Apple kickstarted a wireless earbuds global craze with the original AirPods in 2016. But Google has never had a true competitor. Google’s 2017 Pixels Buds were Bluetooth, but not completely wireless -- and for the most part they felt incomplete. More importantly, Google Assistant wasn’t reliable. Back in October, Google announced an updated version of the Pixel Buds ($179) that aren’t only true wireless, they pack in even more smart features. Now it’s time to find out just how much the company learned from its shortcomings.
Gallery: Google Pixel Buds review | 15 Photos
Gallery: Google Pixel Buds review | 15 Photos
To get started with a phone that’s running Android 6.0 and up, all you have to do is flip open the Pixel Buds case. Similar to the fast pairing Apple offers with AirPods, the Pixel Buds will automatically connect to your device, even if you’re doing so for the first time. The connection notification will inform you of the current battery levels for both earbuds individually and the case -- much like iOS does, though it shows one figure for both AirPods.
- Very comfortable
- Reliable touch controls
- Solid audio
- Affordable price
- Improved Assistant performance
- Adaptive Sound is a work-in-progress
- No ANC
- Battery life
- No audio customization
The first key difference between the two sets of Pixel Buds is that this new model is true wireless. The earbuds themselves still have the circular shape of the originals, but they’re much smaller. In our review of the first version, my colleague Chris Velazco noted the two-part design meant that half of the bud stuck out of your ear. With the new ones, even the tip that goes into your ear canal is smaller, so these don’t stick out nearly as far. This also means they fit more snugly, and the improved seal does a better job of blocking out ambient noise.
Speaking of fit, Google replaced the cord hoop on top of the first Pixels Buds with a more traditional fin. It’s a part you see on a lot of earbuds -- both wired and wireless. The fin is rigid rubber, so it actually helps keep the Pixel Buds nestled in place. Not once did I feel like these were going to fall out, even during cardio workouts. Since the new Pixel Buds are IPX4 rated, they’ll easily stand up to sweat if you want to take them on a run or some other physical activity.
The compact size of the Pixel Buds makes them comfy to wear for long periods of time. Having something inserted into your ear holes will only ever be so comfortable, but keeping the size and weight down goes a long way. I was able to wear these for hours and I never felt like they were more taxing than they should be. They’re small and light, much like Jabra’s Elite 75t and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+ -- two other sets of earbuds that are easier to wear for hours than a lot of the competition.
One thing that was consistent on the first Pixel Buds were the touch controls, and they still work well. While the options for play/pause, skipping tracks and adjusting volume used to solely reside on the right earbud, they’re now mirrored on both sides. You still tap once for play/pause, twice to skip to the next song and three times to go back to the previous one. Turn the volume up by swiping from back to front and turn it down from swiping from front to back. The new Pixel Buds will also automatically pause when you remove one of them from your ear. Unlike the touch controls on some earbuds and headphones, I was able to master these almost right away. Not once did the Pixel Buds mistake a triple tap for something less. And I had no trouble changing the volume.
Like the earbuds themselves, the charging case is also much smaller. This isn’t much of a surprise given the fact that it no longer needs to accommodate a cord. Google says it designed the new Pixel Buds case to look and feel like a river stone. Indeed, the oval-shaped case is small and smooth, easily fitting in the palm of your hand or a small pocket in your bag. The magnetic closure is secure but not so much that you can’t flip open the lid with your thumb. When you do, separate LEDs (one outside and one inside) will let you know the charging status of both the case and the buds. Around back, there’s a Bluetooth pairing button you’ll need if you want to use these with a non-Android device, and the USB-C charging port is located on the bottom edge. The also supports wireless charging with a Qi-certified pad.
Speaking of that pairing button, the Pixel Buds will work with iOS devices, your desktop machine and any other gadget that supports Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. Of course, you sacrifice a lot of the handy features when you pair connect these to an iPhone or non-Android device. For example, the press and hold touch gesture doesn’t activate Siri. So while you can do it, you probably wouldn’t want to unless you really have to.
Even with all of the improvements, Google still didn’t include active noise cancellation (ANC) on the new Pixel Buds. Instead, the company opted for a feature called Adaptive Sound that automatically, and temporarily, adjusts the volume based on your surroundings. Once you get away from the raucous crowd, the earbuds should return to the volume you had set. It’s supposed to function like an automatic brightness adjustment for your display, only for sound. Given the current state of the world, I’m not visiting a packed coffee shop or other noisy venues these days, so I had to test this the best I could at home.
With things like a white noise machine and running water to wash dishes (the latter of which Google mentions as a specific use case), I wasn’t able to trigger Adaptive Sound to do its thing. I was able to activate it with crowd noise from an archived soccer match on my TV, but the sound increase is very subtle. I almost couldn’t tell it even happened. For this to be useful, the change needs to be noticeable, and perhaps coincide with a notification of some kind. So for now, the jury is still out.
If you like to let some of the sound of what’s going on around into your headphones or earbuds, these don’t do that either. So when you need to order a cortado or answer someone close by, you’ll have to pause the audio or risk shouting over it.
Features like Adaptive Sound and other settings are accessible in the Pixel Buds app on Android devices. If you have a Pixel phone that’s running Android 6.0 and up, the Pixel Buds software will be built into your settings menu as a system-level app. The earbuds-specific features are accessible in the “Connected devices” section of the Pixel settings menu. If you’re using a non-Pixel device, the standalone app will appear in your app drawer. With this software, you can get battery updates, locate the Pixel Buds if you lose ‘em and get a tutorial on the touch controls. You can also turn Adaptive Sound and in-ear detection on/off. There are toggles for HD audio, phone calls, media audio and contact sharing that let you decide how you want to use the earbuds.
Like the first model, the new Pixel Buds offer hands-free access to Google Assistant. It’s similar to what the latest AirPods and some Beats headphones offer for Siri: These earbuds are always listening for you to summon Assistant without having to push a button. Simply say “OK, Google'' or “Hey, Google” and then speak your commands. And it works well: The earbuds consistently picked up my commands without issue. If you really want to use the touch controls to summon Google Assistant, you can do so with a press and hold on either earbud.
Another big smart feature that returns to the Pixel Buds is help with real-time language translation. If you missed it the first time around, it’s a tool Google says allows you to use Conversation Mode in the Translate app to help you speak or understand over 40 languages. In theory, all you should have to do is ask the Assistant to “Help me speak French” and press and hold either earbud to speak for the translation to happen. You should also be able to press an icon inside the app when the other person starts talking so that the software can pick up what they’re saying before beaming the desired language to the earbuds. Nothing has changed from the 2017 model as far as this is concerned.