I was so excited last year when Google announced the successor to their original Pixel Buds, a truly wireless, low-profile, sleek set of buds that would undoubtedly highlight some of Google’s best features, sound great and be super comfortable.
And, well, they almost deliver.
Design is, as expected, rock-solid, at least in terms of looks. Unfortunately, only the black and white ones were available at launch (I would have much preferred the orange!), but they deliver on design in every way. The case is sleek and smooth, a matte white finish with black trim, and sized in such a way that it fits just fine into your pocket; in fact, while a bit chunkier than the original AirPods case, it is barely larger in all dimensions and so still very compact. The interior of the case is black, and the buds snap into place via magnets strong enough to keep them in place even with significant turbulence. And the ‘snap’ of closing the lid of the case is sublime (first-world problems, I know).
Performance from a setup perspective is exactly what you’d expect from a fine-tuned Google product. Yes, AirPods pairing in the Apple ecosystem is borderline magical, but the experience with setup of these new Pixel Buds on an updated Android phone is surprisingly good (far better than I thought it would be). On my Galaxy Note 10 Plus, the buds were immediately recognized when I opened the lid after unboxing them and paired within seconds. I was then prompted to install the companion Pixel Buds app, which guides you through fit, setup and features in just a couple of minutes. These went from box to ‘in use’ very, very quickly.
The app, by the way, is really only useful for the initial setup: there are no EQ settings there.
Next, the fit. I’ve tried enough different in-ear buds to know what I like when it comes to fit…and the design of these buds, with the small fin (more like a ‘nub,’ I guess) that protrudes from each bud had serious promise. I’ve long been a fan of buds with fins that help keep things snug during periods of activity, especially for buds that don’t have active noise cancelation. And, provided you have the right ear tips in place—and I can’t stress enough how important that is with these Pixel Buds—they do a decent job of holding things in place. Not the best job, mind you, but they probably do the job for most, for at least as long as they are comfortable and charged.
Comfort is where things start to break down, at least in my experience. The nubs are necessary to keep them in place, I get that, but after a relatively short period of time—approximately an hour—those nubs start to cause discomfort in the ears. That was a disappointment for sure, especially for wireless in-ear buds that you can comfortably wear in bed while lying on your side (depending of course on your pillow). [I recognize that seems like a very specific use case, but if you’re someone who shares a bed with someone and likes to watch videos before bed without bugging them, or listen to music as you fall asleep, you probably get what I’m after here…I’ve waited a long time for a product like that. RIP, Bose Sleep Buds.]
So comfort is disappointing, especially when they start to irritate you before the charge runs out. I don’t know if my set of buds is faulty, but I’m not getting anywhere NEAR the 5 hours of battery life that I should be getting. I don’t run exhaustive tests on battery life, as it’s hard to do this in ‘real world’ scenarios, and I have not been blasting volume on these, but I’m getting 3 hours at the most, if that. That said, honestly I don’t think I could comfortably wear them for 5 hours, so maybe not such a big deal. Regardless, the quick recharge time is a great benefit considering the less-than-stellar battery performance.
Sound performance is…OK, I guess. I was by no means looking for a super great sound in these, but a little more bass would have been nice. That said, these buds do a decent job providing a balanced sound experience. These are not earbuds you buy because you want great audio performance—you buy them for a more all-around, everyday use case. The passive noise isolation is decent (remember, ear tips are important when you set them up), but I would have at least preferred audio pass-through on these considering the competitors at that price point.
Bluetooth lag is non-existent, which is great. I didn’t experience any issues with limited range, although I don’t often go too far from my paired device—maybe a room or two away at most. The only real trouble that I had with these in terms of the connection is the very audible ‘whine’ that can be heard at low volumes and when no audio is playing (although, with no audio playing, the whine stops after a short period of time). And, these do NOT play nicely with multiple devices, so save yourself the trouble.
Rounding things out—the touch controls are fantastic, and arguably the best feature of the buds is quick and easy access to Google Assistant right in your ear. Admittedly, we’re not doing a lot of commuting nowadays, but I imagine this would be particularly useful for those who are always on-the-go.
But…the price. These are $179, giving them a borderline ‘premium’ price for buds that aren’t all that feature rich (here’s looking at you, noise canceling), aren’t all that comfortable, and don’t sound all that great. I really, REALLY wanted to love these, and I almost do…but, there are a few too many nagging issues for me to be fully on board with them, and to use them over my current faves (which you can read more about here).