It’s been around 3 years since Apple first launched its AirPods, the truly wireless earbuds that changed the game around wireless audio. In 2020, the market is flooded with hundreds of different options and, finally, Google is getting in on the game. After sweeping the first generation under the rug, the new Pixel Buds are finally here and, I’ve gotta tell you, they’re pretty sweet.
Let’s start by talking about the original Pixel Buds. Launched in 2017 alongside the Pixel 2, the Pixel Buds were meant to give Pixel owners an option for wireless headphones that cost the same as Apple’s AirPods. They were… not great. The cable connecting the two earbuds was a pain to put in the case and the buds themselves weren’t comfortable for everyone. As I pointed out in my review, though, they did help bring to light some very useful features powered by the Google Assistant.
Fast-forward to 2019 and, alongside the Pixel 4, Google showed off the second-generation Buds, completely ignoring that the originals ever existed by not adding a number to the name. Just based on first impressions, we were excited to try them out because, really, they seemed to fix everything wrong with the originals and even build on some new features. Have they lived up? For the most part, yes!
One of the most important things about the hardware of earbuds is fit and comfort and this is something that I feel Google has absolutely nailed. The Pixel Buds are very small compared to normal silicone-tip wireless earbuds. They’re slimmer than Samsung’s Galaxy Buds and smaller in almost every dimension compared to other options.
Why does this matter? Pixel Buds don’t stand out much while you’re wearing them. Often, my wife doesn’t even notice that I’m wearing them simply because they don’t stick out from my ear at all.
Google also designed the Buds to be lightweight and that has an equally strong impact on comfort. I’ve worn Pixel Buds for hours at a time and my ears feel considerably less fatigued — if at all — compared to other options. Part of this is the weight, part of it the overall size, and part of it the vent Google put into each earbud.
That vent is probably one of the more controversial aspects of the Buds. On one hand, the vent means the silicone tips don’t make your ears feel “plugged,” but on the other hand it means outside noise will always be let in.
For me, the “plugged” feeling has always been one of the aspects of most truly wireless earbuds that I’ve hated the most and why I’ve mostly stuck with the original AirPods for a long time. Google’s design doesn’t completely eliminate this feeling, but it greatly reduces it. I can speak and move around while wearing Pixel Buds without discomfort, though eating still feels strange with them in. Still, it’s far and away better than the vast majority of other wireless earbuds.
Comfort is perhaps the biggest win of Google’s hardware design here, the company’s efforts have really paid off. Prior to release, Google said it developed this design by scanning thousands of ears to develop the best possible design for the earbud itself. It definitely worked, even if it’s still not truly universal. In other reviews, some have mentioned that the “fin” behind the bud can be a little uncomfortable depending on where it sits in your ear. It doesn’t bother me, though, and I find it quite soft. There are also three included tips so you can get the best possible fit.
As a final note, Pixel Buds are IPX4 rated. They’ll hold up to some sweat and light rain, but I wouldn’t expose them to anything more than that.
Excellent touch gestures that could use some fine-tuning
Touch gestures are one of the best parts of Google’s Pixel Buds. Generally, truly wireless earbuds have some form of touch gestures for simple functions such as play/pause, skipping tracks, accessing your voice assistant, and
Here’s the thing, Google’s gestures are fantastic, but they could use a bit of work. Sensitivity is at times too much but at others too little. Constantly I found myself raising the volume while trying to pause music or vice versa. Part of this is just the nature of the buds. Since they’re smaller than the previous generation, there’s less space to recognize the gestures. More than likely, though, this is something Google can adjust with software updates.
It’d be nice too if Google enabled more customization to these gestures. As it stands now, Google’s settings are set in stone. A swipe raises or lowers volume, a tap handles play/pause (and answer call), a double tab goes to the next track (and end/reject call), and a triple-tap goes to the previous track. Finally, a press-and-hold triggers Google Assistant. It would be great if you could customize the gestures on the left and right bud individually or even assign other features. One thing that would be really cool is if a certain gesture could trigger an Assistant Routine!
Google beat everyone else’s charging case
The charging case is a hugely important part of any pair of truly wireless earbuds and it’s something Google absolutely nailed. The pebble-shaped case is compact and fairly slim. It’s a bit taller and thicker than the case for the original Apple AirPods — the gold standard for size in my opinion — but still fits in the coin pocket on my jeans.
The texture of Google’s case is also incredible. It has a matte texture that feels almost exactly like an eggshell. It’s smooth and reinforces the “pebble” idea. The texture is grippy in your pocket, but not to the point where it gets stuck. At the same time, it’s not glossy like AirPods or Galaxy Buds+, so it won’t pick up fingerprints or get easily scratched up over time! Honestly, it’s essentially perfection.
The lid of the case is also good. While the case itself is bottom-heavy because of the battery, the lid is easy to open and closes with a satisfying “thunk.” The lid sits in place well, too, even if it does have a bit of side-to-side wiggle. That’s not uncommon, though, and the Buds aren’t any worse than AirPods or others.
Sound Quality |
Good, but not amazing
Being earbuds, sound quality is an important aspect of the Pixel Buds. The good news? They sound alright! These aren’t in the same league as high-end earbuds or even the identically-priced Jabra Elite 75t, but the sound is good. They sound basically identical to Apple’s AirPods, just with less reliance on bass. The bass isn’t as strong as AirPods, but feels better. It doesn’t try to overpower the song with something that, frankly, just isn’t there in the first place.
I can’t pretend to be someone who knows a ton about good sound quality. I’m not incredibly picky, but I can say that I like how Pixel Buds sound and I think most people would too.
Pixel Buds are not earbuds you should buy for sound quality. If you want excellent sound and excellent sound only, you should not buy Google’s headphones. If you want smart features, a comfortable fit, and passable sound quality, Pixel Buds are for you.
Microphone quality is also… fine. Look it’s not great but it’s also not totally awful. Callers said I sounded OK but not great by any means. Even Google’s machine learning can’t solve the physics of having microphones this far away from your mouth.
Outside noise gets in, for the good or for the bad
As mentioned previously, there’s a vent on the Pixel Buds which allows outside noise, and air, to get through. That has its advantages in terms of comfort, but it also takes away from noise cancellation.
By its very nature, silicone earbud tips have passive noise cancellation, the reduction of outside noises by blocking them out with a physical object. On the Pixel Buds, that does still happen, but it happens less because of the vent. In my opinion, this isn’t a bad thing! The natural noise reduction takes away noises in the background such as fans or far away noises. Things close to you, on the other hand, can be heard over low-volume music.
For walking around outside or even just listening casually, I see this as a win because it keeps you aware of your surroundings. That’s not what everyone wants, though. Many users will prefer more effective noise cancellation, whether that be passive or active. If you want that, Pixel Buds are not for you!
There are some quirks
Alright, so this is a Google product. With that in mind, there are a couple of little quirks and odd choices relating to sound on the Pixel Buds.
For one, there’s no equalizer. You can use Android’s system EQ settings, but that results in some odd volume issues. It’d be great if Google offered these as, for the most part, that’s a standard feature on truly wireless earbuds.
The biggest quirk about audio on the Pixel Buds is that there’s a constant “hiss” from static. Google has said this is normal on all wireless earbuds, but it’s definitely more pronounced on the Pixel Buds. If you’re in a quiet room and there’s no music playing, you will hear the static going on and it’s very hard to forget it’s there after you’ve heard it. Once music kicks in or there’s other ambient background noise, this goes away, but it’s technically always there. I don’t consider this a deal-breaker, but it is certainly annoying.
Also, Google only supports AAC here, not aptX. Latency is still minimal, but aptX would’ve been a great addition for Android users.
Google Assistant delivers a smart, useful experience
Google nailed the “smarts” of the original Pixel Buds, and this latest version just builds on that. Google Assistant can start music, control your smart home, send messages, start phone calls, and do basically everything else your phone can do. It can also read aloud notifications and tether Google Translate directly into your ears!
All of this leaves users with a pair of earbuds that are used for more than just music.
Google Assistant for headphones isn’t anything new, and there aren’t any new features in that experience on Pixel Buds either. If you go out and buy a pair of Sony, Bose, or other headphones that use Google’s setup, you’ll get the same notifications, Assistant commands, and more. What you won’t get, though, is support for “Hey Google.” This is a very useful feature of Pixel Buds! Being able to start an Assistant command without touching anything is quick, easy, and very useful for this form factor. I’ve found myself using Assistant far more on these buds compared to any other Assistant built-in headphones I have.
Fast Pair is a breeze that works across Android devices
The pairing experience is another highlight of Pixel Buds. If you’ve got an Android phone that’s up to date, simply opening the case nearby delivers a notification you can tap which immediately pairs the Buds to your smartphone. This works without the Pixel Buds app installed, but you’ll need to install that — even after initial pairing — for full functionality such as firmware updates and specific controls.
On top of that, the Buds are also tied to your Google account. This means that any other Android smartphone or tablet you own can also pair to the Buds will a quick tap.
I tested this on my Pixel 4 XL, the primary device, and a Galaxy S20+, a secondary device with the same Google account. Opening the Buds connects them to my Pixel 4 XL, but a notification also pops up on the S20+ offering to pair them. Tapping that disconnects the Buds and immediately moves the pairing over to the other device. This even works if the Pixel Buds app isn’t installed on your device! You will get a prompt, though, to install the app.
As far as I’m concerned, this alone makes Pixel Buds the best earbuds for any Android smartphone, but eventually, we’ll see this on more headphones since Fast Pair is a standard Google has made open.
On another quick note, let’s talk about connection strength. Google hyped up the connection of Pixel Buds with your smartphone and, really, I think they overdid it. The Buds stay connected just as well as any other modern wireless earbuds I’ve tried. It’s hard to test Google’s distance claim both in quarantine and in an 1100 sq. ft. apartment, but overall they’ve worked well. I did notice during a single day, though, that the right-hand Bud randomly disconnected and wouldn’t reconnect unless I stopped using the Buds entirely for more than a few minutes.
Adaptive Sound is hard to test in quarantine
Another smart feature of the Pixel Buds is Adaptive Sound. Google says this feature is supposed to be able to detect increased ambient sound — passing vehicles in a city, loud music in a mall, etc. — and adjust the volume on your Buds accordingly. Here’s the thing: that’s really hard to test when you’re confined to your home.
I’ve been using Pixel Buds primarily while working at my desk, walking the dog to the park, or a quick hike all in the name of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, I’ve never really been in a situation where I could easily test Adaptive Sound. The closest I’ve come has been a grocery store where I think Adaptive Sound briefly kicked in, but I really couldn’t be sure. Another member of the 9to5 team, Abner Li, reported similar results — namely that he didn’t have any.
When it works, Adaptive Sound should be subtle anyway, so not noticing it is really the goal! I definitely wouldn’t hinge your purchase on this feature, but if life goes back to normal and we can better express how this feature works, we’ll be sure to let you know.
Battery Life |
5 hours is either going to be fine, or not enough
Battery Life has been one of the more controversial aspects of Pixel Buds. With options like Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+ providing 11 hours on a charge for just the earbuds, it’s understandable to view Google’s 5-hour claim as pretty pathetic.
Clearly, a lot of people use their earbuds for more than a few hours at a time, whether that be while working, making phone calls, or for other reasons. Personally, I’m not in that group. I had trouble working a single lengthy testing session into my Pixel Buds review period. Even as comfortable as the Buds are, having anything in my ears that long is just not a great time.
In my testing, I ran the Pixel Buds for a little over 3 hours and, in that time, the buds drained to roughly 45% — though weirdly with a discharge rate that varies between both buds. Doing simple math, that means they would have died at a little over 5 hours of use. So basically, Google’s claim is accurate!
Pixel Buds discharge really weird. Anyway, 48% after 3 hours, on track for equal-to or better than Google's claim pic.twitter.com/Uf1b752e31
— Ben Schoon (@NexusBen) April 29, 2020
The bad news? 5 hours might not be enough for some people. The good news? The charging case supports quick charging which can give at least an hour’s worth of power in just 10 minutes. I’d wager that the majority of people who need more than 5 hours of battery life can find 10 minutes during their session to give a quick top-up.
Wireless charging can be a little finicky
One last note on charging. The case accepts both USB-C and Qi wireless charging. The former works as you’d expect, but Qi can be just a little bit picky.
Specifically, you’ll find that aligning the Pixel Buds case on a wireless charger is a little harder than on a smartphone. That’s simply because the size of the coils is smaller compared to smartphones and other larger devices. On the Pixel Stand, for example, you have to flip the case upside to get it to charge. Even on a flat charger, you’ll need to spend a second or two finding the “sweet spot.” It’s slightly annoying, but only barely. The indicator light is on the outside, too, which helps matters.
Final Thoughts |
Google Pixel Buds — what’s the verdict? Personally, I think Google hit an overall home run here. The Buds are comfortable, smart, sound pretty good, and aren’t outrageously priced. For some people, missing features such as noise cancellation could be a deal-breaker, but for others, this is exactly what they want. It all comes down to your preferences!
If the Pixel Buds check the right boxes for you, they’re absolutely worth $179. I haven’t regretted my purchase one bit and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. You can buy Pixel Buds from major retailers including:
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