Let’s be clear here: Don’t buy a smartphone because of the headphones in its box. Buy a smartphone because it’s fast, or because it takes great photos, or because you think it looks cool.
Unless it comes with a pair that’s truly spectacular, you should judge your phone on its merits as a phone.
With that said, one of the many things Samsung has touted about its new Galaxy S8 phones is the pair of earbuds that come packaged along with them. The company says they’re a $US99 value on their own, and that their sound has been tuned by AKG, an audio-focused subsidiary that Samsung acquired as part of its big Harman deal last year.
All of which is to say that Samsung thinks the Galaxy S8’s earbuds are a cut above the cheapo pairs that are often are saddled with other smartphones.
After two weeks of testing, I can say Samsung isn’t wrong: The AKG-branded earbuds are sharper sounding and more competently put together than most freebie extras. They run circles around Apple’s EarPods, by far the most ubiquitous of all bundled earbuds, in the sound department, meaning Samsung can flaunt at least one victory in its self-professed “dream to overcome” the iPhone maker.
Compared to the EarPods, the sound of the Galaxy S8’s earbuds is much more balanced. That’s not a particularly high bar to clear: The iPhone’s pair has long emphasised the bass and low-end above all else, oftentimes to the point where it overwhelms the rest of a track. The Galaxy S8’s earbuds are far tidier — they focus mainly on the mids, with a bit of a boost to the upper bass, but they don’t go out of their way to make sure you hear one frequency no matter what.
With a hip-hop track like Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” for instance, the EarPods’ bass has more oomph, but it’s blobby, and it helps make the rest of the instrumentation feel muddied together. The Galaxy S8’s earbuds still get you a fair amount of low-end thump, but it’s more restrained, and the vocals come off as crisper and better-defined.
They also bring much more clarity. The EarPods’ big shortcoming is how much they “veil” the highs and mids, making it sound like a fog has been cast over much of any given song. On a rocker like Phoenix’s “1901,” just about everything but the bass drum sounds duller and boomier than it does with the Galaxy S8’s earbuds. When the chorus hits, there’s an alright sense of energy, but it’s harder to pick out and separate the various pieces of the instrumentation. The Galaxy S8’s earbuds do better to catch everything being thrown at it.
All that said, beating out the EarPods isn’t the grandest accomplishment. The Galaxy S8’s earbuds are impressive
for a freebie pair, but they aren’t “premium,” as Samsung has said. Though they deserve praise for rarely sounding harsh and not going nuts with the bass, they don’t provide the sort of liveliness and sparkle that the best earbuds in the $US99 range do.
On a metal thrasher like Baroness’ “The Sweetest Curse,” the vocals, guitar leads, and snare drums all feel like they live on the same level, and the transitions from verse to chorus don’t really bloom the way they should. Something like the 1More Triple Driver — which sounds like it could cost $US200 — gives a better sense of dynamics. Samsung’s earbuds also can’t dig as far into the lower-bass and, especially, the highs, which keeps most songs from feeling as detailed as they do with the 1More. There’s less depth.
The physical design of the Galaxy S8’s earbuds, what with its rubber and plastic eartips, doesn’t exactly scream “premium” either. (The 1More is made of a nicer metal, to continue that comparison.) It’s not the clearest at taking calls, either.
Still, it’s not bad: The fabric cable is nice; there’s a nifty three-button remote (though you can’t adjust volume on iOS); and you get three different-sized eartips in the box. The whole thing is light and comfortable enough — as always, your mileage may vary — and, best of all, it fits nice and snug in the ear. The earbuds can’t block out everything, but they let in and leak out less noise than the “unsealed” design of the EarPods.
If Samsung ever makes the Galaxy S8’s earbuds available as a standalone purchase, I’d pass. They’re totally inoffensive, but the 1More is superior in every way, and something like Xiaomi’s Mi In-Ear Headphones Pro HD provides similar quality for half the price.
Viewed in the context of other pack-in headphones, though, Samsung has done well. Though it isn’t the first phone maker to pay attention to audio, it’s still giving millions of soon-to-be Galaxy S8 buyers a perfectly competent pair of beater earbuds. If you’re coming from an older iPhone or Galaxy device, enjoy the upgrade. Here’s hoping this trend continues.