Google Pixel Buds (2020) review: The smartest earbuds of them all?

 

The Google Pixel Buds are a mixed bag, with audio and comfort issues detracting from a stylish design and clever hands-free smart features

Pros Great Google Assistant integrationDiscreet designWell-implemented touch controlsCons Poor sound isolation and no ANCProlonged wear causes discomfortWeak bass

Google’s first-generation Pixel Buds fell a long way short of disrupting Apple’s dominance of the wireless headphones market. The design, which saw the two earpieces connected via a length of wire, didn’t offer the same freedom as the AirPods and the touch controls were a mess. Even the Google Assistant integration – the Pixel Buds’ big selling point – failed to live up to expectations.

The 2020 iteration of the Pixel Buds are certainly a step forward in terms of design. They’re now true wireless earbuds, while smart features and touch controls have been improved. Sadly, those advancements are undermined by subpar sound isolation, a lack of active noise-cancellation and insubstantial bass.

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Google Pixel Buds (2020) review: What you need to know

Google’s Pixel Buds have undergone a significant overhaul from the homonymous first-generation model released in 2017. They’re now true wireless earbuds and have silicone eartips that wedge into your ear canals rather than being moulded to sit in the recesses of your ears. As with the original Pixel Buds, they connect wirelessly over Bluetooth but are running a newer version – 5.0. There’s support for both SBC and AAC codecs, though there’s no provision for higher resolution codecs such as aptX HD.

The buds are IPX4-rated for water resistance and each houses a custom 12mm dynamic driver for delivering audio, plus a vent designed to relieve pressure on your inner ears while increasing your spatial awareness. Battery life is quoted at five hours if you’re just listening to music, which proved accurate during testing but this falls significantly if you spend a lot of time on calls. The Qi-certified wireless charging case offers a further 19 hours of audio playtime, so in total you’re looking at close to 24 hours battery life.

The 2020 Pixel Buds hang their hat, however, on their close integration with Google Assistant. It’s always on and, assuming you’re using them with an Android device, you can summon Google by simply saying “Hey Google” or holding your finger on either bud and stating your query.

Google Pixel Buds (2020) review: Price and competition

The Google Pixel Buds will set you back £179, positioning them squarely between the list price of the two versions of Apple’s AirPods, one of which comes with a wireless charging case (£199), the other of which can only be charged via Lightning port (£159).

Although Apple dominates the true wireless headphones space, there are myriad other wireless earbud options available. You can see a full list of our favourites here but closest in price and style are the Libratone Track Air+, Sony WF-1000XM3 and 1MORE True Wireless ANC. None of those alternatives offers the kind of Google Assistant integration the Pixel Buds do but all offer active noise cancellation. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly rare for premium earbuds to not offer some form of ANC, with Sennheiser’s CX 400BT a noteworthy exception.

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Google Pixel Buds (2020) review: Design, comfort and features

The Pixel Buds are undoubtedly better for their structural and cosmetic makeover. The touch-sensitive panels of the buds are flat meaning there’s very little protrusion out of your ears and branding is discreet, too, with a small “G” logo located at the centre of each surface.

In the box, there’s a choice of three different-sized eartips to assist you in finding a good fit and the buds have non-removable silicone stabiliser arcs to help fasten them in your ear. The combination of the tips and arcs succeeds in keeping the buds in your ears no matter what you’re up to – they’re excellent for running – but I found they caused my ears to ache after prolonged use.

Unusually, the buds also have what Google is calling “spatial vents”, located on the underside of each one, which allows external noise to make its way to your ears. This is something of a double-edged sword. Being more aware of your surroundings is handy from time-to-time, especially while exercising, but audio immersion takes a big hit when too much noise from the outside world is audible.

In terms of your typical earbuds features, the Pixel Buds do well. Auto pause worked every time I took the buds out of my ears and I found the touch controls simple and intuitive. I particularly like that volume controls, often omitted by manufacturers of true wireless buds, are mapped to a forward and backwards swipe.

There’s also a neat feature called “sharing detection”, which when activated allows for two people to use an earbud each and control the volume independently. Granted, the use cases for this are rather limited but it’s a nice option to have.

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Google Pixel Buds (2020) review: Google Pixel Buds app

The new Google Pixel Buds companion app, which is exclusive to the Google Play store, provides access to various features and settings. Should you misplace your buds you can locate them by “ringing” them from the app. It’s also possible to disable the touch controls (but not remap them) and adjust Google Assistant settings.

Audio options are limited to bass boost and “adaptive sound” plus “experimental” attention alerts. Adaptive sound seeks to optimise your volume level depending on the environmental noise around you, which sounds clever but actually proved pretty annoying. Moving from the road outside my flat into the building, the volume of the buds dropped down several notches to a barely audible level. There weren’t many occasions where I felt the feature was actually improving my experience so I eventually turned it off.

The three experimental attention alerts – “baby crying”, “dog barking” and “emergency vehicle siren” – reduce the volume when the buds pick up the trigger sound. Without a baby, dog or police car to hand I wasn’t able to test how effective the mics are at picking up those sounds in the real world so resorted to using sound effects on YouTube. The buds proved ponderous in decreasing volume during my baby crying test but the feature kicked into action almost immediately when barking and siren sounds were played.

Google Pixel Buds (2020) review: Audio quality

Given the Pixel Buds’ price I expected big things in the audio department but I was ultimately left disappointed. There’s a strong emphasis on mids and highs and a distinct shortage of bass, which works for some genres but leaves others sounding poorly balanced.

Urban tracks in which strong basslines are a key component suffer the most. “Act Like You Know” by Dizzee Rascal and the Smoke Boys lacked the rough-and-ready low-end impact such a track demands and felt rather, dare I say it, tame. The first minute of Darren Styles’ Happy Hardcore classic “Slide Away” sounded great, with the female singer’s vocals communicated crisply. However, what should be a thumping, euphoric drop didn’t possess the power it would have had with rival earbuds better equipped to deliver rich, weighty low-end frequencies.

Things improved when I turned on the Bass boost option but even that wasn’t enough to deliver a truly satisfying experience while listening to hip hop, jungle, electro or anything requiring a solid bass response.

The shortcomings at the low end are less apparent when listening to pop, particularly vocal-heavy tracks. The Master version of JoJo’s “Leave (Get Out)” sounded clean and well-articulated but even then it was hard to shake the feeling that something was missing as the chorus kicked in.

Classical music, on the other hand, sounds great. Mozart’s Don Giovanni Suite highlighted the Pixel Buds’ strong instrument separation and attention to detail in the mid and upper frequencies. The trouble is, with such focus on the upper registers, sound quickly becomes fatiguing.

The Pixel Buds’ audio profile isn’t helped by poor passive isolation and a lack of any active noise cancellation. With those spatial vents allowing sound in continually, you’re never completely immersed and it often feels like the music is fighting a battle with the world around you.

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Google Pixel Buds (2020) review: Google Assistant functionality

What the Pixel Buds lack in audio quality, however, they make up for in smart assistant integration. Google Assistant is always listening, which is a huge draw for those craving hands-free help.

To get started, simply speak the words “Hey Google”, or long-press either bud, then ask your question. How well does it work? Very well most of the time. Occasionally, a basic command was met with the maddening “Sorry, I didn’t understand” or I’d receive an answer irrelevant to my query but these occasions were mercifully rare.

A feature Google has been keen to highlight is the Buds’ ability to provide live translation. It’s not new – the 2017 Pixel Buds also offered it – and still relies on the use of the Google Translate. Ask Google to help you speak a certain language and it’ll open up the app and launch conversation mode. Hold your finger on the bud and speak in your native language and it will then play back what you’ve said in your chosen language. You can then activate your phone’s mic to listen for a response and it’s translated back into your earbuds on the fly. It’s a system that works well but isn’t the hands-free solution many will have hoped for as it requires you to have your phone out at all times.

Among its more humdrum talents is the ability to read out notifications as they arrive on your phone and this works well. You’d be well-advised to use the app to restrict which services are allowed to do this, though, or you’ll end up with endless interruptions.

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Google Pixel Buds (2020) review: Verdict

There is a lot to like about the Google Pixel Buds. They’re discreet and the wireless charging case is an absolute beauty. And while the Google Assistant integration isn’t perfect, it’s certainly a lot slicker than not having it at all.

The main problem with this year’s Pixel Buds is the sound quality, with a dearth of bass, poor sound isolation and no ANC all combining to deliver underwhelming audio. They’re not even all that comfortable to wear for longer periods. Ultimately, then, unless hands-free Google Assistant is an absolute must-have, you’ll find better value elsewhere.

Google Pixel Buds (2020) – Specifications

Bluetooth version 5.0
Driver 12mm dynamic drivers
Battery life (earbuds) 5hrs
Battery life (charging case) 19hrs
Earbud weight (g) 5.3
Charging case weight (g) 56.1
Charging USB-C and Qi wireless
Water resistance Yes – IPX4
ANC No
Voice assistant Google Assistant
Price £179

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