If summer 2019 belonged to hot girls, fall 2019 was dominated by earbuds. We were introduced to Echo Buds from Amazon, AirPods Pro from Apple, Surface Buds from Microsoft, and second-generation Pixel Buds from Google, which after six months, are finally here and ready to be listened to by the masses. Starting today, you can finally buy these earbuds in the U.S. for $179 in Google's signature Clearly White hue. (The more exciting Almost Black, Quite Mint, and Oh So Orange color options are still to come down the road.) And I've got to say — I'm seriously surprised by how well they stack up to their competitors in what has become a majorly crowded earbud marketplace. After a weekend testing them out in quarantine, here's the lowdown.
The Look & Feel
Unlike their predecessors, these Pixel Buds are fully wireless — a.k.a none of that behind-the-ear cord nonsense of last time. Each bud has a stabilizer arc that tucks into the ear and keeps it in place, which actually makes them feel more secure in my ears than AirPods do. Though no part of the bud extends down and out of the ear (as is the case with AirPods), the Pixel Bud anchor appears externally to physically take up more space in the ear while being worn. Still, they sit flush against the ear, which means they are pretty much safe from being knocked out by overhead sweaters, baseball hats, and masks. If you're a person who has struggled with getting AirPods to stay put in your ears, you'll especially appreciate these physical features.
They come with three sizes of eartips — the smallest of which worked best for me. And like AirPods, they're built with easy-to-use touch gestures: swipe forward and backward on either bud to control volume, tap once to play and pause media or answer calls, double-tap to skip a song or end a call, and triple tap to play the previous song. You can also turn on in-ear detection so that the Pixel Buds automatically pause when you remove them from your ears — a feature I've come to regard as non-negotiable in earbuds.
The charging case is extremely egg-like, which soothes me. (I like cute round stuff.) But the Pixel Buds case lacks the glossiness of AirPod cases, which in my opinion makes it look markedly cheaper (though it isn't by much). As with AirPod cases, the charging statuses of both the earbuds and the case itself are visible via the internal light next to the charging buds and the external light on the case, respectively.
Pixel Buds don't disappoint in this category — and pretty much deliver sound as impressive as that of any other non-noise-canceling earbuds out there. Compared to the very wide range of sound on regular AirPods, I did notice that the bass on the Pixel Buds isn't as rich, and the overall audio does sound slightly more compressed and less full-bodied. Those with more refined ears might be too bothered by this slightly lesser quality, but for a person who just wants solid earbuds with which to listen to music on walks, call friends with across the country, and use for occasional guided yoga classes, they more than get the job done. My (socially-distanced) walks this weekend definitely had an extra pep in their steps from the seriously powerful audio.
While Pixel Buds don't have any noise-reducing features (regular AirPods don't either), they do have Adaptive Sound, which takes into account your environment and adjusts the sound on your headphones accordingly — ideal for when you're stepping out of your home on to a much louder city street. They also just physically seal out sound more thoroughly than AirPods do, which created more of a noise-reduced listening experience.
If you have a Pixel or Android 6.0+:, Pixel Buds pair with Google Assistant beautifully, integrating apps like Google Translate, Nike Run Club, and Headspace with a simple hands-free "Hey Google." You can use the Assistant to send texts, check the weather — really just all the smart assistant fare we're used to, but I was particularly impressed by how seamlessly I could transition from listening to music to asking Google a question to resuming my song. I also used Google Assistant to play white noise while working by saying, "Hey Google, play thunderstorm sounds" which then launched immediately — a surprisingly soothing experience.
Are Pixel Buds worth it?
At $179, they cost $20 more than Apple's $159 AirPods, $20 less than AirPods with the wireless charging case, and $70 less than the noise-canceling AirPods Pro. Like AirPods Pro, Pixel Buds are water- and sweat-resistant (though regular AirPods are not). As far as battery life, they're right on par with AirPods with their five hours of listening time and 24 hours of listening time with the charged case, and their charging case also can charge wirelessly.
Of course, they work better with Google Pixel than they do with iPhone. While they can pair with Android, Google Pixel, and iPhone, you only get the embedded Google Assistant capabilities on Android and Google Pixel, which means when paired with an iPhone, Pixel Buds just function like regular Bluetooth headphones. (No "Hey Google" or "Hey Siri" baked in.) So if you have an iPhone, you should only really opt for the Pixel Buds if you prefer their design and how they sit in the ear to the other earbuds on the market, because the extra built-in features are only available to Pixel users. For iPhone users, you get more with AirPods — slightly better sound and a smart assistant in the form of "Hey Siri" integration.
If you're a Google loyalist with more Pixel products than Apple products, your decision should be easy — Pixel Buds bring the ease and familiarity of Google Assistant straight to your ear with high-quality audio. But if most of your tech falls within Apple's lineup and you're looking for solid wireless earbuds, you're better off with regular AirPods, since Pixel Buds shine brightest when used alongside Google's arsenal of gadgets.