Samsung Gear IconX 2018 headphones review: Now they’re worth the price
Samsung's second attempt at wireless earbuds gets far closer to the mark, and finally justifies its $199 price.
The quick take
The IconX 2018 headphones don't change in core features or sound quality from the originals, but dramatically improve on battery life and software consistency. So now you get wireless earbuds that sound pretty good and last a long time, without annoying connectivity issues or the requirement that you plug them into a computer for software updates or media transfers. The fitness-focused exercise tracking, heart rate monitoring and workout coaching won't appeal to everyone, but the IconX 2018 are far closer to ideal wireless earbuds than the previous model.
- Battery life and charging process improved
- Pairing and connections work well
- Media transfers and updates now handled by phone
- Still expensive for "secondary" headphones
- Not everyone will value the fitness features
- Battery life less than typical neckbud-style headphones
- Sound quality isn't great
Samsung Gear IconX 2018 Things you'll love
The Gear IconX headphones released in 2016 were a great first attempt, but ultimately a flop. They were expensive, and riddled with "gen 1" issues including (but not limited to) bad battery life and questionable software. It took over a year, but Samsung has a refreshed version that fixes the glaring problems and lets you focus on what's great about the design.
This release is primarily focused on fixing problems with the original.
First and most importantly, battery life is dramatically better. Samsung rates the new Gear IconX at 7 hours of standalone music playback (from 4GB of internal storage), or a full 5 hours of playback over Bluetooth. They can handle 4 hours of calls over Bluetooth as well. The charging case, which is now smaller and has USB-C, adds one full charge to the earbuds or can give you an hour of use in just 10 minutes. Unlike the original model, I rarely thought about battery life on the IconX 2018 — I just used them, and when I got a low battery warning I used 'em a while longer then tossed them in the case for a bit. I'm not going to say that nobody will need more than 5 hours of continuous Bluetooth listening, but I think that benchmark is plenty high for the majority of people.
Samsung has also made important improvements to the software. Music transfers and software updates can be handled over Bluetooth using the Samsung Gear app now, rather than the super-clunky method from before that required using PC software and a USB cable. That app also lets you monitor battery percentage, manage notifications and more. It's not the prettiest experience, but it works.
The freedom of truly wireless earbuds is wonderful — and not just for hitting the gym.
Now that those issues have been fixed for this new version, you can focus on the great inherent features of this style of headphones. Not having a cord dangling around, or a big chunk of plastic resting around your neck, is a fantastic bit of freedom. That's especially true if you're running or hitting the gym, but even if you're just working around the house or doing some yard work. If the earbuds were a bit more comfortable — which is tough considering their relatively large size and weight for earbuds — you'd be able to forget they were there at all because of the lack of a cable weighing you down.
The workout detection and guidance actually work as well. So if you really want to be that person that's untethered when they exercise but still want music or a podcast to listen to, these headphones can get the job done. It's nowhere near as accurate as a wrist-worn wearable — like, say, the Gear Sport — but it's more than most headphones will give you. The touch controls can be finicky until you get used to manipulating such a small surface, but the set of controls is surprisingly robust and the spoken menus get the job done.
The Gear IconX 2018s had no issues staying connected to my phone, or to each other, even as I removed one bud or the other. With the latest software release, I didn't have any issues connecting or disconnecting from my phone upon opening or closing the charging case. And this wasn't just the case with a Samsung phone — this was with the Pixel 2.
Samsung Gear IconX 2018 Things you'll hate
Being that Samsung has fixed the inherent flaws with is original IconX headphones, the only things left in the negative column on the 2018 version are just inherent problems with truly wireless earbuds.
The earbuds still don't sound great, and they aren't particularly comfortable for hours of listening.
The biggest weakness of these tiny earbuds is sound quality. It's quite amazing that you can get all of these features in fully independent wireless earbuds, but the one thing you lost in the process is just raw sound quality. The IconX 2018s certainly don't sound as good as $200 wired earbuds (or $100 ones), or even as good as other Bluetooth in-ear headphones that connect with a cord. You give up quality to get these advanced features.
Even though the battery life is much-improved on the IconX 2018, it certainly isn't long enough for these headphones to be your all-day, every-day wear. 5 hours of Bluetooth listening is good, but having to carry around the case to pop them in when you're done to make sure you have another 5 hours waiting for you next time is a bit of a pain if you're going to be doing it every day. Larger headphones will offer you multiple times that, meaning you only have to charge every few days or so.
And that's probably alright, because I didn't find the IconX 2018 earbuds to be comfortable enough to wear for 5 hour straight. The rubber tips are decent and the ear hooks to hold them in place are good once you select the right size, but these are still bigger and more imposing than typical earbuds. There's more weight in there and more pressure points on your ear than you'd ideally want — again, a trade-off for having the freedom of truly wireless earbuds.
Some people won't pay $199 for a secondary pair of headphones.
The only other significant downside to the IconX 2018s is the price. If you plan to use the fitness features and local storage for music, they're absolutely worth the money now. But if you're looking at your headphones simply as a Bluetooth conduit to whatever's playing on your phone, you'll feel like the $199 price is too much for that function alone.
Worth the money now
Samsung Gear IconX 2018 Should you buy it?
With the second generation IconX headphones, Samsung has fixed two of the biggest issues with the buds: they now last longer (and charge faster), and the software experience has improved markedly. That means you don't have anxiety about battery life every time you wear them for more than an hour, and you don't have to think about connecting them to a computer for updates or music transfers any longer.
They're finally worth the money — but that doesn't mean everyone will pay $200 for secondary headphones.
With these core functional problems fixed, you're left with a solid experience. The IconX 2018 headphones handle pairing and connections well, swap between using one or both buds seamlessly, and include useful (if tough to get acquainted with) fitness functions for certain types of users. The earbuds don't sound fantastic, but nobody's buying this style of headphones for top-notch sound quality — they want all of the associated features and freedom that wireless headphones provide.
Choosing whether the IconX 2018 headphones are the ones for you is a pretty simple decision. First, you need to be in the market for ~$200 headphones. Next, you need to be willing to spend that kind of money on headphones that aren't designed for daily listening, but for more specialized times when you need the benefits of truly wireless headphones that don't have clunky cables, straps or attachments. As a second set of headphones for working out or times when you need music or podcasts without any encumbrances, the IconX 2018s deliver.
Still, these headphones feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. By offering fitness-focused features like local music storage, heart rate detection and workout guidance, the IconX 2018 headphones kind of stand alone in their own niche segment. I can't help but think that a "standard" version without these advanced features, and an associated price drop to around $129, would compare quite favorably to the Apple AirPods and even other Bluetooth headphone segments.