I love music, and because of that, I’ll never forgive Apple for killing the headphone jack. The humble 3.5 mm headphone jack was convenient and simple. Swapping sources was a matter of plugging and unplugging your headphones. Wireless headphones never have been as convenient and I expect it’ll be years before they’ll ever be as convenient. To top it off, using wireless headphones means worrying about battery life, adapters, features and everything but music. Value for money is an entirely different argument that’s not worth getting into at this time.
This problem is particularly frustrating outside of Apple’s ecosystem. Apple’s W1 chip, introduced with the AirPods a few years ago, is the perfect example of a wireless system that works within its targeted ecosystem. Pairing is as simple as popping open the cover. Audio doesn’t lag between buds and as long as you’re signed in to all your devices (iPhone, Watch, Mac), the transition is seamless. Yes, you’re limited by the sheer lack of variety (AirPods and Beats are your only realistic options), but usability, at least, is spot on.
Outside that world, things are a mess. The pairing mechanism is clunky, Android, Windows and Android Wear still can’t talk to each other properly and everything is just jugaad. Even if you’re connected to multiple devices, seamlessly transitioning between them is not something that happens intelligently.
Using wireless headphones in 2018 is only convenient if you’re stuck to a single source.
Enter, into this messy world, the Samsung Gear Icon X. These wireless earbuds are an attempt to do for Samsung what AirPods did for Apple. They’re meant to at least fix the usability issues with wireless ‘buds.
Unfortunately, they don’t.
Out of the dreg heap that is wireless audio in the Android world, the Icon X is the least egregious. It’s a set that sounds quite decent, if not particularly enthralling, and its fitness features add to its value but only assuming you don’t already have a Samsung Watch or other fitness tracker. And that’s the only praise I can give the set.
The Icon X is a bit frustrating to use even within Samsung’s ecosystem, and grating on the nerves outside it. Ergonomics are also on the more iffy side of things. The only reason you’ll want to use them is that you don’t have much of an option. This isn’t a bad set, but it could have been so much better.
Build and Design: 8.5/10
The Icon X comes in a pill-shaped charging case that’s a couple of inches long, an inch wide and about as tall. It’s not the most pocketable of designs and will stick out no matter where you put it.
The front of the case features a button that you press to pop open the case, and alongside it are two status LEDs. On the other side is a connection status LED along with a Bluetooth pairing button for when you’ll inevitably be forced to use that option.
Pop open the case and you’ll be greeted by two earbuds nestled snugly in their slots. These being truly wireless earbuds, you’ll notice no cable connecting the two 'buds. Contact points within the slots and on the ‘buds ensure that charging and connectivity are taken care of when in the case.
The inside of the case is covered in some sort of soft-touch material that feels a bit like rubber. That material is, however, a fingerprint magnet and gets dirty very easily.
Pop the buds out and you’ll notice that they’re actually quite small. The Bose SoundSport Free, in comparison, stick out like bits of oversized popcorn.
The Icon X ‘buds feature little wings to help nestle them more securely in your ears and, unlike the SoundSport Free, the ear tips are meant to enter the ear canal.
The ‘buds feature an accelerometer and internal storage and can thus track your workout as well as play music independent of your phone.
The sides are touch sensitive and can be used in lieu of an in-line remote. A sensor on the inside of the earbuds determines when the ‘buds are inside your ear.
Overall, the buds are much better designed than the competing Bose SoundSport Free.
I’ve used a great many in-ear designs in the past, including those from Denon, Klipsch, Bose, Martin Logan, 1more, etc. In all these years, I’ve never encountered a set that was as fatiguing as the Icon X is after long sessions. For some reason, it always felt like a relief when removing the set from my ears, almost like they could breathe again. This is not something I’ve experienced with any other in-ear set and I hope it’s an issue that is limited to my ears alone.
The Icon X otherwise sat very firmly in my ears. No amount of head-shaking could dislodge them. They even managed to survive my daily commute in Mumbai’s notoriously over-crowded local trains.
The one thing I found truly frustrating with the set was touch control. In theory, it sounds really nice. You touch one of the ‘buds to play/pause, swipe to control volume and swipe to switch tracks.
In practice, the Icon X would hardly ever respond to swipes and every time I’d reach up to adjust the set, I’d end up pausing my music or worse. This was particularly irritating when jogging where I’d keep pausing my tracks when brushing aside sweat or a stray hair.
Kudos to Apple for going with accelerometers instead of touch controls. Whatever else you might say about AirPods, they’re at least ergonomically sound.
The Icon X is supposed to offer an AirPod-like pairing solution. You keep your Samsung phone nearby, pop open the lid of the Icon X case and the pairing happens. This happened once. Just once. And never again after. My only option after this was to use the Bluetooth button on the back and pair the Icon X just as I would any other Bluetooth headset.
This was when attempting to pair with a Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and a Note 9.
I also tried pairing the set with an iPhone 8 and a Fiio M7 media player. Pairing, in all cases, was the same as it would be with a regular Bluetooth headset.
To be honest, I have a decent enough home audio setup and all critical listening happens on that. Audio on the go, for me, is for my commute or when I’m jogging or walking the dog.
For such tasks, i.e. non-critical listening, the Icon X is perfect. There’s a lot of bass, which is a bit boomier than I’d like, but the sound isolation is good and the overall sound signature is pleasant enough and should be satisfactory for most users.
I did try listening to some of my favourite tracks in the comfort and silence of my bedroom, but I quickly gave up on that idea. Heavy bass aside, the tracks feel a bit claustrophobic and lack the range that I’m used to hearing. Again, bear in mind that it’s unfair to expect the Icon X, or any other wireless set in this price range, to offer such a level of quality.
As far as audio quality is concerned, I think the Bose SoundSport Free have an edge. On the other hand, the Free have serious sync issues when playing video and given that they allow sound to leak out and in, they’re also not necessarily the ideal choice.
When listening to music via an iPhone 8 or even the Fiio M7 – which, by the way, supports uncompressed audio formats (FLAC, AIFF, etc.) and can stream over a variety of wireless standards, including LDAC – I could hear a consistent crackling in the background. I don’t know what it was but that crackling would just not go away. With the M7, it didn’t matter which Bluetooth standard or file type I used.
The crackling would disappear only when I paired the Icon X with a Samsung phone.
Another issue was latency. On the Note 8, I noticed no audio sync issues when watching YouTube or Netflix content. On the iPhone 8, there was a noticeable amount of lag, making videos unwatchable on anything other than a Samsung device. The lag is inherent to the design of truly wireless sets, so it’s not something to hold against Samsung. As mentioned earlier, the sync issues aren’t as bad as they are with the Bose SoundSport Free.
Given these issues, I simply gave up testing the Icon X with other devices. Like the AirPods, they seem to work best only within Samsung’s ecosystem, and that’s fine with me.
Fitness tracking: The Icon X includes support for a limited amount of fitness tracking. While the expensive (for the battery) heart-rate monitor is now gone, the inbuilt accelerometer can be used to monitor a jog or a run.
Enabling the feature is as simple as enabling the workout from the Samsung Health app. Once enabled, you can even pick a fitness regimen for yourself. You can, for example, start a run and have the Icon X help you maintain a steady pace. It’ll goad you on when you slow down or tell you to slow down when you’re going too fast. It’ll also tell you when to take a breather and when to get back on your feet.
I wouldn’t say this is far more functional than smartwatch or a dedicated fitness tracker, but it certainly gets the job done for some use-cases.
At the end of a workout, the health app will throw up some stats.
I enjoyed using the set while on a jog but felt it unsafe to continue using it outside. The impressive passive noise isolation means that in outdoor environments, you’ll be oblivious to any audio cues, like a beeping horn. There is an option within the app for enabling ambient audio passthrough, and while it did work, I didn’t think it worked well enough for me to feel comfortable.
The set should be perfect for a gym or other private environment, however.
Call quality: 8.5/10
I had no complaints in this department. The Icon X’s mics were surprisingly adept at picking up my voice and voice quality was top notch. The passive noise cancelling also meant that voices were loud and clear.
Signal strength: Signal strength was also not an issue. The set never lost connectivity or sync when using a Samsung phone and the range was good for at least 20 feet in an open environment.
Battery life was satisfactory. I managed to eke out about 4-5 hours of use from the ‘buds per charge, and the case managed to provide about 4-5 full charges. In effect, I was looking at about 20-30 hrs of use from a single charge. This is nice because it meant that I’d only need to charge the set twice a week at a high.
The charging indicators on the back of the case will give you an idea of the remaining charge. The earbuds themselves will also tell you when they’re running low on charge.
Verdict and Price in India
I’m in two minds about the Samsung Gear Icon X. On the one hand, they’re not as refined as the AirPods and lack the audio quality to make them a recommended set. They also don’t seem to play well outside of Samsung’s ecosystem.
On the other hand, if you’re invested in Samsung’s ecosystem, you really don’t have any other option. The Gear Icon X, while only half-decent, is the only real choice you have.
It’s a decent enough set that tries to do a lot. It even succeeds in some areas, but honestly, it’s still too clunky a design for me to recommend to anyone but the biggest Samsung fans out there.
Sadly, the wireless audio ecosystem is so shockingly inadequate that I can’t think of an alternative to the Icon X either.
The best advice I can give you is to buy a set of cheap wireless ‘buds and to manage with them till something decent comes around. That might take a couple of years, however.
Alternatively, save up a bit more and pick up a nice wireless set from the likes of Beyerdynamic or Bowers and Wilkins and the like. The audio quality will, at least, make up for the inconvenience.
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