Google's new $180 Pixel Buds sound better than Apple's AirPods, but they're ultimately too expensive for what you get

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

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  • Google's new Pixel Buds get the basics right for earbuds: they sound good, they look good, they're comfortable, and they're compact.
  • Sadly, however, there's no noise cancellation feature, background static is noticeable when listening to quiet songs, and I continue to find Google Assistant to be an awful mess in earbuds.
  • For $180, you'd be overspending on the Pixel Buds. That's because there are lots of wireless earbuds that sound similar with lower price tags and less issues to deal with.
  • If you're looking for more headphone recommendations, be sure to check out our roundup of the best headphone deals.

There are countless wireless earbuds for Android, many of them with Google Assistant functionality and varying degrees of sound quality at different price points. Serving as a true wireless successor to Google's 2017 Pixel Buds, the new Pixel Buds are yet another entry in this crowded field or earbuds.

But, in effect, there isn't much about Google's new Pixel Buds that help differentiate them from the competition, save for an easy pairing feature for Android phones that's only really useful once or twice in their lifetime. Advertisement

I honestly can't say that I've tried all wireless earbuds out there, but I've tested a few of the Pixel Buds' major competitors, including the AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds, and Sony WF-1000XM3s. Among those, the Pixel Buds sit squarely in Apple's AirPods category — good, but expensive for what you get.

Specifications

  • IPX4 sweat resistance
  • 5-hour battery life, 2.5 hours of voice call time
  • 24 hours of battery life in wireless charging case
  • Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity
  • Google Assistant support
  • 12mm drivers

Style and fit

Style-wise, these are some nice earbuds. They're small and they don't stick out of your ears. They're true "buds" in that they don't have an arm that sticks out, like Apple's AirPods.

They're available in different colors, including white, orange, mint, and black. But those options are only for the earbuds themselves — the charging case is white no matter which option you go for.
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The new Pixel Buds will likely fit and stay in several ear sizes and shapes with their in-ear and rubber tip design. For reference, Apple's AirPods and similar earbuds slide out of my ears no matter what I do. You get three different rubber tip sizes included with the Pixel Buds, so you'll likely find a comfortable fit that also keep the Pixel Buds in your ears, even during workouts.

75544654 The wireless charging case is small and lightweight — it's like carrying around a small, smooth plastic pebble. The fact that the case can be charged wirelessly means it's comparable to Apple's $200 AirPods with wireless charging case. Advertisement

How do they sound?

The Pixel Buds sound good. In fact, they sound better than Apple's AirPods, and even the $250 AirPods Pro, both of which have a somewhat hollow sound compared to the Pixel Buds. More relevant to Android users, the Pixel Buds sound better than Samsung's Galaxy Buds, which are totally devoid of bass. Still, they're not as good as the amazing $230 Sony WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds, which are frankly incredible.

Listening to "Bubbles" by Yosi Horikawa proves that the Pixel Buds have a surprisingly well-balanced sound. The Pixel Buds includes deep lows, decent bass punch, rich mids, and detail-revealing treble. No characteristic overwhelms the other on the Pixel Buds, making them great choices for almost any music genre, except for music that benefits from a lot of bass, like hip-hop, electronic music, and reggae.

Bass-heads won't be satisfied here. Pretty much any track by Destructo — where much of the excitement comes from bass — reveals that you don't get the kind of bass that envelops your ears. Small wireless earbuds shouldn't typically be a bass-head's first choice, but the Sony WF-1000XM3 should get a mention, as they are capable of delivering that head-wrapping bass while still delivering on the mids and highs.Advertisement

Otherwise, I enjoy listening to tracks like Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," John Prine's "Illegal Smile," Doom Flamingo's "Telepathy", Jack Johnson's "Wasting Time," and other non-bass-focused songs on the Pixel Buds as much as I enjoy these tracks on more expensive headphones.

Notable things about the Pixel Buds

  • The Pixel Buds pair more easily with Android phones by simply opening the wireless charging case. Within seconds, you'll see a notification on your screen asking if you want to pair the Pixel Buds with your phone. This is nice, and you'll see a lot of hype around this feature, but it's only really useful once. Don't base your buying decision on this feature alone.
  • Switching the connection between devices, like a smartphone and laptop, is fairly easy — you just need to go into the device's Bluetooth settings and click/tap the Pixel Buds to switch the connection.
  • The Pixel Buds don't come with active noise cancellation, but the in-ear rubber tip design acts a little like an ear plug, and some noise is muffled as a result. Still, not as much as with active noise cancellation.

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Problems with the Pixel Buds

Background static noise

The Pixel Buds make an audible and unfortunate hissing/static sound that's noticeable if you're listening to quiet music, like soft classical, in a quiet environment, which is distracting.Advertisement

I asked Google about this static background noise I was hearing. Here's what the company said:

"All Bluetooth earbuds create some amount of noise at certain frequencies when components turn on. In our lab testing we've made sure that any noise on Pixel Buds falls within a normal range for Bluetooth earbuds. A small percentage of users may be able to hear these frequencies, though most cannot. We're continuing to work on software improvements to further reduce these noises for listeners that can perceive this."

It's true that Bluetooth headphones can create some background static noise, but I never noticed it as much before. That's to say, it's pretty bad on the Pixel Buds. Hopefully this is something that Google can address with a software update. Advertisement

Google Assistant on the Pixel Buds

"Use Google Pixel Buds to receive and respond to incoming messages, emails, and important calendar events on the go," Google says. Indeed, Google Assistant can speak into your ear when you're wearing the Pixel Buds, telling you about all the notifications you're getting on your phone.

Let me tell you, there's nothing worse than listening to a song you love and getting rudely interrupted by Google Assistant's voice telling you about a message you just received. It's a wonder how Google ever thought this would be a good idea. You can turn off the voice part, and a "ding" noise will sound off when you get a notification instead. But that's as equally disruptive and annoying as the voice. There are ways to manage notifications, but the settings are clunky, limited, and just hard to use overall.Advertisement

The language translation feature works surprisingly well, but it's hard to imagine anyone actually using it. Getting to the translation feature is a clunky, unintuitive mess, which isn't helpful while you're flustered in a foreign country trying to communicate with someone in different languages. If you plan on using this feature, make sure to practice how to set it up before you travel. While you're at it, you may as well practice how you're going to communicate that you're using your earbuds to translate, and that you're not being rude and listening to music while other people speak.

My take? Just disable Google Assistant on the Pixel Buds. Entirely and totally. That way, you won't get the annoying notifications. I only kept Google Assistant enabled for testing purposes, and when I was finally done testing, I disabled Google Assistant with immense frustration-fueled satisfaction. Maybe Google Assistant in headphones or earbuds can be truly useful at some point in the future, but in its current iteration, "this ain't it."

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Google's alternative to active noise cancellation

Instead of noise cancellation, the Pixel Buds have a feature designed to raise the volume when you're in a noisy environment. This seems like a poorly thought-out feature, as higher volumes can be harmful to long-term hearing.

Plus, it doesn't work very well. I played audio of the notoriously loud NYC subway system on a 5.1 surround sound home entertainment setup at a very high volume (the best thing I can muster during the pandemic lockdown), and I think the Pixel Buds raised the volume. I'm not entirely sure ... Either way, I couldn't hear the song I was playing any better, and it reflects how poorly the feature actually works. Perhaps it's Google limiting how high it raises the volume to protect your hearing, in which case, this feature shouldn't exist in the first place. Thankfully, it's just an option you can leave disabled and forget about completely.

If you want noise cancellation, this isn't a good alternative. You'll have to spend the extra cash and get noise-cancelling headphones. Advertisement

Not the earbuds for phone calls

As with most earbuds, you can place phone calls with the Pixel Buds. And, like most earbuds and headphones, they're fine for indoor phone calls, but they're unsuitable for calls outdoors, even in a relatively quiet outdoor setting. I live in the deep, quiet suburbs, and a person I was speaking to on the phone with the Pixel Buds was distracted by the sound of chirping birds above me coming through the earbuds.

Should you buy Google's latest 2020 Pixel Buds?

Would I buy these? It wouldn't be the worst decision because the Pixel Buds get the core earbud basics right — they sound good, the look good, they're comfortable, and they're small and compact. But, I'd be buying them with the knowledge that I could have gone with something less expensive that offers similar quality. I expect better for $180, just like I'd expect better from Apple's AirPods for their similarly high price tags.

Above, I spend more time complaining about the Pixel Buds than praising them, but most of the things I complain about, like Google Assistant, can be totally ignored. However, the especially-noticeable background static noise can be a deal-breaker, alongside the Pixel Buds' high price tag. Advertisement

At $180, the new Pixel Buds are competitively priced against Apple's AirPods, but not against other options. There are plenty of well-reviewed wireless earbuds that cost less, like our favorite pick based on a colleague's review, the $100 Cambridge Audio Melomania, or Anker's Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro wireless earbuds. And, if I'm going to spend as much as $180, I'll fork out the extra $50 to get the Sony WF-1000XM3.

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