Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro Review - ANC in the big leagues

  • Excellent audio quality with well-balanced bass and treble
  • Active noise cancellation is flexible and works well
  • Long battery life
  • More compact and discreet than earlier eabuds
  • Some features need a Galaxy phone
  • Voice Detect system isn't so useful

Active noise cancelling earbuds were arguably the stand-out product of 2020, and Samsung is starting out the new year with its latest offering, the Galaxy Buds Pro. Launching alongside the Galaxy S21 family of smartphones, the new earbuds promise not only audio isolation from the hubbub of homeschooling and working from home, but the option to intelligently blend the real world with your bubble of silence.

It's hardly a segment with no competition, however. Apple's AirPods Pro are arguably the best-known, but there's no shortage of alternatives from familiar names and otherwise. At $199.99, the Galaxy Buds Pro aren't the most expensive out there, but they definitely sit in the premium category. To justify that, they need to stand out.

The charging case is the same as we saw on the Galaxy Buds Live, a squared-off clamshell with a USB-C port on the back and support for wireless charging. Flip it open and the two earbuds nestle magnetically inside, with a multi-color LED to show charging or pairing status. Samsung says you'll get up to 5 hours of playback from each earbud with ANC on, or 8 hours with it off; the case adds a further 13 hours or 20 hours, respectively. Five minutes of charging in the case adds enough juice for about an hour's more listening. I've found Samsung's numbers to be accurate in my testing.

You can wear them more places, safely, too. There's now an IPX7 rating for water resistance – making the Galaxy Buds Pro safe in fresh water for up to 30 minutes at up to one meter's depth – which means rain and sweat are no problem. They're not designed for swimming, though.

I have fussy ears when it comes to in-ear buds, particularly those which need a tight seal in order to deliver decent ANC performance. While I was a little skeptical initially about the way the Galaxy Buds Pro fit into your ears – the eartips at the bottom, with the rest of the bud nestled into your ear – and the fact that, at 6.3g apiece, they're heavier than each 5.4g AirPods Pro, they actually turned out to be surprisingly comfortable.

One of the things Samsung says it has improved is how much the Galaxy Buds Pro protrude from your ear this time around. The Galaxy Buds Live looked a little like bubbles of liquid metal had settled on the side of your head; these new earbuds are definitely smaller and less obtrusive. Quite honestly, I wish Samsung had gone for a matte-finish top cap rather than the shiny version, as that would've left them even more surreptitious.

The design may not stand out, but the audio certainly does. There's a 6.5mm tweeter and 11mm woofer in each unit, and I've been more than impressed both by the amount of bass on offer and the clarity of the high-end. I'd go so far as to say they're the best-sounding Samsung earbuds for music so far, and the nice thing is that you don't even need to tweak the EQ mode for that to be the case.

There's more bass than you get from AirPods, and the soundstage is fuller and richer. If it's absolute masses of bass you're after, I think Sony's WF-1000XM3 still have the edge – even with the Galaxy Buds Pro in "bass boost" mode – but Samsung's sound is more balanced and its earbuds are definitely more discreet than the beefy Sonys.

If you're using a Samsung phone then the Galaxy Buds Pro rely on the company's own Scalable codec, potentially cranking up to a higher bitrate than the AAC and SBC codecs the earbuds also support, Bluetooth connection strength depending. Of course you don't get that if you're using them with an iPhone (though they're otherwise compatible for the most part) but in my general listening I can't say I particularly noticed a difference.

As for the Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), Samsung uses a mixture of external and internal microphones, along with its Wind Shield system to digitally and physically cut down on external sound and wind noise. The boast is 99-percent of external background noise can be cut out, though as always with ANC earbuds you'll need to make sure you have a tight seal with the right sized eartips first.

Samsung offers two levels of full ANC – high and low – along with the option to turn it off completely. Or, you can switch to Ambient Sound mode, which offers a blend of ANC and external noise, adjustable across four levels. It's useful if you're trying to focus but still want to be able to hear someone else in the house or office; or, for that matter, if you're trying to cross the road and not get taken by surprise by a truck.

ANC performance is subjective, and tastes differ. What I can definitely say is that this is the best ANC on Samsung earbuds I've heard so far. Not only do the Galaxy Buds Pro do a solid job of isolating repetitive background sounds – the dishwasher churning, for example, or road noise – they do it with less of the hiss that some ANC earbuds seem to layer on instead. That's not to say you should expect perfect silence, and as always irregular sounds will make it through, but I'd say it's on a par with what AirPods Pro can do.

Voice detect is a little less useful, in my experience. The idea is straightforward: temporarily switch from ANC to Ambient Sound mode when the Galaxy Buds Pro hear you talking, so that you can speak to a barista, chat with a spouse, or try to plead with your cat that she's already had three lunches and isn't getting a fourth. After 5, 10, or 15 seconds of no speaking, the earbuds automatically switch back to the full ANC mode.

It works – as soon as you talk, the earbuds flip over and you can hear more ambient audio, and then after a pause they switch back – but it proved to be a reminder of just how much I talk, or sing, to myself. If you're cruising through your favorite Spotify playlist, having an impromptu karaoke session, you can expect the Galaxy Buds Pro to keep automatically flipping into Ambient Sound mode.

You can tap an earbud to prematurely cancel voice detect, but in the end I just turned it off. Your music pauses when you pull an earbud out, after all, or you can tap the outer touch pad once to toggle play/pause. A double-tap skips a track or answers/ends a voice call, while a triple-tap skips back a track.

The outer touch pads can be set to different shortcuts on the left and right earbud for touch-and-hold: to switch between ANC modes, trigger Bixby, and launch Spotify, or have the volume lower with the left earbud or raise with the right. Alternatively you can rouse Bixby hands-free, with a voice command, but sadly there's no support for doing the same for the Google Assistant or Siri, or indeed triggering either from the earbuds but touch.

If you're not a Bixby fan, then, you're going to be frustrated. You could argue the same for Game Mode, which promises less lag between audio and video when you're playing games: it only works on Android P or higher Samsung phones, or Multi Mic Recording, which allows for simultaneous phone and earbud microphone use in the Pro camera mode on Galaxy smartphones with One UI 3.1 or above. Clever? Sure, but I'm not convinced they'll swing the needle on a purchase decision.

What might, eventually at least, is 360 Audio. Like the similar system on Apple's latest AirPods Max, it basically creates a virtual 3D soundstage with multichannel sound. Using Dolby Head Tracking, if you turn your head the soundstage in theory stays still while your perception of it moves. Right now, there's not much use for it, but I could see it being more popular as content creators take advantage.

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro Verdict

There's a trifecta of criteria by which ANC earbuds live or die: audio performance, ANC performance, and battery. The Galaxy Buds Pro satisfy on all three counts. Factor in the comfort, and that they're a little more discreet than rivals – well, assuming you don't go for the Phantom Violet or Phantom Silver finishes – and you've got a great all-rounder.

All the same, while they may work with iOS devices and other Android phones, the overall experience is much better if you're in the Galaxy ecosystem. That way you get the best of connection quick-switching, Bixby support, multi-mic recording, and the other custom features Samsung has baked in. Just like the AirPods Pro experience when they're paired with an Android device, it works outside of the walled garden but it's just not as slick.

Considering Samsung is still the main game in town for Android phones, though, that's probably no great shortcoming overall. Those who do go looking for a new set of ANC earbuds for their Galaxy S21 will find little better for their money than the Galaxy Buds Pro. Excellent noise cancellation, great audio quality, and lengthy battery life make these Samsung's best earbuds so far, at a price that's more competitive than Apple's well-respected rivals.