There was a time not too long ago when it felt like a lot of Google’s devices lacked an identity. But since the release of the Pixel 3a, Google has really carved out a niche when it comes to making simple but still affordable gadgets that are big on value. Google is now applying this approach to wireless audio with the new Pixel Buds A-series, which distills the best elements of last year’s Pixel Buds into an even cheaper package that starts at just $99.
Just like its predecessor, the Pixel Buds A-series come with an included charging case that looks and feels like a futuristic space egg. There’s a hidden indicator light that lives in the middle of the case, and its matte finish is a joy to touch and makes you want to cradle it like an unborn chick even more. Around back, there’s a handy pairing button that sits flush with the case, so you don’t press it by accident. And while the Pixel Buds A-series do come in two color options (white and olive green), it’s hard to tell just by looking at the case unless you peep the thin band that runs around the bottom of the lid.
The one main difference with the case is that instead of supporting both wired and wireless charging, the Pixel Buds A-series only feature wired charging over USB-C. Now I totally get that as part of the process of turning the Pixel Buds (which launched at $180) into something more affordable, difficult decisions had to be made, so I can’t blame Google for axing wireless charging in order to hit that $99 price tag.
But even so, there’s a part of me that wishes Google had managed a way to include Qi wireless charging for convenience sake, because the ability to simply drop your earbuds on a charging pad and know they’ll be fully juiced up when you return is incredibly handy—even more so for earbuds than for phones or watches.
While the Pixel Buds A-series live up to Google’s stated claims of lasting around five hours on a single charge (plus three to four more full charges stashed in the case), I find myself wanting just a little bit more in this department too. It’s not bad enough to be a complete deal breaker, but these days, 5-hour battery life for wireless earbuds is pretty average.
To put the Pixel Buds A-series’ battery life into better perspective, five hours of juice is the same as last year’s Pixel Buds, the Galaxy Buds Pro with ANC on, and the standard Apple AirPods. However, other wireless earbuds all offer significantly longer runtimes: the Galaxy Buds+ lasts 11 hours per charge; the Galaxy Buds Live last 6-7 hours; and Sony’s likely soon to be replaced WF-1000XM3 around six hours. They’re all more expensive than the Pixel Buds A-series, so the the A’s battery life, while not great, isn’t terrible for a pair of $99 earbuds.
Aside from just OK battery life, everything else about the Pixel Bids is simple, straightforward, and easy to use. If you’re using a Pixel phone or pre-install the Pixel Buds app, pairing the Pixel Buds A-series with your device is as simple as opening the case and tapping a couple virtual buttons on your phone. And if you don’t, the buds will either prompt you to download the app and guide you through setup, or you can simply hold the pairing button in back until the indicator lights starts flashing if you want to do things manually (which you’ll have to do if you’re using an Apple or Windows device).
Google also included built-in touch controls so you can play/pause with a single tap on the buds themselves, tap twice to skip a track, or triple tap to go back. And like with pretty much everything Google makes nowadays, you can summon the Google Assistant with your voice, or tap and hold if you prefer a slightly more discreet wake method. As a small bonus, along with things like reading out your notifications or helping you translate foreign languages, you can even ask the Google Assistant to increase or lower the volume.
Critically, Google didn’t mess with the Pixel Buds’ design, with the Pixel Buds retaining the same ear tips and built-in wings that help the buds stay secure even during exercise, while still being overall some of the most comfortable earbuds I’ve ever worn. Google provides a choice of three silicone ear tips in the box (small, medium, and large), and while fit is always subjective, right out of the box, the pre-installed medium ear tips fit me perfectly. And between the Pixel Buds’ low-profile design and comfortable fit, I sometimes even found myself falling asleep with them on. (I know that’s not a good habit, but hey, I usually watch a video or two at night to help wind down.)
Google even managed to make the Pixel Buds A-series sound the same as their more expensive predecessor, too, which delivered crisp, clear sound similar to Google’s line of smart speakers. When I listened to Pnau’s “Go Bang,” the buds were more than capable of recreating Kira Devine’s shimmery vocals while keeping highs and mids relatively tight and distortion free. And even though the Pixel Buds don’t have a customizable EQ or even other EQ presets, there is a Bass Boost setting that delivers some extra thump.
Now at this point it shouldn’t be a big surprise to learn that the $99 Pixel Buds A-series don’t have any kind of active noise cancellation. However, the nice fit provided by the buds’ ear tips and wings do a good job of passively blocking out sound, with tiny internal vents ensuring that air pressure doesn’t build up uncomfortably, while also letting in just enough ambient noise so you’re still aware of your surroundings. For city-dwellers like me that have to walk everywhere, that’s a big plus when commuting, with Google also providing a handy Adaptive Sound setting that automatically adjusts the volume to suit your environment. And finally, thanks to two built-in beamforming mics, using the buds for calls or video chats result in good voice quality, too.
Look, the Pixel Buds A-series aren’t a universe denting product—they’re not going to metaphorically snap their fingers and instantly make people forget about half of all the other wireless earbuds on the market. But for just $99, they don’t have to.
For me, they’re way more comfortable (and cheaper) than Apple’s standard AirPods with their stiff, hard-tipped design, and I think they sound better than AirPods, too. I would even say the Pixel Buds A-series are more pleasing to wear and use than the original Galaxy Buds, though the 11 hours of battery life you get with the Galaxy Buds+ is tempting, especially for anyone whose biggest priority is battery life.
But if all you really want are good, simple wireless earbuds, the Pixel Buds A-series have you covered. And for anyone who already owns an Android phone, the Pixel Buds A-series make a great default choice when it comes to wireless audio. So even though they’re not flashy or sexy, the Google’s newest earbuds are another example of how the company is getting pretty good at making great, simple, affordable tech.