This month, Google is releasing its third pair of wireless Pixel Buds. They've been a pretty poorly kept secret. After all the leaks (some from the company itself), you might already know what to expect here: 2020's Pixel Buds with some features removed and a new, lower price tag.

And these new earbuds are exactly that. Like the Pixel a phones that inspired their name, the Pixel Buds A-Series take what works about Google's flagship earbuds, strip out some higher-end features, and cost way less. If I were buying a pair of Google's earbuds today, it'd be these — and it's not just because they're $80 cheaper than last year's.

The Good

Sound Identical to last year's. Very good.
Comfort Again, same as the Pixel Buds 2020. Super comfy.
Price These cost $99 and do almost everything last year's $179 Pixel Buds do.

The Not So Good

Static Reduced from last year's model, but still perceptible (to some people, at least).
No wireless charging I've used sub-$50 earbuds with wireless charging.

Design, hardware, what's in the box

The olive green of the A-Series doesn't quite match the Pixel 5. 

The Pixel Buds A-Series are so physically similar to last year's Pixel Buds that they each fit comfortably in each other's cases. The cases don't actually work interchangeably — the charging pins are slightly different — but both the cases and the buds are very nearly identical. I loved the way last year's buds looked, so that's a win in my book.

The main aesthetic difference is color: the A-Series come in just two colors, white or green, and the insides of their cases match (as opposed to 2020's, which came in four colors that all shared the same black-and-white case).

That faint orange dot on the front of the case is the A-Series's redesigned charging indicator. It's plenty visible in real life.

There are some less visible differences in hardware, too. The A-Series have just a single charging indicator light, located on the outside of the case. When the case is open, the light reflects the buds' battery level; closed, it indicates how much juice is left in the case. When the battery level is lower, the light is orange. White means it's nearly full. The A-Series also ditch wireless charging, topping up only over USB-C. This is the single biggest downgrade the A-Series suffer, in my opinion, and it's turned out to be a pretty minor one in practice. I have USB-C chargers everywhere.

On the whole, the A-Series share the same charming, eminently Googly look and feel as last year's earbuds. They even retain features like in-ear detection, single earbud playback, and IPX4 water resistance, which should be enough to keep sweat from damaging them. Holding the two pairs next to each other, there's really no way of knowing which is more expensive — except that the 2020 model is ever so slightly heavier.

In the A-Series's tiny little box, you'll find the buds and case, replacement ear tips in a matching color, a USB-A-to-USB-C cable, and the normal literature.

Sound quality, features, battery life

The Pixel Buds A-Series sound just like the Pixel Buds 2020: they're using the same 12-millimeter drivers and have the same "spatial vent" that helps sell the feeling of a wider sound stage and lets in some ambient sound. That's good news, because last year's earbuds sound great. Highs are clear, mids are full, and bass is typical of high-end true wireless earbuds (read: pretty good). You still can't fine-tune EQ settings, but the A-Series benefit from a bass boost option at launch — something 2020's model had to wait a few months for. There's still no aptX support, though, if that's a priority for you.

I'm still torn about the vent. Google says it's to prevent the plugged ear feeling that can come with wearing earbuds, but that's not something that's ever bothered me. Still, these things are really comfortable (provided the stabilizing fin doesn't jab you like it does some people), and being able to hear some of your surroundings is useful outdoors or in a work environment where you need to stay aware. But it also means you'll need to crank the volume higher than you otherwise would to block out the din of the coffee shop or gym, which can be rough on your ears.

Connection stability has improved considerably.

My single biggest gripe about 2020's Pixel Buds is a persistent popping and hissing audible in the right earbud when media is playing at low volumes, and unfortunately, it's here too. But it's definitely quieter, and Google still insists not everybody will be able to hear it. I don't know whether that's actually true, but either way, the problem is a lot easier to live with at $99 than at $179. Connection stability has also improved considerably: my 2020 Pixel Buds can get a little flaky outdoors, but the A-Series are fine, even with my phone in my back pocket.

Last year's model has sensors in each bud "that can detect speech through the vibrations of your jawbone," which ostensibly helps cut out background noise when you're on a call. The A-Series don't have those sensors, but they're still totally fine for voice calls. Folks on the other end — including my AP peers who typically have no compunction about being honest — haven't had any complaints, aside from one caller who said I sounded a little farther away than normal.

Left: Pixel Buds 2020. Right: Pixel Buds A-Series.

The A-Series support Fast Pair, which is increasingly common but still appreciated. On Pixel phones, all you have to do is open up the A-Series's case near your phone, tap to connect, and you're done — Pixel Buds software integration is baked into Google's phones. Fast Pair works with non-Pixels, too, but you'll need to install the Pixel Buds app during setup to tweak the Buds' more advanced settings.

You can still call up the Google Assistant with a hey Google or by pressing and holding on either earbud to speak, a feature I was worried wouldn't make the jump from premium to mid-range. That's undeniably cool, but I wish the volume controls had also made it over to the A-Series. As is, you can't adjust volume on the earbuds without taking your phone out.

Battery life is the same, too: about five hours of listening on the buds, plus three or so full charges in the case. That's competitive with Apple's AirPods, sure, but there are scads of options around this price from brands like Samsung and Sony that last longer. Still, it's hard not to see the absence of a downgrade as a positive in a device that costs a little over half what its predecessor did.

Should you buy them?

Pixel Buds A-Series
If you want a pair of Google's earbuds, yes. Last year's Pixel Buds know a few tricks the A-Series don't, but they're not worth paying almost double for. These sound just as good, last just as long, and cost way less. Even if the older Pixel Buds weren't more expensive (and hey, they aren't always anymore), I'd still pick the A-Series because of the reduced static and improved connection strength.

But unlike Pixel a phones, which are easy to recommend to almost anyone, the Pixel Buds A-Series won't ever be my go-to recommendation for a less techy friend or relative. They're good earbuds — I'd even call them Google's best — but other $100 earbuds have better battery life and block more ambient noise. If those are things you really don't care about (or if you're as infatuated with Google's hardware design as I am), go ahead and grab these.

Buy them if:

  • Hearing the world around you through your earbuds is a positive.
  • Wireless charging and volume control aren't worth 80 additional dollars.

Don't buy them if:

  • You want thorough sound isolation.
  • Faint hissing would still drive you nuts in $99 earbuds.

Where to buy:

One month later

I’ve kept using the Pixel Buds A-Series for the past month, and their unique design has made them a favorite of mine for one particular use case: out-and-about listening.

Like last year’s Pixel Buds, because of the A-Series’s spacial vent, you can still hear your environment while listening to quiet media on the A-Series. For my general use, I think that’s a hindrance: these things are near useless at a coffee shop or the gym. But if you need earbuds to wear while you’re out jogging or running errands, not having to take one bud out to check for traffic or interact with a cashier is a boon. Having the Google Assistant in your ear is really handy for quick questions, too (just don’t talk to it around people, please).

Aside from that specific purpose, my opinion hasn’t changed much. The A-Series sound very nice, their design is excellent, and they’re way more reasonably priced than last year’s Pixel Buds. Unless you can cop that model at a serious discount, the Pixel Buds A-Series are still my top pick when it comes to Google earbuds. Just be sure to check out similarly priced options from the likes of Samsung and Sony before you pull the trigger.