Technology

Google Pixel Buds (2020) review

The new true wireless Google Pixel Buds are a major upgrade on their predecessors. The always-listening Google Assistant is great, but the lack of active noise cancellation and fatiguing sound quality at this price are a disappointment.

FOR

Always-on Google Assistant

Live language translation

Auto-play/pause

Sleek design

AGAINST

Aggressive, fatiguing sound

Can fall out easily

No noise reduction

Mediocre battery life

The new Google Pixel Buds might feel like a zeitgeisty knock-off of the work Samsung and Apple are doing, but they do in fact bring something new to the table: an always-listening Google Assistant.

That may seem like a small feature, but up until now Android devices haven’t exactly had a complete Apple AirPods-like solution. Sure, there have been some absolutely incredible true wireless earbuds like the Sony WF-1000XM3 that cater to that crowd, but they still weren’t perfectly and entirely in sync with your Android device.

The new Google Pixel Buds are. Not only do they sync up to your Pixel phone the second you open the case near them the same way AirPods sync up to iOS devices, but if you enable Google Assistant, you’ll be able to talk to it at any point by saying the wake words – again, just like AirPods.

But unlike their Cupertino-contrived competition, but Google’s Buds offer a live language translation as long as you have connection to the Internet, which is a game-changer for all of us monolinguists out there.

That said, while the Google Pixel Buds seem to offer the best compatibility with Android devices, they don’t offer any form of active noise cancellation, middling on-board battery life of about three hours and cost more than other comparable earbuds from Sony and Samsung.

Worse, they also have some of the weakest sound quality of any true wireless earbud we’ve tested so far in 2020, it’s warm, treble-heavy and for folks with a sensitivity to hi-hat clashes and sibilance, they’ll wear you down after a half-hour of listening.

All and all, the new Google Pixel Buds are a bit of a mixed bag – but hey, they’re a huge upgrade compared to the 2017 Google Pixel Buds and a fine companion for your Google Pixel 3, Pixel 3a or Google Pixel 4 smartphone.

PRICE AND RELEASE DATE

The Google Pixel Buds dropped on Monday, April 27 2020 and is available in four colors – Oh So Orange, Clearly White, Quite Mint, and Almost Black. The Google Pixel Buds cost $179 (for reference that works out at about £140 / AU$270), but we’re still waiting for official global pricing.

That means that (in the US at least), the Pixel Buds are more expensive than the Apple AirPods with the standard charging case. However, they’re still $20 cheaper than the more-comparable AirPods with Apple’s Wireless Charging Case.

How does that $179 price tag fare against other true wireless earbuds? Not great, unfortunately.

For $50 less you can get either the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus that have a 12-hour on-board battery and 12-hour charging case or the Sony WF-XB700 that have a huge, beefy bass response. If you’re willing to spend $50 more, you can pick up the Sony WF-1000XM3 that has active noise cancellation – a supremely helpful feature for commuters and frequent travelers that you won’t find on the Pixel Buds.

DESIGN

The most prominent feature of the Google Pixel Buds – and the thing that separates them from the original Pixel Buds that it will likely replace in the future – is that they’re completely wireless. There’s no cord running in between the buds this time, and that’s truly liberating.

Because of that, the case has also been fully redesigned, too, and now fits better in both your hand and your pocket. The lid’s new egg-shaped case can be flicked up and down with a satisfying click and the entire case only sports a single USB Type-C port for charging. Even better, the case itself supports wireless charging and a bright LED on the case lets you know that it’s being charged.

Inside the box Google includes multiple sets of eartips and a decently long charging cord – both of which are appreciated. In fact, you’ll very likely need the extra eartips as the mediums that come on the buds can actually run a bit large and push the earbuds out of your ear.

As you can see these are some seriously small buds and can only stay in your ears with the help of a little nub-like protrusion that rests inside the outer ear. How uncomfortable you find the nub will likely be a point of debate, but we didn’t find them the most comfortable or the most prone to staying in our ears. Potentially people with a different ear shape may have more success in this area than we did, but we wish Google would’ve used a fin design (like the Powerbeats Pro) to keep the buds in place instead of the nub.

The only outright missing feature in terms of design is active noise cancellation. A number of other headphones around the $200 mark have it and it’s sorely missing from the Google Pixel Buds. In fact, due to their design, there’s not even a lot of passive noise reduction here, either.

To compensate for their lack of noise reduction skills, though, the Pixel Buds are able to automatically adjust their volume based on the amount of noise the microphones pick up – which, although not quite noise cancellation or anything close, is better than nothing – and automatically pause when you take them out of your ear.

We didn’t find the automatic volume adjustment that helpful but auto-play/pause certainly is a huge help in conserving battery life and a smart inclusion.

FEATURES

While they don’t always fit very well, you have to hand it to Google for building a ton of features into these earbuds for Android users. The automatic connectivity right out of the box is pretty magical, and the always-listening Google Assistant allows you to control your whole home from wherever you are.

One neat feature that’s specific to the Pixel Buds is the ability to integrate directly with Google Translate to offer real-time translations. The way it works is that, once you say ‘OK Google, be my Spanish translator’, your Android phone automatically opens the Google Translate app and starts working. You press and hold your left earbud to say something in your native language, and it will then repeat in the translated language from the speakers on your phone. Hold the translate button on your phone while the other person talks and you’ll hear the translation directly in your earbuds.

When you get a rhythm down for the conversation, the solution is magical, allowing you to talk with extended family, friends and strangers that you would’ve struggled to communicate with before. The only problem is that you’ll need to speak one at a time and unless you download a language pack (around 45MB each) you’ll need to be connected to Wi-Fi in order for it to work.

The other hidden trick the Google Pixel Buds can do is read your notifications from your phone and, if you choose to do so, respond directly using dictation. These features aren’t quite as polished as we’d like, and can often feel a bit overwhelming if you have social network and email notifications turned on, but they are incredibly practical and could pave the way for better implementation down the road.

PERFORMANCE

So how do they sound? Not amazing, unfortunately. Right off the bat, without any music playing you might hear the slightest bit of hissing and you’ll notice that some songs have an incredibly weak bass response.

Instead, what you’ll notice is that Google’s Buds really focus on the mids and treble. They make hard rock songs like The Best from Awolnation course with energy and sublime left-right separation – which is great – but the music never sounds like it’s supposed to because it’s missing the low-end.

Audio enthusiasts would describe the sound quality as bright, a term that most associate with sibiliance (exaggerated tonal harshness) and listening fatigue. There’s no way to customize this sound yet, so you’re basically stuck with the audio quality that Google gives you… which isn’t ideal.

Similarly, video audio quality is a bit of a mixed bag: we had no problem listening to videos on YouTube with the Pixel Buds, but turn to an action-heavy movie on Netflix and suddenly you’re missing the lower half of the audio track.

I also had an issue while using them on a Facebook Messenger call where the microphone crackled with every single word as did simply re-adjusting them in my ear. Again, potentially these were just one-off issues that could be fixed with firmware updates or flukes caused by connection quality, but right now we’re simply not confident enough to say that these are strong contenders for video calls.

Where the Pixel Buds works as advertised, for better or worse, is with battery life. Officially, Google touts three hours per charge with a total of 24 extra hours when deposited back inside the charge case between charges and we found that number to be pretty spot-on.

The built-in battery life on the Buds is slightly lower than what you’d find elsewhere so if you plan on using these on a long-haul flight, expect to go 15-20 minutes without them in your ears while they recharge. The good news is that the amount of battery life inside the case is comparable to its Sony, Samsung and Apple equivalents and they can be charged wirelessly, which is a nice touch.

Last but not least, it’s at least worth mentioning that the Pixel Buds come with a stalwart IPX4 water-resistance rating. That makes them capable of withstanding a sweat-filled trip to the gym and a few minutes out in the rain, but probably not a trip to the beach. So tread carefully.

FINAL VERDICT

There’s no debating that these are a huge improvement on the original Pixel Buds. The feature-set alone is a marked improvement and Google has clearly paid attention to what customers are looking for in terms of ease-of-use and sleek design.

Where the Pixel Buds could still improve is in their sound quality and lack of active noise cancellation tech – at $179 these things are table stakes and shouldn’t be absent. To that end, there are a number of other earbuds out there that sound better and cost less, or cost more and include noise cancellation.

As much as we appreciate the feature set of the Google Pixel Buds for Pixel owners, the less-than-perfect audio quality, lower battery life and loose fit keep the Google Pixel Buds from receiving our unbridled recommendation.

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