AirPods Pro vs. Galaxy Buds Live: Sound quality, noise cancellation compared - CNET

With good sound quality, excellent active noise canceling and compact design, Apple's AirPods Pro set the tone

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With good sound quality, excellent active noise canceling and compact design, Apple's AirPods Pro set the tone for premium wireless earbuds. But Samsung may give its rival a run for its money. It's taking Apple head-on with the Galaxy Buds Live, which have similar features like noise canceling and a truly wireless design, at a significantly cheaper price. The Galaxy Buds cost $170, while the AirPodsPro cost $249. How do you decide which earbuds are best for you? As I found out, it's not as straightforward as choosing based on price alone.

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These wireless earbuds are really the jack of all trades, especially for iPhone users. Audio is well balanced for music, podcasts and calls. But their one standout feature is that they have excellent active noise cancellation. And if you need to be more aware of your surroundings, you can pipe in external sound with transparency mode. Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The Galaxy Buds Live, affectionately dubbed the Galaxy Beans after their unique shape, sit in your ears rather than your ear canal. Depending on the shape of your ear, they may end up being more comfortable for prolonged wear. The sound quality is great when left on default settings, but you can also tweak the audio profile with presets in the Galaxy Wearable app. Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review.

Noise canceling is way better on AirPods Pro, but Galaxy Buds Live sound better

Both of these earbuds sound good. But the Galaxy Buds Live have a much more dynamic sound profile when left on default settings, with a punchy bass response that suits a range of musical genres. The AirPods Pro sound more neutral, with less bass, which makes them balanced for jumping between podcasts and music. 

Samsung's Galaxy Wearable app (on iOS and Android) lets you change the sound profile for the Buds Live to one of six different presets, like bass-boost or soft. While the AirPods Pro lack a user-adjustable equalizer (unless you use an EQ in Apple Music or Spotify) there is an adaptive equalizer that changes the sound automatically based on variables like your ear shape. Apple's earbuds will also be getting a spatial audio update in iOS 14.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Thanks to their in-ear design, the AirPods Pro have effective active noise cancellation, which really does block out most unwanted noise such as the roar of a plane engine, or a low hum of a train. Since I've been working from home for the past few months, I haven't been able to test how the Galaxy Buds Live compare for plane travel yet. (I did recreate a white-noise hum using my very loud bathroom fan.) Because the Buds Live don't create a seal in your ear like the AirPods Pro, they let in a lot more external noise. They also have ANC that you can turn on or off, but it's not particularly effective compared to the AirPods Pro.

Call quality on both is also great, although in a noisy environment, callers remarked that the background hum was much less noticeable when I used the Galaxy Buds Live compared to the AirPods. Take a listen to microphone samples in the video on this page to hear what each pair sounds like. Both the Galaxy Buds Live and AirPods Pro let you use either earbud independently for calls.

Comfort and design is a love it or hate it affair

You have to hand it to Samsung for coming up with a design that looks radically different from every other wireless earbud out there. Depending on your ear shape, these bean-shaped buds fit snugly in your ear without any protrusions. They come in bronze, white and black and to change tracks or adjust volume, you just have to tap on the touch panel.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The AirPods Pro, on the other hand, come with three different ear tip sizes you can swap in or out depending on the size of your ear canal. It's available only in white and to navigate through songs, there's a stem that points down out of your ear that you click on. 

I have incredibly small ears and the smallest tip on the AirPods Pro has never been small enough for me to create a super tight seal. That means from time to time, like when I'm moving around a lot or doing a workout, I have to push them back in my ears, which is irritating.

The Buds Live, however, stayed in my ears better during a workout and only started to feel like they were slipping out of my ear towards the end. But while they fit much better than the AirPods, overall they didn't feel more comfortable. After around three hours, my left ear started to ache so I had to take a break. Keep in mind that the fit and comfort of either of these earbuds will vary from person to person -- my colleague David Carnoy remarked that the Buds Live sat well in his ears with the larger tip attached.

For water and sweat resistance, the AirPods Pro have a higher IP rating of IPX4 compared to the IPX2 on the Buds Live. That means they can resist splashes from any direction, while the Buds Live can resist sprays from 15 degrees or less. While I haven't done water tests on either pair yet, I have used them both during sweaty workouts and wiped them down afterwards. Both were fine.

Siri or Bixby? Both buds have smart features

Both these earbuds offer a hands-free experience for interacting with your phone, from changing tracks to reading incoming messages. As you would expect, the AirPods Pro use Siri on the iPhone and the Buds Live use Bixby on a Samsung Galaxy phone. If you use AirPods Pro with Android, you can't summon Siri or Google Assistant from your earbuds without downloading a third-party app. If you pair the Buds Live to iOS you can access Siri from the touch panel, or with a non-Galaxy Android, you can use Google Assistant. 

You can customize the tap/press controls on each of these buds: AirPods from the iOS settings or control center, Buds Live from the Galaxy Wearable app. But only the Buds Live let you adjust the volume with a long-press on the touch panel. To change volume on the AirPods Pro you have to ask Siri, reach for your phone or turn the crown on the Apple Watch.

The Galaxy Buds Live also offer the ability to switch between multiple devices signed into the same Samsung account. There's also a Labs section in the app that lets you switch on a gaming mode to reduce latency. The AirPods Pro support Apple's live listen feature for accessibility, so your iPhone acts as a microphone to send sound to the earbuds.

If you lose your earbuds, both let you play a sound to help find them again, but only the AirPods Pro will show their last location on a map.

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Galaxy Buds Live are better for battery life

If you want to listen to music or be on calls for much of the day, the Galaxy Buds Live last longer. Samsung rates the battery for six hours with ANC turned on and eight hours with it turned off. I found that the Buds Live didn't quite live up to that claim, only lasting 5 hours, 10 minutes with ANC turned on.

Apple rates the AirPods Pro for 4.5 hours with ANC on and up to 5 hours with it turned off. When I first tested out the AirPods Pro back in October 2019 and they were brand-new, they met and sometimes exceeded Apple's rating. Now though, after 10 months of use, I get closer to four hours of battery life when using ANC.

Each case holds extra charge time: the Buds Live totals up to 29 hours (if you're not using ANC) and the AirPods 24 hours. To charge them via cable, note that they use different plugs (USB-C for the Buds Live and Lightning for the AirPods Pro), but they also both wireless charge.

Are AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds Live better for me?

As always, this really depends on how you use your earbuds and what ecosystem (iOS or Android/Siri or Bixby) you're already adept at using. If you need active noise canceling earbuds and want a good balance between music, podcasts and calls, choose the AirPods Pro. If you want better sound quality and noise suppression for calls, get the Galaxy Buds Live.

Apple AirPods Pro

The best for noise canceling

$249 at Apple

Samsung Galaxy Buds Live

Great sound and a better fit for some

$169 at Samsung
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