The new Pixel Buds from Google don’t have much in common with their predecessors, except for their name. Their most striking feature is their completely new look: what were loose-fitting earbuds are now tighter-fitting in-ears, and the thin fabric string between the two earplugs has also gone. This sounds great – but will the 2020 model be judged to be our (Pixel) buddy?
Google had to face a lot of criticism for the model that was launched about two years ago, because the search engine giant’s headphone debut was lacking in many areas: The fit was too loose for many people, the setup was buggy, the touch controls were awkward, and we also had a few problems with the sound.
Meanwhile, in the headphone market, it feels like an eternity has passed, countless True-Wireless models have flooded onto the scene and – don’t forget – Apple redefined the standard for modern in-ears overnight with the AirPods Pro. So Google really needed to deliver in order not to be completely forgotten in the “smart” wearables sector.
Haptics & comfort
And they delivered: In the white cardboard box we find the buds together with the charging case, three earpieces in sizes S, M and L, a USB-C to A charging cable as well as the usual printed products, including a quick start guide and safety instructions.
The workmanship gave us nothing to complain about: The buds and the case make a very high-quality impression, sit well in the hand, fit comfortably in the ear, and the charging case has about the same dimensions as the one that comes with Apple AirPods Pro, but at 57 grams, it is about 10 grams heavier.
The two earplugs are designed to fit snugly together, with small silicone wings that fit inside the ear, and IPX4 certification means that you can take part in more active sports. Unfortunately, the two wings are firmly attached to the earplugs and therefore not interchangeable. This could cause problems for people with very large ears, as these narrow extensions would barely grip inside the ear canal, and that in turn could lead to a looser fit. If you want to wear a hat, there should be no reason to complain as the narrow design hardly protrudes out of the ears at all.
The operation of these small white buds leaves a good impression, because all tapping and wiping gestures work reliably and are quickly implemented – fortunately, unlike with their predecessors, we did not notice the occasional disobedience of commands with this model.
A horizontal wipe changes the volume – this works on both left and right, and tapping once starts or pauses playback or answers calls. A double-tap moves the title forward and ends or rejects calls, a triple tap returns to the previous title. Of course, Google Assistant, which can be called up by pressing and holding either of the two buds, is also included.
Bluetooth & pairing
With Bluetooth 5.0 and SBC as well as AAC codecs, Google is going for the standard fare here and putting their model on the same feature level as Apple’s AirPods . We would have liked to have seen aptX included in the Pixel Buds, as some Android Smartphones do not have AAC, and only SBC can be used. Android also prioritises AAC encoding differently depending on connection quality and power settings. This can lead to a worse streaming quality even with AAC.
On paper coupling the buds with a Pixel phone (from Android 6.0 onwards) should be as fast and easy as using Apple AirPods in combination with iOS devices: Open the charging case, and within a few seconds everything is done.
Unfortunately, in our test scenario our wishes diverged from the reality, because our Pixel 3a only wanted to hook up to these in-ears when we pressed the small pairing button on the back of the charging case. In other words, they use exactly the same procedure as pairing with other Android or Apple devices.
On Pixel phones, the setup screen will then appear, giving you brief instructions on how to use the headphones. In addition, one of the last steps is configuring Google Assistant, which can then be called up – if desired – by pressing and holding the earplugs. Other Android devices must download the free “Pixel Buds” app for the above mentioned setup steps.
A word about the connection strength. There have been complaints online that Pixel Buds briefly interrupt playback after about one minute and 50 seconds. We did not detect this in our test. However, we did have drop outs for a few milliseconds twice at the beginning, but when the firmware updated to version 550, this error no longer occurred. If you believe the statements of other users, this problem still exists despite the update. However, in terms of range, these headphones, unfortunately, don’t cover themselves in glory, inside an apartment it’s over when you enter a third room, in the open outdoors we went to about 27 metres.
While Android users should install the above-mentioned app to be able to configure the buds properly, owners of a Google Pixel only need open the system settings, because the app “Pixel Buds” is already integrated there. The notifications and settings of Google Assistant can be managed here, and you can also search for the in-ears, use the automatic pause function or set up sharing detection. The latter allows the volume of the two earplugs to be adjusted separately, for example to compensate for hearing deficiencies or to share headphones with friends. You can also see touch control assignment here, but unfortunately, it cannot be configured. A welcome feature is that the user interfaces can also be locked to prevent accidental touch activation.
With the firmware update Google have added some interesting functions: A bass boost amplifies the low frequencies, the automatic sound adjustment changes the volume depending on the ambient noise, and as an experimental feature there is now the “Attention Alerts” function. This causes the volume to be temporarily lowered if, for example, a baby cries, a dog barks and/or a siren sounds. In practical tests, however, this did not always work reliably.
An additional feature is the so-called “translation mode”, which requires the installation of the Google translation app. Here, the phone recognises speech and not only translates it in real time and sends it straight to the headphones, but also presents the translation in writing. Although it sounds a bit wooden, it works quite reliably when words are pronounced clearly. This mode currently supports translation from English to French, German, Italian or Spanish.
Google gives a runtime of up to five hours of pure music playback and two and a half hours of pure talk time. We couldn’t check the second of these because we didn’t have enough topics to talk about. At a higher volume (approx. 80%) we only reached four hours and ten minutes of pure music playback. What was noticeable in our test was that the right earphone drained significantly faster than the left one. After 30 minutes of pure music playback, there was a difference of 30 per cent, but after one hour the left earphone caught up again. The case, which can also be charged wirelessly according to the Qi standard, provides a total of 24 hours playback and 12 hours talk time. The quick charge mode promises two hours of playback or one hour of talk time after ten minutes of charging. In our practical test, the left one showed 52% and the right 24% remaining after 10 minutes, after just under 25 minutes it was 16% to 8% and after exactly 40 minutes the “two hours playback” was gone. It’s a pity because there are much cheaper models which last much longer.
The first generation of these headphones sounded rather unremarkable; due to their special EarBuds construction in louder ambient noise they sounded imprecise. This was accompanied by a tame bass range, which dampened our listening pleasure, especially when listening to electronic productions. With the current model, it is quite similar. Although thanks to their design the Pixel Buds 2 fit more firmly in the ear, and the seal is much better, external noise still penetrates through – especially low-frequency sounds, which won’t be popular with frequent flyers and train travellers.
The new generation do not have a bass-oriented tuning either, but this is a subtle matter, which we do not want to see as a negative point. You will not find sub-bass, but thanks to the bass-boost function, there is little that can be done to counteract this, as the frequency cellar is heated up by a slider. For my taste, Google has done a very good job with this EQ intervention – not too subtle, but not too dominant either – but there is certainly not enough boom for bassheads.
As with its predecessors, Google seems to want to focus on communication, speech and intelligibility by raising the mid and high frequencies. This works very well, podcasts, news and radio plays remain clear and understandable even in noisy environments. Even rap passages, vocals, e-guitars or synthesisers make the Pixel Buds sound great.
When listening to our test playlist, I found some tracks (e.g. Madonna “Jump”) too present in the mid and high frequency range at high volume. As a consequence: the listener gets tired faster and very long listening sessions are almost impossible. In addition, the Pixel Buds tend to hiss in some speech passages.
I was positively surprised by the staging of the individual instruments: The stage opens beautifully into full width and events in the stereo field can be clearly located. What I missed, however, was an adequate depth gradation – unfortunately listening deep into the room is not possible with these little Pixels.
While the first generation of these headphones was quickly overwhelmed by dense, complex arrangements, you can immediately hear that this version are much better at it, but discerning listeners will still not be satisfied with this behaviour.
Finally, we rate the voice quality as good to very good. The built-in microphones and bone conduction sensor ensured clear speech intelligibility throughout our test calls.
The second generation of Pixel Buds makes up some ground and Google has made a lot of improvements to our three main criticisms: better fit in your ears, better handling and better sound. The latter score again relies on very good speech intelligibility, but for pure, hours-long music enjoyment for casual use with a phone, their sound can quickly become tiring. In contrast, the workmanship and operation are very good, but are let down by the rather weak battery power.
Unfortunately Google has not fulfilled my wish list for features with Pixel Buds 2 and so I hope that in time the manufacturer will provide a third generation that will have noise cancelling, a good equaliser and an adequate Bluetooth performance. The competition offers much more for the same money. So, in the category “price/performance” these are only good enough to be rated as “satisfying”.
- Ear couplingIn-Ears
- Transducer principledynamic
- Weight without cableeach 5.3 g, incl. case: 67 g
What's in the box
- 3 pairs of ear tips (S, M, L)
- USB-C charging cable
- charging case
- BT codecs: SBC, AAC
- BT version: 5.0
- Google account required for full access to features