I first reviewed Google’s Pixel Buds — the second generation, “true wireless” model — back in April of 2020. At the time, I was impressed by their tight integration with Android devices, solid sound quality, and reliable controls.
But my review was written after only a few days with the earbuds; though that’s normally long enough to make a useful assessment, sometimes my impressions of a product change over the course of long-term usage.
In the case of the Pixel Buds, my impressions have only changed for the better. 10 months later, I like them even more. And that’s saying a lot; I get to try a lot of true wireless headphones in this job.
For Android users, they are my go-to recommendation so long as active noise-canceling isn’t an absolute necessity. Here are some of the reasons why.
They sound pretty great — especially with a bass boost
I’m an audiophile and consider sound quality to be extremely important for any choice of earbuds, often willing to sacrifice features and ease of use for better sound quality. Thankfully, with the Pixel Buds, I’m not sacrificing much at all.
I thought the earbuds sounded pretty great at launch, but over time felt their bass was just a tad tame for some types of music. Thankfully, some months after launch, Google added an EQ option that allows you to boost bass levels for much more impact.
While I still wish there were a more robust EQ option, I genuinely think the Pixel Buds are among the most neutral true wireless earbuds I’ve heard right out of the box.
The best controls of any earbuds
The first thing I do after testing any new pair of earbuds is puzzle out the controls; too many of them are cumbersome and confusing. None of the earbuds I’ve tested to date come close to the Pixel Buds’ ease of use and reliability when it comes to its touch controls.
The Pixel Buds have a large responsive touch surface, and you can perform all the expected functions: raise and lower the volume with a simple swipe, or skip and rewind with two or three taps respectively.
Of course, you can play and pause with a single tap as well, or long-press for longer to invoke the assistant.
Better yet, each individual input has a unique and immediate audible chime. This provides immediate feedback to confirm you actually performed the action you meant to, without requiring the clunky voice alerts found on other headphones.
The Pixel Buds will even ignore inputs it’s not sure about, complete with its own error chime, avoiding accidental commands.
They are equally functional when using just one earbud
One of my biggest pet peeves with true wireless earbuds is when companies don’t offer the same functionality on both the left and right units. It’s absurd how many headphones suffer from this annoying limitation.
On the vast majority of true wireless headphones I’ve tested, at least some of the controls are exclusive to one earbud. Oftentimes, you can only raise the volume and skip tracks on one earbud, and lower volume and rewind tracks on the other. And even when the controls are customizable, you can rarely access the same exact set of controls on both earbuds.
This is annoying because I often only use one earbud at a time. When I’m riding my bike, for example; I want to maintain some ambient awareness, and it’s technically illegal to use two earbuds while riding a bike in NYC.
Many headphones have an ‘ambient’ or ‘transparency’ mode that use the microphones to help you hear the world around you, but become useless at speed due to wind noise. Besides, using one earbud sounds more natural to me, and no one really needs stereo for audiobooks and phone calls.
Actually-useful Google Assistant integration
Unlike other earbuds, the Pixel Buds only record your voice while you are pressing the earbud, and they react almost immediately after you let go.
On most other earbuds, invoking the assistant means pressing down a button for a full two seconds, making your query, and then waiting through an awkward pause while the assistant figures out if you’re done asking your question. This may sound like a small detail, but it’s the difference between me using the assistant every day with the Pixel Buds and almost never with other headphones.
Even better, the Pixel Buds are one of the vanishingly few earbuds with hot word detection. Saying ‘okay Google’ or ‘hey Google’ activates the assistant almost as reliably as a long-press (I do have to shout it out when riding my bike sometimes). This means I can raise the volume, skip tracks, check my notifications, reply to messages, and look up information when my hands are busy doing the dishes or wrangling my pets
Everyone’s ears are different, but it’s worth noting the Pixel Buds are among the smallest and most comfortable True Wireless earbuds I’ve tested. They’re among the few earbuds I’m comfortable using when I go to bed — sometimes listening to audiobooks or white noise helps me fall asleep — and I can wear them all day without major discomfort.
They’re also among the few earbuds that use silicone tips that fit my girlfriend’s ears. And despite being small and comfortable, they remain firmly seated in my ear during workouts
Bonus: the charging case is tiny and unintrusive in a pocket. Many of my other favorite earbuds, like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds or Sony WF-1000XM3 come in laughably large charging cases that stand out awkwardly in a pair of jeans.
They’ve also proven quite durable. I’ve dropped them and their case more time than I can count and they keep on chugging along.
They’ve gotten better over time
I already appreciated the Pixel Buds in my original review, but like many Pixel products, they’ve gotten better over time. There’s the aforementioned bass EQ, as well as smart attention alerts that will lower the volume if they detect certain sounds.
New features aside, connection stability and assistant responsiveness appear to have improved with updates as well. Google tends to be good about adding new features to its hardware over time, and I hope that trend continues with the Pixel Buds.
Ultimately my impressions of the Pixel Buds are much as they were after my original review, just amplified. I’ve heard earbuds that sound a bit better, lasted a bit longer, or had a few more features, but there’s simply nothing else in the Android market that strikes quite the same cocktail of comfort, ease of use, sound quality, reliability, and voice assistance.
If Google can figure out a way to add noise-canceling to the Pixel Buds, they’d be pretty much perfect. Here’s hoping for the Pixel Buds Gen 3 — or a particularly ambitious software update — to make that a reality.
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Published February 15, 2021 — 23:03 UTC