With Apple finally embracing wireless audio with the AirPods, we're about to witness a surge of competition in this space. Headsets are becoming truly wireless, meaning they work without the need for even a neckband connecting them to each other.
Samsung was one of the first companies to launch its truly wireless earbuds in India, announced alongside the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7. The Gear IconX is a pair of cord-free wireless earbuds, designed to compliment your fitness regime with integrated heart rate sensors.
There are other earbuds in the works which also do more than just reproduce audio, but you can actually go and pick up the IconX right now. With a price of Rs. 13,490, let's see if they are actually worth it.
Samsung Gear IconX design and features
The Gear IconX package looks like something straight out of a sci-fi movie, although the earbuds could be mistaken for fancy hearing aids, especially if you have the white version. The earbuds are built entirely of plastic but their quality and finish is very good. The triangular shape makes for a snug fit, and you get three sizes of eartips as well as wingtips, which you can mix and match till you get a secure fit. There is the initial fear of losing one of them due to their size and the way they sit in your ears, but after two weeks of running around with them on, we still haven't lost them.
Taking a closer look at the earbuds, there are metal charging leads which make contact with pins in the charging cradle. There are two microphones and a heartrate sensor in each one. The IconX can store up to 1000 songs so you can use it as a standalone MP3 player. Each earbud has 3.5GB of usable storage space, which is still treated as 3.5GB and not 7GB - we'll get into this later on. Audio format support includes MP3, M4A, AAC, WAV, WMA (WMA v9), but not FLAC. There's a bundled OTG adapter which lets you sync audio files directly from a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
The IconX is available in three colours, and you get a matching charging cradle which itself can provide enough power for up to two charging cycles. You'll want to carry this around wherever you go as it's the only way to charge the earbuds. It's also the best way to store them and maintain their charge, as there's no power switch on the buds themselves. The cradle is portable enough to be easily carried in your pocket, wherever you go.
The Gear IconX supports Bluetooth 4.1 and the SBC Bluetooth codec for audio playback. Unfortunately, there's no support for higher resolution audio codecs like aptX, which is a bit surprising considering these are premium earbuds.
Samsung has used a splash-resistant nano-coating which should help them survive your sweaty workouts. The top of the earbuds have a touch sensitive surface, which helps you control music playback, call handling, and workout tracking.
Samsung Gear IconX performance
The charging cradle has battery status LEDs for the two earbuds and the cradle itself. They glow orange when the units are charging and green when they're done. Blinking orange LEDs indicate that there isn't enough power left in the cradle to charge the earbuds.
Pairing the IconX with your phone is a seamless process. Simply place them in your ear and your phone will detect the pair after a couple of seconds. The earbuds sync with each other automatically, which is confirmed by audible “dings”. You can control music using single, double and triple taps. The volume can be adjusted by swiping up or down on either earbud.
The Gear IconX earbuds do a very good job of isolating ambient noise passively, but if you want to hear what's going on around you, simply tap and hold the surface of either earbud till you hear a voice prompt to enable Ambient Sound, and then let go. With this, the microphones pick up background audio and feed it to you. It doesn't sound very natural and becomes really annoying when it's windy, but at least this saves you the trouble of taking the earbuds out every time you need to talk to someone.
If you want to store music on the earbuds, it has to be transferred through the IconX PC Manager program. It creates copies of the same track on both earbuds, which is why the total storage is only recognised as 3.5GB. This is done to ensure that if one earbud loses power first (which happens every time) or if you're wearing only one, you can still listen to music. On your phone, you'll need Android 4.4 or later, with a minimum of 1.5GB of RAM. You'll also need the Gear and S Health apps in order to manage settings and see the data recorded by the earbuds. The IconX works with iPhones too, but you'll only be able to use it for music playback as activity data won't be recognised by HealthKit.
The Gear app on Android (there's no iOS equivalent) shows you the battery level of each earbud, the music tracks you have stored in them, and general controls. The IconX can also read out incoming notifications for the apps you select here, and you can choose to hear either the full message contents or just a preview. For WhatsApp and Gmail alerts, you're simply notified that the app has sent an alert, though for Telegram, we found that it actually reads out the sender's name and then the message itself, including stickers. The Gear app also lets you designate one of the earbuds as primary earbud, to which the phone will connect directly. Voice calls are then routed through this earbud only.
The Gear IconX does a good job of tracking workouts. Activity data recorded by the earbuds was close to the actual readings from a treadmill. The buds are able to decipher if you're running or walking, although if you begin with a walk and start running later on, the activity is still recorded as a walk. S Health does a decent job of deciphering this data and presenting it in a user-friendly way. While it doesn't tell your heartrate in realtime, you can check a graph once the workout is complete.
Coming to audio quality, we found the IconX to be just about average for a pair of premium Bluetooth earphones. We tested it with a Google Pixel XL and a mix of FLAC files as well as songs from Apple Music. The earbuds have a fairly balanced sonic signature with distinct highs, even at moderate volume levels. Vocals are handled decently, which was evident with Zero 7's Destiny. However, there are times when the mids get swallowed up by the low end, which is noticeable in tracks such as Nara by E.S Posthumus.
The bass is fairly punchy but lacks good extension and can get a bit fatiguing after a prolonged period of time. The volume can get pretty loud, but sound begins distorting as you go past about 85 percent. The same audio files sounded a bit better when played directly from the earbuds, but still not as good as we've heard using other high-end wireless solutions such as the Jaybird X2.
Over Bluetooth, 45mAh battery in each earbud lasts for an hour at best, which is abysmal. It gets worse if you enable ambient noise or record a workout while listening to music. With local audio files, we got up to about two hours before we started hearing warning messages.
The charging cradle can fully charge the IconX earbuds only once, and in our experience, they only charged up to about 60 percent in the second round. While battery life should suffice for most workouts, it's still very low compared to the average battery life of most Bluetooth headsets, which is generally around five to six hours.
The Gear IconX from Samsung is certainly a unique and attractive product and provides a glimpse into what's to come. Cord-free wireless earbuds seem to be a natural progression for Bluetooth audio, and it's about time we saw some big strides being made in this segment.
The biggest problem with the IconX is battery life, which is simply too weak for everyday use. Audio quality is also just about okay, not befitting of a product that costs Rs. 13,490. On the other hand, we like the product's design and fitness tracking features. Also, having the ability to use the set as a standalone MP3 player means you needn't have your phone with you during a workout. Being a first generation product, we suggest giving the Gear IconX a skip and waiting for at least the next version, which we hope fixes the audio and battery life issues.
Price (MRP): Rs. 13,490
Ratings (Out of 5)