Samsung Gear IconX 2018 review: The path of least resistance makes for an easy upgrade
- On-board storage still good
- Improved ergonomics
- Not a huge improvement over original buds
In Samsung’s efforts to lean into everything that worked about the original IconX, they’ve pivoted away from everything the product could be. They’re successful in that they improve upon the original, but every step of the way it’s clear that Samsung took the road of least resistance in achieving that outcome.
Everyone sort-of assumes that the modern era of true wireless Bluetooth earbuds began with Apple’s Airpods. However, that’s not quite accurate. Take even a cursory look, and you’ll see that not only did true wireless Bluetooth buds exist before Apple cut out the headphone jack with a scalpel and called it courage but that Apple’s biggest competitor Samsung already had their own set on the market.
Given the timing of their launch (a few months before the AirPods), the original Gear IconX quickly found themselves overshadowed. However, despite a few odds and ends, they set a good foundation for Samsung’s efforts in the space by distinguishing themselves with on-board storage - allowing them to be used (albeit sometimes clunkily) without an associated smartphone.
Now, the company are giving their true wireless earbuds a refresh via the aptly named Samsung Gear IconX 2018.
The Samsung Gear IconX 2018 are a set of true wireless in-ear headphones that pull audio from a connected smart device via Bluetooth 4.2. These earbuds boast 5.8pi dynamic drivers with 4GB of on-board storage. They charge via USB-C and, on their own, tout a battery life of either seven hours standalone use or five hours of Bluetooth playback.
As per usual, the carry-case for the earbuds also doubles as a charger. Unfortunately, unlike the norm, the IconX 2018 charger-case only boasts a single extra charge (as opposed to the multiple charges found elsewhere). All told, a full charge on the buds plus the case will net you either fourteen hours or ten hours of total use, depending on the audio source.
The Gear IconX 2018 earbuds also come with a suite of customization options, including three sizes of wing-tips and ear-tips.
At a glance, the design of the 2018 IconX is almost indistinguishable from the original buds. However, up close, the deviations here are a lot more pronounced. For one, the news buds are noticeable more ergonomic and comfortable to wear than their predecessors.
The charger case for the new 2018 refresh has also undergone a bit of a facelift. It’s a little taller - and fatter - in form-factor this time around. The button you use to open the case also subtly redesigned so it’s a little easier to press. The new IconX also now boasts a form of quick charging, promising an hour of playback from just ten minutes of charging (more on that later).
The 2018 Gear IconX also boast Bixby integration this time around, allowing you to summon Samsung’s voice assistant from your phone. Google Assistant is also supported. Siri and Cortana are not.
As is the norm for any of these true wireless earbuds, the wing-tip customizations options here are a nice inclusion. However, the range here isn’t quite as diverse or comprehensive as that offering by competing products like the Sony WF-1000.
Another weakness here is durability, the new Gear IconX don’t carry any sort of IP-rating or hydrophobic coating. Though, presumably, they do carry the same sweat-resistance found in the first-gen earbuds.
The second-gen earbuds also fail to deviate from the capacitive touch-based interface on the original buds. Although probably a matter of personal preference, I still find this method of control to be the most intuitive. The sensitivity on the touch-pads isn’t 100% accurate 100% of the time. However, despite that, I still find it superior to poking at my ears whenever I want to change or skip a song or raise or lower the volume.
Up until I got my hands on the new 2018 IconX, the original Gear IconX had been my go-to true wireless earbuds. I run with them every other day, a task to which they brought both crisp audio playback and reasonably intuitive touch controls. In addition, the on-board storage meant I never had to take anything with me but my house keys.
Audio sounded good, isolating me from outside noise to great effect. However, I wouldn't say that it was a huge step up from the original IconX. On the other hand, the battery life on the buds lived up to expectations and, while the configuration of Workout mode initially frustrated, the built-in coaching experience was generally a positive one.
When toggled into workout mode, the earbuds will provide you with regular updates on your average speed, calorie burn and offer general (robotic) words of encourage. The readings on these idioms is occasionally a little stilted but (to Samsung’s credit) I did often find myself running a little further and a little faster when I enabled this feature.
Unfortunately, accidentally toggling the earbuds into workout mode the first time while on a run did present some issues. Workout mode only allows you to listen to songs that have been designated as part of your playlist, and this has to be done ahead of time. This meant that during my first workout I was stuck listening to the same two generic jingles the buds come pre-loaded with. If I never either hear either of them again, it will be too soon.
Still, as someone who has spent a lot of time using the original Samsung Gear IconX earbuds, all the improvements here are welcome ones. Even if they are a little predictable and do little to expand the appeal of the product outside of those who are already won-over by the utility of on-board storage.
One pain point I had with the original IconX was that the charger-case had to be correctly balanced in order to actually recharge the earbuds. Thankfully, this proved to be resolved here.
In addition, I was pleasantly surprised just how much of a difference having fast-charging makes on these earbuds. Even if I neglected to check the charge on them, being able to top them up in minutes before a run (versus the near hour a similar charge took on the original IconX) was a much felt improvement.
Compared to the competition, the newly-upgraded longevity of the 2018 IconX puts them in a third place to Apple’s AirPods and BlueAnt's PumpAir Sportsbuds - assuming you’re making use of the on-board storage. If you aren’t, then Samsung doesn’t rate nearly as well here. Ten hours puts it behind almost every other set of true wireless earbuds released this year, minus Sony’s WF-1000X.
The Bottom Line
Much like Jabra’s second-gen Elite Sport earbuds, the Samsung Gear IconX 2018 feel distinctly more like an easy-iteration than a valuable evolution. The biggest gains here come with the improved ergonomics and buffed battery life. However, beyond those gains, these really are just a slightly buffed take on the same core experience offered by the original Gear IconX.
They’re a solid improvement but they don’t really bring anything new to the table - nor do they really offer a category-best experience on any single front. The noise-cancelling on Sony’s earbuds makes them sound better, Jabra’s earbuds have better durability and the IconX still lag behind the AirPods for battery life.
The IconX’s on-board storage is still nice, but it either matters a lot for you - or is doesn’t matter at all. In Samsung’s efforts to lean into everything that worked about the original IconX, they’ve pivoted away from everything the product could be. They’re successful in that they improve upon the original, but every step of the way it’s clear that Samsung took the road of least resistance in achieving that outcome.
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