Samsung Gear Icon X review: Wire-free wonder or cableless calamity? | Tech News
Samsung was among the first to join the wire-free revolution with its Gear Icon X wireless in-ear earphones. The product didn’t exactly set the world alight, though, so the company followed it up at the end of 2017 with a newer, bigger pair with better battery life.
In addition to the wire-free perk, Samsung also markets the Icon X as fitness-focused. The question is: can these in-ears compete with our other wire-free favourites?
Secure and snug fit
As with any wire-free earphones there still remains the concern of whether they’ll fall out of your ears during use. Even though a cable rarely supplies any real structural support, having such a tether connecting two earbuds is still a more secure option.
With the Icon X, Samsung has produced a fit that’s as secure and snug as the Jabra Elite. The fit is partly down to the rounded shape and grippy silicon around the Icon X buds’ middles, but predominantly because of the small sports fin on each that tucks inside the ridge of each ear. It tucks in nicely, ensuring that the ear buds won’t ever fall out.
Thankfully, that doesn’t mean the buds feel like they’re stretching your ear canals. After a couple of hours’ wear, however, the snug fit does start to get a little uncomfortable. We found the two hour mark was about the limit we wanted them in our ears.
On the whole, the looks are stylish and subtle, with no distracting buttons, nor eye-catching design features. The black model we tested is simply matte black, while the underside hosts gold-plated connection points which line-up with the connectors inside the portable, pill-shaped charging case.
On the outside of each earbud is a touch-sensitive panel that you can use to control music playback. Whether you want to skip tracks, change the volume, play or pause, there’s a gesture for it. Sadly, it’s not something that’s easy to master on such a small surface. We found some gestures got mistaken for others, resulting in skipping a track when what we really wanted to do was change the volume, for instance.
We also found that the earphones would trigger an exercise activity just as we were putting them in, and not intending on doing exercise at all. In the end, we found the experience easier and less prone to accidental activities and mistaken gestures when we just permanently locked the touch surfaces, so they couldn’t be used.
There are so many earphones out there that don’t give you the option to adjust the sound profile, but thankfully the Samsung Icon X isn’t one of those. While there’s no in-depth 9-band equaliser, you can adjust between a few different presets to change the sound style. There’s bass, soft, dynamic, clear and treble boost to choose from. We stuck with dynamic for a punchy sound, which still had plenty of bass and mid-level pop to keep things immersive.
The ambient sound option is one of the Icon X’s most enjoyable sound performance aspects. With it switched on, and the voice focus activated, it’s possible to both listen to music and hear what’s going on in the outside world. Turn it to the maximum level and everything around becomes really clear and amplified. It may not be a feature we would use constantly, but used while running near busy roads and junctions it adds a level of awareness and safety.
All the features but one thing missing
The best way to make the most of the Icon X is by signing up to Samsung Health, the fitness-tracking platform built to collate and make sense of fitness data from the company’s range of activity trackers and wearables.
The Icon X isn’t quite as high-tech as some other fitness tracking earphones we’ve tried, but there are some smart features. You can set them up to auto-detect when you’re working out, and have that information collated in the Health app. Alternatively the touch sensor on one earbud can be used to manually activate, but as we’ve already noted, that’s often too easy to activate by accident.
For all of its features and design positives, the Icon X is missing one key element that would push it into being the perfect workout companion: a heart-rate sensor. Without this, you still need a wrist or chest-worn monitor to get accurate activity stats.
When wire-free earphones first started flooding the market, one of the most common issues with them was connectivity performance. Turns out, building a pair of small, wire-free earphones that not only need to connect with the source, but also each other, is hard.
For the most part, the Icon X does a good job of remaining connected to source. There aren’t any long downtimes, where one earbud shuts off or the music stops playing, as we’ve seen on a few competitors. That said, the X’s performance is not perfect either.
The biggest connectivity issue is what we’d describe as a glitch, rather than a full connectivity problem. Every so often, maybe once per song (roughly) there’s a fraction of a second where playback stops, like a little stutter. We tested it using both streaming music over Wi-Fi and mobile connection, as well as playing playlists and albums we’d downloaded for offline playback in Tidal and Spotify, and the issue was the same irrelevant of source and connection type.
Lasts your whole run, and then some
Samsung promises up to five hours of playback using Bluetooth to stream music from a phone to headphones (up to seven hours when playing music directly from the Icon X’s internal storage). That’s a solid claim, although we could never quite make it to the five hour mark outside the case, more like four hours.
After two hours of listening to music through Spotify and Tidal, the battery was down to 50 per cent. It’s worth noting, however, that for part of this testing period we had the ambient noise pass-through at its loudest level and with the voice enhancement switched on.
When they do need a top-up, the mobile charging case holds its own charge, so it’s possible to recharge on the go for future use.
The Icon X offers a tonne of features and decent dynamic sound, making them among the most versatile wire-free in-ear earphones on the market.
Saying that, they’re not perfect. The touchpad controls are tricky, while the connection glitched every now and then producing a less than seamless listening experience.
There’s also no heart-rate monitor, which limits the fitness-tracking potential. Still, with the Samsung Health tie-in and ability to store music offline on the earphones themselves, the Icon X certainly give the Bragi Dash Pro a run for their money.
Alternatives to consider
Bose SoundSport Free
The SoundSport Free is among our favourite wire-free in-ears. The design may be a little ‘out there’, but the sound is fantastic and the earbuds stay securely in the ears during exercise, without feeling uncomfortable at all.
Jabra Elite Sport
With a heart-rate monitor and smartphone app compatibility which can track your runs using your phone’s GPS, superb connectivity performance, and decent sound, the Jabra is a better fitness-focused wireless in-ear experience.