How Samsung’s beans broke the mold of wireless earbuds

Patrick

It wasn’t hard to spot Yongseok Bang, lead designer of the new Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, the moment I joined a video call with him and other employees gathered around a table in one of Samsung’s South Korea conference rooms. Directly in front of Bang was a black notebook with a big white bean stamped on the front. He quickly confirmed to me that the team had internally called Samsung’s latest true wireless earbuds by the same “beans” nickname that the rest of us did once the leaks began. Samsung went in a different direction with the final branding in an attempt to emphasize the open-air design of the Buds Live. Oh well.

For the next 30 minutes, Bang spoke with me about how Samsung made it a priority from the very beginning to come up with a design that would stand out from everything else on the market. This is Samsung’s first set of open-type earbuds, and in a world of AirPods knockoffs everywhere you look, the company wanted to get a little bold.

It’s fair to say Samsung succeeded.

Early prototypes of the Galaxy Buds Live show Samsung’s efforts to nail the right shape and size.
Image: Samsung

Bang said it took Samsung two years to bring the Buds Live to market, a time frame that involved a lot of experimentation and trial and error. There were three areas of focus: originality in design, ergonomic fit, and the desire for form to follow function — another way of saying that these earbuds had to sound good no matter what they ended up looking like.

So how did the company land on the bean shape? Samsung closely studied the concha of the ear and found that a bean-like form factor could cradle snugly in the ear with a pleasantly surprising, comfortable fit. It conducted design tests with over 2,000 people to finalize the exact measurements and weight.

But getting the Galaxy Buds Live to accommodate smaller ears was one of the biggest design challenges. (In my review, I mention that a friend had trouble getting them to fit her ears comfortably.) The small wingtips were added to the earbuds for this purpose; the Buds Live sat naturally in the folds of the concha for people with medium- and large-sized ears without any help, and the wingtips — two sizes come in the box — helped keep them in place inside ears on the tiny side. They’re supposed to, at least.

Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

A photo of Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live in someone’s ear.

Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Samsung also had to approach the engineering process differently than it had with the more traditional Galaxy Buds and Galaxy Buds Plus. Bang pointed out that the components are placed sideways as opposed to being stacked vertically like in the Buds Plus. This allowed for a thinner, more subtle design that wouldn’t noticeably protrude from the ear like many wireless buds do.

Some of Samsung’s drawings of the Galaxy Buds Live and its carrying case.
Image: Samsung

Since the Buds Live are completely inside your ear’s contours, Bang’s team had to be mindful of mic placement. The distance between the two exterior mics was initially quite far to ensure performance, but user tests showed that one of the mics could sometimes be covered by longer ears. So engineers optimized the distance and added a small groove to the outside of each earbud to help your voice carry to the mic. Bang told me that Samsung tested the mic performance with hundreds of people.

The dots on these prototypes were potential microphone locations that Samsung tested before deciding on the final placement.
Image: Samsung

See that top row? The Galaxy Buds Live case also looked like a bean at first.
Image: Samsung

As for the carrying / charging case, it actually started out with a bean shape much like the earbuds inside. But according to Bang, the consensus was that this style looked more like a sunglasses case than an earbuds case. With a focus on pocketability and easy opening, the team landed on the final case design that some have compared to a jewelry box. There’s a groove running along three sides, making it easy to pop open in whatever way you find most comfortable.

Sound quality was never lost in the shuffle. Samsung was determined to nail its first open-type earbuds, and I was very satisfied with the listening experience. You can rotate the Buds Live so they’re seated deeper in your ear for more powerful bass and less overwhelming ambient sound — that’s how I prefer to wear them. No matter how you fit them, there’s always a fair amount of outside noise leaking through, as is to be expected with this form factor.

Bang hit me with a car analogy, comparing the Buds Live to a convertible. The open-air style is like putting the roof down, he said, and the active noise cancellation isn’t all that different from a cloth-cover roof. It’s not going to block out all the noise around you — not even close — but it can help cut down mid- and low-band noises. The noise cancellation was the most underwhelming part of the Galaxy Buds Live in my tests. With no in-ear seal, Samsung is significantly limited in what it can do to mute your surroundings.

The Galaxy Buds Live design team had these stickers made to celebrate the finished product.
Image: Samsung

But in almost every other regard, Samsung succeeded on those focus areas that guided the development of the Galaxy Buds Live. The style is unique and fresh, the fit is comfortable, and they sound quite good. As for what’s next, Bang said it all comes down to customer feedback. The company has been encouraged by early reviews, so the bean form factor might be here to stay.




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