The second time around, Google dropped quirks and just made a great pair of earbuds.
Google’s first Pixel Buds headphones were quirky, expensive and still had a wire between them in an era where true wireless earbuds were the hot new thing. Over two years later, Google smartly went back to the drawing board for an entirely new design in the second-generation Pixel Buds. They’re now truly wireless, with a fresh look and a much more traditional case.
But the Pixel Buds haven’t given up their Google flair or focus on delighting users with extra features and capabilities. These aren’t just regular Bluetooth headphones; Google brings a lot of “smart” additions once again, and those help justify the higher $179 price tag. We’ve waited a long time to finally get these — but is the complete package worth considering among the stiff competition? You’ll find out here.
At a glance
Google Pixel Buds
Bottom line: Google’s new Pixel Buds are a hit. The case is exceptional, from its size and feel to its functionality with a big battery and wireless charging. The earbuds themselves are small and comfortable, with good sound and high-quality microphones for calls. Their 4-5 hour battery life isn’t industry-leading, but is plenty for most people. The complete package is well worth the money, and an excellent pair of true wireless earbuds.
- Superb case design and size
- Case provides 3-4 recharges
- Wireless charging case
- Solid sound quality
- Excellent call quality
- Not as comfortable as original Buds
- Can’t customize touch controls
- No active noise cancellation
- Battery life shorter than others
$179 at Best Buy
Google Pixel Buds 2020 Hardware — case and earbuds
We’re so far removed from the Google launch event (October 2019!) where we had a very brief time with the Pixel Buds that I had no recollection of what they were like. But wow, I’m immediately a fan of this case! It’s easily the best overall design I’ve seen.
This is a fantastic earbuds case, from design to functionality.
After using the Galaxy Buds (and then Galaxy Buds+), for the past year there’s a night-and-day difference with the Pixel Buds case. The matte case looks and feels wonderful, and the whole package is downright solid feeling — it’s also heavier than you’d think, especially if you’re used to the Galaxy Buds. The case lid has an extremely satisfying click as it flips open, and an even louder — yet equally satisfying — clunk when it closes. The hinge requires just the right amount of weight to flick open, but stays closed easily — that’s a tough balance, but Google absolutely nailed it.
The size is great, too — roughly the footprint of the AirPods Pro, but more egg-shaped, and volumetrically about the same size as Galaxy Buds+. It’s impressive that this small of a case has enough battery to add another 3-4 recharges (19 hours) to the earbuds, plus room for wireless charging. I have zero issue sliding this case into my pants or jacket pocket just like other wireless earbuds, and the smooth rounded shape means it’s never going to get caught on anything. The Buds case charged on Qi pads and my Galaxy S20 Ultra seamlessly, but oddly it didn’t work on my OnePlus 8 Pro — my friend Michael Fisher (aka MrMobile) experienced the same issue.
Now, the earbuds themselves. I like the small and sleek design; they don’t call extra attention to themselves, and the “G” branding is incredibly subtle. They’re comfortable and don’t put a lot of pressure on your ears, right on par with my Galaxy Buds. They aren’t quite as comfortable as the original Pixel Buds, though, as they now have more of a traditional earbud design with rubberized tips that go further into your ear to help hold the whole thing in place.
The earbuds aren’t quite as comfortable as the first gen, but that’s a fine trade-off for being truly wireless.
This provides better passive noise cancellation and sound, of course, but also creates a larger contact area with the ear. I actually kind of miss the adjustable cord loop from the original Buds, which was extremely comfortable because it allowed the eartip to not actually go into your ear. Though a lot of people seem to prefer having more passive noise cancellation from a traditional eartip. I definitely needed to give my ears a short break from the Buds every 2-3 hours.
These little wingtips (or sticktips? I don’t know) sticking out from the top of the Buds provide just enough additional security that I’m not worried about the Buds falling out; though I would prefer if they were removable and replaceable with larger ones, like many other earbuds. I had to move up to the largest of the three eartip sizes (the case on every set of earbuds I’ve used), which provided more stability overall. The earbuds are secure enough with the eartips, and are light enough, that I don’t think you’re ever going to be relying on the wingtips to keep the Buds secure, though.
As you’d expect, the earbuds are water (and sweat) resistant, just like the competition. So no worries about walking in the rain or going for a run with the Pixel Buds.
Google Pixel Buds 2020 Experience — sound and software
There’s no better headphone pairing experience than using a Fast Pair, Google’s technology that’s available to any headphone manufacturer and works with any Android 6.0 and newer phone. I opened up the Pixel Buds case, and a moment later I have a notification on my OnePlus 8 Pro that there are headphones for me to pair with. Tap it, they’re paired. A notification arrives to install the Pixel Buds app, two taps, it’s installed. A beautiful experience.
There isn’t a whole lot you can do with the Pixel Buds app, but it gets the job done. You can see the battery status of each earbud and the case, and control a handful of settings. Notably, you can’t customize the touch controls, which are pretty basic and available on both earbuds: swipe forward/back to raise/lower volume, tap once to play/pause or answer/hang up, tap twice to skip forward, tap thrice to skip back, and press and hold to speak to Assistant or hear a notification read aloud. The way the app is laid out makes it look like touch controls would be customizable, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that added at some point. (I’ve reached out to Google for comment regarding this.)
The touch controls are well calibrated, audio feedback is pleasant, and volume transitions are smooth.
The touch controls seem well calibrated, landing in that tough middle zone of being sensitive to your touch without being too sensitive and accidentally triggering. I’m sure the software calibration is important, but this feels as much a result of the hardware design, because your finger gets the right amount of resistance touching or sliding across the lightly textured and gently curved caps. There are no rough edges or changes in the surface, and it doesn’t feel like I have to make very specific or deliberate motions; there’s enough error correction here to accomplish what I want with a natural motion. The earbuds also sense when they’re removed, pausing audio playback, saving you a tap entirely, and I found them rather easy to take out and replace without accidentally triggering other touch controls.
Google’s talking a big game about audio quality, with custom drivers and a specific internal design for better sound delivery. The Buds sound good but I’m not going to be dropping my Bose over-ear headphones for them anytime soon of course. As far as small earbuds go, I’m happy with the whole sound range. There’s a considerable amount of bass for earbuds, but sometimes the highs sound a bit hollow — but I noticed it less and less as I used only the Pixel Buds and stopped comparing side-by-side to other earbuds. Spoken-word content, like podcasts, sounds great. Notably, there are no EQ or sound profile settings to tweak in the Pixel Buds app — not a problem whatsoever for me, but some more audiophile-inclined users will find that restricting.
These won’t make you throw away over-ear headphones, but they sound good for earbuds.
These headphones don’t have active noise cancellation, like the Amazon Echo Buds or AirPods Pro for example, though Google’s partial solution for this is “Adaptive Sound,” which automatically adjusts the volume level to keep the same perceived volume as the ambient noise around you changes. This actually isn’t turned on by default, but I switched it on right away — and while it’s clearly working when you think about it, you don’t immediately perceive it. Though that’s kind of the point; you don’t want your earbuds changing volume constantly, and Adaptive Sound is seemingly tuned to not be very aggressive in doing so.
I assume part of the reason why you don’t notice it working much is that the Pixel Buds are very gentle with their volume changes in any situation. Swiping forward or back on the earbud gives you a delicate and gradual change in volume, with no other audible feedback like you get with a play/pause tap. The audio feedback throughout the system is rather pleasant, too; much calmer and nicer than the 1990’s-feeling beeps that come out of my Galaxy Buds+.
A lot of the ‘smart’ features are just fluff, but the overall user experience is slick and simple.
Google’s put equal importance on audio input, with beamforming microphones and an accelerometer that senses jaw movement to adjust the input. In my calls the other party reported that I sounded clear and plenty loud; I spoke at a normal volume and didn’t feel the need to project or enunciate more than normal. (Though there’s always the awkwardness of keeping your volume correct with earbuds stuck in your ears.) I’m rarely relying on earbuds for phone calls, but when I’m already listening to music and have a call come in, I never want to feel like I have to take out my earbuds — with the Pixel Buds, I don’t.
Battery life is a bit behind the competition, though it isn’t terribly surprising considering their size. Google quotes 5 hours, and I could confidently make 4 straight hours of music or podcast listening before needing to charge. Considering how small and light the earbuds are, and how infrequently I’m likely to wear any earbuds for over 5 hours at a time, this is fine — especially when the case provides ample recharges. Though oddly I noticed a few times that one earbud will drain much faster than the other, by 10-15% in some cases, and sometimes it wouldn’t level out through a full discharge. Thankfully the case recharges the Buds quickly: you can get a couple hours back in just 10 minutes.
Just like the first generation, many of the “smart” features aren’t big factors in the Pixel Buds experience. Having your notifications read aloud can be useful in some cases, but I typically turned it off because it takes so long to read out the information. The real-time translation continues to prove it’s a cool demo but really doesn’t fit well into an actual in-person social interaction — and is typically more cumbersome than using a phone.
The new hands-free “Hey Google” voice commands do work, which is an incredible achievement for these tiny earbuds, and they process speech well thanks to the great mics. But responses are often a few beats slower than I’m used to, and therefore only useful for a limited range of requests — and most notably, they introduce another collision point with my other devices, like Google Homes and Smart Displays, that are listening for that “Hey Google” phrase. Ultimately, the barrier is still extremely low for when I would prefer to pull out my phone to get a task done.
Google Pixel Buds 2020 Should you buy them?
I may be more smitten with the Pixel Buds case than the earbuds themselves. But that’s not to say the earbuds aren’t good. The case design is an incredibly important part of the true wireless earbuds experience, and it can make or break the product. This case is fantastic in every respect: it’s compact, extremely well engineered, has enough battery for multiple recharges of the earbuds, and has wireless charging. It’s outstanding.
Google’s new Pixel Buds are a hit, and fully worth the asking price.
Where the rubber meets the road, the earbuds themselves, Google did a fine job as well. They’re small, unassuming and pretty comfortable, have great touch controls, and good well-rounded sound quality that automatically adjusts to drown out changes in ambient noise. Call quality going the other direction is also good, for those who need it. Battery life is the one sore spot, with longevity that’s 2-4 hours less than some of the competition.
Stopping right there, you can easily see the Pixel Buds being worth $179 — that’s the going rate for high-end true wireless earbuds, and these are among the best. The rest of the “smart” features of the earbuds are either inconsequential or just icing on the cake. Not everyone is going to rely on the spoken notifications or hands-free voice commands, and the Google translate functionality isn’t as useful as you’d think. But whether you get into those extras, or just appreciate the simplicity and pleasant experience Google has engineered into every aspect of the Pixel Buds, you’re going to be happy using these every day. They just replaced my Galaxy Buds+.
Google Pixel Buds
$179 at Best Buy
Excellent true wireless earbuds, with traditional Google flair.
The new Pixel Buds have an excellent case design, nice-sounding earbuds and lots of neat little features that elevate the whole experience. They’re worth the money, even with their limited configurability and average battery life.