Table of Contents
Loyal readers of In-Ear Fidelity would know that I’ve been a big fan of Samsung’s true-wireless earbuds, and for good reason. It’s not coincidence that Samsung started to churn out excellent audio products after the acquisition of Harman International, a company dedicated to research into consumer sound profiles and the ultimate proliferator of the “Harman Target”, a frequency response target that basically predicts consumer preference.
The original Galaxy Buds was an amazing product, both in its time and till today. The Buds Plus, while making big strides in things like battery life and IPX standards, wasn’t really an improvement in terms of sound (in my opinion). And the Galaxy Buds Live… well, technically they’re earbuds and I hate earbuds, so I skipped that generation entirely.
With the release of the Samsung Galaxy S21 series of phones, Samsung also announced the release of their newest update to the Galaxy Buds line: the Galaxy Buds Pro. Sporting a strong IPX7 rating and ANC capabilities, seems like now they’ve caught up to the rest of the TWS market in terms of features and QoL changes.
But this is In-Ear Fidelity, and people read us for one thing and one thing only: sound quality. So now we answer the question that everyone else skims over: how good do the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro actually sound?
Driver configuration: Dual dynamic driver setup
This Galaxy Buds Pro was kindly provided by Samsung.
And Non-Audio Opinions
If you’re not interested in the following, you can skip right to the next section using the Table of Contents above. This section is only published on reviews and articles that would attract a more mainstream audience (e.g. my AirPods Max review).
So first and foremost, I’m sure there’ll be many reading this review who aren’t familiar with me or my work who would (understandably) be asking: who is this guy? Why is he calling himself an audiophile? Why should I listen to him?
Hello, I am known as “crinacle” and I run In-Ear Fidelity (IEF), a fully independent website dedicated to the “portable audio” scene of the audiophile hobby, mainly focused on headphones and earphones. I first started in the hobby in the late 2000s (the earliest official record being my Head-Fi registration in 2011) and started getting a reputation for myself only around 2016, with the IEF website being created in early 2019. In short, I’ve been in the hobby for a little over a decade, and been involved in the audiophile community for a little under that.
(Do note that the portable audio hobby is relatively young, so don’t expect your average “veteran of the hobby” to have “decades of experience” like with the 2-channel speaker world.)
Currently I maintain the world’s largest public database of frequency response measurements for headphones and earphones, and I also maintain highly popular ranking lists of (most of) said headphones and earphones.
This is my full-time job so one could call me a “professional” considering that, well, this is my profession. It is my job to keep up to date with the audio scene, provide my thoughts and opinions on various products and topics, and of course making sure that my measurements database don’t go obsolete by keeping it updated with new releases.
As for why you should listen to me… that’s really your call to make. On many occasions I’ve labeled myself as simply “a guy on the internet” because that’s really all I am: just one of the many voices out there in the world. And while of course nobody should take my word (or anybody else’s) as gospel, I do hope that you would take my opinions into consideration when contemplating a purchase. If anything else, at least just for audio-related concerns since that’s my specialisation.
Probably the most interesting thing about the Buds Pro’s specifications (at least, from the nerd’s standpoint) is that they’ve shifted away from the unique square-shaped dynamic drivers designed for the Galaxy Buds Plus back to the traditional circular dynamics:
Now I’m personally a sucker for multi-DD designs, especially one that’s coaxial like in the Pros. Gives me real IER-Z1R vibes.
Of course driver specs and numbers don’t tell the full story at all, so read on more so see if these new drivers result in improved sound.
ANC, Ambient mode & Isolation
Not going to touch on this too much considering that I don’t have the tools to measure isolating capabilties yet. In my own experience using the Buds Pro outdoors, the ANC is serviceable but nothing I’d consider groundbreaking. The isolation of the housing itself is probably the weak link; while the ANC is effective enough to cancel out low frequency noise, the lack of robust higher-frequency cancellation results in the environment around me sounding “bright” or “bassless” rather than effectively muffling noise.
Certainly not as effective as a good ANC headphone (Bose 700, Sony WH1000XM4, even the Apple AirPods Max) but at the very least the ANC functionality does not create discomfort for me.
Comfort & Fit
The form factor of the Buds Pro is similar to its predecessors (excluding the Galaxy Buds Live for obvious reasons), and is one of the best fitting TWS earphones on the market today for that reason. A secure fit helped by hugging the contours of the concha bowl means that it’ll never feel like falling out (unlike the notoriously huge Sony WF-1000XM3) and works very well as a pair of sleeping buds.
5 hours. Yes that’s all you get, 5 hours on a single charge. That’s with ANC on of course; with ANC off you’d be able to get 8 hours on a single charge, but let’s face it: when you buy a Buds Pro, you wouldn’t be using it without ANC. And let’s not compare to the Galaxy Buds Plus that manages a hefty 11 hours on a single charge.
I don’t find it a problem once I’m outdoors, but it would be nice to not have to worry about charging my TWS earphones every night. The Galaxy Buds Pro’s case contains another 13 hours of charge (assuming ANC on) bringing the total to 18 hours of playtime, whereas the Galaxy Buds Plus almost doubles that with 11 hours of earbuds charge with an additional 22 hours of case charge.
Like with previous Galaxy Buds models, the Galaxy Wearables app supports the use of different equaliser presets, namely:
- Bass Boost
However, as the Galaxy Wearables app will not support the Galaxy Buds Pro on iOS, I am forced to regard these as “exclusive features” and as such will not be a factor in this review. However, I have done some measurements to determine the kind of EQ profile used for each preset.
Black represents the Buds Pro’s FR after applying the preset.
Grey represents the Buds Pro’s default FR.
Green represents the EQ profile of each preset.
In my opinion, the default preset still sounds the best. I wouldn’t bother with this gimmick.
Signature & Tonality
This review is based on the Galaxy Buds Pro connected to the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2.
The Galaxy Buds Pro’s sound signature can be described as a “warm V-shape”, wherein there is an emphasis in the treble frequencies alongside a general boost in the lower frequencies that encompass both the bass and lower midrange frequencies. A better technical descriptor would also be “warm Harman” for reasons explained further below.
It is certainly far thicker and warmer than I was expecting; after all, it’s no secret that Samsung had been taking a lot of tuning cues from Harman’s research in most of their recent audio products. I myself am not a big fan of the Harman (In-Ear) Target, much less worship it, and for those out-of-the-loop here’s a brief rundown of why:
- Way too much emphasis from 2kHz to 10kHz (shouty, intense, shrill, fatiguing etc.)
- High contrast between the upper midrange and lower midrange, which is already 1-2dB recessed compared to a flat line (thin mids, no body, lacks note weight)
- Probable underestimation of the required upper-treble response, though the Harman research admits that this is due to coupler limitations past 10kHz
Thankfully, the Buds Pro seem to have deviated rather significantly from what some in the audiophile community would consider “The One True Curve”. Admittedly the deviations can be for the worse in some places, but mostly for the better overall.
Buds Pro measurements compensated to Harman IE 2019
Comparison courtesy of the Graph Comparison Tool
Probably the biggest change would be the increase to the lower-midrange in the Buds Pro, resulting in less of a contrast between the lower mids and the upper mids. This results in far less “shout” and harshness in the tonal profile of the Buds Pro and makes higher-register instruments far more pleasant to listen to. But while the midrange is thicker, I wouldn’t characterise the Buds Pro as a thick-sounding pair of IEMs either; it nicely straddles the line without being coloured in either direction.
The one caveat I would put is that the Buds Pro could have a more pronounced notch around 200Hz to better separate the bass from the midrange. In stock configuration, the Buds Pro is edging towards a slightly bloated bass response, at least moreso than its predecessors. I have heard bass far less controlled than the Buds Pro in various other IEMs, sure, but when such an IEM is so close to being tonally “all there”, the minor flaws are just amplified that much more.
Outside of that, I’d really have to nitpick to find a big flaw in the Buds Pro’s tonality. Instruments sound as they should with minimal colouration, with little fatigue or harshness going on. Tuning-wise, Samsung have almost nailed it. Not “nailed it” like a bare passing grade, no. “Almost nailed it” in that they just need a little extra refinement to join in the ranks of being one of the best tuned IEMs available, regardless of price and/or presence of wires.
- Warm V-shaped sound signature
- “Warm Harman” also a valid descriptor
- Good balance in the midrange
- No shoutiness or harshness
- Mid-bass is slightly bloated
Tone grade: A+
Alright sure, the Buds Pro has the tonality down on lock. But they’re still unfortunately bottlenecked by one big thing: Bluetooth.
Or at least… I think it’s Bluetooth. Regardless of the actual cause, one thing is clear: even the Buds Pro has a ways to go when fighting against the wired crowd on the technical front. With the Buds Pro it’s more obvious than ever that the Bluetooth TWS market has hit a wall in terms of “the intangibles” (resolving ability and imaging, though the former is more relevant in this discussions). And while the Buds Pro aren’t bad by any means, it’s one of those cases where I can see the unfulfilled potential bottlenecked by… something. Whether it being the Bluetooth connection or the quality of the drivers themselves, that is a separate topic altogether.
There are some improvements here and there relative to the Buds Plus at least. The big change here would be in timbral performance; I’ve been a big critic of the Buds Plus’ treble timbre having this weird “bitcrushed” quality to it, and giving the overall sound a weird artificial edge to it. The Buds Pro, thankfully, has none of that going on this time. It just sounds like a good dynamic driver IEM, which may sound like a backhanded compliment but is harder to achieve than one may think.
Next to something like, say, a Moondrop Blessing 2 (one of the best $300 IEMs available), the difference in detail retrieval is apparent. Sure, the Blessing 2 has higher clarity (which is function of frequency response) but also manages to resolve more low-level detail than the Buds Pro, which sounds a lot more obscured in comparison. The Samsung Scalable Codec (SSC) does help a little over traditional SBC, but it’s not a day-and-night difference. At the very least, it’s not a difference that results in a completely different grading.
- No timbral issues like in the Buds Plus
- Good resolution, but bottlenecked
Technical grade: B
A brief primer on my valuation system, I give out “awards” based on three merits:
★: “Worth the price”
★★: “Redefines the price bracket”
★★★: “Worth the Blind”
Here is the important part though, these are awarded purely on the basis of sound quality. After all, this is an audio-focused headphone review website, and as such the ratings are audio-focused as well.
Within the realm of the TWS market, I’d have no qualms in calling the Galaxy Buds Pro as the best-sounding TWS earphone available. Of course, they share this “award” with the AKG N400 but I don’t think that matters too much considering that a) the N400 is pretty much a Korean-exclusive product and b) AKG is owned by Samsung anyways.
Against the rest of the IEM market in general, it’s pretty much the same situation as well. The tuning of the Buds Pro is what really carries it up to an exceptional status, and of course with the combination of acceptable technical performance means that it is well truly “punching above its weight” at its price bracket of $200. And let me be clear again that the Buds Pro isn’t just great relative to the TWS market, but the entire IEM market.
For that reason, I’d have no qualms in bestowing the Buds Pro with the coveted double-star rating. The wired purists may hate it but they cannot deny: the bar for $200 has never been higher.
Value Rating: ★★
The Galaxy Buds Live (AKA the “Beans”) have been deliberately omitted because they’re technically earbuds, and earbuds don’t deserve any attention on this website.
The Galaxy Buds Pro take the most significant departure from Harman amongst the three, being both the warmest and the bassiest. As a consequence, the Buds Pro is also the “dirtiest”, with the least controlled bass response and more significant blooming. However they do also have the best treble extension of the three, and so the Buds Pro takes the lead as the TWS that sounds the most “airy” and more representative of the harmonics present in brighter instruments.
Against the Galaxy Buds Plus, as mentioned, the Buds Pro manages the solve the treble timbre problems of its predecessor. The Buds Plus is also noticeably thinner sounding and with greater sub-bass presence, though the Buds Pro has more overall bass presence. Technicalities are similar between the two, so between the two I’d consider the Buds Pro as a valid upgrade.
With a three-generation gap, the original Galaxy Buds holds up surprisingly well to the Buds Pro sound-wise, with the most significant differences being in the tuning itself. The Galaxy Buds is noticeably brighter and far less bassy overall, making it the TWS with better clarity. However, the Buds Pro has the clear advantage in treble extension, and the tonal balance of the Pro comes closer to my own tastes and preferences.
The difference between the three isn’t really as clear-cut as “Pro > Plus > Original”. For most ears, the sonic differences are minor and more to do with tuning and tonal changes rather than any appreciable improvement in sheer technicalities. For most intents and purposes, one would pick the Pro for ANC capabilities, the Plus for battery life, and the original Buds as the cheapest model available.
Regardless on your thoughts on the subpar ANC/isolation and mediocre battery life, there is one thing the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro leads the market on: sound quality.
The Buds Pro is one of the best TWS IEMs I have tested and can very well give similar “audiophile” IEMs a run for their money. Sure, the bottlenecks are there in terms of the mandatory Bluetooth connection fudging up some detail. But from a tuning standpoint… Samsung has it down pat.
Grade: B+ ★★
For those interested in a larger perspective into the TWS market as a whole, do take a look at my Buyer’s Guide below.