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The 2020 Google Pixel Buds Feel and Sound Great, But There's a Problem

Illustration for article titled The 2020 Google Pixel Buds Feel and Sound Great, But Theres a Problem
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

The original Pixel Buds were a strange product. They came out a full year after the AirPods, and despite having the same $160 price tag, they weren’t very comfortable, they weren’t very smart, and they weren’t even truly wireless, as they still had a cable connecting the left and right buds. But for the new 2020 Pixel Buds, Google has almost completely redeemed its previous efforts by creating something that’s a joy to use and listen to, that is if you can ignore or avoid the Pixel Buds’ one potential deal-breaker, a pernicious hiss.

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Just like the Pixel 4, the $180 Pixel Buds sport a clean, minimalist design with a case that comes in a lovely matte white finish, with the buds themselves available in four different colors: black, white, mint, and orange. The egg-like case is a touch smaller than a standard AirPods case, and includes the usual assortment of basics including a hidden indicator light towards the bottom of the case, a magnetic lid up top that opens to reveal the buds, and a USB-C port for wired charging. There’s even a handy pairing button that sits flush against the back of the case, which makes it super easy to connect the Pixel Buds with up to six different devices, with the buds retaining separate profiles for each.

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And unlike the base $160 Airpods, the $180 Pixel Buds also come standard with Qi wireless charging, so whenever you’re not using them, you can just plop the case down on a charging pad to keep them topped up. Google says the Pixel Buds should last about five hours on a charge, which after a few full 100 to 0 listening sessions, seems about right. Unfortunately, that kind of battery life is pretty mediocre compared to competitors like the $180 Jabra Elite Active 75t which offer 7.5 hours of music playback on a single charge, while the Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+ last almost twice as long at 11 hours between charges.

Illustration for article titled The 2020 Google Pixel Buds Feel and Sound Great, But Theres a Problem
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Thankfully, the Pixel Buds’ case holds another 20 hours or so of juice, but even more importantly, when do you put the buds back in their case to recharge, they get topped up really fast. Charging for 10 minutes adds two hours of extra music playback, and leaving them in the case for 30 minutes is enough to take the buds from zero to 100 percent. So while that fast recharging doesn’t totally make up for Pixel Bud’s short battery life, unless you regularly use your earbuds for more than five hours at a time without any breaks, it’s not necessarily a huge concern.

Setting the Pixel Buds up is also extremely easy. If you have a Pixel phone, the first time you open the Pixel Buds’ case, your phone will automatically ask if you want to pair. While on other Android phones, iOS devices, or other systems, you can simply hold the button around back for a few seconds to activate pairing mode, before going into your device’s Bluetooth settings to establish a connection. And like all good wireless earbuds nowadays, simply taking the Pixel Buds out of their case automatically gets them prepped for use, while tiny built-in sensors automatically pause audio when you take them out of your ears, or turn them off completely when you stow them back in their pod.

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From there though, the Pixel Buds begin to separate from the pack with a few unique choices. Instead of including active noise-canceling tech like you get on the AirPods Pro or simply relying a tight seal for passive noise cancellation like you get on the Galaxy Buds+, Google gave the Pixel Buds a semi-open back design featuring a spatial vent that intentionally allows a bit of noise to leak in from the outside.

Illustration for article titled The 2020 Google Pixel Buds Feel and Sound Great, But Theres a Problem
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
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That gives the Pixel Buds an expansive almost airy soundstage that duplicates some of the best qualities of Sony’s Xperia Ear Duo, but in a less outlandish looking package and without letting other people hear what your listening to. So while there’s no way to adjust or create a custom EQ, the Pixel Buds offer a full range of rich audio, with crisp highs and surprisingly balanced, but not overly punchy lows. Additionally, because the Pixel Buds don’t create an airtight seal around your ear canals, there’s no difference in pressure between inside and outside, which for some people, makes listening to audio for long stretches much more pleasant. And when it comes to talking, the Pixel Buds feature dual mics in each earbuds allowing for good voice quality while also helping cut down on distracting background sounds that you harder to understand.

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Actually, while fit is always subjective, I find the Pixel Buds supremely comfortable, and combined with their small size and a design that barely protrudes from the sides of your ears, they are the only earbuds I’ve tried that I can actually wear to sleep. I admit this a somewhat niche use case because for most people, the idea of wearing earbuds all night might seem ridiculous. But after living directly above a jazz club for a year in college (shout out to Wally’s Cafe), I developed a habit of needing to listen to something—music, movies, a podcast, whatever—just so I can fall asleep. Even compared to something like Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, the fit and comfort of the Pixel Buds are second to none. I didn’t even need to swap out the Pixel Buds’ standard medium ear tips for the included small or large tips—it’s like the Pixel Buds were made for my ears.

Illustration for article titled The 2020 Google Pixel Buds Feel and Sound Great, But Theres a Problem
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
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Additionally, to make sure the Pixel Buds are both comfortable and secure, Google added a tiny stabilizer arm behind the ear tips, so getting a snug fit is as simple as sticking the buds in your ears and giving them a slight twist downwards to lock the buds into place. Meanwhile, on the outside, there are small touch-sensitive surfaces on both left and right buds that allow you to easily play or pause a song (single tap), skip forward one track (double tap), skip backwards one track (triple tap) and even adjust the volume (swipe forward to increase, swipe backwards to decrease) without ever needing to touch your phone or laptop. And of course, like every modern Google product, the Pixel Buds have full support for the Google Assistant so you can ask questions (touch and hold) and even get help with real-time translation just by asking.

However, the Pixel Buds semi-open back design does come with some tradeoffs, with the main one being that if you’re in a noisy environment, you’re still going to clearly hear things like road noise, sirens, or the screeching wheels of a subway car. This can be an advantage if you prefer to not be totally isolated from the outside world, allowing you to still be aware of your surroundings if you’re riding your bike or simply walking around the city. The disadvantage of this is that if you’re on a plane, you are going to hear that crying baby. Sure, those cries might be slightly muffled, and you’ll still be able to pick a soundtrack of your choosing, but you won’t be able to escape its wails like you would if the Pixel Buds had active or even better passive noise canceling.

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Look at the cute little space egg.
Look at the cute little space egg.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

In other situations, you might imagine the Pixel Buds would have problems dealing with more consistent ambient noise like traffic or people’s Zoom calls, but that’s not really the case. That’s because for the Pixel Buds, Google created a special Adaptive Sound mode, which allows the buds to automatically adjust the volume to match your environment. It’s a subtle effect, but actually quite handy, as I found out when I was walking outside and a convoy of trucks decided to drive by. Without ever needing to touch anything, the Pixel Buds slowly increased the volume so I didn’t miss any banter from the latest Giant Bombcast, before gradually lowering the volume again after the trucks had passed. And if you ever need to override Adaptive Sound for whatever reason, the Pixel Buds will respect your wishes until the next time it detects a significant change in ambient noise levels.

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But now its time we talk about that deal-breaker again. It seems that a number of Pixel Buds suffer from a faint hiss—or a fuzz as my wife calls it. On my review unit, only the right earbud is affected (with the hiss present on all of the five different phones I tested), but after talking to some other Pixel Buds users, sometimes it’s just the left bud, while in other cases, it’s both. The tricky part about this is that for me, the hiss is only really audible at below 30 percent volume, which means some people might never notice. But like a lot of annoyances, once you notice it, it’s damn near impossible to ignore.

The pairing button on back is a nice touch for quickly connecting the Pixel Buds to multiple devices.
The pairing button on back is a nice touch for quickly connecting the Pixel Buds to multiple devices.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
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When I asked Google for more info about the issue, a Google representative told me that “All Bluetooth earbuds create some amount of noise at certain frequencies when components turn on. In our lab testing we’ve made sure that any noise on Pixel Buds falls within a normal range for Bluetooth earbuds. A small percentage of users may be able to hear these frequencies, though most cannot. We’re continuing to work on software improvements to further reduce this noise for listeners that can perceive this.”

So even though I’m not a teenager anymore, apparently my ears aren’t so screwed up. So I can still hear things like the Pixel Buds faint hiss or the high-pitched whine that older CRT and LCD monitors often time emit. However, this adds another challenge when deciding whether or not to buy the Pixel Buds, because while the issue could be very annoying for some, others might not be able to hear the hiss. Or you might just get lucky by getting a pristine pair of Pixel Buds that don’t produce any static at all. Either way, this isn’t something that almost any of the Pixel Buds’ competitors suffer from, regardless of if you go with less expensive rivals like the standard AirPods or Galaxy Buds+, or more premium options from Jabra and Sony.

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This is kind of a bummer, because this means getting an ideal Pixel Buds experience is a dice roll. If all you want are a pair of small earbuds with good sound and strong battery life, the $150 Samsung Galaxy Buds are a better buy. Alternatively, if you want some designed more for working out and would like the ability to customize your EQ and don’t care about wireless charging, Jabra’s $180 Elite Active 75t might be a better choice. That leaves the $180 Pixel Buds somewhere in the middle.

Illustration for article titled The 2020 Google Pixel Buds Feel and Sound Great, But Theres a Problem
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
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I really like the Pixel Buds’ compact case, putting almost 20 hours of extra juice and wireless charging in something this small is pretty impressive, while the button in back makes pairing the Pixel Buds with multiple devices super easy. On top of that, Adaptive Sound and the Pixel Bud’s intuitive touch controls are smart, thoughtful additions, with quick access to the Google Assistant providing a ton of utility and all you have to do is ask. And I love the Pixel Bud’s comfort and fit.

But priced at $180, the Pixel Buds are slightly more expensive than your typical true wireless earbuds without ANC, and that hiss could be a deal-breaker for many. With its semi-open back design, the Pixel Buds offer rich audio without completely shutting you out from the rest of the world, which isn’t necessarily a universally desired listening experience (though I love it). The Pixel Buds are nice little headphones with a few handy and unique features, but between the hiss, battery life, and distinctive listening experience they’re not for everyone.

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README

  • Unlike the more expensive Sony WF-1000XM3, you can use one earbud at a time (either left or right) while leaving the other in the case.
  • At around five hours on a single charge, the Pixel Bud’s battery life is just OK, though the case does store almost 20 hours of extra juice.
  • The Pixel Buds come with a USB-A to USB-C cable for charging, but no charging brick.
  • While fit varies between people, the Pixel Buds are the most comfortable earbuds I’ve ever tested.
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Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

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DISCUSSION

technomom1
technomom1

I wouldn’t pay any attention to the $180 price.    I’m already seeing it discounted as low as $125.