Review written by @Precogvision
There has always been a divide between wired IEMs and their truly wireless (TWS) counterparts; the latter generally understood to be more so an exercise in convenience. But every once in a while, something comes along that is a challenge of preconceived notions and expectations; the original Samsung Galaxy Buds is a great example. In retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising. Samsung owns Harman International which developed the Harman target curve, an aggregate preference curve for sound, under researcher Sean Olive. Like so, the Galaxy Buds have become a steadfast recommendation in the audiophile community for their surprisingly good sound quality and stellar price-to-performance. Heck, in a lot of respects, they trade blows with even their best, wired counterparts!
So can Samsung once again eclipse the competition, show the rest of the TWS world how it’s done with the newly released Buds Pro? Let’s take a closer look.
Source and Drivability
All critical listening was done off of an Apple iPhone X. And yes, I know, the Buds Pro are technically Android-oriented IEMs that will perform most ideally off of an Android-based device. On the bright side, there are some pros to this approach: 1) This is a worst-case scenario, so you would expect the Buds Pro to perform better than what I’m describing, and 2) I am assessing the Buds Pro’s raw performance, devoid of features that would favor certain demographics of buyers. Ideally, I would assess the Buds Pro using both systems, but admittedly, I’m just too baked into the Apple ecosystem at this point.
As usual, I won’t explore this area too closely (I say leave the feature-set talk to the more experienced, mainstream sites) and I’ll be focusing more on the sound itself. Still, there were definitely some roadblocks I ran into while writing this review that I’d like to highlight:
- There’s no Galaxy Buds Pro app support for iOS. This means you won’t have access to the preset EQs or the ability to play around with other features, like disabling the button taps.
- Speaking of which - those taps. Gosh, they’re annoying. Every time you adjust the Buds Pro, you’ll be inadvertently playing/pausing your music or shifting through the levels of noise cancellation. Fun stuff, I know, and a downgrade from the Bud Pro’s predecessors in this regard.
Included accessories are sparse, limited to a charge cord and a few different ear tip sizes. The Buds Pro themselves have a somewhat bulbous shell and have adopted the Airpods Pro plug and play style of ear tips. Personally, I do find the old Galaxy Buds more comfortable (and more secure as they have a notch) but your mileage might vary and all that, as fit is wholly subjective. The case is quite nice, sporting a matte finish and magnetic latch; it’s noticeably more compact than the Airpods Pro case.
Not sure how to read graphs? The frequency response graph above depicts relative SPL (sound pressure level, or how loud the IEM is) at each part of the audible frequency range. In this case, or at least for humans, that’s from about 20hZ to 20kHz. The measurement was taken off of an IEC-711 coupler and there is a resonance peak at around 8kHz. The coupler is only certified up until around 10kHz and, because of this resonance peak, measurements after this point should not be considered entirely accurate.
Bass takes on a slight mid-bass (more punchy) emphasis, not sloping out until roughly 600hZ, with plenty of rumble. It’s decent enough bass, although perhaps bordering on bloat at times not helped by a lack of intangible control. The Buds Pro’s upper-midrange is considerably emphasized; the more extended bass shelf slopes into the lower-midrange and serves to balance out the overall midrange a bit. I say “a bit” because I still think the 4kHz region could have been dialed back a notch. I find the Buds Pro has an edginess to the trailing of notes with some female vocalists. That aside, I think the big surprise is the Buds Pro’s treble: The Buds Pro slopes through the impact and crash regions almost perfectly linearly. Yeah, there’s still a good deal of emphasis and extension has a ways to go, but normal treble is a rarity in the $200 bracket for IEMs - even wired ones - much less good treble at that. Consider me impressed on this front.
The interesting thing about the Buds Pro, though, is that it doesn’t actually follow the aforementioned Harman target too closely. It’s a good deal more V-shaped, bassier, and warmer. Recall that the Harman target is an aggregate curve; it stands that it’s not the ideal curve for many listeners, and it has its flaws. I’d argue the Buds Pro addresses a number of said flaws for the better even if I would still like to see some minor changes here and there. So in layman's terms? By all accounts, this is a very well-tuned IEM. The Buds Pro has a warm, fairly energetic signature that should not only appeal to more mainstream audiences, but that’ll also likely hold up to scrutiny from less forgiving ears.
Technical performance, or intangible performance, is a reference to characteristics of sound outside of measurable frequency response. In other words, we don’t know how to measure (or interpret from existing measurements) these traits yet. Here, also, is where more traditional, fancy-schmancy buzzwords like speed, dynamics, and detail retrieval, begin cropping up.
Like so, where the Buds Pro stumble hard is imaging. This is a term that’s slung loosely in the audio world, but I am most closely referring to the Buds Pro lacking a “center image” that is created between two separate channels (so the left and right earbuds). In practice, this translates to a distinct lack of soundstage depth in which stuff that would normally be in the center image - for example, vocalists and drums - come from inside the head, seemingly compressed downwards. It stands that this phenomenon is not uncommon with most cheaper IEMs and TWS, but man, I have to say the Buds Pro are really pushing it. In tandem with the less controlled bass, the Buds Pro’s positional cues and layering ability, that is the space and distinction between instruments, also suffers.
Outside of this, and without getting too nitpicky, I’d say the Buds Pro puts on a decent showing. Surface-level, macro detail is present without blurring excessively and note decay is drawn out nice and natural. Soundstage width does seem to be slightly above average, perhaps by virtue of my attention being directed away from the center image. From memory, I don’t think it’s quite as wide as something like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, though.
Ultimately, the Buds Pro are right about where they should be technicality-wise. They’re not going to match the best wired stuff in their price bracket, much less kilobuck wired IEMs, but they’re slowly getting there.
The Galaxy Buds Shootout
Unfortunately, I have not heard the Galaxy Buds Live so I’ll refrain from commenting on them. What follows is how I’d break down the Galaxy Buds, Buds+, and Buds Pro’s differences:
- The original Buds and Buds+ follow the aforementioned Harman target more closely. In fact, the Buds+ adheres to the target almost exactly.
- In this respect, the Buds+ has the most controlled bass response of the three IEMs with a terrific sub-bass shelf that curves out at 200hZ. Of course, this comes with the usual issues of the Harman target: Too much relative emphasis past 3kHz and a lack of treble extension. This makes the Buds+ the most fatiguing of the three to listen to.
- The original Buds are more balanced, the least bassy of the three, but with some more mid-treble emphasis which makes them brighter by comparison, although perhaps not to the extent of the Buds+.
In general, boosting the treble region imparts a sense of clarity; boosting the bass region results in vice versa. The edge in technical performance, then, actually goes to the original Buds and Buds+. They’re leaner, brighter, more resolving IEMs in direct A/B comparison to the Buds Pro which, at the expense of a warmer, less-controlled bass response, is easier on the ears. To the Buds Pro’s credit, the Buds Pro also seems to have slightly better treble extension than its predecessors.
vs. Airpods Pro
The Galaxy Bud Pro is essentially Samsung’s answer to the Airpods Pro, so it’s only fitting I do a comparison, right? The Airpods Pro has been my daily driver for well over half a year, and I keep coming back to it because it’s a surprisingly good sounding IEM too. It’s a leaner, more reference-tuned IEM relative to the Buds Pro:
- Airpods Pro bass quantity is a good deal more subdued and mid-bass, punch emphasized. The Buds Pro have the edge in sheer slam and rumble, sounding warmer by extension.
- The upper-midrange of the Airpods Pro is also more subdued with less lower-treble impact and a noticeable hollowness to mid-treble crash relative to the Buds Pro.
- Technicality-wise, the Airpods Pro have a good edge in imaging, but are noticeably less dynamic than the Buds Pro. They resolve and capture detail at a similar level.
The tunings of these two IEMs are pretty different overall. Still, I’d give a slight edge to the Buds Pro in the tuning department, particularly when it comes to treble. The Buds Pro is noticeably fuller than the Airpods Pro here and with better extension to boot. Both are solid options for their respective target markets.
Should you buy the Buds Pro? Well, it’s complicated. Here, I do have to consider practical application. If you’re on iOS, then frankly, no. You’re probably better off just copping the Airpods Pro which integrate much more seamlessly and, while don’t sound quite as good head-to-head, are solid IEMs in their own right. On the other hand, if you’re on Android, then you’re trading the excellent fit of the original Buds and the battery life of the Buds+ for marginal gains in sound quality. So if you already own either the original Buds or Buds+, there’s really no reason to go for the Buds Pro.
But let’s address those marginal gains in sound quality. As for whether the Buds Pro is worth it on the merit of its sound quality alone, then yes, I think it is. It handily trades blows with its wired counterparts and has one of the most pleasing tonal balances I’ve heard of a TWS IEM. Needless to say the Buds Pro sure delivers from an often-overlooked, sound quality perspective even if I can’t help but feel that Samsung is missing out on a large demographic of potential buyers. Psst, Samsung. Hook up us iOS plebs with an app, will ya?
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