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Google seemingly did everything to erase the first-generation Pixel Buds from public memory. The original Pixel Buds that were released in 2017, alongside the Pixel 2, were plagued with little issues ranging from overly sensitive touch controls to an awkward corded design that made placing the earbuds back in the charging case feel like more of a chore than second nature. Two and a half years later, apparently haven taken the scathing reviews to heart, Google corrected those errors and released next-generation Pixel Buds — yes, same exact name — and thankfully they’re a heck of a lot better.
The new Pixel Buds are exactly what Pixel owners have deserved for years. They have an terrifically small design and can pair almost instantly to any Pixel or Android smartphone (no opening Bluetooth settings required). They have intuitive touch controls so they’re easy to use. And they have the premium features that most people have come to expect — like sensors for ear detection, support for wireless charging and an IP4 water-resistance rating — combined with some features that only Google can deliver, like a conversation mode integrated with Google Translate.
After testing the new Pixel Buds for the past week, it’s safe to say that Google finally has what Apple has had for years: an excellent set of wireless buds.
Let’s start with the charging case. Google has essentially taken everything that people love about the AirPods (second-generation) and integrated them into its new Pixel Buds. The charging case is almost the exact same size and it looks almost identical to the AirPods’s charging case. And it works essentially the same, too. The Pixel Buds magnetically clip into place, just like AirPods, and the lid makes an even more satisfying click sound when you open and shut it. (If you’re somebody who likes to fidget with your gadget, you’ll opening and closing this case — it’s that satisfying.) Plus, you can wireless charging the case if you want, too.
The actual wireless earbuds might be the smallest wireless earbud that I’ve ever tested. Really, they’re that tiny. They have a silicone eartip and ear-wing so that they twist-and-fit securely in your ear, and they have such a minimal profile because they rest well in your ear canal that most people wouldn’t know that you’re wearing them…other than the fact that they are white and look like Mentos. The ear-wing is not unlike what other many sport wireless earbuds have, like the Jaybird Vista, and likewise, I found that the Pixel Buds were very good running earbuds. (Yes, they have the same water-resistance rating as AirPods Pro.)
The Pixel Buds come with a lot of convenient features, but let’s start with something they don’t have: active noise-canceling or transparency modes. These are premium feature that a lot of wireless earbuds now have, including Amazon Echo Buds ($130), AirPods Pro ($249), Sony WF-1000XM3 ($228), but the Pixel Buds do not. Considering that the Pixel Buds are fairly expensive, at $179, this is probably the biggest gripe I have against them.
The Pixel Buds don’t let you adjust the EQ of the music either, but you can turn on Adaptive Sound, which is a mode where the Pixel Buds will automatically optimize your music based on the ambient noise around you. It works OK — the Pixel Buds increased the volume when I walked into a room where the TV on full blast and lowered when I went back into my office — but I’m not sure it’ll be a game-changer for anybody.
The Pixel Buds have built-in optical sensors so they can detect when they’re in your ears and will automatically play/pause the music, which is a feature that AirPods have had for years. Where the Pixel Buds also really shine is with their capacitive touch controls and how well they work. With a swipe forward or back, you can adjust the music volume. With one, two or three taps you can play/pause, skip or rewind tracks. And if you’re a big Google Assistant person, you can hold down either earbud, ask a question and a small voice will answer in your ear; you can ask a question or tell a command, like “call Will Price,” and the Google Assistant quickly does it for you.
I wasn’t really able to test out the Pixel Buds most novel feature, Conversation mode, because I didn’t really have a place to test it out while in quarantine. But the gist is that you can ask the Google Assistant to “help me speak Spanish” (or any other language) and it’ll launch Google Translate; from there you should be able to have a slow back-and-forth conversation between somebody who doesn’t speak the same language as you. Cool? Yes. But I’m guessing most people won’t use it much, if ever, unless they frequently travel abroad.
The Pixel Buds aren’t the best-sounding wireless earbuds — that title is still between the Sony WF-1000XM3, Sennheiser Momentum 3 or the AirPods Pro, in my opinion — but they sound better than most. Each earbud has what Google is calling “custom-designed 12mm drivers” and they do a good job hitting the mids and highs, and there’s good separation there. So depending on what you’re listening to, you can hear the different vocals and instrumentals pretty clearly.
The issue is that the low-range doesn’t have that punch you’d expect. For example, when the bass comes in during The Weeknd’s “Heartless” it feels kind of hollow. It’s not to be unexpected, however, as the Pixel Buds are tiny-little earbuds and I’m guessing can’t fit the big drivers to really generate that deep bass. It’s a small deficiency in what otherwise are pretty great sounding buds.
There are more wireless earbuds than ever before. In the market for some? Read this guide. Read the Story
Tucker Bowe has been on Gear Patrol’s editorial team since 2014. As a Tech Staff Writer, he tracks everything in the consumer tech space, from headphones to smartphones, wearables to home theater systems. If it lights up or makes noise, he probably covers it.
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