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Google Pixel Buds 2020 review: These AirPods competitors were worth the wait

Google Pixel Buds 2020
(Image: © Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Our Verdict

Bottom line: Google's Pixel Buds are a hit with one fatal flaw. The case is exceptional, from its size and feel to its functionality with a big battery and wireless charging. The earbuds themselves are small and comfortable, with good sound and high-quality microphones for calls. Connection issues just kill the vibe with every stutter and dropped connection.

For

  • Superb case design and size
  • Case provides 3-4 recharges
  • Wireless charging case
  • Solid sound quality

Against

  • Unforgivable connection issues
  • Can't customize touch controls
  • No active noise cancellation
  • Battery life shorter than others

Google's first Pixel Buds headphones were quirky, expensive and still had a wire between them in an era where true wireless earbuds were the hot new thing. Over two years later, Google smartly went back to the drawing board for an entirely new design in the second-generation Pixel Buds. They're now truly wireless, with a fresh look and a much more traditional case.

But the Pixel Buds haven't given up their Google flair or focus on delighting users with extra features and capabilities. These aren't just regular Bluetooth headphones; Google brings a lot of "smart" additions once again, and those help justify the higher $179 price tag. This complete package is well worth that money — or it would be if connection issues hadn't become a deal-breaking issue in the year since its launch.

Google Pixel Buds (2020): Price and availability

Google Pixel Buds

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

After being announced in October 2019, Google finally launched the Pixel Buds in April 2020 for everyone to purchase. The wireless earbuds have a retail price of $179, making them less than Apple's AirPods Pro but still fairly expensive.

Now that the Pixel Buds A-series have been announced and are available for pre-order at $99, the Pixel Buds (2020) have been dropped to $130 at most retailers. Even with that price drop, the connection issues on the Pixel Buds have eroded our ability to recommend them.

Google Pixel Buds (2020): Hardware — case and earbuds

Google Pixel Buds 2020

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

We're so far removed from the Google launch event (October 2019!), where we had a very brief time with the Pixel Buds that I had no recollection of what they were like. But wow, I'm immediately a fan of this case! It's easily the best overall design I've seen.

This is a fantastic earbuds case, from design to functionality.

After using the Galaxy Buds (and then Galaxy Buds+ (opens in new tab)), for the past year, there's a night-and-day difference with the Pixel Buds case. The matte case looks and feels wonderful, and the whole package is downright solid feeling — it's also heavier than you'd think, especially if you're used to the Galaxy Buds. The case lid has an extremely satisfying click as it flips open and an even louder — yet equally satisfying — clunk when it closes. The hinge requires just the right amount of weight to flick open but stays closed easily — that's a tough balance, but Google absolutely nailed it.

The size is great, too — roughly the footprint of the AirPods Pro, but more egg-shaped and volumetrically about the same size as Galaxy Buds+. It's impressive that this small of a case has enough battery to add another 3-4 recharges (19 hours) to the earbuds, plus room for wireless charging. I have zero issues sliding this case into my pants or jacket pocket, just like other wireless earbuds, and the smooth rounded shape means it's never going to get caught on anything. The Buds case charged on Qi pads and my Galaxy S20 Ultra seamlessly, but oddly it didn't work on my OnePlus 8 Pro — my friend Michael Fisher (aka MrMobile) experienced the same issue.

Now, the earbuds themselves. I like the small and sleek design; they don't call extra attention to themselves, and the "G" branding is incredibly subtle. They're comfortable and don't put a lot of pressure on your ears, right on par with my Galaxy Buds. They aren't quite as comfortable as the original Pixel Buds, though, as they now have more of a traditional earbud design with rubberized tips that go further into your ear to help hold the whole thing in place.

The earbuds aren't quite as comfortable as the first-gen, but that's a fine trade-off for being truly wireless.

This provides better passive noise cancellation and sound, of course, but also creates a larger contact area with the ear. I actually kind of miss the adjustable cord loop from the original Buds, which was extremely comfortable because it allowed the ear tip to not actually go into your ear. That said, a lot of people seem to prefer having more passive noise cancellation from a traditional ear tip. I definitely needed to give my ears a short break from the Buds every 2-3 hours — which worked out nicely because that's about how often the buds needed a brief recharge in the case.

These little wingtips (or sticktips? I don't know) sticking out from the top of the Buds provide just enough additional security that I'm not worried about the Buds falling out. However, I would prefer if they were removable and replaceable with larger ones, like many other earbuds. I had to move up to the largest of the three ear tip sizes (the case on every set of earbuds I've used), which provided more stability overall. The earbuds are secure enough with the ear tips and are light enough that I don't think you're ever going to be relying on the wingtips to keep the Buds secure, though.

As you'd expect, the earbuds are water (and sweat) resistant, just like the competition. So no worries about walking in the rain or going for a run with the Pixel Buds.

Google Pixel Buds (2020): Experience — sound and software

Google Pixel Buds 2020

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Note: We mentioned connectivity issues in the earlier sections of this review. These issues arose after the initial review was published, and their appearance and Google's repeated attempts to fix them are down below in the one year later review.

There's no better headphone pairing experience than using a Fast Pair, Google's technology that's available to any headphone manufacturer and works with any Android 6.0 and newer phone. I opened up the Pixel Buds case, and a moment later, I had a notification on my OnePlus 8 Pro that there are headphones for me to pair with. Tap it, and they're paired. A notification arrives to install the Pixel Buds app, two taps, it's installed. A beautiful experience.

Source: Android Central

There isn't a whole lot you can do with the Pixel Buds app, but it gets the job done. You can see the battery status of each earbud and the case and control a handful of settings. Notably, you can't customize the touch controls, which are pretty basic and available on both earbuds: swipe forward/back to raise/lower volume, tap once to play/pause or answer/hang up, tap twice to skip forward, tap thrice to skip back, and press and hold to speak to Assistant or hear a notification read aloud. The way the app is laid out makes it look like touch controls would be customizable, but all you can do is turn touch controls on or off entirely.

The touch controls are well-calibrated, audio feedback is pleasant, and volume transitions are smooth.

The touch controls seem well-calibrated, landing in that tough middle zone of being sensitive to your touch without being too sensitive and accidentally triggering. I'm sure the software calibration is important, but this feels as much a result of the hardware design because your finger gets the right amount of resistance touching or sliding across the lightly textured and gently curved caps. There are no rough edges or changes in the surface, and it doesn't feel like I have to make very specific or deliberate motions; there's enough error correction here to accomplish what I want with a natural motion. The earbuds also sense when they're removed, pausing audio playback, saving you a tap entirely, and I found them rather easy to take out and replace without accidentally triggering other touch controls.

Google's talking a big game about audio quality, with custom drivers and a specific internal design for better sound delivery. The Buds sound good but I'm not going to be dropping my Bose over-ear headphones for them anytime soon, of course. As far as small earbuds go, I'm happy with the whole sound range. There's a considerable amount of bass for earbuds, but sometimes the highs sound a bit hollow — but I noticed it less and less as I used only the Pixel Buds and stopped comparing side-by-side to other earbuds. Spoken-word content, like podcasts, sounds great. Notably, there are no EQ or sound profile settings to tweak in the Pixel Buds app — not a problem whatsoever for me, but some more audiophile-inclined users will find that restricting.

These won't make you throw away over-ear headphones, but they sound good for earbuds.

These headphones don't have active noise cancellation, like the Amazon Echo Buds (2nd Gen) or AirPods Pro for example, though Google's partial solution for this is "Adaptive Sound," which automatically adjusts the volume level to keep the same perceived volume as the ambient noise around you changes. This actually isn't turned on by default, but I switched it on right away — and while it's clearly working when you think about it, you don't immediately perceive it. Though that's kind of the point; you don't want your earbuds changing volume constantly, and Adaptive Sound is seemingly tuned to not be very aggressive in doing so.

I assume part of the reason why you don't notice it working much is that the Pixel Buds are very gentle with their volume changes in any situation. Swiping forward or back on the earbud gives you a delicate and gradual change in volume, with no other audible feedback like you get with a play/pause tap. The audio feedback throughout the system is rather pleasant, too; much calmer and nicer than the 1990's-feeling beeps that come out of my Galaxy Buds+.

A lot of the 'smart' features are just fluff, but the overall user experience is slick and simple.

Google puts equal importance on audio input, with beamforming microphones and an accelerometer that senses jaw movement to adjust the input. In my calls, the other party reported that I sounded clear and plenty loud; I spoke at a normal volume and didn't feel the need to project or enunciate more than normal. (Though there's always the awkwardness of keeping your volume correct with earbuds stuck in your ears.) I'm rarely relying on earbuds for phone calls, but when I'm already listening to music and have a call come in, I never want to feel like I have to take out my earbuds — with the Pixel Buds, I don't.

Battery life is a bit behind the competition, though it isn't terribly surprising considering their size. Google quotes 5 hours, and I could confidently make 4 straight hours of music or podcast listening before needing to charge. Considering how small and light the earbuds are and how infrequently I'm likely to wear any earbuds for over 5 hours at a time, this is fine — especially when the case provides ample recharges. Though oddly, I noticed a few times that one earbud would drain much faster than the other, by 10-15% in some cases, and sometimes it wouldn't level out through a full discharge. Thankfully the case recharges the Buds quickly: you can get a couple of hours back in just 10 minutes.

Just like the first generation, many of the "smart" features aren't big factors in the Pixel Buds experience. Having your notifications read aloud can be useful in some cases, but I typically turned it off because it takes so long to read out the information. The real-time translation continues to prove it's a cool demo but really doesn't fit well into an actual in-person social interaction — and is typically more cumbersome than using a phone.

The new hands-free "Hey Google" voice commands do work, which is an incredible achievement for these tiny earbuds, and they process speech well thanks to the great mics. But responses are often a few beats slower than I'm used to, and therefore only useful for a limited range of requests — and most notably, they introduce another collision point with my other devices, like Google Homes and Smart Displays, that are listening for that "Hey Google" phrase. Ultimately, the barrier is still extremely low for when I would prefer to pull out my phone to get a task done.

Google Pixel Buds (2020): Competition

In the year since the Pixel Buds launched, the premium true wireless earbuds space has continued to churn, with Amazon's newest Echo Buds (2nd Gen) offering up noise canceling, a comfortable design, wireless charging and hands-free Alexa for $130. Likewise, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro offer excellent sound, ANC, and a very comfortable design, but the $200 price point seems a little steep, especially given how finicky the touch controls and voice detect features can be.

Jabra also has a $180 competitor to the Pixel Buds that even holds its own against Apple's AirPods Pro in the Jabra Elite 85t. The Sony WF-1000XM3 are also getting down into affordable territory these days, but that might also be because they were released in late 2019 and their successor keeps getting leaked.

Google Pixel Buds (2020) Should you buy them?

Google Pixel Buds 2020

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

I may be more smitten with the Pixel Buds case than the earbuds themselves. But that's not to say the earbuds aren't good. The case design is an incredibly important part of the true wireless earbuds experience, and it can make or break the product. This case is fantastic in every respect: it's compact, extremely well-engineered, has enough battery for multiple recharges of the earbuds, and has wireless charging. It's outstanding.

3.5 out of 5

Google's new Pixel Buds are a hit, and fully worth the asking price.

Where the rubber meets the road, the earbuds themselves, Google did a fine job in almost every way. They're small, unassuming, and pretty comfortable, have great touch controls and good, well-rounded sound quality that automatically adjusts to drown out changes in ambient noise. Unfortunately, that great quality gets punched in the gut the second a bud stutters or randomly disconnects while you're on your morning walk or sitting in the den trying to get some work done.

When they actually work, you can easily see the Pixel Buds being worth $179 — that's the going rate for high-end true wireless earbuds, and these are among the best. The rest of the "smart" features of the earbuds are either inconsequential or just icing on the cake. Not everyone is going to rely on the spoken notifications or hands-free voice commands, and the Google translate functionality isn't as useful as you'd think.

However, "when they actually work" isn't a given for these earbuds, which is why even if the A-series successor loses out on wireless charging and the swipe gestures, they'll still be more worthwhile than the original Pixel Buds. For this money, having buds that only work most of the time just isn't acceptable.

Review Changelog, June 2021

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

This article was originally published in April 2020. It was updated in June 2021 with the following changes.

  • Added a competition section.
  • Replaced the two-month review aside with our year later review.
  • Updated the pricing and availability section to reflect price cuts and the sequel's release.
  • Downgraded the rating from 4.5 to 3.5 given the Pixel Buds' long-standing connectivity issues.
  • Amended the Should You Buy and introductory sections to reflect the above issue.

Google Pixel Buds (2020): One year later review

Google Pixel Buds 2020

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

While the initial outlook on the Pixel Buds was quite rosy — and indeed, I still love the fit, feel, and the case of these buds — things have soured over time. From our two month review, we could already see some stability and connectivity issues, and while they've gotten a tiny bit better with software updates over time, I still have at least two or three listening sessions a week foiled by a dropped connection.

It didn't start out like this. In fact, my first month with the Pixel Buds was almost perfect, but over time the bugs started creeping in with mine, just as they have for most of the Pixel Buds owners. There's a definite honeymoon period with these, and things get utterly frustrating when it ends.

Google has pushed out multiple software updates to the Pixel Buds, but connectivity issues still persist. It's still early days for the new Pixel Buds A, but those seem to have improved connectivity and thus will be a better purchase than this model, even if it will lack the swipe controls and wireless charging.

As much as I love the Google Pixel Buds' addictively snappy case and how well they stay in my ears with only a tiny bit of repositioning, if you're buying earbuds in 2021, these are more than likely not the buds for you.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

43 Comments
  • Mmmmm not for 180, maybe if they knocked it down to 150 I'd consider them. But I'd have to check them out.
  • I really wanted to get these, I had $150 in Google Store credit but since it expired in January, I had to use it on something else.
    About that time, Amazon put the Echo Buds on sale for $80 and I got tired of waiting for Google, so I bought the Echo Buds.
    After 3 months I've gotten them to where they work great for me. The EBs aren't perfect but I wanted something to use with voice commands and Alexa is tried and true.
    I had to use a few combinations of sizes to get the fit that worked best for me. The Bose noise reduction is excellent. I run on a treadmill and you can hear the difference (or not hear it, lol).
    But that said, they're not perfect, and are not for everyone. But for $100 less than the Pixel Buds (or $50 less now), they've been great for me.
  • Yeah, when we get to that price point, I'm veering towards the Momentums. Still, with a nice discount, these look solid.
  • Just saw a mic quality test and the sound is garbage compared to the galaxy buds and airpods. Battery life is also garbage. Plus its overpriced.
  • Compared to the original galaxy buds? Because that's bad.
  • I have the Jabra elite 65t's. My friends complain about the background noise when I'm talking to them. I need to know if these pixels buds will be better for phone calls before I spend the money.
  • You can always try the Elite 75t, I've heard great things about those and they're currently top of my list, particularly the active ones.
  • I can't really see a reason to get these over the competition. I've got galaxy buds+, what do these actually do better?
  • The Pixel Buds case is considerably nicer looking and feeling, if you care about that sort of thing. The earbuds are smaller and (arguably) better looking, and I have had better luck with the touch controls consistently working. The Galaxy Buds+ win in battery life and price, obviously.
  • A better case is nice, but the galaxy buds+ one is nice though, I think. The battery life looks very bad on paper, but as you said in the review in practice is plenty. I just can't see anything that REALLY makes them stand out from the competition... Feels like too little, too late.
  • If you are in the Google eco system they would be better for you. Especially for Google assistant.
  • Not really. The galaxy buds have a control to activate assistant. The Pixel buds have always listening, but i always turn that off on wearables anyway because i find there's way too many false activations.
  • Different users like different things. I don't mind spending the extra money for pixels sense I like how they look and I own several other Google products.
  • Google assistant on command perhaps?
  • I tried several Android earbuds with my Note 8 and Note 9 for over 4 to 5 years time and finally just gave up and bought a pair of airpod pros. Got tired of the sound always going out everytime I moved my head. I tried several generations of Samsung earbuds, Jabra earbuds, and more and they all had the same problem. Not sure what is causing it or how Apple solved it but I had to eventually give in to the enemy. Still have my note 9 though.
  • It's weird how you spent 4 or 5 years trying to find a pair of earphones to use on a phone that's been out less than 3 lol.
  • They said Note 8 and Note 9, but I guess you missed that.
  • Note 8 came out Sept 2017. Less than 3 years ago. Guessed you didn't get that.
  • Those a big (and a lot of) cons. You can get better buds for half the price.
  • I took the plunge, they will replace my jaybirds which were getting a little long in the tooth plus no more connecting wire.
  • heck no, even my basic Skullcandy Sesh are better than that and 99$ cheaper ... (and a better shape, although shorter battery life but usually enough )
    if i want better quality (APTx ) i use my Fiio FA1 with RC-BT addon ok they have a wire between but ergonomically speaking .... no contest
    if i want APTx-HD and ANC i use my Fiio EH3 NC yeah i know that's 3 headset (4 if i count a Pioneer SE-MS7BT-S ) but universal headset do not exist hehe ... depending the music or the activity ... each 3 have their best point nonetheless ... none of the reviews i did find about theses TWS specify the specs ... BT ver.? Codecs? anything? the only pro for me would be the Qi compatible case
  • I'm always worried about earbuds like these falling out during a run. Have you tried running with them? Also, with the earbuds now being separate, I could see a day where you hand one to someone that speaks another language, and then translation works seamlessly because each person has an earbud.
  • The translation scenario would be a good use, but I don't think I'd want to hand my earbud to a stranger to insert in their ear. Not sure they would want to either.
  • Did a lot of walking, and walking and talking, with no issues at all. Went on a run this morning and they didn't budge at all. So long as you're using an appropriately sized eartip, you'll be fine. They're very small and light, so as you run they aren't going to wiggle their way out.
  • considering the sony wf1000mx3 are $229.99 on sony's website I would (personally) go for them over the pixel buds if you want the features. (in fact i already have them and the controls/noise cancelling work great although the case is fairly large)
  • I don't think these are comparable. The Sonys focus on sound quality and ANC, and in turn the earbuds and case are both really big. The Pixel Buds are clearly focused on being small, light, comfortable and portable. I can actually use the Pixel Buds every day and not feel encumbered by the case.
  • What's the process of disconnecting from one device and connecting to another? Is there some gesture on the bud to disconnect from the current device?
  • For initial pairing, you put the buds in the case and press the button on the back, and it becomes discoverable to any Bluetooth device. Once you've paired to something, though, you just go to the device you want to connect to and force the connection. The Pixel Buds don't have an interface, gesture or anything to switch on its end — it's all handled from the sending device.
  • Good to know, for most headphones I've had the new device is never able to force the connection if the buds are connected to some other device. That simplifies things a bit.
  • Just got mine. It's been a long time coming. It will be great to use these with Google assistant around the house without needing my phone. That alone makes it worth it.
  • So Andrew; better than the Sennheiser Momentum?
    I can see Google not adding ANC for the sake of making battery life worse. The primary function of the tips is for sealing. Without a seal to the ear canal, bass takes a big loss. I'm not a fan of how the earbuds look in white, but I am a fan of the case. I can almost hear Wall-e seeing the case and saying "Eeeevaaa!"
  • NO ANS = No buy
    It's 2020
  • A majority of true wireless earbuds don't have active noise cancellation.
  • And yet so many does.
  • Not really. There are two mainstream wireless earbuds with it and some from brands not widely known. Some earbuds, like the Galaxy Buds+, don't need it. Others with ANC (at least advertised as having ANC) are terrible as it's nothing more than a low level hum trying to block out noise and doing a terrible job.
  • I had held out from buying a pair of galaxy buds when i heard about the pixel buds. I like the design and fee that the translate feature will be good over time. I took the plunge when the email notification that the white ones were in stock at 12am woke me from my sleep. I really wanted a yellow color pair or a colored pair like orange or the black but knowing my luck if i had not taken the plunge and order they would be sold out and possibly take a while to come back in stock. It says they arrive may 6 to 7 wonder if ill see them any earlier...
  • So how is the Background noise? I get too many complaints about the 65t's when I try to use them while driving..
  • Everyone I've talked to said I sound like I'm standing next to them, this is one of my favourite things about the pixel buds over other cheaper alternatives, call quality is amazing.
  • Google store now shows waitlist for white .... thats a good response by consumers imo
  • They removed the headphone jack from their devices so they could sell us their own Bluetooth buds, so no! I'm not buying Pixel buds, Samsung buds, OnePlus bullets, Apple Airpods etc. I'll buy their phones unfortunately, but I'll rather buy buds from a reputable third party.
  • So nothing from Sony, right? They removed the headphone jack from some of their phones "forcing" people to buy their expensive wireless earbuds. I guess it's Jaybird, Jabra, JBL, or anyone of the no-name brands. It's not like they're fueling the wireless earbuds market with their products...
  • The Buds 2 seem interesting. I might have to give them a shot when they hit a sale. My Galaxy Buds+ will be fine until then.
  • NO aptX; no sale