Super clean design and finish, Great case with wireless charging, Class-leading touch controls, Great Android integration, Balanced and open sound, Excellent call quality
Some connection dropouts, Poor isolation, Limited codec support
Though not especially outstanding in any one regard, the Pixel Buds absolutely nail the fundamentals making them a pleasure to use day to day.
When one thinks of Google, audio surely doesn’t come to mind. Rather, the company is best known for its software and dauntingly intelligent machine learning. Enter the Pixel range, a platform created to provide refined essentials as well as showcasing their software and machine learning. Though their smartphones are perhaps best known, the Pixel Buds are a product have been making headlines recently with their surprisingly simple user experience and unique feature set. Google also tease some quality audio hardware inside, acting as a merger between smart features and traditional acoustic design. From the outset, the new Pixel Buds are generations ahead of the old semi-wired model and look to be a competitive option even for the enthusiast.
The Pixel Buds just launched here in Australia for $279 AUD. You can read more about them and treat yourself to a pair here.
I would like to thank Google Australia very much for their quick communication and for providing me with the Pixel Buds for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review.
- Dimensions: 20.5 x 19.5 x 18.2mm (not incl. ear tip and fin)
- Weight: 5.3g per earbud, 56.1g case (w/o earbuds)
- Water resistance: IPX4
- Connectivity: BT 5.0
- Driver: 12mm custom-designed DD
- Mic: Dual beamforming microphones w/voice detecting accelerometer
- Battery: Up to 5hrs listening time and 2.5hrs talk, 24hrs listening time with case
- Charging: USB-C, Qi-certified
The Pitch –
One might be quick to dismiss the audio performance of the Pixel buds, after all, Google is not known for its acoustic designs but their bleeding-edge software. However, content to redeem the first-generation model, the Pixel Buds 2 showcases some serious thought. Powering the show is a custom-designed 12mm dynamic driver. On teardowns, we can observe that the driver has a custom acoustic chamber that is ported for enhanced bass response. We also observe a metal diaphragm which should promise a good level of driver control despite its larger size.
Though becoming ever more unanimous, the vast majority of the populous still does not like the in-ear form factor. This is mostly due to the sense of pressure on the ear which has been addressed by Apple pressure vent system and now, in a similar fashion, by Google with the spatial vent. This helps the listener to retain spatial awareness when used out and about in addition to reducing in-ear pressure. I also found that it enhances the sound in particular ways – the Pixel Buds sounding, for lack of better terminology, very open.
The Pixel Buds are designed to be fully integrated into Google’s digital assistant and have various smart features built in to augment the experience. Dual beamforming microphones work in tandem with voice-detecting accelerometers to better localise voices and ambient noise. The earbuds also include motion-detecting gyroscope and accelerometers in addition to dual IR proximity sensors. The touch sensors are capacitive and very responsive.
This is likely the reason why most were drawn to these earphones to begin with. Just as one would expect from the minimalist tech giant, the Pixel Buds are gloriously clean. The panda Mentos housings are eye-catching and supremely sleek with a delightful soft-touch finish all around, mirroring that on Google’s latest Pixel devices. The finish delivers excellent tactility and additional feedback during swipe gestures. The design is compact and cylindrical, meaning no sharp edges, merged with a well-sculpted sound tube and integrated rubber stability fin that aids retention in the ear while promoting a slightly deeper fit.
Though not something touched upon frequently in audio reviews, I am also a fan of how they look in the ear itself. Most TWS earphones are quite awkward, however, here all that is visible is the white mentos faceplate, chic and low-profile. The spatial vent is very apparent on the front face alongside the dual beamforming mic array with ports on the front and back of each housing. This is topped off with a sturdy metal nozzle and IPX4 water resistance that makes them suitable for workouts if not full submersion.
Fit & Isolation –
The Pixel Buds provide a snug and supremely comfortable fit, initially. However, as many have stated, the rubber wing does provide some discomfort at the back of my ears after a few hours. This is acceptable to me given that they are comfortable for the majority of their battery life. However, those with smaller ears may experience larger discomfort since the wing size cannot be adjusted. Otherwise, the buds do provide excellent fit stability. They are very lightweight and achieve a deep fit with the soft mushroom ear tips, retained by the back-facing wing. I was able to run and skip with the earbuds without requiring any adjustment.
The vent actually does make a difference and the experience was reminiscent to me of the Airpods Pros. There’s almost zero wearing pressure, it also gets rid of the “thud” from each footstep when wearing the buds during commute. This makes them especially comfortable to wear, that is, until the wing starts to wear into my outer ear. Still, I found myself gravitating towards the Pixel Buds during daily use for this very reason; they are so simple to use with zero fiddling for seal and position, they seat themselves very well. The vents also permit external noise to enter for spatial awareness. As such, voices are discernible but piercing high frequencies and the deep rumble of a bus or train are effectively mitigated, of course, you don’t get the noise isolation of a sealed earphone.
It also works as a faux sidetone during calls as well, making the talker feel less isolated from their own voice. Still, in terms of passive noise attenuation, they are clearly below average if still much better than a non-sealing earbud. As such, I did find myself turning up the volume considerably when outdoors. This is a prime instance where ANC would have transformed the experience, the Airpod Pro reaping the benefits of all with its ability to toggle between natural vent, aware mode and ANC. Of course, given the price difference, this will be something the buyer will have to toss-up. The Pixel Buds are a great choice for those accustomed to open earbuds such as regular Airpods but would like some additional isolation and a better bass response without the uncomfortable pressure of a regular in-ear.
One area where many TWS earphones can improve is the case and the Pixel Buds demonstrate great refinement here in both usability and form factor. As with all things Google, it’s the subtle touches outside of the spec sheet that makes this product. The case immediately impresses with its tactility, boasting the same satisfying soft-touch finish as the earphones themselves and a super clean egg-like design. It’s lightweight at 66g (with earbuds) and compact, fitting perfectly in the coin pocket of traditional jeans. Despite this, it feels very solid with zero hollowness or plastic creak, very premium. Of note, the white finish does easily pick up marks from dyed clothes or otherwise, however, they are easily wiped off and I didn’t see any permanent staining after a month of testing.
The hinge has zero wobble and a very strong reverse magnet creating a haptic experience akin to opening a Zippo lighter, oh so satisfying. There are dual RGB status LEDs, one inside the case and one outside shining through the matter exterior. Both are diffuse, soft-glow lights so easy on the eyes and this means the user is always aware of the charge status even if the case is closed. The case also sports Qi wireless charging in addition to quick charge over USB-C, gaining up to 2hrs listening time with a 10-minute charge.