(Pocket-lint) - Google announced the true wireless version of its Pixel Buds headphones in October 2019, but it wasn't until April 2020 that these in-ears launched in the US, followed by a wider release in July 2020 in other areas.
Picking up on a popular form factor and with an opportunity to flex its smart skills, the Pixel Buds wants to give you a Google headphones experience to surpass other true wireless headphones. But is this an experience worth the asking price?
Design and comfort
- Charging case included
- Colours: white or grey
- IPX4 water-resistance
- Three ear tip sizes
Google has retained some of the design that it used previously on its wired Pixel Buds - with a rounded body of the headphone which sits in your outer ear, while the silicone tip plugs into your ear canal. It's designed to sit flush in the ear rather than hang out like the Apple AirPods do and it's a neat look. There's simplicity in the design that we like, from the silky smooth surface of the Buds themselves through to the soft-touch feel of the case.
The case is like a perfect pebble, so smooth that you'll just want to caress it all the time - it's much nicer than many of the cheap plastic cases you'll find on rival products.
It's the same finish on the gentle domed touch surface of the Buds, which support a wide range of taps and swipes to control the headphones. Controlling the music is easy enough once you get used to these commands, allowing play/pause, skip, volume up/down, as well as triggering Google Assistant - although the slightest touch will register, so you need to be careful.
There are three sizes of silicone ear tips to help you find the best fit, while there's a small rubber promontory, sticking up like a raised pinky that's designed to hook into the top of your ear and provide additional stability. It's fixed on the body of the buds, so you can't remove it.
The Buds 2 aren't the most comfortable earbuds that we've used, but much will depend on the size and shape of your ears. Getting the right tip will achieve a snug and fairly secure fit, but we can't help feeling that the additional support has been added because the weight doesn't sit in the ear quite as well as some others - and there's a lot of touch functionality that might mean you're prodding these 'buds more often than some others.
In reality, we found the Buds 2 comfortable enough, but we've never found that top rubber support to really do anything for us. It's worth adding that we've never really got on with other headphones offering additional ear support in this way, so we're not surprised.
Sound quality and performance
- Adaptive Sound
- Some distortion on calls
- 5 hour battery life/24 hours total
There's no active noise cancellation (ANC) in these headphones; as such these 'buds are designed to let some of the outside world in to reduce that sense of isolation. Google instead uses something it calls Adaptive Sound - which is designed to change the volume as you move from quiet places to noisy places and vice-versa. It's a system designed to reduce the need to change the volume manually.
However, we didn't notice a huge difference - and moving from a quiet side street to walking along a main road, it was clear that we needed to turn the volume up manually, because a lot of traffic noise was coming through.
That's the downside of the "spatial vents" design, which is designed to remove that "plugged in" feeling - but results in the fact that sometimes you end up listening to background noise that you don't want. For example, while writing this review, we can still hear the clatter of the keyboard; some rival headsets offer a much better level of isolation, but then let you choose how much background noise you want to let through.
Much of how well that arrangement works for you will depend on where you're going to use these headphones. Sitting at home where it's relatively quiet, being able to hear the doorbell or dog barking is useful; equally, if you're walking along a road you're not surprised by things around you because you're a little more aware. It's just that you can't plug in and totally tune out the outside world.
But the Buds 2 do sound good. Once you get away from the noise, these headphones have plenty of quality. There's a nice balance to delivery and volume if you need it. There's plenty of bass when called on, but we wouldn't say that these in-ears have a heavy bass sound profile.
That's great, because when you're sitting in a quiet environment the Buds 2 will sing.
When it comes to calling, things aren't so good though. There's beam forming mics, but callers reported being able to hear background noise (as could we). But the bigger problem we found was distortion or interference on many calls, with slightly robotic clipping.
Google offers 5 hours of charge from the Buds themselves, with enough charge in the case for around 24 hours of listening in total. That's not quite up to the current best out there, although we suspect it will be fine for most users. There's USB-C for charging or you can use Qi wireless charging.
It's all about being smart
- Fast pairing
- Google Assistant integration
You'll find that the Pixel Buds 2 are much easier to connect than regular Bluetooth headphones. These wireless in-ears use Google's fast pairing system that triggers as soon as you open the case. This will be detected by your phone (if you're on Android 6 or above) and you can just tap to pair.
The Buds become linked to your Google account - and when another Android device on your account detects them, you can tap to pair with that device too. You can then easily switch from one phone to the other just by tapping on the Bluetooth device you want where. That avoids the rigmarole of searching and trying to manually trigger Bluetooth when trying to pair with something new.
If you have a Google Pixel phone then it will natively control the Pixel Buds 2 at a system level, but other Android phone users will be required to download an app. There's not a huge range of control within this app, but you can control Google Assistant notifications and preferences, as well as get a guide to all the supported touch controls.
There's no option to change the sound profile of these headphones and there's no custom sound tuning - which is pretty common on a wide range of other headphones. We always like the option to tweak though.
Where the Pixel Buds really show off is in the range of Google Assistant smart functions that are supported. Press-and-hold a 'bud (you can use either) and Google Assistant will fire up, tell you the time and start to relay your messages and notifications to you.
That will mean you don't have to fish your phone out of your pocket and you can compose replies via voice - although, as with all things, this needs to be used with caution to make sure you're sending the right message to the right person.
Of course you get all the normal Google Assistant functions too, allowing you to access all the other information that Google has access to - and pulling on those things that you've previously setup in your account.
There's support for Google Translate too, which is clever. You can trigger it by voice, but you will need your phone open so you can read what's being said and compose a reply. We've not actually tried it out with Pixel Buds due to travel restrictions, but we'd imagine that unless the other person was really patient, it would soon get a little too fiddly.
All these Google Assistant functions are great, but you need decent reception for them to work, otherwise you might be faced with long pauses where nothing happens, followed by Google reporting that it doesn't know what you want it to do, or that it can't find requested information.
And it's not all plain sailing. We've found Google flipping from the usual British English into a very nasal Assistant voice that sounds a lot more robotic - sometimes during the same passage of information. Google Assistant will sometimes do this and we think it's probably because some piece of information isn't supported in British English.
The Google Pixel Buds 2 delivers a very mixed experience. Used as smart true wireless headphones there's plenty to like, shown at their best when out and about, using Google Assistant to play your music from Spotify, getting your notifications read aloud so you don't have to get your phone out of your pocket.
But these are expensive headphones and the lack of proper active noise cancellation (ANC) and fairly poor isolation from external sounds brings things down a notch. Google Assistant is very capable, but the system is prone to being confusing, or getting confused when there's a blip in reception, so it's not all as smooth as the case these 'phones come in.
If you're looking for an attractive set of smart true wireless headphones - and deep Google Assistant integration is top of your list - then the Google Pixel Buds 2 offer plenty. On top of that, the ease of pairing for Android users can't be overstated. But there's no escaping that there are better options out there.
Alternatives to consider
Jabra Elite 75t
Jabra offers a comfortable true wireless headset offering great battery life, great sound quality and a great isolation. This is paired with a HearThrough function that will let through outside noise when you want it, triggered by the press of a button.
Libratone Track Air+
Libratone offers a great pair of headphones in the Track Air+, offering great sound quality and excellent active noise cancellation.