With noise-canceling wireless earbuds, you’ve typically got two choices: cheap or good. You can pay hundreds of dollars and get great ones, or pay tens of dollars and get bad ones. There’s rarely much in the middle, and even less worth talking about.
That’s why Samsung’s recent expansion of its on-again, off-again FE “value” line of products caught my eye. I’ve liked and recommended Galaxy FE phones in the past: there’s now a new model of that, along with a couple of tablets and, most interestingly, a set of earbuds.
Priced at $100 at launch, the Galaxy Buds FE are right in that middle ground that most manufacturers shy away from. The specs seemed pretty good, though: like other gadgets in the FE range, they looked like a cut-down version of the company’s premium model.
Of course, when you take that approach, it’s exactly what has been left out that determines success or failure. Samsung has a good track record, but has definitely swung and missed a few times at the lower end of the market as well.
I’ve tested a lot of wireless earbuds over the years, and can usually make a pretty good guess about how good a given pair will be before they’ve even arrived at my door. Not so much here, though: to continue murdering the baseball metaphor, would they be a home run or a strikeout? I really didn’t know.
Clearly there was only one thing to do about it, so I picked up a pair last week to find out for myself.
Design and Box Contents
Samsung has gone for a straightforward approach with the Buds FE. It seems to have learned a few things from previous models, dropping some design features and recalling others, for a sensible if unexciting look and feel.
It’s brought back the wing tips from the first version of the Galaxy Buds, for instance. They help keep the buds securely in place, which was a real problem with the Buds 2. Wings can be uncomfortable for some wearers, but that wasn’t the case for me (more below), so it’s a win as far as I’m concerned.
Likewise with the switch from the rounded design of the Buds 2 or jellybean approach of the Buds Live, to a flat touch-sensitive section on the outside of each bud. It doesn’t look quite so sleek, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to find and tap or hold, so I’m very much here for it.
You’ve got the usual set of onboard controls, including various combinations of taps to play, pause, and skip tracks. Double-tapping answers or hangs up a call, long-pressing declines it. You can switch between noise cancelation and ambient sound modes by touching and holding one bud, or with a tweak to the app settings, control the volume instead.
I’d have preferred to have an always-available volume option on the edge of each bud, as with other Samsung models: having to choose between two features I regularly use is kind of annoying. Still, it’s not exactly hard to change the volume from my phone or laptop, I guess.
There’s basic IPX2 weatherproofing built in, which is better than nothing but not by a lot. Essentially, the buds are splashproof at most: you can sweat on them in the gym or get a bit of rain on them, but I wouldn’t want to push it further than that.
The box is small and simple, much like the buds themselves. Inside lies the case, which comes in white regardless of whether you go for the black or white version of the actual earbuds. Beyond that, there are three sizes of silicone tip, two sizes of wing tip, and a USB C cable.
Pairing and Connection
Pairing the earbuds was about as easy as you could hope for, even when I wasn’t using a Samsung phone. My Windows laptop detected them automatically as soon as I opened the case, and likewise with my Pixel phone when I told it to add a new Bluetooth device.
Weirdly, though, I had to manually enable pairing mode to get the Wearable app to pick them up. It’s not difficult (put both buds in the case then press and hold them until the light starts flashing), just a bit odd.
I’ve had exactly zero dropouts while wearing these buds, even while wandering around outside or walking into a different room while leaving my phone behind.
Fit and Comfort
I was very happy with both the fit and comfort level of the Buds FE. I’ve generally found expensive buds more comfortable than cheaper ones, even if it’s only because there tend to be more tip options and better material choices, but Samsung’s got it right here despite the lower price.
That firm wing tip holds the buds solidly in place, and even when I aggressively jumped up and down for a while, nothing changed except scaring the cat. I also wore them on a quick jog to the shop without issue, and while I haven’t had a chance to go for a longer run yet, I don’t expect problems there either.
Comfort, too, has been absolutely fine. The buds aren’t particularly large or bulky, which means that there’s less chance of them rubbing or pressing uncomfortably into my ear canal. I’ve been wearing them for the last several hours while writing this review, and haven’t had any discomfort at all.
I didn’t find them much good for sleeping, though, at least not for side sleepers like me. While they were reasonably comfortable to lie on, I found that even with softer pillows, the angle of the buds meant they got pushed up and out of my ears as soon as I lay down or moved my head around.
You won’t have that issue if you sleep on your back, but unless you turn noise cancelation off, they won’t last the night before shutting down. Back to the dedicated sleep earbuds, I guess!
The only minor complaint I have is that the silicone tips were unusually difficult to attach to the buds. With most other earbuds, the tips just press onto the main part of the bud without a lot of thought or effort required.
With these, I had to line them up perfectly, press down quite hard, wiggle them around a bit, and hold my tongue in just the right position before they’d click into place. Changing tips is something you’ll do very rarely after the first day of ownership, of course, but it’s worth a mention.
I wouldn’t necessarily expect noise cancelation to be included in a pair of $100 earbuds, but not only is it present in the Buds FE, it’s actually pretty good. Sure, you don’t get the “where did the world go?” feeling that comes with the best premium buds, but there’s a significant drop in outside noise nonetheless.
Samsung suggests a 98% reduction in volume level: I’m sure that’s a best-case scenario for certain frequencies, but whatever the spec sheet says, it’s effective in the kind of real-world scenarios you’re likely to encounter.
With a conversation going on a few feet away, enabling noise cancelation reduced the sound of voices to a background murmur. Firing up an ambient music playlist at 30% volume cut out the rest of the discussion entirely.
Birdsong, passing trucks, heavy rain: I couldn’t hear any of it once I put the buds in. My review period didn’t coincide with taking any flights, unfortunately, so I can’t yet comment on how well it blocks out the sound of plane engines or screaming children. I’ll update this section if there are any surprises there.
Of course, sometimes you do want to hear the conversations going on nearby, at least if they’re directed at you. By default, long-pressing on the left earbud enables ambient mode, which turns off the noise cancelation and amplifies surrounding sound instead. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as impressive.
It works, I guess, but that’s about it. Everything gets amplified, so if there’s even a little bit of background noise, it becomes difficult to distinguish the sound you want to hear from the sound you don’t. For anything other than the briefest chat, I ended up just pulling one of the buds out instead.
The Galaxy Wearable app is the command center for these and other Samsung buds, with plenty of customization on offer. There’s also a quick fit test to make sure the buds are inserted properly, and it’s where firmware updates show up as well.
It all works well enough, although I very much don’t love the requirement to grant access to everything from texts and call logs to calendar and contacts: frustratingly, the app won’t work without them.
If you create an account, you’ll get access to SmartThings Find, the ecosystem that lets you track your Samsung phone, tablet, earbuds, and more. Fire it up, and the earbuds start beeping. Not particularly loudly, it must be said, but they do indeed beep.
That account will also enable “seamless pairing”, a multipoint-like feature that lets you quickly switch the buds’ connection to any nearby device that’s signed into your Samsung account. That’s definitely handy if a call comes in on your phone while the buds are connected to something else.
Of course, it’s not actual multipoint: the need to have an app installed and be signed into a Samsung account is noticeably more limiting than just having multiple Bluetooth connections at once. That’s not a problem unique to the Buds FE, though: it’s just a weird business decision by Samsung.
There’s only a single driver inside each bud, which is probably the biggest difference to the non-FE versions. There’s an inevitable drop in audio quality that comes with that compared to the two or three drivers you find in premium buds, although how much it matters depends on who is doing the listening.
If I had to choose one word to describe the sound of the Buds FE, it’d be “inoffensive”. That’s not very helpful to anyone trying to make a buying decision, though, so I’ll throw a few extra words in as well.
I tested with a variety of music types, from rock and punk to classical and ambient, along with podcasts with both male and female hosts. There was enough bass on offer with the heavier tracks; I didn’t need the “bass boost” EQ setting, since it made the rhythm section overly dominant. I mean, maybe you might prefer that, and it’s there for you if you do, but it wasn’t my thing.
The “dynamic” EQ setting was my pick of the bunch, still keeping a warm bass rumble while making the mids punchier and giving a little extra clarity to the high notes. With that selected, everything just sounded a bit better, although I switched to a treble-boosting option for some tracks and podcasts.
I was happy with the sound quality, at least for the kind of listening I do, but let’s be honest: these aren’t audiophile-grade earbuds. Of course, they’re not intended to be either, so if that’s what you’re after, you’ll need to look elsewhere and spend an awful lot more.
Three microphones on each bud at least gave me at least some hope of reasonable call quality, although my expectations weren’t high: other than Apple’s versions, I’ve rarely been thrilled when making or receiving calls on any wireless earbuds. With that in mind, I was pretty impressed by these ones.
The people on the other end sounded crisp and clear, whether they were calling from a laptop, phone, or wireless buds of their own. They reported that quality was good on their end as well, with no echo or delay, enough volume, and other than sounding a little flat, not very different to talking to me in person.
I took a walk outside during my calls, and sudden wind gusts during one of them provided a good opportunity to test how well the buds dealt with it. While the wind noise was audible, albeit quiet, on the other end, it didn’t really affect the other person’s ability to hear me.
I apparently sounded like I was walking quickly at the time (I wasn’t moving), with the accompanying variation in volume. That was likely the outbound noise cancelation trying to compensate for the sudden changes: it stopped as soon as the wind died down again a few seconds later.
Overall, let’s just say that I’ve had dramatically worse experiences on both ends of the call in the past, even with wireless buds costing a lot more than these ones. For anything selling at anywhere near this price point, this is pretty much as good as it gets.
Battery Life and Charging
Battery life is rated at six hours with noise canceling enabled; you’ll get around 8.5 hours if you turn it off. The case gives roughly another 2.5 full charges, which means you’ll have enough juice to last even the longest of long-haul flights with only occasional interruptions to recharge.
Samsung’s battery estimates are usually quite accurate, and these buds are no exception. I played music with noise canceling enabled for about four hours, then made 30 minutes of phone calls, and still had 40% battery left. It took two more hours of music playback before they finally shut down.
That’s really pretty impressive, especially at this end of the market. 6+ hours of noise cancelation is better than the Galaxy Buds 2 and the same as Apple's Airpods Pro. While it’s not quite as long as class leaders like Sony's WF-1000XM5, these are also a third of the price.
Not so exciting, though, is the lack of wireless charging for the case. It’s perhaps understandable that something had to be left out to hit that $100 price point, and I guess I’d rather lose this than, say, noise cancelation, but it’s still a shame not to see it.
Needing to plug in a charging cable every few days is a pretty minor problem in the scheme of things, but in a world where so many earbuds offer wireless charging, it’s still a noticeable omission.
To put it simply, the Galaxy Buds FE are simply great value for money. They’re a far better set of wireless noise-canceling earbuds than they have any right to be for the price: even at full retail, they’re very much worth buying. If you see them on special or bundled with extra accessories, it’s a no-brainer.
They have all of the things I look for in a set of wireless buds, from effective noise cancelation and comfortable fit to long battery life, good call quality, and decent audio. While you’ll still need to temper your expectations a little, I was genuinely surprised by just how well they did perform.
The lack of wireless charging is an unfortunate omission, but if that’s the only real concern (and for me, it is), it’s pretty minor by comparison to all the things Samsung could have got wrong but didn’t. If you’re in the market for a set of mid-range earbuds that punch well above their weight, buy the Galaxy Buds FE.
You won’t be disappointed.
All images via author