It's been a month and change since Google launched its first true wireless earbuds. When I first got my hands on the Pixel Buds, I was struck by their fit and finish, comfort, and sound quality, but nagging problems like audible interference at low volumes and short battery life left me feeling lukewarm on the whole. I've been using them regularly ever since, but unfortunately, my opinion hasn't changed: there are too many compromises in the 2020 Pixel Buds to justify their price for most buyers.

The Good

Sound Pleasant and airy.
Comfort You practically can't tell you're wearing them.
Features Fast pairing, touchless Assistant access, and wireless charging are great to have.
Controls The best earbud touch controls I've used.

The Not So Good

Price Even with all their bells and whistles, the Pixel Buds are a tough sell at $179.
Battery life Five hours on a charge isn't great at this price point.
Static It's faint, but any interference is bad interference.

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

The Pixel Buds are tiny. The part that sticks out of your ear is somewhere between a dime and a penny in diameter, and sits pretty close to flush. Its surface, cast in a very nice eggshell finish plastic and debossed with a Google G, is touch-sensitive to allow for playback control.

They're also very comfortable. Google says the design is "based on scans of thousands of ears," which sounds 1,000 percent like techy marketing bullcrap. But they genuinely do seem to disappear into my ears, because of both their shape and a "spatial vent" that's meant to relieve the kind of in-ear pressure a lot of earbuds can cause.

That vent also lets some environmental sound in, a fact Google owns and even points to as a strength. In some situations, I agree: it's good to be able to hear street traffic on a jog, and I guess it's novel to be able to carry on a conversation when the buds are at low volume (if a bit rude). When the Pixel Buds are at their best, it seems like sound is just sort of happening in your ears — you can forget the buds are there at all.


Very Google design.

But just as often, not having strong sound isolation lets in unwanted noise — the bustle of a coffee shop or the bark of a neighbor's dog. This isn't an issue unique to the Pixel Buds; hard plastic earbuds like AirPods and Google's own USB-C headset have the same drawback as a consequence of their form factor. But it's strange Google would invite the problem for a modest increase in comfort.

The bundled charging case is wholly fantastic, though. It's a sort of flat pill shape with a flip top that locks open and closed with reassuringly strong magnets, coated in the same finish as the outer surfaces of the earbuds themselves. Its shape and texture make it really satisfying to fiddle with — it reminds me of a worry stone. It's also slim enough to stick in that dumb change pocket in your jeans, and it has both USB-C and Qi charging. I couldn't ask for much more. My only niggle is that every colorway the Pixel Buds (will eventually) come in ships with a white case — a bummer for fans of black, green, or orange.

Aside from the Pixel Buds and their case, the box contains two additional sets of silicone ear tips and a charging cable.

Sound quality, features, battery life

Sound quality is very strong. The profile is flatter than a lot of earbuds, and while I personally tend to prefer an ever-so-slightly warmer sound, bass isn't lacking — it's just more accurately represented here than I'm used to. Probably thanks to that spatial vent effectively making the Pixel Buds open-back earbuds, I also got the impression of a wider soundstage than a lot of similar products offer. There's no support for aptX, but audio/video lag was never an issue for me.

I wasn't able to test voice quality in a crowded public place (obviously), but from home, the buds work great for calls. Callers couldn't hear much of a difference in quality between my talking on the earbuds versus on a phone, although background noises like shuffling papers were more noticeable with the earbuds in.


The "spatial vent."

My review unit suffers from a persistent, faint static sound. It's subtle, really only discernible at very low volumes or during silence in playback. I didn't even notice it for my first couple of days with the Pixel Buds — but once I did, I was never able to un-hear it. Google told me that most users won't be able to pick up on the faint hiss, and while I'm flattered at the implication I have special ears, that feels like a cop-out. I've got four other pairs of true wireless earbuds on my desk right now, all of them less expensive than the Pixel Buds, and none of them have any static that I can hear.

In typical Google fashion, software magic abounds. The first time you flip the Pixel Buds' case open, you'll get a pairing notification on your phone — one tap and you're off to the races. If you're using a Pixel phone, you're all set: the Pixel Buds' software integration is system-level on Google's phones. On any other Android device, you'll be prompted to install the Pixel Buds app from the Play Store.

The Buds get custom icons in your phone's Bluetooth settings (left), but the Pixel Buds app itself doesn't do much (right).

But that installation is the full extent of the difference in experience between Pixels and non-Pixels — anything the Buds can do on a Pixel phone, they can do on any Android phone. The feature set is pretty rich: Assistant hotword detection, spoken notifications, in-ear detection, single-bud listening with either earbud, IPX4 water resistance, and an "Adaptive Sound" mode that tweaks the volume based on noise in your environment. Short of noise canceling, I can't think of any features the Pixel Buds are lacking.

Google touts "real-time translation" as a Pixel Buds feature. You can say, "Hey Google, help me speak Spanish," and it'll open Google Translate on your phone in conversation mode set to English and Spanish (or whatever your native language and the language you request are).

You tap and hold an earbud while you speak, then your phone will interpret what you said into the other language. You then press and hold an on-screen button while the other person speaks, and release it when they're done to hear what they said in your own language in your ear.

The functionality isn't exclusive to the Pixel Buds; any Google Assistant-equipped headset can do it. It's neat in that it enables conversation translation with earbuds — with non-Assistant headphones, both languages will play in your ears rather translating your words out loud from your phone's speaker. But it doesn't work with Translate's auto mode that cuts out the tapping-and-holding bits, so it's still a bit of a clunky experience.

The Pixel Buds app lets you toggle Adaptive Sound and in-ear detection, ring either earbud in case you dropped one in the couch, and access Assistant settings (which are managed in the Google app). It also puts custom Pixel Buds graphics in your phone's Bluetooth menu, which is a neat bit of polish. It doesn't let you tweak the Buds' EQ settings, though, which is a bummer.

Battery life is a miss.

When you're not talking to the Assistant, you'll control the earbuds with an assortment of taps and swipes. I generally hate any earbud interface that requires triple taps, and the prospect of swiping on such a small surface to adjust volume seems dubious, but I'll be darned if Google didn't absolutely nail the controls. Touch sensitivity and gesture recognition have been nearly perfect; I rarely get errant touches when adjusting the buds in my ears, triple taps almost always register correctly, and swiping backward and forward to adjust volume works great.

Battery life is a miss for earbuds in this price range at a measly five hours per charge (at best). While it's true that super-budget earbuds can have life spans as short as three hours, there are true wireless sets bumping up against 12 hours on a single charge — and they're cheaper than these. If your normal use case is popping your earbuds in for a jog or a round with a meditation app, the Pixel Buds will suit your needs just fine, but if you want to wear them through an entire workday or the duration of a long flight, you're out of luck. The case holds an impressive amount of juice for its size, at least — Google says it stores about 19 hours' worth of charge.


Samsung Galaxy Buds next to Pixel Buds.

I suspect the disappointing longevity is down to inefficient software. The cells in the two buds drain at varying rates — I've seen a difference as high as 50 percentage points between left and right. Google says that's normal, that "the two earbuds serve different functions at different times" and software "monitors the state on both earbuds and can switch either earbud to support more power hungry functions." While it's true I never had one bud die with significant juice left in the other, it's still disconcerting to see such a discrepancy between the two. There's just gotta be a better way to accomplish what Google is going for here. This might also be addressed in firmware patches, but there's no way of knowing whether it will.

Should you buy them?

Pixel Buds (2020)
7/10

It's hard to say. In the new Pixel Buds, Google clearly set out to make Android's answer to AirPods, and it successfully aped a lot of what Apple's customers love about that company's earbuds: setup is a breeze, software integration is solid, and fit and finish are fantastic. They've even got the slim, flip-top case. Unfortunately, the Pixel Buds also borrow the AirPods' mediocre battery life (also rated at five hours) and high price tag (with the optional wireless charging case, AirPods retail for $199).

But whereas Apple has managed to make first-party accessories the go-to for iPhone, Google's name doesn't carry the same cachet with the majority of Android users. There are tons of true wireless earbuds that work with Android phones nearly as seamlessly as the Pixel Buds do — and for less money.

For the right person, one who rarely wears earbuds for more than a few hours at a time and is willing to pay a premium for thoughtful design and nice-to-have features, the Pixel Buds are great. I'm that person, and for my own use, I really like these things.

But the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ offer more than double the battery life between charges in a package nearly as compact for $150. We've also seen the Sony WF-1000XM3 drop as low as $189 on sale, and they outlast the Pixel Buds with noise cancelation. If they cost $30 less and lasted an additional hour on a charge, the Pixel Buds would be a very compelling option for a lot of people. But as it stands, for most, $179 is too much to pay for these.

Buy if:

  • Cool features really get you going.
  • All-day battery life isn't a priority.

Don’t buy if:

  • You want earbuds you can wear through a shift at work or cross-country flight.
  • Thorough isolation from your sound environment is important to you.

After an additional month with the Pixel Buds, I'm still enamored with Google's hardware design, but I have all the same beefs with its earbuds that I always did. The constant, faint, electronic hissing and popping in the background of playback is maddening at low volumes; it makes trying to listen to a podcast or sit for a session with Headspace in a quiet room almost impossible.

I've also had occasion to use the Pixel Buds in a populated public space, and as expected, they're not great in that scenario — even at social-distancing-friendly limited capacity. By design, the earbuds let in environmental sound, which is great for hearing approaching cars while you're walking your dog, but not so great when you're trying to get some work done while your comforter dries at the laundromat.

To be clear, there is a lot to like about the Pixel Buds. They're excellent for providing background music to activities where you need to maintain some awareness of your surroundings, and their sound quality lives up to their price tag. They're also just an extremely neat product, which is a very valuable characteristic to a lot of buyers (myself included). If your use case falls within the Pixel Buds' range of utility, go ahead and buy them. You'll probably be very satisfied.

But to me, that range seems too limited. They're not good for long-haul listening. They're not good for listening in noisy environments. Because of their static problem, they're also not good for listening in very quiet environments. There's a troubling number of reports of units with faulty connections — and while that's not something I experienced in my pair, it bears consideration.

Personally, I can't help being fond of the Pixel Buds — they're just so cool. But, knowing all their limitations, that fondness feels like it goes against my better judgement. I'm hopeful for the next generation, but I still can't recommend most people buy this one.