Having not actually owned and used a pair of wireless earphones prior to this review, I had virtually no inkling of what to expect when the Samsung Gear IconX arrived at my desk.
All I gathered from the packaging and what their company rep told me was that the earphones were made with active runners in mind.
Okay, I thought to myself. I'd always been used to listening to my music on more traditional wired devices and can adequately tell good audio quality from bad-I'd studied and worked in audio and owned a pair of Audio Technica M50s for six years before carelessly misplacing them-so I figured it would be at least fun to have a go at these and use them to help me stick to my 2018 fitness resolutions.
Now for a brief rundown: 2018's version of the Gear IconX comes as a reissue of the original that first released in 2016, with various improvements over the old version (sound quality, battery life, Bluetooth reception) promised by Samsung.
Among the slew of features on these earphones are an in-built fitness tracker, 4GB of onboard storage for music, a touted 7 hours of battery life, and touch controls on the sides of the earbuds.
These don't come cheap, however-buyers can expect to shell out close to RM800 (S$267) for a pair on Lazada.
The unit that I got came in an attention-grabbing (and borderline obnoxious) shade of hot pink. I decided then that I would only run with these at night so as to avoid embarrassment (my colleagues have already shamed me for my fragile masculinity).
The earphones are also available in black and grey, for those who prefer their workout gear to be less showy.
I found the build quality to be fairly decent, what with soft touch plastics used for both the pill-shaped charging case and the earphones themselves.
Testing them out, it seemed as though the IconX might find itself fitting better in bigger sized ears. While they fit snugly in mine (I'm 6'5" and relatively big), they didn't sit that well in my sister's (she's considerably more average in size). But still, they worked as advertised.
I also wore them for 40 to 45 minute intervals, and experienced no discomfort, which is a plus.
The charging case that accompanies the IconX is small enough to fit into trouser pockets (may cause a bit of a bulge), serves to pair up Bluetooth connections, and can provide the earphones with around an hour of juice from a 10 to 15 minute charge.
While the build's all dandy, I had a few gripes with the performance of the earphones themselves. But that's not saying all is bad.
Firstly, I quite liked the touch controls. Just merely swiping and tapping the sides of the earphones to pause, play, skip music, adjust the volume and answer calls was a nice luxury that I'd like to have more of.
In the least, it beat having to whip out my phone from my pocket every time I wanted to change the music or answer a call.
The noise-cancelling works well enough, too. External sounds were kept to a minimum and allowed the music to come forth unhindered, and the option to allow ambient noise in through the built-in mic does the job well enough.
My only complaint would be the artificial quality of the ambient noise that comes through when the feature is enabled; but it's not why people buy the IconX for, so hardly a dealbreaker.
Moving on to the actual fitness component of the IconX: the on-board tracker performed without a hitch with the use of a paired phone (users will need to download the Samsung Gear app from their respective app stores).
It kept tabs on the time of the workout, distance travelled, and calories burned, and tallied pretty closely with what was shown on the screen of a treadmill when I decided to run indoors (there were some small discrepancies but I assume those were due to incline).
When I took the IconX out for a brisk walk around my neighbourhood, the running coach (a new feature) automatically switched on and began speaking in to my ear.
She provided cues such as "walk briskly during warmup", sometimes telling me to "maintain a steady pace", and then interspersing the cues with frequent motivational quips such as "believe in yourself", "keep it up" and finally granting me a congratulatory "great job!" once I stopped moving, all in a very impersonal and computer-like tone.
In all respects, the IconX performs its fitness duties just as advertised; the tracked information is fairly accurate and I can see how some users might appreciate an electronic voice coach accompanying them during their run sessions. But as one who prefers to plan my own fitness routines, I'd rather be left alone with my music-no slight on the IconX.
AN AUDIBLE SIGH
Audio quality on the IconX however, is a miss. Considering how well everything else worked, it's nothing less than a disappointment to find that a pair of earphones retailing at just shy of RM800 doesn't sound the business.
Low end frequencies were reproduced with a muffled quality, the mids were drowned out, and the highs came out tinny at times.
Users who enjoy rock, EDM, and other dynamic genres may also be deterred by the clipping and distortion that occurs whenever the music gets 'loud'.
Multiple times during one of my runs, I was so put off at how poor my Alt Metal playlist sounded (during a breakdown of a Northlane track, I could barely distinguish the chugs of the guitar from the screams of the vocalist) that I found myself tempted to switch to the 2013 Apple earbuds that I carried along with me.
But for the sake of the review, I switched over to my Relaxing Piano playlist and found the audio quality just marginally more acceptable, though still far from enjoyable.
I found that the best way to mitigate the poor sound was to fiddle with my phone's in-built EQ. But no matter how much I toyed with the frequencies, nothing could compensate for the poor stereo image and distortions at high volumes. Needless to say, I eventually gave in and switched to my wired plugs.
It's a shame. I really do see the concept of the IconX doing well in the market (whether I'd get one for myself is different issue). It's a product that could have been greater than the sum of its parts, but sadly due to the subpar audio alone, the only people I'd recommend these earphones to would be those who prioritise fitness above all else, and at the same time don't listen to loud music.
All told, the Samsung Gear IconX is a solid piece of tech that that's let down by one of its two main features.
The fitness tracking is solid, the touch controls are great, and the cited improvements over its predecessor appear to be all true, but the poor audio compels me to mark this one as a miss, especially when they retail at a relatively high price point.
This article was first published on Vulcan Post