Google isn't trying to reinvent the wheel with the new mid-range Pixel Buds. They're comfortable to wear, have decent battery life and are suitable for making calls too. But while the sound quality is fine with beefy low-end and decent performance in the mids and highs, flat EQ, limited dynamics and what seems to be volume normalisation can suck the life out of songs and make genres like rock and indie sound crunchy, fuzzy and tinny.
Some people just want headphones that get the job done, and the new iteration of Google's Pixel Buds is aiming for that market. For $159 they sound perfectly fine, though they can struggle when more than a few instruments are playing at once.
Fancy features like active noise cancellation and wireless charging are absent so the question is, can the A-Series still deliver bang for your buck based on sound quality alone?
Unlike the higher-end Pixel Buds released last year, there's no wireless charging in the A-Series. Claimed battery life is measured with additional features such as bass boost and HD audio turned off.
Solid but standard sound quality
The A-Series Pixel Buds are perfectly fine for the average set of ears. Equalisation is pretty flat and there seems to be volume normalisation going on which can make big booming drum solos sound the same as lilting flutes.
The listening experience isn't all that exciting as a result and you probably won't be inspired to bust into spontaneous headbanging when "Bohemian Rhapsody" reaches its climax.
Bass is the big sell here, with solid low-end that can produce a full-bodied feel with no audible distortion. There's a bass boost function that kicks this up a notch and yet remarkably, the A-Series still holds it together despite the skull shaking capabilities of some tunes.
But the mid and high range frequencies aren't quite as robust. The details are there, but they often sound crunchy, fuzzy and tinny, and even become a bit hollow at times. Instruments and vocals in genres such as rock, metal and even indie sound like they're fighting for room which causes compression to kick in.
Unfortunately, EQ adjustments are limited to the single bass boost feature and while this does increase the punch and presence of certain genres, some mid and high range settings could have helped a bunch of higher-end instruments breathe.
The A-Series Pixel Buds hit all the notes, but they're not very exciting.
And yet, solo vocalists with a single instrument such as guitar or piano can sound really warm and lovely with decent reverb. Even jazz translates well and orchestral music is surprisingly impactful despite the limited dynamics. The A-Series are perfectly capable of handling mid and high range frequencies quite well, they just start to fall apart when there's a lot going on.
So while audio quality isn't bad, you'll notice that most songs aren't as epic, dynamic and full-bodied as they could be. If you're thinking about buying the A-Series, stick to bass-heavy genres such as hip-hop, dance and some pop and electronic tunes or albums/artists with squeaky clean production.
Note: we conducted this assessment using Spotify on the highest quality audio settings. This reflects a standard consumer use scenario.
Lossy vs lossless
While lossless streaming (FLAC from a local server streamed over a Wi-Fi network via PLEX) resolves a lot of the compression issues, the problems persist when multiple instruments are introduced.
Audio for online video
When it comes to watching movies, shows, and videos on YouTube, the A-Series can certainly get the job done without any issues like distortion. There's also no latency or lip sync issues that we could see which is a big plus.
Noise cancellation and adaptive sound
There's no active noise cancellation in the A-Series Pixel Buds but the passive noise isolation still does a good job of filtering out environmental sounds.
The included carry case has an additional 19 hours of battery life.
However, they do have an interesting feature called "adaptive sound", which adjusts the volume on the fly. It turns the volume up when you enter a noisy location and down when you enter a quiet one.
We ran it through various environments including a supermarket (during a very quick COVID-safe essential visit), the carpark and a noisy lounge room with the TV turned up.
But while it kind of works, the changes are subtle. You're still better off adjusting the volume yourself.
Do the touch controls work?
Each bud has basic touch commands to play, pause, skip tracks, answer calls and activate Google Assistant. There's no option to adjust the volume by swiping the buds – that control is left to the media player.
Commands are easy to issue and quick to respond to your fingertips. However, you can accidentally activate a touch command when adjusting the fit, which is a bit frustrating.
Build, fit and feel
The earbuds have a simple minimalistic design that's actually quite appealing as they can sit discreetly in each ear. An IPX4 rating makes them resistant to splashes and sweat so they're not going to fry if you get caught in the rain while out for a run.
The buds come with three tips for different ear sizes.
We found the Pixel Buds to have a snug fit in each ear, sitting comfortably during daily activities such as shopping, cleaning and gardening, but they can be a little tricky to remove. Of course, this all depends on the size of your ear canal, but Google has included three tips of varying sizes to try.
While the instruction manual does illustrate how to properly insert and rotate the buds, it's tucked away in the settings which is an issue as it's easy to insert them incorrectly, and this will affect the sound quality.
The compact and light case feels sturdy – it closes with a satisfying snap and each bud is held in place with a magnetic mount which ensures that the charging pins connect correctly.
While the lack of wireless charging in the case may irk those who've grown used to a life without plugging and unplugging cables, its absence is a minor inconvenience at worst. USB-C meanwhile can deliver three hours of listening time off a 15-minute charge.
Bluetooth signal strength
Though we weren't able to conduct extended tests in public spaces due to the pandemic, the earbuds didn't drop out or experience interference during our trip to the supermarket. That said, they did randomly disconnect a couple of times throughout the day at home.
Making calls and using Google Assistant
The case is compact and can comfortably fit in your jeans pocket.
You can get two-and-a-half hours of talk time per charge out of the A-Series Pixel Buds and the quality is crisp and clear. Calls from the earbuds sound like you're on speakerphone at the other end and the passive noise isolation still does a good job of blocking distracting environmental noise.
Built-in support for Google Assistant means users in Google's ecosystem can get a response to questions or commands in a couple of seconds. It's easy to activate by holding your finger on either bud for a few seconds and is handy for quick commands like making calls, skipping songs or asking for directions as you reach for Google Maps. Like the call function, the assistant is responsive, easy to understand and almost always picks up your commands correctly.
iOS users can reportedly use the microphone to activate Siri on their iPhone, but it's not built into the buds like Google Assistant.
The associated app
Like the earbuds, the app is pretty bare bones with standard features such as the instruction manual, adjustable touch controls, Google Assistant tweaks and minimal audio adjustments. It's available for all Android devices, aside from the Google Pixel range where it's baked into the system software. You can find these tools in the Bluetooth settings.
Settings are limited but easy to navigate.
There is one interesting feature called "Find my buds" which will tell each bud to play an increasingly loud beep when they've gone astray. Though it's unlikely to be much help at the pub, it gets loud enough to help you find the earbuds in the next room over. The buds can also quickly and easily connect to your smartphone if Bluetooth and GPS are active.
Though the A-Series can connect to an iPhone or iPad using standard Bluetooth pairing, the Pixel Buds app is exclusive to Android.
You get what you pay for
Audio is one of those markets where you generally get what you pay for and the A-Series Pixel Buds fit squarely into their price range. They don't stand out from the pack and people that are used to headphones in the $300+ space will definitely notice the flat EQ and lack of dynamic range. But for the average set of ears looking for comfortable buds in a compact case, the A-Series deliver a decent listening experience without breaking the bank.
Google Pixel Buds A-Series tech specs
- Bluetooth 5 (AAC and SBC).
- Carry case with USB-C charging.
- Up to five hours of battery life for audio and 2.5 hours for calls.
- Up to 19 additional hours in the carry case.
- Inbuilt support for Google Assistant.
- Passive noise isolation.
- Adaptive sound which adjusts the volume to suit the environment.
- Touch controls on each bud.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.