt, but the results come up against stiffer competition.
Design and setup
There is virtually no physical difference between this and the previous version. The build and form factor is pretty much identical, with the pill-style case nestling the two earpieces. The case doubles as a charger. Plug in the included USB-C charger and red lights in front indicate both pieces are getting a charge.
Next to the charging port in the back is a Bluetooth button. Though the Gear IconX goes into pairing mode out of the box, holding the button down can put it back into pairing mode in case you want to use them with a different device.
One drawback is the case can only hold one charge, meaning you can only recharge them once through the case before having to re-plug them again. Other true wireless earbuds can offer as many as three charges, collectively extending battery life.
Setup is a little different because of the Gear IconX’s internal storage. It has 4GB (technically 3.4GB that’s actually available) of space for audio files. They support MP3, AAC, WMA and WAV files, and the easiest way to load them on is to use the Samsung Gear app on Android. The other option is to use a Windows PC or Mac by plugging them in.
You would have to install the Gear IconX Manager and drag the files into the Music folder. Except it’s an overly particular process. Try to rename or create a new folder, and error messages pop up trying to play them after. Another option to load the songs is to use a USB adapter to directly connect to the phone, but Samsung didn’t provide me with one to test. The good news is it’s included in the box.
While the Gear IconX can work with the iPhone, I would recommend looking elsewhere for true wireless earbuds. The integration isn’t deep enough, and limited in its execution to begin with.
Connectivity and controls
Beyond the internal storage, the Gear IconX run on Bluetooth, so if you’re more of a streaming music user, any audio will run through them.
Each earpiece has touch controls on the outer shell. A simple tap will play or pause music. Quickly double-tapping skips a track, while triple-tapping goes back a track. Dragging up or down controls volume.
Some of these apply to phone calls too. Quick double-taps will answer or end a call. Call waiting features also apply, letting you double-tap during a call to answer another one. You would do the same to switch between them, if need be.
Holding the touchpad for more than two seconds rejects an incoming call, or turns off the microphone. You can also bring up the audible menu by doing that, cycling through the options and only letting go when you hear the one you want to select.
I was able to wake up Google Assistant by holding it long enough, adding some extra convenience to going truly wireless.
Key to getting the best sound is in finding the right fit. Samsung wisely included four sets of tips and wings to help with that. Some combination of the two (though you don’t have to use the wings) should hit your comfort zone.
The previous Gear IconX already sounded pretty good when I had tried them, so I figured this year’s iteration wouldn’t disappoint. They didn’t. Sound comes through clean, and with enough bass to reasonably spread out the audio spectrum. I got a good seal with the right tips, and never had an issue with either side almost falling out.
If you’re a runner, and a tight seal worries you for safety reasons, turning on the ambient noise mode in the app can remedy that. It uses the microphone to filter in some ambience around you so that you don’t feel deaf to the outside world
The bigger problem I had was with the sensitivity of the touchpads. Admittedly, this was most acute when trying to control volume or go back a track. It would think I was tapping to pause the music or trying to skip a track. I soon realized that I had to more lightly slide to adjust volume. The problem was that it wasn’t always easy to do that while moving.
I will also point out that I lamented the lack of any integration with music streaming services. Loading up music files is nice, but something that plugged into Spotify or Google Play Music would’ve been a killer feature.
Despite lacking its predecessor’s heart rate monitor, the built-in accelerometer is designed to track fitness activity, which is really only focused on walking and running. The embedded vocal coach chimes in about pace and progress based on whatever setting you’ve chosen in the app. Whether it’s a light or brisk walk, or marathon-style run, it will try assessing accordingly.
The issue with this approach is that it’s an imprecise one. I could be in the gym on a treadmill and it would overstate how much of a distance I’ve walked. It did the same when I was on the elliptical. While doing some stretching and freeweight core strengthening exercises, it lauded me again for a great walking pace—even though I wasn’t putting feet to floor at all.
The whole thing also relies heavily on Samsung’s S Health app, which has its own drawbacks. It’s easy to appreciate having a verbal coach in your ear, and an app to record progress, it’s just the questionable accuracy dampens the effect. I found the Jabra Elite Sport to be better, in that regard.
This is unquestionably the biggest improvement in the new Gear IconX. I barely hit 90 minutes when Bluetooth streaming with the previous model. Now, I was routinely hitting four-to-five hours per charge. It was even more if I was listening to files I copied over to them.
Those numbers put them right up there with the best competitors. In removing the heart rate monitor, Samsung squeezed in a bigger battery. So, the trade-off is mediocre fitness tracking, yet more time listening to tunes.
Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones are ultimately the best devices to pair with the Gear IconX because the integration is more streamlined. From pairing to playback, the process is just easier. I wasn’t able to test these earbuds with a Samsung device, so I can’t describe how the experience differs. I’m just going by how the previous model worked so closely with their smartphones.
Not that I lost that much functionality testing with the Pixel 2 XL. Only that I know certain processes—loading music, Galaxy apps, battery optimization—would work better on a Samsung device.
The main reasons to go with these are more about cutting out all cords and listening to music for longer. The fitness side is only a bonus if you get something out of it.