Very good sound for the price and form factor • Better looking and more comfortable than standard AirPods • Hands-free Google Assistant support • Smooth sailing on Android and iOS
Active noise cancellation would help greatly • Adaptive sound is a little too subtle • Translation is ambitious but awkward
Google’s new wireless earbuds beat the standard AirPods in a few key ways, but there’s still plenty of room for them to grow in future versions.
Google’s real AirPods competitor is finally here, unfortunate timing be damned.
They may not have many reasons to go outside at the moment, but Android devotees now have a pair of wireless earbuds that works as seamlessly with their operating system as AirPods do with iOS. Google’s Pixel Buds are back with a new look, a $179.99 price tag, and no pesky wire like the last model.
The end result is a pair of wireless earbuds that admirably perform their duties, but are held back from greatness by a couple of flaws. Google’s new buds probably need another revision or two before they reach elite status, but Pixel owners in particular will find plenty to like about them as they exist now.
The Good: Comfortable, work well with iOS, hands-free Assistant integration
In terms of pricing and features, the new Pixel Buds should be considered a competitor to Apple’s standard, non-pro AirPods. I gotta say, Google has Apple beat on looks and comfort.
These Pixel Buds come in an attractive, egg-shaped charging case with a USB-C port for wired charging and Qi support for wireless charging. As for the earbuds themselves, all anyone will see when you wear them is a circle with the Google logo on it. The ear cup effectively hides in your ear and the curved “stabilizing arc” stays hidden, too.
There’s no awkward stem protruding from the ear, in other words. The aforementioned stabilizing arc looks bizarre at first glance, but it serves a noble purpose: Once you situate the Pixel Buds in your ears, they should stay there. I fell out of love with my AirPods because I always felt like one was about to fall out. That wasn’t true of the Pixel Buds. You’ll barely realize they’re in your ears.
Oh yeah, both earbuds also have touch panels on the outside that let you pause or skip tracks and adjust volume. I didn’t notice any problems with this in my time with the Pixel Buds. Rounding out the basics are batteries with five hours of listening time and up to 24 hours worth of power in the charging case. That’s almost exactly the same as Apple’s official AirPods specs, by the way.
Google provided a Pixel 4 phone for review purposes, and it should go without saying that the new Pixel Buds work great with Android. Just like AirPods, the initial setup process begins with opening the charging case with both earbuds still in it. The Pixel picked up the signal right away, pairing as soon as I tapped the push notification on the screen.
They work slightly differently depending on which Android phone you have. Pixel Buds settings are built right into the OS on Pixels, but third-party Android phone owners need to use a separate app. This, of course, does not exist at all on iOS, but I was actually impressed with the experience on an iPhone.
Pairing the Pixel Buds with an iPhone is as easy as pairing any other Bluetooth device, since the charging case has a pairing button right on the back. Once that’s done, you’ll hardly know the difference between Android and iOS from a pure listening standpoint. Take one Pixel Bud out and the music will still automatically pause. Even better, putting them back in the case will cease the Bluetooth connection and putting them back in your ear will automatically pair them again.
That said, iOS owners can’t access Google Assistant using Pixel Buds. It’s understandable if that doesn’t matter to you (I don’t like talking to my phone, either), but it’s here and it works well. Hands-free support via the “Hey Google” activation phrase will let you play music, send texts, and all the other things we trust virtual assistants to do.
Last but certainly not least is the sound quality. Pixel Buds pack in Google’s custom 12mm speakers that deliver rich audio in accommodating environments. You won’t get the same kick as you would on the comparatively expensive and audiophile-centric Master & Dynamic MW07s, but different instruments come through clearly and pristinely on both densely and sparsely orchestrated tracks.
The bass could occasionally punch a little harder for my tastes, but for sub-$200 wireless earbuds, it hits with respectable impact more often than not. For my money, these sound a tiny bit better than the standard AirPods. Unfortunately, both types of earbuds have the same problem: outdoor spaces.
The Bad: Needs ANC, underwhelming adaptive sound, awkward translate feature
The good news is that active noise cancellation in wireless earbuds isn’t a pipe dream anymore. Even Apple hopped on that bandwagon last year. The bad news is the Pixel Buds don’t have it.
The way the earbuds seal the ears provides a bit of passive noise reduction, but that’s more useful indoors than out in public. I took the Pixel Buds on a grocery run and while they certainly make an adequate travel companion, I found myself wanting less ambient noise than they let in. Even at max volume, I was hearing more of the outside world than I wanted to. I don’t imagine they would fare very well in more noisy spaces like subway stations, but given our socially distant circumstances, I wasn’t able to test that.
Active noise cancellation would fix this, but it would also drive up the price, so I understand Google’s thinking here. As an … interesting alternative, Google added an adaptive sound feature that does to noise what the adaptive brightness settings on phones do to lighting. When it’s enabled, it supposedly makes subtle adjustments to the earbuds’ volume output based on your environment.
“Subtle” is the word of choice here because, in limited home testing, I didn’t find adaptive sound especially crucial. Its adjustments do drown out some ambient noise, but I wouldn’t call it a selling point. Active noise cancellation would be infinitely preferable.
One final note: For all intents and purposes, adaptive sound only works on Android. Since there’s no Pixel Buds iOS app, you can’t toggle it on or off on an iPhone. You can turn it on while the earbuds are paired with an Android phone, and then keep the feature on as you switch to an iPhone, but unless you’re a tech reviewer, you probably don’t have that many phones lying around.
While the overall Google Assistant integration on Android handsets is very good, the translation feature could use a little more time in the oven. Pixel Buds can translate a conversation between two people speaking different languages with the Google Translate app, but the process is cumbersome. It involves touching one earbud while you speak, letting the app read your words aloud in the other person’s language, then tapping an icon in the app to let it do the same for their words, which play in your Pixel Buds.
It just takes slightly too long for Google Translate to listen to and then vocally translate phrases. I won’t call the feature useless, but slowing down the pace of a conversation and making sure the app is actually listening to the right person isn’t ideal.
Google’s new Pixel Buds give Android owners what iPhone owners have had for years: Quality wireless earbuds that seamlessly work with their OS with little hassle. Deep sound, comfort and stability, and a competitive price point make them a worthy rival to Apple’s prized earbuds.
Maybe just wait and see if Google adds better noise reduction in the next model.
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