How I fell in love with the Pixel Buds, and what I want to see next
While there are millions of great wireless earbuds out there today and we've only grown to love them more over the last year, I actually still didn't trust true wireless earbuds even in 2020. At home, they're fine, but the second I stepped out my door, I'd run back to my trusty over-ear headphones. I never found a set that would properly fit in my ears without one or both of them periodically falling out, and I just don't have the patience while out in public.
Then I got in a pair of Google Pixel Buds to familiarize myself with before the next gen Pixel Buds arrive later this year and fell in love. While there are still a few improvements in the next version, the Google Pixel Buds 2020 are hands down the best pair of wireless earbuds I've ever used.
Seamless software experience
I know that the Google Pixel Buds were riddled with connectivity problems when they debuted last year, but I've had no problems pairing or using the buds whether I'm curled up on the couch at home or out walking ten miles around the Magic Kingdom. Apart from one instance where they weirdly turned themselves off while still in my ears despite being fully charged, the buds stay synced and connected at all times.
I had some apprehension about using the Pixel Buds with my Galaxy S21 over my Pixel 4a, but I downloaded the Google Pixel Buds companion app while I was unboxing them and updated their firmware the first time I put them back in the case. It's been easy enough to see the battery levels through the app or its notification, and there are toggles to turn off the advanced features or touch controls if you're having trouble with them.
While the Pixel Buds are missing ANC, they do have Adaptive Sound, software that detects how loud an environment you're in and adjusts the volume to compensate. The feature did impressively well while I wandered around the noise of the Magic Kingdom at Spring Break, but whenever it got a little too loud or soft when transitioning between crowded and quiet areas, it was easy to swipe the volume up or down. Even when at home listening to music, if I started singing along, the buds would adjust up the volume to match. That might not be a feature to everyone, but I adore it.
Fit and finished feel in-ear and in-hand
I'll confess that Pixel Buds will sometimes shift in my ears when I smile widely or eat, but for the most part these have been the best-fitting and most comfortable wireless earbuds I've ever used. They fit properly in my ears, the built-in wingtip helps keep it seated properly, and despite how large the touch panels are, the buds themselves don't feel big or look huge the way many others do.
That same fit and finish extends to the Pixel Buds case, which is not only perfectly weighted and sculpted to feel pleasant in the hand, but I adore the magnetized top. I sometimes find myself flicking the case open and closed like a classic Zippo lighter when I'm bored during a meeting; the sound and feel of the lid opening and closing is oddly cathartic. And unlike other buds, where weak magnets don't help things align properly, the magnetism here makes it a cinch to quickly drop them in and ensure that yes, they are actually charging as I rush out the door.
My only hardware complaint is that no matter which color Pixel Buds you get, the case is always white. Most true wireless earbuds give you the same colors on both the case and the buds, but the Quite Mint green pair I got was limited only to the buds themselves. Yes, I know it's a small complaint, but when it comes to wireless earbuds, the devil really is in the details.
Finally, touch controls done right!
The biggest issue I've had with even the best cheap wireless earbuds, from Taotronics to TicPods and beyond, has always been finicky touch controls. I was fully resigned to having to use my Wear OS smartwatch to control my music, but the touch controls here actually work — and work well, too. What a concept, right?
The size of the round touch panel on the Pixel Buds makes them stand out a little more, but that also means you have a nice wide surface to ensure you tap or swipe properly. To pause or change tracks, you tap the buds. To change the volume, you swipe up or down. To have Assistant read your notifications, press and hold until you hear the chime. To ask something without saying "Okay Google", hold down the bud walkie-talkie style while you talk.
I wish all earbuds had touch controls that worked this consistently well. Volume is isolated to swipes only, Assistant is isolated to hold actions, and calls/media controls are all taps, which makes it easy to avoid mis-presses. The in-ear detection here also means I can just pull out a bud to hear whoever tried to actually talk to me, answer their question, then slide the bud back in and music will resume automatically without having it also act up when the buds shift in my ears because of talking or eating.
Battery is okay — but it could be better
While listening at home, I usually only kept the buds in for 2-3 hours at a time, especially the first week while I was still getting used to the fit. This worked out well because I usually put the buds back in the case with 40-50% remaining on each side. Once I left the house, I started to notice that I'd hit the low-battery warning on one bud or the other around 3.5 hours.
Now, this is far short of the advertised "up to 5 hours of listening time", but it only served as a ten-minute inconvenience, as that amount of charging would get it from 20% back up to 70%. I could also go days without throwing the Pixel Buds case on a wireless charger, even if I was listening 4-6 hours a day.
I do believe Google can do better, especially when competitors like the Jabra Elite 75t and Galaxy Buds Pro get closer to 7 hours on a charge, but at least they recharge quickly and the case adds enough time that you will probably never run out in a single day.
Another annoyance that can hopefully be remedied is the inconsistency between buds. The left bud tended to be about 10-20% lower than the right for reasons I could never figure out.
Ditch the spatial vents and give me ANC
The only other problem I have with the Google Pixel Buds is one of its 'features': the spatial vent. This opening helps natural sound filter in, and while this is a great idea, in theory, I really wish there was a switch or toggle to plug it and seal off outside noise. While outside sound can be helpful in some instances, it also means that no matter how high I crank the volume, there's no way to completely cover up the kids throwing a tantrum ahead of me in line or the painfully loud lift hills on Big Thunder Mountain.
Active Noise Canceling is becoming standard for true wireless earbuds now that we've got sound quality and battery life to respectable levels. Google can be forgiven for keeping them out of the old model, but ANC has come a long way since the Pixel Buds were originally unveiled in 2019, and Google needs to keep up with its competitors if it wants to avoid getting drowned out in a ridiculously crowded market.
If Google ups the passive noise isolation by closing the spatial vent and keeps fine-tuning the Adaptive Sound, ANC isn't required for the next version, but it would be much harder to justify the inevitably premium price Google will demand for them.
Are you ready to meet your new best Buds?
We're still likely a few months from the Pixel Buds launch; my money's on either being announced at Google I/O alongside whatever latest Google Assistant features are coming to them, but they might wait until the Google Pixel 5a later this summer. That said, I can't wait to see if Google can finally fix the last of its hiccups and give us the Pixel-perfect audio experience we deserve.
What features are you hoping to see on the next Pixel Buds? Is active noise canceling a requirement for you after a year of everyone being stuck home together or do you just want better battery and rock-solid connectivity? Who's hoping for some more fun colors? I'd love to see that Sky Blue from the Nest Audio, or maybe a nice Purple-ish after the Pixel 3a color.
Excellent true wireless earbuds, with traditional Google flair.
The new Pixel Buds have an excellent case design, nice-sounding earbuds and lots of neat little features that elevate the whole experience. They're worth the money, even with their limited configurability and average battery life.
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Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.