Google’s second-generation Pixel Buds go on sale today in the U.S. for $179. Second-generation Pixel Buds were announced by the Made by Google team last fall and come with improvements in sound quality, hands-free access to Google Assistant, and touchpad gestures for playback and call control. The earbuds promise 5 hours of listening time and up to 24 hours of total battery use, and they include a charging case, Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity, and IPX4 water and sweat resistance.
Pixel Buds will be available in 4 colors, but will only be available in Clearly White at launch — Almost Black, Quite Mint, and Oh So Orange are coming later.
Held together with string and delivering sound with large speakers, the first Pixel Buds came out in 2017 to little fanfare. The second-generation Pixel Buds improve upon the first-generation Pixel Buds by delivering sound via detached earbuds with eartips, the rubber end common on wired earbud for decades. Apple also added eartips for AirPods Pro last fall.
Both versions of Pixel Buds and the wider field of competitors in the personal earbuds space attempt to strike a balance between letting in ambient sound from your surroundings and blocking as much sound as possible from the surrounding world. Pixel Buds have always focused on the former.
Eartips help, but Pixel Buds still allow in sound if, for example, someone is speaking loudly near you. Second-gen Pixel Buds come with spatial vents at the bottom of each earbud that bypass eartips to allow in ambient sound, as well as to relieve the feeling of pressure that a tight eartip fit can make in ears.
Other headphones, like Samsung Galaxy Buds+ or over-the-ear headphones, can block out sound with tight ear fit or offer noise reduction, like Amazon’s Echo Buds. This enables crisper music and sound. These headphones often have outer ear speakers to enable ambient listening, but if turned off, it can make it difficult to have a conversation with the earbuds in even if you pause music or news.
A unique feature for Pixel Buds is adaptive sound, which dynamically changes volume based on the environment. That means volume can go up when, for example, outdoors on a busy city street, or volume can go down when indoors in the silence of your home. In some circumstances this may help modulate levels so ambient sound does not grow too loud.
Whether or not you like some ambient sound or more silence is a matter of personal preference, and it’s important to consider before purchasing a pair of Pixel Buds.
The Pixel Buds touch pad has a surface area comparable to the size of a finger. Compared to major competitors, the earbud felt like a comfortable size in my ear, larger than Samsung Galaxy Buds+ but smaller than Amazon’s clunkier Echo Buds. A wing or stabilizer arc keeps the earbud in place inside the ear, and they fit snugly without issue during runs and workouts.
One misstep in design appears to be going for a charging case in a matte color. Whereas an AirPods case or Galaxy Buds cases in a similar color are plastic, the contents of my pocket colored the matte metal exterior of the Pixel Buds case in a matter of days.
Another issue: After initial tests, one earbud showed a 40% variation in battery life between the two despite similar usage rates. The Pixel Buds charging case supports Qi Certified wireless charging capabilities.
Pixel Buds deliver quick and hands-free Google Assistant access, so you can simply say “Hey Google” to play music, check your calendar, set a timer, or listen to the news. Unlike than any other pair of headphones connected to an Android device, Google Assistant with Pixel Buds can read you your notifications.
Each new notification that also appears on your device cues a light chime sound in your ear. This feature will pretty quickly remind you to clean up or prioritize, because otherwise you’ll hear chimes more often than you want. More than any other part of this feature, Google Assistant with Pixel Buds has the potential to be helpful when responding to SMS messages.
Unfortunately, this remains a buggy or imperfect way to send a message. Repeated attempts to do this in various environments found that external sounds rendered this feature incapable of completing the task of sending a message.
This feature is available in other headphones with Google Assistant, such as Bose QuietComfort 35 II.
Overall, Pixel Buds are an improvement upon the first generation Pixel Buds — but they weren’t great to begin with, so that’s not much of an accomplishment. The real question is whether the idea of getting some ambient sound or Google Assistant in your ear is worth the price difference with cheaper offerings also released in recent months, like Apple AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds+, or Amazon Echo Pods.
Like whether you prefer some ambient sound or noise reduction, which pair of earbuds you like best is a matter of personal preference, as is whether features like hands-free Google Assistant or adaptive sound make Pixel Buds worth the extra cost.