Samsung’s hot new ear bean buds – are they worth it?
Four years ago, Apple launched sound machines that hung from people's ears like wayward cotton buds.
Oh, how we laughed at the silly duffers wearing AirPods … until we used them ourselves.
Now Samsung is about to ask users to stick shiny beans into their ear holes.
Given it's 2020, maybe we shouldn't even consider these "ear beans" strange.
But how do Samsung's most unexpected sound machines rate against the reigning oddball earbuds from their rival?
And what about the high-speed, big-screen, 5G, note-taking, 108 megapixel photo-snapping monster that it connects to?
We've tested Samsung's new Buds and Note20 to tell you what to expect before launch on Friday and whether they're worth your hill of beans.
DO THEY REALLY LOOK LIKE BEANS?
The pictures don't lie. Samsung's new earbuds are absolutely shaped liked large baked beans.
The Mystic Bronze earbuds (rose gold by another name) look even more like real beans, albeit shiny ones.
But there are solid, ergonomic reasons behind their wackadoodle appearance.
Galaxy Buds Live are designed to fit exactly into the crease of your ear, with speakers hovering over your ear canal and tiny plastic wings at the top of their form to rest against your ear's antihelix.
Anyone who finds the fit a little too loose can scrounge inside the box for a second pair of slightly larger ear wings.
And, when properly fitted, these earbuds don't budge, even if you worry they might. Neither exercise nor outright headbanging will shift them.
Their odd shape works in other ways too. Their low profile means you won't knock them out when putting on a mask, or advertise that you're actually listening to music.
On the downside, you will have to constantly mouth 'I'M ON THE PHONE' while pointing at your ear beans to avoid appearing rude.
HOW DO THE BEANS PERFORM?
The Buds Live report card gets good and bad marks.
For phone calls and music, the sound quality from these earbuds is impressive.
Calls are clear, music is detailed, and equaliser settings in a Samsung app can deliver extra bass or treble as needed.
Their touch controls are also sensitive, easy to use and customisable. A tap will pause playback, two taps will answer a call, and you can decide whether to add volume controls, voice commands, Spotify or control for active noise-cancellation by holding a finger on each bean.
The biggest negative for these otherwise weirdly wonderful inventions is the promise of noise-cancellation. You just can't hear it.
It's hard to tell when this setting is on or off because the difference is so disappointingly subtle. It won't dull the sound of a noisy colleague or neighbourhood tradie. At best, low-frequency sounds are a little muffled.
Perhaps this is due to their fit, but buyers looking to live in a cone of silence will need to look elsewhere.
AND WHAT ABOUT THAT NOTE?
Samsung announced a huge grab bag of gadgets at its virtual event on August 6 and the Galaxy Note20 Ultra was head of them all (if not quite as striking as those ear beans).
The new Note flagship features a 6.9-inch screen this year, giving a slight edge on the 6.8-inch Note 10+.
This boost doesn't make the phone feel unwieldy, though, adding just 2mm in height and width that is disguised by curved edges.
That screen also features double the refresh rate at 120Hz, making it well suited to streaming video or games.
Unlike some years, the cameras in the Note20 Ultra are also a major selling point.
This phone nabs the highly capable 108-megapixel sensor from the Galaxy S20 Ultra for its main camera, alongside 12-megapixel ultra-wide angle and telephoto cameras.
The new addition to this trio is a laser autofocus sensor that helps them find focus faster than before.
Its help is particularly noticeable when shooting 8K videos, as the camera can quickly snap from subjects in the foreground to the background and back again.
CAN I JUSTIFY THIS PURCHASE TO WORK FROM HOME?
As Note loyalists require, this phone is bigger, faster, and could help make users more productive.
The iconic stylus inside this smartphone is much more responsive than before, aiding neater handwriting and making it easier for the phone to automatically convert scribble into text.
Its connections are also speedier, with 5G and Wi-Fi 6 available.
And Samsung's often mysterious DeX software that lets users connect this phone to a monitor to use it as desktop computer has received a significant upgrade and will now work wirelessly.
With the click of an icon, you can turn a compatible television into a computer, with the data safely stored on your computer. The phone can also be used a touchpad to navigate the very large screen.
Samsung customer experience head Patrick Chomet says the Note's expansion into work life, along with its partnership with Microsoft for PC compatibility, was designed to make the phone more than "just a piece of hardware" but "the most advanced productivity device you can find for work".
You can, of course, also use that S Pen to sign documents, ditching the need to clutter your tiny home office with a scanner and printer.
DOES THE NOTE HAVE DRAWBACKS?
Samsung's latest and largest Note is a seriously polished device (literally and figuratively) but it still has some negatives.
The Note20 Ultra adds a noticeable camera 'hump' in order to house all that tech. It's not unattractive, with a polished finish, but it looks better with a case around it.
Its battery, while a substantial 4500 mAh, also drains a little faster than you might expect thanks to its fast screen refresh rate.
The Note's S Pen also swaps sides this year, forcing long-time users to adapt, and it lacks a standard headphone jack like the model before it.
The price of the Note Ultra might also stump some in the middle of a pandemic, starting at $1899, but the top model does cost just $200 more than last year.
BUDS AND NOTE VERDICT
There are a lot of white, wireless earbuds sticking out of ears right now, and a virtual tsunami of mid-range, budget-friendly, slightly staid smartphones washing up in stores.
Neither Samsung's "ear beans" or the Note20 Ultra resembles either of these categories and that's to be commended.
Not everyone will appreciate the oddly shaped earbuds that offer long-wearing comfort but little noise cancellation, and not everyone will have the budget or the large pockets for such a substantial phone.
Both of these devices are innovative and useful additions to the 2020 landscape, though, particularly when we're all spending so more time with technology.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
SAMSUNG GALAXY BUDS LIVE ($319)
- Surprisingly comfortable for an odd shape
- Stay in place even when you fear they won't
- Effective, customisable touch controls
- Active noise-cancellation isn't noticeable
- Only two custom fittings
- Shiny exterior can make them slippery to handle
SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE20 ULTRA ($1849-$2199)
- Its three main cameras are the best in market
- The S Pen is faster and better to use
- The screen is huge but not unwieldy
- The top model is pricey
- Battery drains quickly due to screen demands
- The rear cameras create a humpback
Originally published as Samsung's hot new ear bean buds - are they worth it?