Google ditches the cable with its latest Pixel Buds, giving them a whole new look and better sound to go with its digital assistant. The company’s first attempt in 2017 looks experimental and dated by today’s standards, such is the pace of change in personal audio. But the premise and focus hasn’t radically shifted. As before, Google Assistant is an integral piece of the feature puzzle, standing as one of the main reasons you would want to use them. The other reasons are more varied and subjective. In a tightly contested category for true wireless earbuds, these new Pixel Buds aren’t gamechangers. However, you may find the sum of all its parts to be convenient in important ways.

Design and setup

I will start out by noting that these are among the most comfortable pairs of earbuds I’ve worn to date. And I’ve tested dozens of pairs at this point, so I know the difference. Google made them small and nimble, though also crafted an angled chassis that fits snuggly without bothering any part of the ear. I often wore these for hours at a time and barely noticed.

Everyone’s ears are unique, so fit isn’t a sure thing for everyone, but I’m confident that it’s close here. The lightweight build and easy placement shouldn’t be a problem, no matter what your ears look like. That’s saying something considering how many pairs sometimes miss that mark. The three ear tips sizes (small, medium, large) cover a fairly wide gamut. I’ll touch on that further down, though.

The slimmer frame is also understandable when certain features are missing. These Pixel Buds have no active noise-cancellation, nor an ambient mode to pipe in outside sounds. It’s easier to make earbuds smaller if they’re missing features that you would otherwise find in competing models. Google went for a passive noise isolation approach that uses small air ducts to let in ambient sound anyway.

Then there’s the case, which is more like a flattened eggshell. The earbuds nicely sit in place through magnetic connectors, and you can charge it up either via the included USB-C cable or wireless charging.

Pairing them with a Pixel phone was dead simple. As soon as I opened the case for the first time, my Pixel 4 XL recognized them immediately. I was paired in mere seconds, and then went about looking at some of the options available.

Control and voice input

Google stuck to a familiar control setup from the previous model. Both earbuds are touch-sensitive for taps and gestures. Tap once to play/pause, twice to skip a track, three times to repeat or go back one. Tap once to answer a call, twice to end it, three times to reject it. Swiping forward or backward will raise or lower volume, respectively. Press and hold to bring up Google Assistant and hear notifications. In addition, simply saying “Hey, Google” will bring up the assistant as well, letting you ask a question or issue a command.

The two can also go together. For example, I often just used the assistant to handle a lot of those functions on demand. If I wanted to skip a track or repeat it, I just told it to. Same with controlling volume. I made calls, asked about the weather and controlled smart home products through it. Granted, the latter two things were pointless with a Google Assistant speaker at home, but it they were useful to do when away from home.

One thing worth noting is that Google Assistant is also better than it was in 2017. Its abilities and compatibility have only increased. It’s just not a new thing—you can get Alexa and Siri by voice in other earbuds. Still, if you’re in the Android ecosystem, you may like this kind of integration.

Language translation a key feature of Pixel Buds

This was the signature feature of the original Pixel Buds, and it’s back again. Only this time, the number of supported languages has gone up to 109. Google didn’t change much about the process, though it does feel a little less cumbersome this time.

Here’s how it works: you need an Android phone running version 6.0 or higher and the Translate app. Say, “Hey Google, help me speak French,” or whichever other language you want. If your phone screen is unlocked, it will automatically launch the app. From there, press and hold on either earbud and say what you need to say. The app will then translate it out loud to the other person. If you hold down on the language button on the app, their response will translate to English through the earbuds.

It’s pretty neat when you learn the process because it will feel more seamless at that point. It certainly felt smoother than with the previous Pixel Buds, but there’s room for improvement. First, the feature depends on having Wi-Fi or data connection, even though dozens of languages are also available offline. To use those offline languages, you would need to press the onscreen buttons instead.

Audio performance on Pixel Buds

When I reviewed the previous Pixel Buds, I noted Google wasn’t looking to have the best sound. That hasn’t changed here where the focus sticks to a safer soundstage. Audio quality has a crispness to it that anyone can appreciate, except for two major factors you need to consider.

First, a good seal is really critical to getting the best possible sound. Granted, that’s the case with any true wireless earbuds, but it’s even more of a priority here. For me, the large eartips were the best option, or else too much sound leaked out. I also tried extra-large eartips from other earbuds for an even tighter seal, but then I ran into a problem. Google designed the earbuds and case to snugly fit—only up to the large eartips. Anything larger than that, and the case won’t fully close.

The second factor is the lack of an equalizer. When using a Pixel device, you can access the Pixel Buds features through the Bluetooth menu. On non-Pixel devices, you just need to download the free Pixel Buds app. There’s no way to adjust the sound in that menu, and using a third-party one won’t apply to streaming music apps.

To put it bluntly, these aren’t the earbuds you want if bass is important to you. It’s not at the same level as the Jabra Elite 75t, Jaybird Vista, Sony WF-1000XM3 or Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2. The Pixel Buds don’t excel in any specific part of the audio spectrum, though the highs and mids are warm and detailed. I actually found them to be great for podcasts.

Adaptive Mode can adjust volume based on background noise, though I never used it in any concerted way. It needs work, and I expect Google will expand on it in a future update.

Phone calls quality among the best

Phone call quality is among the best I’ve experienced on any pair of true wireless earbuds. In quieter environments, callers couldn’t tell I wasn’t holding the phone. If it was a bit louder around me, I still came through audibly. I also really liked just calling people by using Google Assistant, or requesting an artist, album or playlist from Spotify by voice.

Battery life

Google rates the Pixel Buds at five hours per charge, which is average by today’s standards. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ can easily double that, though are on par with the Apple AirPods. So, it’s not especially long, and given you’re likely to raise the volume, you will hit four hours or less. Hardly all-day performance.

The case offers 24 hours total charging, and it’s pretty quick at topping up the earbuds. It also has wireless charging from any Qi-enabled pad or dock. Ironically, if you have a phone with reverse wireless charging, you can place these on top to charge as well.

Are these your next truly wireless solution?

The new Pixel Buds are better than the original model, but not really a cut above all others. They sound good in most situations, and feel great to wear for long periods. It’s easy to like the Google Assistant integration, along with the much-improved touch-sensitive controls and gestures. Battery life? Well, that’s one of the trade-offs.

These are also best for Android users because the integration is tighter. I can’t recommend them for iOS users for the simple fact you can do better with the other options noted above. If you like the particular features these earbuds offer, then you may like what they can do for you.

The Google Pixel Buds are available now.

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Editor Cellular/Mobile Technology
I’m a fortunate man in being able to do the fun job of following and reporting on one of the most exciting industries in the world today. In my time covering consumer tech, I’ve written for a number of publications, including the Globe and Mail, Yahoo! Canada, CBC.ca, Canoe, Digital Trends, MobileSyrup, G4 Tech, PC World, Faze and AppStorm. I’ve also appeared on TV as a tech expert for Global, CTV and the Shopping Channel.

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