If there’s one thing you can expect from Google it’s that they make very good products for prices that seem slightly too reasonable. Their latest product is the Google Pixel Buds A-Series, true wireless in-ear headphones. Like the other Pixel A-Series products they’re just like the flagship Pixel Buds, only without some of the more niche nice-to-have features, and are almost half the price.
But are they any good? After five days with them, the answer is mostly yes. Here’s how that breaks down.
I really like the way these little buttons look in the ear. They have a distinct design. They’re not trying to be Apple AirPods like so many other brands, and you can instantly tell what they are just by looking. Given how little actually pokes out of the ear, that’s an impressive feat.
The little charging egg is similarly adorable. The outside is a lightly matte white, which will absolutely attract stains and be difficult to clean. Mine has so far remained unscathed, but that’s only because it’s illegal for me to leave my house. As soon as I have a reason to put it in the same bag as a snack, it’s going to start looking more individual. I do really like how the inside of the case is the same colour as the buds, while all the cases look the same on the outside. Like a surprise egg. My headphones are white/grey, so it doesn’t quite have the same effect, but those olive ones look cool.
Google says they’ve scanned thousands of ears to get the fit right, but I have to admit to being a little disappointed in this area. There are only three sizes of included ear tips, and they run smaller than most others I’ve tried. I’m normally a medium, but I’m a large in these and wish I had an extra-large for my left ear. This is great news for people with smaller ear canals, but will be rough for our larger-eared friends. You can order Comply Foam tips separately (and I would highly recommend doing that if you have issues with the included tips).
They do have little attached fins to keep them in your ear, but they’re more of a vestigial tail than a fin. They’re not quite big enough to be effective, and because they can’t be switched out for a different size, they’re nowhere near as helpful as the fins included with Bose and Plantronics ear buds.
The big question is why are these $159 when the regular Pixel Buds are $279. All the important specs are the same: each bud has 5 hours battery life built in (plus more in the case), both have very good passive noise reduction (thanks to the design), both have adaptive sound, the Buds are sweat and water resistant, they have Google Assistant, and in-ear detection.
It’s easier to say the stuff the A-Series don’t have: they come in fewer colours, the case doesn’t have wireless charging, they don’t have wind reduction, you can’t swipe for volume control, and the case isn’t water resistant. And that’s fine. None of those things are worth $120 to most people. It’s a bummer not to have the black or orange colours, but the olive and white options are fine. Most people don’t need to get their headphone case wet anyway. The wind reduction was nice, that’s true.
Most importantly, from what I can tell, the sound quality is the same. So, unless one of those features is really important to you, the A-Series seems like a no-brainer choice.
The other most obvious comparison is to AirPods. It’s unfair to compare audio quality, given they have vastly different designs. But on price, $159 is the exact same as the AirPods model with the wired charging case. In both cases they’re the best option for the relative phone operating systems. If you’re wanting relatively inexpensive true wireless headphones, Android users should get the A-Series Buds and iPhone users should go AirPods.
Like most pairs of true wireless headphones, the Pixel Buds A-Series feature on-ear controls so you can tap to pause, skip songs or answer the phone. Like most true wireless headphones, these controls completely suck.
Need to slightly adjust the earbud? You’ve paused the song.
Tucking your hair behind your ear? You’ve paused the song.
Want to change songs? You’ve paused the song.
Want to pause the song? It’s not reading the tap, try again later.
I am begging designers of true wireless headphones to come up with a better way. It’s making me nostalgic for wired headphones with those little remote things. There is nothing wrong with a physical button.
At its default, the bottom end is a little lacking. The flat EQ sounds great on higher things, such as the Spring movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. There aren’t any details that especially jump out, which is surprising on such a beautiful piece, but those high violin notes come through well enough.
Oddly enough, with the volume cranked, the intro and verses of ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ by Stars sounds pretty fantastic on the flat EQ. It’s impossible not to conduct the invisible string section while listening. The snare in the chorus sounds a little dead and backgrounded, but the cello sounds deep and moving. Unfortunately, the emotional resonance is missing from the bridge because it’s lacking that punch.
Luckily, in the Pixel Buds app, there is a bass boost option. It uses up a bit more battery, but it’s a worthy trade off. Going back over ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’, the intro and verses lose some of the power in the strings, but the horns and drums are boosted, and suddenly I remember that there’s a bass guitar that got lost before. On the second verse the glockenspiel (at least I’m guessing that’s the instrument) gets lost in the swell of the cymbals.
With Bass Boost on a song like ‘Before They Knew’ by The Butterfly Effect you can almost see the hands of the bass player moving up and down the fretboard, there’s so much more detail on the lower end. It’s not like it’s completely without bass when the Bass Boost is off, but what I’m most impressed by is that most of the time it doesn’t just turn up the volume of the bass, but it makes it clearer.
However, Bass Boost is too much on some songs. ‘Gimmie’ by BANKS is a song punctuated by low bass rumbles, and with Bass Boost on it distorts on the lowest range, somewhat ruining the effect. With the Bass Boost off, it loses some of its power, but at least sounds a bit less muddy when it matters.
There’s also a surprising amount of fuzz on some songs, obscuring some details. ‘Back In Your Head’ by Tegan and Sara just didn’t sound right, with the discordance of the slightly out-of-tune tom tom just blending, and the piano losing its sharp edges.
The problem here is that the EQ isn’t well balanced, and it’s not easy to fix in the app. A lot of the time your options are songs sounding empty or having too much bass.
Still, they’re very good for this price point. They’re roughly on par with the similarly-priced Apple AirPods (though each have their own unique deficiencies when it comes to audio quality). If you want better you need to spend more. I’m shocked these are less than $199.
While they don’t have active noise-cancelling, they can automatically turn up the volume to block out background noise and then turn themselves back down again when the disturbance has passed. I tested this by getting my wife to talk to me (they covered it well), and by wearing them while playing the drums. It was actually kind of funny to hear how the volume changed while playing along to the song – not disruptive, but interesting if you were looking for it.
The Pixel Buds A-Series are the base-level AirPods for Android. The set-up is seamless, and they’re going to become fashion status symbols. Although they’re not going to give you a life-changing audio experience, they punch above their price point and are a very good mid-level entry point into true wireless headphones. If you’re not someone who obsesses over the finer details of music, then the sound quality should suit you just fine.
The Google Pixel Buds A-Series are in-store from August 27.