Google’s new Pixel Buds are comfortable true wireless earbuds built with the company’s voice assistant in mind. They feature one-touch Google Assistant access and live translation capabilities, as well as long Bluetooth range and decent battery life. But they fall short on audio performance—especially at $179—with wobbly, slightly hissy sound that lags behind similarly priced competitors like the Jabra Elite Active 75t.
The Pixel Buds have a big, circular face leading to a driver that fits snugly in your ear canal, with a little rubber wing that helps keep them in place. They’re currently available in off-white, with black, green, and orange models coming down the road. An IPX4 rating means the earphones are protected from sweat, so they’re safe for exercise, but they aren’t fully waterproof, so you shouldn’t run them under the faucet to wash them off.
A little wing helps keep the Pixel Buds in place
The Buds come with three sizes of eartips, and their flat profile means they’re less likely to fall out of your ear than, say, Apple’s AirPods. They don’t have the drooping stem that AirPods do, and they block your ear considerably more, which may or may not bother you. I found them to be very snug and comfortable, even for long periods, as a “spatial vent” meant my ears didn’t feel plugged up.
The included egg-shaped charging case is adorable, and the top opens and closes with a satisfying click. The case charges via USB-C or Qi wireless charging.
The Pixel Buds case charges via USB-C
An Ideal Android Software Experience
The Buds technically work with any Bluetooth 4.0 device (which includes iPhones), but you really only want to use them with phones running Android 6.0 or greater, as their real differentiator is software—specifically, their deep integration with Google Assistant. On a recent Android phone, pairing is super-easy: You flip open the case and the headphones alert your phone to pair. You don’t need to enter a code, and reentering pairing mode is as simple as pressing a button on the back of the case.
A companion app displays the individual Buds’ battery life and settings. Using the app, you can locate lost Buds, or change tap controls (single tap, double tap, triple tap, or swipe) to do various things on your phone. The tap controls are responsive and not too twitchy.
Tap and hold a Bud to ask Google Assistant things like, “how’s the weather?,” or, “send a message to Sascha Segan.” As with most Assistant-based products, the Buds can access email and calendars in Gmail accounts, but not G Suite accounts. Google Assistant is quick and responsive.
Google also pitches translation features associated with the earbuds, but it actually works better socially to just use the audio mode for Google Translate on your phone. To use translation, you have to use the Translate app on your phone for audio input and output anyway, and in my experience it takes some explanation and pointing, and I don’t want to have my ears plugged up.
The Pixel Buds have spectacular connection range, but like with other true wireless earbuds, connections stutter sometimes. I got 70 feet of distance from a Pixel 4 before the connection started to significantly drop—that’s terrific, as most other Bluetooth devices have around 40 feet of range. But walking down the street with a hat on, I found that the left earbud would stutter and cut out for a second or so occasionally.
The case holds four extra charges
Google says the Pixel Buds have five hours of listening time, with 24 hours worth of charge in the case—but that battery life is halved on phone calls. I found slightly longer battery life than the 2.5 hours promised, around 3 hours of conversation. That’s still shorter than I’d like, but it’s up to the promised levels.
Audio: Not the Greatest
I’d describe the audio quality here as treble-focused. There isn’t a ton of bass, which doesn’t bother me, and the same is true of the AirPods. There’s no EQ or other way to alter the sound, however, which is something you get with many new pairs, including the aforementioned Jabra Elite Active 75t.
See How We Test Headphones
Listening to music, voices are definitely pushed up and emphasized, with drums lacking bone-thumping deep bass and things sounding just a touch compressed, but not enough to be muddy—just so that the extreme edges of the sound seem a little shaved off and flattened. Left-right separation is emphasized, giving pieces that start out with a natural sense of space even more of one.
There’s one noticeable problem, though: a slight underlying hiss or static whenever my connected phone is actively transmitting to or from the earbuds. This slight static kicks in for a few seconds when I sent a text message, for instance. Hit play on music, and then pause, and the static once again remains for a few seconds; you can hear it under Google Assistant’s voice, too. I got the static using two different phones, a Pixel 4 and a OnePlus 8 Pro, and I didn’t hear it when using another pair of Bluetooth headphones.
Noise-canceling mics promise more than they deliver
That static really irritates me, especially when it’s sitting under quiet music. I know at least one other reviewer has heard this hiss as well, but it doesn’t bother him as much as it does me, which throws this whole thing into the realm of subjectivity.
Google acknowledges that, “All Bluetooth earbuds create some amount of noise at certain frequencies when components turn on…Some users may be more susceptible than others to hearing noises at these frequencies.”
On the bright side, a Google spokesperson told me, “We’re continuing to work on software improvements to further reduce the volume of these noises for listeners that may be impacted.”
Rather than active noise cancellation, what you get here is “adaptive sound,” which automatically steps the volume up or down based on background noise. I found it distracting when the sound on the Pixel Buds would unexpectedly turn itself up or down. Luckily this feature is easy to turn off.
Voice quality is fine. Like most true wireless earbuds, the Pixel Buds don’t do a good job of cancelling loud or complex background noise; for that you need a better voice headset, preferably one with a boom mic.
In quiet settings, voices sound nice and sharp, and don’t drop out. The Buds canceled out a relatively distant lawnmower in testing, but buses and trucks going by within about ten feet were clearly audible.
HD Voice calling definitely helps your voice rise above background noise, but remember, that’s network-dependent. On a call between AT&T and T-Mobile, without HD Voice, a truck drowned out my voice, while on call from T-Mobile to T-Mobile, with HD Voice, there was still some high-pitched noise but my voice was much more audible.
My go-to Bluetooth headphones include a Plantronics Voyager Focus UC, with big earpads and a powerful boom mic, and the OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2, which wrap around the back of my neck. I’ve used Samsung’s Galaxy Buds for a while, but I demand better noise cancellation than most true wireless sets have to offer, so that’s where I’m coming from here.
Google’s Pixel Buds are attractive and comfortable, and their software integration is sharp, but audio just isn’t their strong point. For $20 more, Jabra’s Elite Active 75t earphones beat the Pixel Buds on nearly every metric, including longer battery life, a better durability rating, and most importantly, superior and more customizable sound with much stronger bass. Or you can spend far less and still get better audio quality in the form of Anker’s $80 Soundcore Liberty Air. Ultimately, the Pixel Buds put Google Assistant first, audio second.
Google Pixel Buds (2020) Specs
|Active Noise Cancellation||No|
|Product Category||Bluetooth Headsets|