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Can Samsung make truly wireless earbuds go mainstream?

Engadget Engadget 10/05/2016 James Trew

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Images doing the rounds this week suggest Samsung could be the first of the big names to get into the "truly" wireless headphones game. Until now, the fast-growing category has been dominated by new players like Bragi and Earin. We've covered many of them, and much as we love the idea of cable-free listening, cutting the last wire comes at a cost. Usually, short battery life; but flaky connectivity and even sub-par audio can be challenges. Samsung's not shy about having a go at something new, often with mixed results, so will the so called "Gear IconX" buds break that mould?

One thing's for sure, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it looks like Samsung is about to flatter the hell out of Bragi's Dash. The new images appear to confirm an earlier leak of the Gear IconX, and the similarities with the Dash are many. There's the basic aesthetic resemblance, similar optical heart rate sensors, a battery/charging case and a lack of buttons (so touch controls). According to VentureBeat's source, they'll also be a standalone media player with 4GB of storage, be water and dust resistant and include activity tracking -- just like the Dash. Let's hope that the Gear IconX has some software tricks, or a competitive price point to make them interesting. Existing products retail for between $250 and $300, this could be Samsung's easiest way to stand out.

Remember when smartwatches suddenly got the industry's interest? Various companies had been making them for years, but around 2013 something -- possibly rumours of an "iWatch" -- stirred the water and suddenly everyone was making one. The original Galaxy Gear was one of the first in this generation to launch, and it did so with some pretty big pain points. Battery life was poor, software was lacking, and useful apps were few. Incidentally, Apple is rumoured to be working on truly wireless headphones of its own.

Image via VentureBeat

Bragi CEO, Nikolaj Hviid, once told me that his team had to overcome many technological obstacles to make all the sensors in the Dash fit in such a small space. I asked Hviid if Samsung tried to tap Bragi's expertise for their own product -- similar to its arrangement with Oculus for Gear VR. Hviid will only confirm that Bragi wasn't involved in the Gear IconX. The products' similarities are, I guess the official term is... coincidental? Hviid isn't worried though. He welcomes the competition, and casually reminds me all those solutions Bragi had to invent mean it has a robust patent portfolio. "The largest in the hearables space."

Regardless of features, price (and let's hope not IP) the biggest problems Samsung needs to fix are the basics. Every truly wireless headset so far seems to have at least one achilles heel. Often it's simply connecting to your phone outside while it's in your pocket. It seems such a trivial thing, but the physics of Bluetooth and small wireless headphones seem to be a bad match. A second problem is connecting the buds to each other. To do this over Bluetooth, they must stick out of the ears so the signal reaches. We can't be sure, but the images suggest this could be the case with the Gear IconX. Bragi, on the other hand uses NFMI to connect the two buds, which allows a "shorter" design.

One industry expert suggested to me (based on VentureBeat's photos) the placement of the optical heart rate sensors on the Gear IconX might be too far back in the ear, exposing them to light and rendering them ineffective. There's also the question of software and compatibility. Might these be Samsung-only like the Gear-line of watches? We'll have to wait and see. There's every chance the design has changed since the first round of leaks, and of course, the company has yet to make them official. Either way, we're interested to see/hear whether Samsung can finally untangle the world of truly wireless headphones.

VentureBeat

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