Every time I review a new wireless earbud I ask myself the same question: Is it finally time to make the switch? When I first got into reviewing over 5 years ago, these true wireless stereo (TWS) earbuds were first coming out in the market. They sucked. They almost always sounded awful and permanently glitchy on the connectivity. But to be fair, TWS earbuds are effectively two products in one: in-ear monitors (IEMs) and tech gadgets. IEM companies didn’t know how to implement wireless systems while tech companies had no clue about making IEMs. Especially at general consumer MSRPs vs the audiophile tax. At least, until Apple came along and helped normalize audiophile prices.
Now to be fair, I’ve heard some pretty good wireless products before. I reviewed the MoonDrop Sparks almost two years ago and that was quite a passable TWS at $90 for the time. It mostly nailed the sound part and was serviceable enough on the tech part. But every year, the industry matures a little more. With each successive generation, big tech companies in particular further refine sound quality while enhancing their bag of connectivity and features.
Which brings me to the topic of today’s review: the Samsung Galaxy Buds FE. With an MSRP of $100, they’re the cheapest Buds that Samsung has released yet seem to have the functionality of the previous, more expensive models such as ANC. It’s these advanced features that drew me to review them. I wanted to know if a big brand had finally managed to make a TWS that had every modern feature without compromising on quality. So with that, join me as I consider if I can replace my daily commuting IEMs with the Buds FE.
Note: I haven’t heard any other products in the Galaxy Buds line-up. This article is meant to be from the perspective of a first-time buyer with little prior experience, not a comparison between other existing options. If you’d like to see measured comparisons, I’d suggest Aregina Tech Review’s video.
Review unit purchased by myself.
Source is a Samsung S21 FE running the SSC Bluetooth codec and firmware version R400NXXU0AWHF (up-to-date at time of review).
What we like
- Great value
- Good out-of-the-box tuning
- Superb wireless performance
- ANC and Ambient modes are genuinely effective
What we don’t like
- Awkward fit
- Requires Samsung device for best performance
- Lack of meaningful settings options
- No Bluetooth Multipoint
What’s in the Box?
Like many modern tech products, the Buds FE comes in a rather minimalist box with a sparse accessory set. We get:
- A USB-C to C cable.
- Circular rubber rings. These are alternatives to the stock that have fins on them.
- S/M/L tips. They have a nice little built-in mesh in the front.
- The Buds FE and its square charging case.
The included tips are quite unique as they feel like a mix between silicone and another material (vinyl?). They’re less grippy compared to standard silicone and thus don’t seem to make as good of a seal. They’re also on the smaller side; I typically use M-sized tips but here I use L to get a seal and even then it feels weak. The nozzle diameter is a reasonable 5.6 mm. But it’s the short nozzle length of 2.7 mm that makes it hard to get a deep fit. Thus, with a more shallow fit plus a weaker tip seal, the Buds FE can feel a little loose, like they’re about to fall off. Furthermore, the little rubber fins it has don’t do anything to secure the Buds FE for me. They don’t even touch my ear. That said, they are physically quite snug and I can’t shake them off no matter how hard I try. It just doesn’t feel that way.
As a side note, the Buds FE is a single dynamic driver (DD) IEM. This is in contrast to its predecessors, the Buds Pro 2, that had a 2 DD set-up. That said, driver configurations are a poor judge of performance.
Sound and Frequency Response
The tonality of the Buds FE is bassy and relaxed. There’s a substantial bass hump, mild upper mids and treble, and rolled-off upper treble. It’s a fun, “everyday” tuning suited for genres like modern pop and hip-hop but also manages to hold its own in more complex tracks.
Measurement taken with an IEC-711 clone microphone. Comparisons can only be made relative to other measurements taken by this specific microphone. A peak at about 8 – 10 kHz is likely an artifact of the measurement rig and may not exist as depicted here. Measurements above 8 kHz are not accurate. If possible, reference multiple measurements.
Here’s the frequency response measurement of the Samsung Buds FE taken using the stock settings on Android. As part of our ongoing effort to transition to a new way of visualizing frequency response graphs, I’ve shown the frequency response as a compensated graph. If you’re unfamiliar with this representation, here’s a quick primer to reading it:
- This graph is compensated to the diffuse field (DF) head-related transfer function (HRTF). Thus, a completely flat line is equal to the DF HRTF. This is what a flat speaker in a fully reflective room will sound like at the eardrum. The DF HRTF is less a "reference" curve and more the necessary anatomical baseline compensation needed for headphones.
- Research on listening preferences show that people on average tend to prefer an approximate 10 dB downward tilt from bass to treble in both headphones and in speakers. We’ve visualized that here as a DF + 10 dB slope (see point 3).
- The gray bands are preference bounds that show a more complete picture of that listening research beyond the DF + 10 dB slope. They show the limits of how much deviation/tonal color a headphone could have that people still found enjoyable. Falling within these bounds is a better indication of a “good” headphone than using a target curve.
- You’ll note I’ve been saying “headphone” rather than “IEM” - that’s because there’s little research for IEMs. We had to adapt principles from headphones to IEMs as a result. I’ll post a raw graph in the Appendix if you’re interested in seeing what that looks like.
The first thing we see in the graph is that there’s a bit of channel imbalance. In actual use while I was commuting to work, I didn’t really notice it. But once I’m sitting at home or in a quiet office, I can hear a slight right-side stereo bias. Too bad. I’m not bothered enough that I’ll be returning the Buds FE over this though.
Quality control woes aside, we can see that the bass has a very obvious boost. While it goes beyond the preference bounds, I didn’t find it too overbearing. While the subbass delivers a boomy sound, it does lightens up in transition to the midbass. There’s a surprising amount of bass depth on the drums. Notes dig harder and deeper than most budget IEMs I’ve heard. There’s also a firmness in bass notes that’s rooted in the subbass. Unfortunately, transient attacks can be soft. This comes off as a little odd in the kick drum where there’s a somewhat mushy beater head contrasted with a solid drum body. This weaker definition means that sometimes, big notes can sometimes boom themselves into incoherency.
Looking at the graph, we can see that Buds FE has a bit of a hump around 1 - 2 kHz. This is quite common in many IEMs, especially those measured using this system so I wouldn’t worry about it. It also falls within the preference bounds. More importantly, if we look at the 3 kHz region, we can see a sizable dip there that pulls back vocal presence. When combined with the significant lower mids elevation, it gives the Buds FE a warm and relaxed midrange. It lends itself towards slower paced acoustic tracks or less complicated mixes but can still adequately handle hard rock or metal tracks.
Going into the lower and mid treble, the Buds FE’s treble has a good amount of energy unlike the 3 kHz dip. If we look at the raw graph (see Appendix), it’s essentially a flat plateau from the upper mids to the upper treble. I like this style of tuning, especially when there’s excessive bass and warmth to start. The sustained treble presence here plays a key role in maintaining sufficient note definition and clarity.
However, the upper treble is very much de-emphasized. As such, the Buds FE is fairly soft in the treble with little airiness or sparkle. For example, hats and cymbals have a clean initial attack but almost no energy in its decay as it rings out. The last quarter or so of these notes are essentially truncated. While some people might prefer a tame upper treble, I miss the brilliance that comes with these inherently bright instruments.
The soundstage and imaging of the Buds FE is quite fair. Stage width horizontally is about on par with most good IEMs and reaches the edges of my ears. As mentioned above, there’s a nice depth to the sound but it’s limited to bass notes. Stage height is non-existent like many IEMs. Imaging is nuanced beyond the 3-point blob but not particularly outstanding. Resolution and layering performance are firmly in the realm of budget IEMs. I don’t find it lacking for the price but you’ll find better in higher-end offerings. Overall, the Buds FE is very much a “Eh, it’s alright” situation for technical performance.
For the second half of the equation, let’s talk about the wireless aspect of the Buds FE. The Buds FE only supports 3 types of Bluetooth codecs: SSC (Samsung Scalable Codec), SBC, and AAC. I’m using a Samsung device so it defaults to Samsung’s proprietary SSC. But connecting the Buds FE to my PC defaults either to SBC or AAC and the upper treble quality takes a very noticeable tumble in quality. So I stuck with SSC for this review.
Here is the list of fundamental features that I check to see if the wireless quality is any good:
- Bluetooth stability: Excellent. I only ever once encountered a signal drop while in range and there’s no strange artifacting to the sound.
- Range: Fair. It easily covers an entire floor of the house I’m in. Only when I cross floors does it start to become spotty.
- Latency: Fantastic. There’s practically no delay when starting or stopping tracks. It pairs very quickly and without fuss.
- Floor noise: None. There’s the tiniest bit of electronic whine that might be heard when first pairing but in general, there’s pretty much no floor noise that I could hear.
- Volume: Plenty. The Buds FE delivers more than enough power even at half volume to be loud enough for me. You’ll go deaf before maxing it out.
- Battery: Alright. Samsung boasts 8.5 hours on a single charge and 30 hours total using up the charging case with ANC off. With ANC on, it’s 6 and 21 hrs respectively. From my usage, that seems about right. I’d lose about 10 - 15% an hour on a mix of ANC on and off with the charging case holding what looks to be about 4 max charges. Unfortunately, my phone seems to drain a good amount of battery while playing through the Buds FE, about 8 - 10% an hour even with the screen off, and gets a little warm.
Note that I haven’t been accurately monitoring the battery performance. I’m estimating based on using the Buds FE casually for commutes and lightly at work, maybe 2 hours at max. But if I were to run it all day, I’d probably have to charge my phone twice a day, something I don’t particularly fancy. Ironically, this is where a wired IEM might make more sense since I’m likely to already be chained at my desk anyway. But hey, I know plenty of people have totally different use cases so your mileage will vary. I’ve also had a couple rare cases of glitchiness where one of my buds didn’t charge up like the other one.
You primarily control the Buds FE by tapping on its flat faceplates. You can adjust what it does using the settings in the Samsung Wearables app, along with other options. There are quite a few choices available, especially some nice accessibility settings such as left-right channel balancing if you dig deeper. The usual Samsung exclusives like Bixby and SmartThings are also available. I won’t go through them all. Instead, here are the features I was expecting that ended up getting left out, in order of importance:
- No Bluetooth Multipoint. A lot of other TWS don’t actually have this option but for a company like Samsung, this is something I would’ve expected at the minimum. It’s rather annoying that I have to fiddle through all the settings if I want to swap between devices, such as my phone and my laptop when I get to the office. There’s technically Samsung Auto Switch but once again, it only works for Samsung devices.
- Limited touch settings. While there’s a good range of options in the Samsung Wearables app, the most important ones are how you actually interact with the device i.e. the faceplates. Too bad you’re only allowed to change the “Touch and Hold” options. Single and double taps are preset. This means you’ll have to decide what’s most important to control: volume up/down, ANC/Ambient mode switching, or Spotify.
- No custom EQ. While you can set different presets, you can’t create your own EQ profile. Personally, I think it’s a major oversight given that it’s such a basic feature.
- No music auto-play. Music pauses when you take both earbuds out. But it doesn’t auto-play when you put them back in. There’s no way to change this in the settings.
- No voice prompts. The Buds FE communicates with you via beeps. While you’ll learn about what the beeps over time, it was quite confusing when I first started using it as it never told me if I was turning on ANC, for example.
- Not waterproof. The Buds FE is rated only for IPX2 which is basically water droplets on its surface. This is another nice-to-have feature but not a make-or-break. Just don’t drop it into a bathtub.
- No wireless charging. For $100, I suppose this was one of the compromises they had to make in the hardware. I personally don’t ever use wireless charging anyway so it’s not an issue for me but I know some will miss this feature.
- No personalized audio. A cool feature that some TWS products are incorporating is a feature that measures your ear and creates an automatic EQ profile for you. Given the advancements in this space, I thought the Buds FE might have included it.
- No 360 Audio. I’m not surprised by this omission as in the more budget Buds FE. No big loss since it only works on very select content that supports it such as Dolby Atmos anyway.
Ultimately, despite what seemed to be quite a lot of menus and options in the Samsung Wearables app, the Buds FE had few meaningful adjustable settings. The experience isn’t much different from other basic TWS I’ve tried.
The Buds FE is the first time I’m trying ANC using IEMs. It’s pretty impressive. It does an excellent job cutting out environmental low-end noise and rumble. Transient sounds and higher frequencies do start sneaking through, but in general the Buds FE’s ANC tunes out the world pretty well.
It’s a bit of an uncanny feeling to be honest. Even in a quiet room, there’s ambient noise all around. But with the ANC on, it further cuts it down so it feels unnatural. In a car, this is further amplified. I get the same pressurized feeling as when an airplane takes off. Very odd. It’s not really an issue when music is being played because it introduces those low frequencies that are missing. The ANC works best on something like the train or bus or while walking by a street. Ultimately, I like the ANC. I tend to keep it on because it works well in most situations but I can see why some might never use the feature.
In terms of usage, the Buds FE usually turns on the ANC once it’s connected. You need to have both earbuds in to activate it (via proximity sensors). While there’s some settings you can fiddle with to have it active with only one earbud in, it doesn’t seem to work. The ANC does change the tuning of the Buds FE slightly and will depend on the noise it’s working against but in general, it’s a minor deviation here and there.
At first, I was a little iffy on this mode. It pipes in a fair bit of higher frequency environmental noise and amplifies wind noise when walking around outside. But in a quiet office and with music playing, it actually does a surprisingly good job of being “transparent” without compromising the listening experience much. The best way to describe its effect is that I can hear my keyboard as I type vs it being nearly mute when using ANC or passive isolation. I can clearly hear my coworkers a couple cubicles down. It gives some really helpful situational awareness. But it isn’t so fancy that it can detect conversations around you and automatically lower the music volume.
As for settings, you can adjust the tone of the ambient mode to be thinner (Clear) or thicker (Soft). It’s a pretty similar effect to EQ. Either the stock setting or one tick down to Soft is the most natural to my ear. It’s quite well honed out of the box. And as we can see from the graphs, it also changes the stock tuning but only slightly.
The EQ of the Buds FE can be adjusted using the Samsung Wearables app. It’s not the greatest selection and most of them are quite poor. I’ll post the graphs in the Appendix if you’re curious.
But I’ll highlight one I highly recommend you try: the Clear setting. It tapers down the subbass significantly, keeps a similarly relaxed midrange, and brings back some of the upper treble. You don’t get as much of that bass depth and the upper treble can come off as exaggerated at times, but it’s a superb alternative to the stock tuning and much more in-line with modern wired IEMs. I run this setting permanently now.
Should You Buy It?
Yes, but I highly recommend you play around with it for a week before committing. Thankfully it’ll be easy to get a hold of one and return it if you’re dissatisfied. From a sound quality and connectivity standpoint, the Samsung Buds FE is excellent… if you own a Samsung device. The Samsung’s SSC codec it runs has assuaged my reservations around any wireless hiccups previous TWS IEMs have given me. The stock tuning is decent and the Clear EQ preset is quite good. But if you don’t have a Samsung phone, nor would you find the ANC and Ambient modes useful, you might be better off looking at cheaper options.
Personally, I’ll be hesitantly keeping the Buds FE. It wasn’t quite everything I thought it would be. Other than the ANC and Ambient modes, the tech advancements and features weren’t quite as much of a leap as I hoped. Sure the connectivity’s great but the awkward fit, alright battery life, and lack of meaningful settings fails to differentiate the Buds FE from more generic TWS options. Perhaps I expected too much. But on the up side, the wireless convenience is pretty nice, the sound quality is good, and the ANC and Ambient modes are no gimmick. For $100, it’s great value. I’ve spent hundreds more on other things I use less in this hobby. This pair can be my little experiment to see how long it’ll last and if I’ll change my mind about the convenience of TWS in a year or two.
Raw Frequency Response
Here’s a comparison of the Buds FE comparing the PC and Android performance.
We can see that it’s identical. It also shows that plateau into the mid treble from the upper mids as discussed above.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://headphones.com/blogs/reviews/samsung-buds-fe-review-the-tws-earbuds-i-thought-i-wanted