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When Google unveiled its new true wireless Pixel Buds 2 ($179) last October, they seemed like a big upgrade over the original models. The Pixel Buds, which debuted in 2017, had a cord between them and earned decidedly mixed reviews thanks to their loopy Mentos-esque design and middling sound. But at the 2019 launch event for the new Buds, the prototype models weren't working, so I was left wondering how they sounded and performed.
Several months on, I've gotten my hands on a pair and can solve the mystery: They sound quite good, perform well and are worthy contenders in the premium true wireless earbuds arena, particularly for Android users.
Yes, the wearable Mentos look has returned, but I like the way the stabilizing fin -- Google calls it an "arc" -- has been integrated into the design. With a little clockwise turn the buds (5.3 grams or 0.19 ounces each) twist securely in place, barely sticking out from my ears. While the original Pixel Buds had an open design like the standard AirPods, these have a noise-isolating design, which means the ear tips get jammed into your ears, sealing them off to the outside world. (It's important to get a tight seal to maximize sound quality.)
You do get decent passive noise muffling but these don't offer active noise-canceling like the AirPods Pro, Sony WF-1000XM3, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 and an increasing number of true wireless earbuds. Some of the Pixel Buds' closest competitors would be the Galaxy Buds Plus ($150) and the Jabra Elite 75t ($180). I did find those two models slightly more comfortable to wear over longer listening sessions and how you ultimately feel about the fit will depend on the shape of your ear. But the new Pixel Buds should fit most ears well.
Aside from their improved design and fit over the original Pixel Buds, a few things stand out. First, the 56.1-gram wireless charging case (with USB-C charging port) is really nice. It's compact, feels solid in your hand and has a smooth matte finish. I liked it better than the AirPods' case and it feels more premium than Galaxy Buds Plus' case. Also, the buds are easy to get in and out of it, adhering magnetically to their charging contacts.
These are also the first Google Assistant "hotword-enabled" earbuds. If you have an Android device running Android 6.0 or better, you can simply say, "Hey, Google," or, "OK, Google," and Google Assistant is ready to respond to your voice commands. The AirPods and Beats Powerbeats Pro have always-on, hands-free Siri and Amazon's Echo Buds have the same feature for Alexa.
With new audio systems-on-a-chip from Qualcomm, hands-free access to virtual assistants will come to more true wireless earbuds later this year, but for now it's pretty unusual. It worked quite well with the Google Pixel 4 XL I was using for this review, with Google Assistant responding quickly to my voice commands. (You can also access Assistant by tapping and holding the right or left earbud.)
After making its debut in the original Pixel Buds, the Google Translate feature returns with the Pixel Buds 2. Again, this is an Android-only feature. You just tell Google Assistant to help you speak whatever language you want, with more than 40 languages supported. You tap and hold either earbud and start speaking in the language listed under the headset icon. Your phone then translates and reads out loud what you said into your selected language. Just before the person you're talking to speaks, tap the right microphone in Google Translate and their response will be translated into your language and played back through the Pixel Buds. It works surprisingly well, particularly in quieter environments, though the person you're talking to has to listen to your translated language through your phone's speakers, which have their volume limitations.
While I thought the Pixel Buds 2's sound quality was quite good -- more on that in a minute -- they performed really well as a headset for making calls. I'm currently not in New York, where I usually test out call quality, but I made some calls and played New York City street noise (via YouTube) in the background as I conversed. I put the volume pretty far up on a set of small speakers and callers were impressed by how little noise they heard around me, though some leaked in when I talked. Google says that "two beamforming mics focus on your voice, while voice accelerometers detect jaw movement to know when you're talking." The noise reduction is quite effective. The Pixel Buds 2 are right there with the best earbuds for making calls.
There's an app for non-Pixel Android devices -- with Pixel phones it's integrated into the system -- but no app for iOS devices, which is too bad. You can still use these with iPhones and Macs like standard Bluetooth headphones, but you lose extra features like the always-on Google Assistant.
As I said, there's no noise-canceling. Instead, there's an adaptive sound mode that automatically adjusts the volume to the environment you're in. I didn't see a transparency mode, but there's some venting in the earbuds that keeps you from feeling too occluded and allows you to hear your voice in the buds when you're making a phone call (Google calls it a "spatial vent for in-ear pressure reduction and spatial awareness.") It's not a full-on sidetone feature, though; I'd call it sidetone lite. Note that a little sound does leak out of the buds when you really crank your tunes, so you probably don't want to play these at high volumes in a quiet room with people sitting nearby.
Dual IR proximity sensors detect when the buds are in your ears and automatically pause your music when you pull one out of your ear and resume when you put it back in. You can also use one bud independently of the other (if you want to go the single-bud route for calls). And it's also worth noting that I paired the buds to multiple devices, but I had to manually select the previous device from its Bluetooth menu if I wanted to go back to it. Google says the Pixel Buds 2 will store pairings with up to six devices. There's a pairing button on the case, as there is with the AirPods.
Like the AirPods Pro and Galaxy Buds Plus, these have an IPX4 water-resistance rating, which means they're splashproof and sweat-resistant. I ran with them without a problem and I thought the touch controls were responsive and worked very well. A swipe feature allows you to control volume from the buds themselves.
Except for a minor Bluetooth glitch or two, my wireless connection remained rock solid and I was able to wander pretty far from my phone (more than the usual 10 meters) before losing the connection. The buds use Bluetooth 5.0, and I didn't notice any audio lag when watching videos from streaming services like YouTube and Netflix.
Battery life is similar to that of the AirPods and AirPods Pro -- 5 hours, plus an additional 19 hours from the case (a 10-minute charge in the case gives you two hours of battery life, Google says). The Galaxy Buds Plus can deliver up to 11 hours at moderate volume levels. It's unclear how much the impact the always-on Google Assistant has on battery life, however.
These have "custom-designed" 12mm dynamic drivers, and, as I said, they sound very good for true wireless, with well-defined bass and good clarity. They're right there with the Galaxy Buds Plus and Jabra Elite 75t with about the same bass performance or (it may be a touch less plump, depending on the seal you get from the included ear tips, which come in three sizes). The AirPods Pro sound slightly more open but the Pixel Buds 2 are a little more detailed. I didn't see any way to adjust the bass and treble levels in the settings on the Pixel 4 or in the Android app.
For sound, these don't rise to the level of the top sounding true wireless earbuds, which include the Sony WF-1000XM3 and Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2. That said, both of those are more expensive, particularly the $300 Sennheiser, which delivers richer, more refined sound with a bigger soundstage. For example, listening to Red Hearse's self-titled track with the Sennheiser, the bass goes deeper and there's a little more sparkle in the treble. The sound from Momentum True Wireless 2 just feels bigger and more immersive.
For better or worse, when it comes to sound, sometimes it helps to compare a headphone to the top models to hear what you're missing. But if you were just using the Pixel Buds 2 without listening to anything else, most people would be quite pleased with the sound.
In the end, Google finally has a set of wireless earbuds that are worthy contenders. They're a little more expensive than the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus, which are probably the better value -- they get discounted $10 or $20 on occasion -- but the Pixel Buds 2 are a solid all-around package with some distinguishing features and excellent call quality.
First published on April 27.