Samsung Gear IconX first look review : Gatecrashing the fitness hearable party

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Samsung loves to jump on trends early so it wasn’t all that surprising it decided to get a piece of the hearable action before its rivals by unveiling the Gear IconX alongside its Gear Fit2 fitness tracker.

The $199 pair of truly wireless earbuds is being dubbed fitness buds by Samsung and includes a built-in accelerometer for activity tracking, a heart rate sensor and a 4GB of onboard storage so you can put some music on and work out without your smartphone.

If you’ve been paying close attention to all things hearables, then you might be thinking that this all sounds very familiar. That’s because we could easily be describing the Bragi Dash to you. The major differences here are that unlike Bragi’s buds, you can’t go swimming with the Gear IconX and they can only be paired with Android smartphones. Sorry iPhone users.

However from a design point of view, these are not simply Bragi Dash rip-offs. The Gear IconX look more like your conventional pair of sport in-ear headphones minus the trailing cable. They are much smaller and not as prominent in the ears. They also use a more familiar wingtip design that sits inside the arch of the ear to keep them secure. We didn’t get to go running with them, so we’ll have to wait to see whether they stay put when it really matters.

There’s three different sized eartips and wingtips bundled in, which are nice and easy to swap in and out. The IconX are available in black, white and blue colours. The blue is definitely the most eye-catching of the bunch, and if you want something more low-key, the black pair is a must.

A closer look at the earbuds shows that the heart rate sensor is prominently situated on the earbud. We don’t have any specifics on the sensor technology used, but we’d be inclined to think that it won’t be too different from what we’ve already seen from Jabra’s Sport Pulse headphones and the Dash.

The outer part is where you’ll find the touch sensitive controls, which again, are a bit like what you get with the Dash. The difference here is that the entire surface is touch sensitive letting you tap or perform multiple taps to control music playback. These controls can be assigned to either earbud from the Gear IconX companion app, meaning if one runs out of battery, you can still make use of the single earbud that still has power. Swiping up or down adjusts volume and is far more responsive than the taps despite the amount of space that’s at your disposal.

On the inside of the earbuds is a series of magnetic pins that clip into place inside the accompanying case that also doubles as a charger. Samsung says you should get around 3-4 hours of use. When they run out, you can drop them in the case, close the lid and there’s LED notification lights on the side of the case for each bud to indicate when you’re back to full charge.

When it comes to pairing you’ll need to head to the Gear IconX app. As we’ve already mentioned, it’s only available for Android smartphones running 4.4 and above. With its S Health inspired UI, it’s here where you can do things like view battery life status and exercise data, which is actually stored inside Samsung’s S Health platform.

This is also where you can import music, which is done via Gear Music. So you need to own these tracks to move them over. You’ll need to plug the charger case with the buds in tow to the phone via USB to move them over to the earbuds.

One of the interesting aspects here is the Gear IconX volume. You can obviously control volume from the buds, but I was told that the maximum volume is capped. You can make things louder by going into the app, but there’s also an ambient mode that makes them safer to wear when you’re out running near busy roads or for those times when you don’t necessarily need to drown out the world entirely.

We shouldn’t forget of course that these are for listening to music whether you’re in the gym or just commuting to work. You can use them like standard Bluetooth earphone or tap into the built-in music player. Getting a real sense of the sound quality was difficult thanks to the fact we were trying them out in the middle of a huge shopping centre.

We only managed to listen from one earbud due to some connectivity issues as well. What you could tell was that this certainly wasn’t a tinny affair. There was strong clarity, a good sense of power and warmth in the bass department on the few tracks that were available to listen to.

Without being able to put these fitness buds through their paces, there’s some judgements I simply cannot make yet. What I can say is that the design is sleek, discreet and they do sit comfortably in the ears. The ability to use them individually is a nice touch and the sound quality doesn’t sound too bad either. Even if it was just from one ear.

What would concern me is some issues we’ve encountered with the Bragi Dash – like the occasionally patchy Bluetooth connection. Or the few hours of battery life it looks like we’re going to have to accept from first generation wireless earbuds – which also requires having that charging case nearby. There’s definitely some question marks on the responsiveness of the touch sensitive controls and the lack of GPS leaves us with serious doubts on whether the accelerometer will really be up for the task when it comes to tracking anything other than walking.

The biggest problem of all here is the compatibility. Only offering support for Android is so disappointing, even if it’s not all that surprising. Samsung is still promising iOS support for the Gear S2, so maybe it will see sense with the Gear IconX too.

Samsung still hasn’t confirmed a release date yet, but it seems likely that it’ll launch before the end of the year. I look forward to spending more time with them, but I have a feeling these won’t be the last fitness tracking wireless earbuds we see in 2016.

(wareable.com, http://goo.gl/samNoE)

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