Google Pixel Buds review: second time’s the charm

Google’s new earbuds finally go truly wireless and have improved sound quality

Google’s original Pixel Buds came at a time when the company was still finding its feet as a hardware maker. They shipped in 2017 alongside a Pixel 2 XL with a bad screen and that very strange Clips camera. Despite launching after AirPods, Google stubbornly ignored the industry shift toward truly wireless earbuds, and the fabric cable between the Pixel Buds became a chore whenever you wanted to put them away. There was some good in there — mainly the deep integration of Google Assistant — but it wasn’t enough to make up for a “meh” overall package. 

With its new second-generation Pixel Buds, Google has done an impressive job correcting course. At $179, they’re now fully wireless, have improved sound quality, and are the first truly wireless earbuds to offer hands-free Google Assistant voice controls. But these Pixel Buds face even more competition than the originals, and while Google has made excellent progress, there are still flaws to be found that put them a bit behind the competition. 

Our review of Google Pixel Buds (2020)

Verge Score 7.5 out of 10

Good Stuff

  • Much-improved design
  • Wireless charging
  • Hands-free Google Assistant
  • Easy pairing on Android phones

Bad Stuff

  • Stabilizer arc can cause discomfort after extended listening
  • Bass doesn’t match some competitors
  • Average battery life
  • Vented design lets in a fair amount of outside noise

Buy for $179.00 from GoogleBuy for $179.00 from Best Buy

The Pixel Buds look similar to their predecessors; it’s still like wearing a piece of Mentos candy in your ear. Shedding the wire has allowed Google to create a more lightweight design that sits comfortably and securely in my ears. To me, there’s an even bigger upside: a lot of other wireless earbuds tend to jut out of my ears in an unflattering way, but these are very subtle. They’re flush in a way that’s rare among the competition, and you can’t tell I’m wearing them by looking at me straight on. 

New to this iteration is a soft “stabilizer arc” (think of it like a silicone fin) on each earbud that’s meant to help the Pixel Buds stay anchored in your ears. I had no issues with comfort, but we’ve been testing a few pairs of Pixel Buds, and Dieter and Becca both said the arc caused some soreness during extended listening. 

The matte white oval-shaped charging case looks a little sci-fi to me (in a good way). It’s not far off from an AirPods case in overall size, but the added thickness might be noticeable if you’re carrying the Pixel Buds in a tight jeans pocket. 

The case supports wireless charging and contains enough juice for the earbuds to reach 24 hours of total battery life. You’ll get around five hours of continuous listening, which puts these exactly at par with the AirPods, but the Pixel Buds fall short of the Jabra Elite 75t earbuds and come nowhere close to matching the 11-hour endurance of Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Plus

The charging case has a status light for its own battery and a single LED that signals a charge for both earbuds. After the random battery woes I’ve had with some true wireless earbuds where only one of the pair charges, I’d really like to see separate lights for each earbud to eliminate any uncertainty.

I’ve noticed that the left and right Pixel Buds tend to discharge at different rates, sometimes by a substantial amount. A Google spokesperson said that this behavior is expected. “Because the two earbuds serve different functions at different times to maximize battery, one earbud may consume more battery than the other. The algorithm monitors the state on both earbuds and can switch either earbud to support more power hungry functions, while intelligently prioritizing high quality connectivity and playback performance,” Google told The Verge by email. “On voice calls, the algorithm is more conservative to avoid any dropped audio. So while a difference may be noticeable after a long call, if you switch to streaming audio or other functions after, you will likely see the battery level out.”

The new Pixel Buds now seal in your ear with silicone tips, but, like Apple, Google has integrated a venting system to prevent that plugged-ear feeling that some people find very unpleasant. It works extremely well. There’s no active noise cancellation with these earbuds, but with the exception of Amazon’s Echo Buds, it’s rare to see ANC for under $200. At least you won’t encounter the “eardrum suck” that can be experienced with the AirPods Pro and Sony 1000XM3s. The Pixel Buds are among the most comfortable earbuds I’ve ever worn — but that comfort comes with a trade-off.

The Pixel Buds have a venting system similar to Apple’s AirPods Pro.
The Pixel Buds have a venting system similar to Apple’s AirPods Pro.

The vents on the Pixel Buds let in a fair bit of ambient noise. They’re designed to do this, but you’re not going to get the same level of noise isolation here as you would with the Jabras or Samsung’s buds. Runners and other outdoor enthusiasts will like having this spatial awareness; people who want a peaceful train commute probably won’t. The noise creep isn’t as bad as with regular AirPods or the older Pixel Buds — the seal does muffle some of what’s happening outside — but it’s a thing to keep in mind. 

Google says the Pixel Buds contain custom-designed 12mm drivers, but the size of these things doesn’t necessarily determine how expressive and bold the resulting sound is. For example, the Jabra Elite 75t buds have 6mm drivers, sound excellent, and kick out powerful bass. So let’s not get hung up on tech specs. But the Pixel Buds do sound quite nice. The low end isn’t going to thrill if you mainly listen to EDM, funk, metal, or other genres that are heavy on low tones. Bass is the weakness of these earbuds, and I think that’s partly because the vent prevents the full-on seal you’d need for head-rattling bass. 

But in other areas, the Pixel Buds deliver a very enjoyable listening experience. Instruments are nicely layered with an enveloping soundstage. “Scott Street” by Phoebe Bridgers is always a good track for gauging detail and how expressive headphones are. And here, her vocals are never lost to everything else happening in the song’s crescendo. The Pixel Buds do well showcasing acoustic-focused tracks like “Dreamsicle” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. But if I switch over to my Hold Steady playlist, they lack the driving oomph I look for behind the resounding electric guitars. Similarly, you sense something missing when listening to Post Malone’s “Circles.” The track is engulfing, but it feels shorted of the pulsing bass you hear on the Jabras or more expensive earbuds like the Powerbeats Pro.

It would’ve been nice if Google included EQ customization for people who might want it, but there’s no such option in the Pixel Buds Android app. “We’ve opted for simplicity in the user experience and the device options,” a Google spokesperson told The Verge. “From a hardware, software and overall acoustics standpoint, we have room to further boost lows, mids, and highs. However, we tuned Pixel Buds to give an optimal and more balanced sound performance for a great listening experience across the broadest spectrum of music genres.” 

To sum up where the Pixel Buds stand right now, I’d say they can aptly handle both delicate and raucous music, but you’ll notice the diminished bass compared to other earbuds on the market. And they’re still a step below earbuds in the $250 to $300 pricing tier

I also wish controlling the Pixel Buds took slightly less concentration. Like the original Pixel Buds, these rely on taps for pausing music and skipping tracks. To adjust the volume, you swipe forward or back on the earbud surface. It all works, and I can appreciate that Google tried to build in as much functionality as possible. But like with other headphones that rely on swiping gesture controls, you have to be deliberate and precise when you’re using these controls. It’s relatively easy to pause when you’re trying to change the volume and vice versa if you’re not mindful of your finger actions. 

Google doesn’t let you customize any of the controls, but they work the same on both sides. (Yes, you’re able to individually use either the left or right Pixel Bud for a call or bike ride and leave the other in the case.) There’s only so much you can do on earbuds of this size, and the occasional misread gesture never gets overly frustrating, but it happens. To help you avoid having to fiddle with volume constantly, the Pixel Buds have a feature called Adaptive Sound, which automatically adjusts volume based on your environment. Music will get louder if you’re walking around a city but lower down if you head someplace quiet. Adjusting the volume yourself temporarily disengages Adaptive Sound until your surroundings change, and you can always just turn it off entirely if you don’t like the effect.

The Pixel Buds can’t connect to two devices simultaneously like Jabra’s 75t, but it’s at least very quick when switching between ones you’ve already paired. Taking one of the earbuds out will pause your music. And Bluetooth signal reliability has been mostly good, with the occasional split-second dropout if I’m out for a walk. When watching videos on my phone, I couldn’t pick up on any voice sync issues. As for phone (or Zoom) calls, the Pixel Buds have beamforming mics and an accelerometer to detect jaw movement (and thus speech), and this does a good job of making you sound clear to people on the other end without letting in unrelated noise. They’re not the best of the bunch (as you’ll hear in Becca’s video), but your voice will at least be consistently intelligible. 

On the software side, the Pixel Buds still have that useful trick of putting Google Assistant right in your ear and can keep you updated on your phone’s notifications as they come in. But the convenience is now made better since you can speak to Assistant hands-free. You’ll hear a chime after you say “Hey Google,” and you can then ask for the weather, request a certain playlist, tell Assistant to control your smart home gadgets, or bark commands for whatever else you’d normally do. Having the ability to do this while your hands are occupied is a nice perk. The Pixel Buds also support Fast Pair on Android, which mimics the seamless setup process that AirPod owners get on an iPhone. You hold the Pixel Buds near your phone, a screen pops up to pair with them (and link them to your Google account), and you’re done. If you open the case near your device, you can view the battery status for both the case and earbuds. 

As with the original Pixel Buds, these new ones are capable of helping you abroad with Google Translate through conversation mode, but your phone is still doing all of the real work. It’s a nice feature to have available even if the results can be imperfect, but it is also something that other earbuds with Google Assistant can do. The main new functionality you gain with the Pixel Buds is hands-free voice commands. 

Google’s new, second-gen Pixel Buds are a vast improvement over the old in both concept and execution. Their design makes a ton more sense and is much easier to use, they’re comfortable to wear, and they’re right in lockstep with the competition on most core features. 

At $179, the Pixel Buds are priced the same as Jabra’s Elite 75t earbuds, which I’d still personally pick over these for their more dynamic sound and because you don’t miss out on features depending on what phone you have. (There’s unsurprisingly no Pixel Buds app for iOS.) But if Google Assistant has a decent-sized presence in your life, you might be willing to make do with the downsides of Google’s new earbuds — lacking bass and the occasional swell in outside noise — for the convenience of being able to call upon it anytime, anywhere.

All Rights Reserved for Chris Welch

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