Note: This review was first published on 13 July 2020.
It has been more than two years since Google tried to worm its way into our hearts through our ears. Yes, we’re referring to their original Pixel Buds, a pair of wireless in-ear earbuds that was a mixed bag of some great ideas and average features.
Its successor was announced back in October 2019, but it took more than six months for Google to bring it to market, and closer to nine before we even got a whiff of it around this part of the world.
Well, better late than never, right? Today, Google dropped the second-generation Pixel Buds in Singapore, and we’ve had the opportunity to give them a go for the past week. There are a lot of changes in the hardware and design of the little gadget, and a couple of software feature upgrades too.
How do they stand up against the rest of the true wireless market, and are they worth the S$269 asking price?
Note: in the context of this review and for the sake of brevity, I’m going to call these new buds the “Pixel Buds 2”, despite the fact that there’s no such thing in Google’s naming book. With so many updates, we're frankly surprised they didn't call it as such. Officially, they'll still be marketed as "Pixel Buds", hence we tagged our review with the year marker.
The Pixel Buds 2 (or also rightly known as second-generation Pixel Buds) has undergone a complete redesign and resembles nothing like its first-generation sister. The squarish fabric-clad case has been replaced with an egg-shaped smooth, soft, matte plastic finish that feels fantastic to the touch. Overall construction is rock solid, with nary a creak or flex anywhere on its body.
This is the sort of finish I expect from gadgets of the future, not cheap plastics or glossy fingerprint magnets. I’m a big fan of its overall minimalistic profile, and the unique shape of the case should fit a lot better in most pockets. In fact, this is the most pocketable true wireless case I’ve tried.
The earbuds themselves are also very small and light, having finally embraced the full true wireless form factor and ditched the fabric loops. They sit almost entirely flush within my ear and doesn’t protrude all that much. This design also places the earbuds’ center of gravity closer to the inside of my ear, so no matter how hard I shook my head, they were never tempted to fly out.
As a result, they fit very snugly even without overly large ear or wing tips and felt almost non-existent in my ears. Combined with the venting design that eases pressure build-up, I would go as far as to say that this is the most comfortable pair of true wireless earbuds I’ve tested to date.
On the flipside, this means that the seal and noise isolation on these earbuds are not as good, which will impact listening experience.
Google did include two extra ear tips in consideration of those with larger ears, but the wing tips are non-swappable, so you’re stuck with what you’ve got. In my experience, definitely experiment with the ear tips, as a good seal makes all the difference in sound quality, which we’ll touch on later in this review.
What’s more, the petite size of both the case and the earbuds do not seem to come at a significant cost of battery life. Google says the Pixel Buds 2 will last up to 5 hours of listening time and up to 2.5 hours of talk time before needing a recharge. The case itself holds up to an additional 3-4 charges, bringing your total listening time up to a potential 24 hours. These figures are on par with what the original Pixel Buds boasted, which goes to show a lot has advanced since the first edition despite the second-generation being more compact.
While this battery life is not groundbreaking by today’s standards – the Samsung Galaxy Buds+, for example, can last up to 11 hours on a single charge and Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2 boasts a combined charge of 28 hours with both earbuds and case – it is still very good.
When you run out of juice, the Pixel Buds 2 can be recharged via either the USB-C port on the case or through wireless charging. And while there’s no fast charging, Google promises that just 10 minutes of charging in the case can juice the earbuds up for another two hours of listening time.
The review unit that we received came in “Clearly White”. We asked Google whether the other colours will launch soon, but their answer beat around the bush so much that it was stripped of all its leaves, so we’re going to guess: not soon. Singapore is stuck with Clearly White for the foreseeable future.
The white plastic caps on both earbuds are embossed with Google’s unmistakable “G” logo and double up as touch-sensitive pads. My experience with touch-based controls on true wireless earbuds has not been fantastic, but they work surprisingly well on the Pixel Buds 2. I went into this review confident that the touch controls would be a let-down, but the Pixel Buds 2 registered almost no erroneous taps in my time of using it.
In addition to your usual single and double taps, you can also swipe your finger on either earbuds to increase or decrease the volume, which is way more intuitive than having to remember which side to touch and hold.
If you have a smartphone powered by Android 6.0 and above, Google has put in extra care and finishing touches on your user experience with the Pixel Buds 2.
Firstly, pairing was a cinch. Pull the earbuds out of the charging case, and a notification immediately popped up on my phone with a request to pair. There was no need to dig into Bluetooth settings at all.
If you ever need to pair the Pixel Buds 2 with more than one gadget, Google built a dedicated pairing button onto the battery case just above the charging port. Just hit the little button once and you’re in pairing mode – crazy simple and a great feature if you like to use your earbuds with multiple devices.
Once the pairing is done, a Pixel Buds 2 app completes the experience with short tutorials and several other options to toggle, including setting Google Assistant up for the first time with your voice print if you haven’t already done so before.
The app also offers a few extra features to fine tune your experience with the Pixel Buds 2, stuff that we’ve come to expect as standard by now. For example, you can toggle auto-pause if the earbuds are removed from your ear or update the firmware of the earbuds. You can also activate a “find earbuds” feature similar to the implementation on the Galaxy Buds+.
There’s also an interesting Adaptive Sound feature that seeks to make-up for the lack of noise cancellation in the earbuds. When turned on, Adaptive Sound will continuously scan the volume of noise around you, and automatically adjust the volume of your music to counter. Like all things automatic, however, I found its effectiveness to be inconsistent, and ended up disabling it just to keep things simple and straightforward.
What you can’t do with the app, however, is disappointing. There’s no way to play around with the equaliser of the Pixel Buds 2, so you’re stuck with the sound levels that Google prepared for you. You also cannot customise the touch controls, even though a section of the app is dedicated to showing off their capabilities.
Now, if you’re using an iPhone, none of the previous five paragraphs will apply to you, simply because there’s no such thing as a Pixel Buds app for iOS.
The Pixel Buds 2 will still function as an ordinary Bluetooth headset with an iPhone, and that’s it. No customisation, no extra features, and no Google Assistant. You can’t even switch the assistant integration to Siri.
Without this level of integration, iPhone users will miss out on the one truly compelling feature of the Pixel Buds 2: Google Assistant.
The Pixel Buds 2 offer one unique feature that no other true wireless earbuds on the market can match: truly hands-free access to Google Assistant.
Sure, many true wireless earbuds support virtual assistants with a gesture like a long press or a specially assigned button, but only the Pixel Buds 2 supports voice activation via the “OK Google” or “Hey Google” commands.
And they work very well.
I called up the Assistant sporadically throughout the workday for various tasks, like telling me the time, reading me the latest headlines, setting a reminder, and playing music on Spotify. Not once did the mic stumble in fulfilling my requests.
I also gave the real-time translation feature a shot, which works as well as it possibly can. There was some lag time between the earbuds picking up my chosen foreign language – Japanese from an anime playing on my TV, in this case – but as long as you speak in careful and deliberate sentences, it generally succeeds in translating whatever I threw at it.
The Pixel Buds 2 can also read out every notification that comes in. Whenever your phone chimes, just press-and-hold either earbud and you’ll hear the robotic voice read out your new message or new email.
However, this got tedious really quickly because it takes a long time for the notifications to be read out by a slow, droning voice. It’s much more convenient to just pick up the phone and glance at my notifications for a quick idea of what’s up.
One other problem that you will run into is when you have a bunch of other smart devices at home always listening for that “Hey Google” command. It’s mildly annoying to hear both the earbuds and my Nest Hub come alive every time I say, “Hey Google”, so you’ll have to adjust your behaviour around that.
Overall, the integration is so seamless that I probably used Google Assistant more over the past week than I ever did my entire life.
Google touts a pair of “custom-designed 12mm dynamic speaker drivers” in the Pixel Buds 2, which enables it to deliver rich and high-quality audio. But as we all know, the size of the drivers does not necessarily correlate positively to sound quality. We’ve seen smaller drivers produce much better sound than some other larger drivers, and vice versa.
Having said that, the Pixel Buds 2’s sound quality definitely exceeded my expectations, with enough balance and detail to provide an enjoyable listening experience. Overall, the Pixel Buds 2 sounds very similar to the Galaxy Buds+ — consumer-friendly tuning that will work well on almost every genre of music. Early reports of intermittent static noise and connectivity issues also seem to have been fixed through recent firmware updates, as I didn’t encounter any issues on these fronts.
I recently saw Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga and naturally had to throw some Europop tracks at the Pixel Buds 2 in the spirit of the movie. It held up better than I expected even on a messier medley like Song-A-Long, where vocals rose clearly above the thumping background music no matter their register.
Some reviews of the Pixel Buds 2 have complained about the weak bass response, but I did not feel it was any worse than its competitors. A track like Untz Untz performed pretty much as expected. Perhaps it did sound a tad less punchy than high-end units like Sennheiser’s MTW2, but it wasn’t a significant difference. The biggest factor limiting performance, after all, lies in the tiny form of true wireless earbuds itself.
Call quality is a major step up from many competing brands. I used the Pixel Buds 2 on both regular calls and VOIP conference calls, and was able to completely avoid the dreaded can-you-hear-me mic checks.
This doesn’t come as a surprise, as a good mic is absolutely essential to the Google Assistant experience that comes with the Pixel Buds 2. Google nailed it in this respect by having two beamforming mics in the earbuds focus on your voice while voice accelerometers detect the vibrations of your jawbone when you're talking. Google has definitely paid close attention to what's necessary to improve the practical usability of true wireless earbuds and over the first-gen Pixel Buds.
The second-generation Pixel Buds are nothing like their first-gen counterparts, and thankfully so. With the Pixel Buds 2, Google has delivered an excellent AirPods alternative for Android users, complete with good sound quality, great design, and unrivalled Google Assistant integration. It’s also no slouch feature-wise, living up to our expectations of what core features a pair of true wireless earbuds should have in this day and age.
If you’re already a big user of Google Assistant on Android, you’ll love the seamless integration with the Pixel Buds 2 and it’s a no-brainer purchase for you. If you don’t use Google Assistant regularly, the Pixel Buds 2 will most likely make you a convert like it did to me.
But if you prize sound quality a little more than the mainstream user, then you might want to look at earbuds that are priced above the S$300 range, where veteran audio brands tend to set up camp. And needless to say, the Pixel Buds 2 are not worth considering if you use anything other than an Android device, as you won’t be able to take full advantage of its features.
If there's anything we are vehemently against is that Google not branding it as "Pixel Buds 2" despite the vast differences from its predecessor and is still selling it as "Pixel Buds". Go figure.
The second-generation Pixel Buds are now available exclusively on the Google Store Singapore for S$269.