The Pixel Buds are a small and compact set of true wireless earbuds designed for the less discerning listeners who care about portability above all else.
- Good, reliable sound
- Deep Android integration
- Huge improvement over the previous version
- Lovely design
- Lacks bass
- No ANC
- Review Price: £179
- Google Assistant
- 12mm dynamic drivers
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Google Fast Pair 2.0
- IPX4 resistance
After a longer wait than expected, you can finally buy the Pixel Buds 2 in the UK. But, can they overcome the first generation’s poor offering and earn a place as one of the best wireless earbuds around?
The first-gen Pixel Buds were, to put it mildly, bad. They were bulky, and a right faff to cram back into their oversized travel case. Thankfully the Pixels Buds 2 right just about every wrong, rebooting the headphones into a pair that can rival the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ and Apple AirPods (2019).
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Design and fit – The Pixels Buds 2 are completely ‘Google’
Google has a strong design theme running through its product line at the moment and its very obvious here. Just like the AirPods feel very Apple, these feel very Google.
Take the rounded, pebble-like case for example. This has the same soft matte finish you’ll find covering the back of the Pixel 4. I prefer the finish to the glossy AirPods case as it’s easier to clean if it gets dirty in your pocket or bag. The move is positive nonetheless.
You’ll find a USB-C port on the bottom for charging (there’s Qi wireless support too) and a little charge indicator light on the front. There’s also a manual connection button on the back, but if you’re pairing with an Android phone you’ll likely never need it.
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Flip the case open and you’ll see the two buds perched inside, alongside another charge indicator light. It’s a small touch, but I like having this light both inside and out as it’s always visible.
The earbuds are currently only available in one colour, which is mainly white with black accents. It’s a nice colour scheme, though if I were picking them up myself, I’d go for the purely black version as that’ll help them blend in a little more. A dark colour should also offset the slightly egregious ‘G’ symbol emblazoned on the bud’s top surface.
The Pixel Buds 2 are off the in-ear variety, rather than the standard AirPods which don’t burrow into your ear. They also come with a small wing-tip (stabiliser arc) that can be swapped between three size options.
The addition of the wing-tip is great, and helps the Pixel Buds 2 stay firmly in my ear even when I’m vigorously shaking my head to make them fall out. They stay in place far better than the standard AirPods, and if you struggled with Apple’s wireless earbuds because of the loose fit then this is a far better choice. However, I also feel the wing-tip can make them a little uncomfortable after a few hours.
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Google Assistant and Pairing – Fuss-free and smart, with a few bugs
One of the benefits of a pair of buds from the likes of Apple, Google and Samsung is how much better integrated they are with your phone. If you’re an Android user with a compatible device, you’ll benefit from instant pairing as soon as you bring the buds close to your phone. I also particularly like the dedicated battery status indicator accessible in the notification shade.
On initial setup, you’ll be directed to the Pixel Buds app, which isn’t really an app but a new area of the settings menu. Here you have a few options to tweak how they perform, but there isn’t an in-depth EQ or much in the way of customisation. Instead, you can alter how the touch controls work, or whether or not music stops playing when you remove them from your ear. It’s all basic stuff, but I like how it integrates with the smartphone.
The touchpads on the Pixel Buds 2 respond to various swipes and presses. For example, a swipe forward raises the volume, while a double tap ends a call. These all work on an iPhone too.
You can also call up Google Assistant with a long press. I like the way Assistant is built in here, and access is quick enough to make it more than usable. Set a timer, check the weather, read out any notifications: the Assistant rarely fails to act on a request almost immediately.
While set-up is a breeze, I have had issues with connectivity. There’s a slight but audible hiss in the buds when there’s no sound – less than ideal if you want to quickly call up the Assistant.
I also suffered from either one of the earbuds falling out of sync for a couple of seconds when connected (in this instance to a Pixel 4 XL) and some minor bouts of lag when watching videos. Neither of these were a constant issue, but they popped up frequently enough to be. It looks like a recent firmware update fixed some larger issues to do with connectivity, which bodes well for these smaller quirks being ironed out in future updates.
Sound quality – Could do with more bass
I wasn’t blown away by the sound from the Pixel Buds 2, with an audio performance comparable to the AirPods which at this price isn’t great for serious music listeners. Still, for most people, the sound is pleasing and enjoyable, with the earbuds adapting well to different genres.
My biggest qualm is the disappointing bass, and that lack of oomph is very noticeable in particular tracks. This can give certain songs a flat feeling, especially in the instrumental areas.
The buds also don’t have any form of ANC (active noise cancelling). This puts them technically behind most similarly priced sets, like the AirPods Pro. Instead, the Pixel Buds 2’s passive cancellation blocks out outside noise by creating a seal between your ear and the silicone tips. If you’re after earbuds that’ll for use on a plane or to block out office noises, the Pixel Buds 2 aren’t for you. They keep a little bit of outside noise at bay, but you’ll still hear most things around you.
Google has added some software-based adaptive smarts that, in theory, should alter the volume depending on the environment. This isn’t best tested when the majority of people are staying mainly at home, but there’s an ever so subtle change in how loud the buds get when you’re wandering down the street.
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Battery life – Pixel Buds 2 can’t compete with the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus
I’ve been getting roughly 5 hours of juice from the Pixel Buds 2 before they need a charge in the case – which has enough capacity for a further four charges. This is perfectly fine, and close to what you’d get from the pair of AirPods.
Yet, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus and their ridiculous 11 hours of charge from the buds skews the results slightly. Still, 5 hours is good going and should be enough for most situations. Pop them back in the case and they charge quickly too. One thing that I did notice was that each bud discharged at a very variable rate, so the left one could be down to 20% while the right was still on 30%.
The case supports both fast wired charging via a USB-C cable, and it can charge wirelessly if you have a Qi pad about. It doesn’t charge on Google’s own Pixel Stand though, as I assume the coils are placed too high.
Should you buy the Pixel Buds 2?
Choosing a pair of wireless earbuds can be tricky and the best for you isn’t always the one that sounds best. If you’re after sound quality and excellent noise cancellation, then the Sony WF-1000XM3 are great. We also reviewed the Cleer Audio Ally Plus and, again, found them to be an excellent option for Android users.
But those are big, bulky earbuds that protrude from your ear and come with rather large carrying cases. The Pixel Buds, on the other hand, are smaller and compact. They aren’t industry leading, but they also offer good enough audio quality for more casual listeners, and come with a wealth of atypical features you won’t find elsewhere.
This adds up to make them a huge improvement over the original Pixel Buds. The addition of gesture controls are welcome, and while the battery life can’t compete with the Galaxy Buds Plus, it’s still adequate.