The 2023 update to Google's Pixel Buds Pro offers a handful of new features, such as Hearing Wellness, which keeps tabs on your listening habits and shows how your hearing might be affected over time if you have a tendency to crank up the volume, as well as a couple new colour options (Bay and Porcelain) to match the latest Pixel 8 Pro smartphones. Overall the headphones deliver good, detailed sound quality with broad dynamic range, but an overly bassy and largely flat EQ sucks a lot of the excitement out of the listening experience.
Since the initial release of the Pixel Buds Pro in 2022, Google has added a handful of features to its flagship headphones, which coincides with the launch of the Google Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro smartphones.
Though some of these features are nice, they're mostly software-oriented and don't alter the sound quality in any significant ways. So are they enough to make the Pixel Buds Pro good value for money?
- Bluetooth 5 (AAC and SBC).
- Carry case with USB-C and wireless charging.
- Passive and active noise cancellation (ANC).
- Touch controls on each bud.
- Six EQ presets and one custom mode.
- Inbuilt support for Google Assistant.
- Up to 11 hours of battery life for audio (ANC off).
- Up to 31 additional hours in the carry case (ANC off).
- IPX4 sweat- and water-resistant (buds); IPX2 protection (case).
- 62.4g weight (includes carry case and buds).
- Available colours include Bay, Porcelain, Fog, Charcoal and Lemongrass.
The overall sound quality of the latest Pixel Buds Pro is solid, if somewhat flat and bassy. They're best suited to genres like pop, hip hop and nightclub bangers, but most styles of music sound decent at the very least.
We assessed the Buds Pro on a Google Pixel 8 smartphone using Spotify with the audio quality set to very high and with normalisation turned off. The equaliser was set to 'Balanced' in the Google Pixel Buds app.
There's plenty of detail across the board and the mid to high frequencies are nicely balanced
There's plenty of detail across the board and the mid to high frequencies are nicely balanced. Vocals are particularly strong with great clarity and presence, though they rarely feel overbearing.
Low-end, meanwhile, has a remarkable amount of oomph. The tiny drivers can pump out big, beefy sounds that don't distort even when your EQ is boosting these frequencies. This full-bodied bass has a lot of warmth and even light rumble meaning tracks rarely sound harsh or hollow.
The Pixel Buds Pro sit comfortably in your ears.
But though the bass doesn't dominate, it's generally over-amplified. That's not to say that these headphones are entirely lacking dynamics. There's still a decent amount of breathing room even in multi-layered genres like jazz and classical. But this over-amplified bass combined with what sounds like a bit of volume normalisation (even though we turned this setting off) results in a pretty flat and occasionally muffled sound.
So while audio is detailed, it's not very exciting. You really notice this during tracks written to build to a big, grand, explosive conclusion. Instead of blasting across the finish line, they tend to just get louder and louder.
It's also worth noting that rock, metal and prog sound quality is inconsistent. Sometimes it sounds great, sometimes it sounds tinny and crunchy, and then other times it's detailed but flat. As a general rule, the Buds Pro seem to have trouble with these genres as more instruments are added to the mix.
Expanded equaliser (EQ)
The best addition to this incremental update is the new equaliser that adds six presets and one custom slot. All of these are adjustable and go a long way to lifting the overall sound quality.
However, while the new EQ is a very welcome addition that can help you tailor the mix to your liking, it's still building on flat, overly bassy foundations. The EQ doesn't so much improve sound quality as it does tweak it.
Google has also added Volume EQ, which boosts bass and treble at lower overall volumes. The goal seems to be to keep the feel of the music even at lower decibels and it does this reasonably well. The effect is subtle but helps retain the body of the track.
You can tailor the mix to your liking with the expanded EQ.
One of the few remaining niggles that can come with the convenience of Bluetooth audio is latency – aka a slight delay that causes sounds to slip out of sync. Google has added low latency gaming support to this update but it's limited to the newly released Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro smartphones.
There was no visible latency during a few quick rounds of Call of Duty: Mobile on a Pixel 8. However, there were slight signs of it when using the buds with a Windows laptop.
This is another impressive feature that generates a surround sound effect with compatible audio files and devices (e.g. a number of Pixel phones). This includes video mixed in 5.1, and the result is immediate.
If you're watching a movie with Spatial Audio turned off, the Buds Pro will downmix the 5.1 surround to stereo. Things tend to sound much more impactful, but ultimately flat. Turn Spatial Audio on and the same source material opens up. Things are much broader and fuller with a sense of space though this does reduce the impact of some lower frequencies.
The background sounds of day-to-day life are largely drowned out by the active noise cancellation (ANC) and even some passive effects from the fitted silicon tips. Consistent noises like the hum of air conditioning, busy traffic and trains are reduced to a low rumble.
Though slightly audible, the sounds are so quiet they don't affect the listening experience. Sharper sounds, such as keyboard clacking, tend to be a bit more noticeable but not to the point where they're distracting.
Annoyingly, ANC does produce some hiss and rumble when audio is paused. The settings are pretty limited, too, with just three noise-cancelling options – on, off and transparency mode.
The new Hearing Wellness feature tracks volume in real time and shows how long-term use is affecting your hearing
This feature pauses your audio and turns off ANC so you can have a conversation without taking the buds out. You can set it to activate using touch controls or when the buds detect that you're speaking. Touch mode is the way to go as auto-detect can activate if you happen to cough or mutter something to yourself.
Transparency mode works well – there's a good degree of clarity in the other person's voice even as it's being processed through the Pixel Buds Pro. But it's also not hard to just remove your headphones when someone wants to talk to you.
As well as ANC, Google is touting a passive noise cancellation feature called Silent Seal. It supposedly measures your ear canal shape and air pressure to automatically provide the optimal seal.
This feature is somewhat vague and hard to quantify and comment on, but passive effects do help reduce noise, so that might mean Silent Seal is doing something.
The 2023 update has also added a basic decibel monitoring tool to the Google Pixel Buds app called Hearing Wellness. This new feature tracks volume in real time, sends optional alerts if you're drifting into dangerous territory, and shows how long-term use – over 24 hours and seven days – is affecting your hearing.
This is an excellent addition to the Pixel Buds Pro, especially daily and weekly tracking as people only tend to consider how temporary high decibel bursts can affect our hearing. The data is clear, concise and easy to understand.
Note that the Google Pixel Buds app is exclusive to Android devices. iPhone users can connect to the headphones using standard Bluetooth pairing, but will miss out on features like Hearing Wellness, EQ adjustment and ANC settings.
Hearing Wellness helps you monitor decibel levels and keep things at a safe level.
Google Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro users can take advantage of the new dual bandwidth feature designed to improve call clarity with the Buds Pro. Though call quality is decent on other devices that don't support this feature, the added bandwidth does make a difference.
Voices sound much fuller and warmer through the buds compared to the usual tinny sound that handsets typically deliver. Though this isn't the sole reason to buy these buds, it's a nice feature that works well.
The Buds Pro are comfortable, snug and discreet while still being easy to remove. The tight fit keeps them in place whether you're walking, gardening, eating – just about any task short of vigorous headbanging.
Set-up includes an ear canal assessment which determines whether the default silicon tips are suitable, or whether you need to swap them out for one of the other two pairs included in the box. This helps improve passive noise cancellation as well.
Like other Pixel Buds, the carry case is compact, lightweight and sturdy, with a magnetic mount that holds each bud in place while charging. The Pro case also supports wireless charging which is a nice touch, though USB-C is the better option if you need a lot of juice in a short amount of time.
Quick connect works as advertised – the buds pair with previously connected devices almost instantly. You can also simultaneously connect them to two devices, which is a very handy feature as it allows seamless transitions between a laptop and a phone. All you need to do is turn Bluetooth on or off on the respective devices.
The Buds Pro case is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
While this update does add some useful features, we found performance and software limitations still hold back the Buds Pro. A generally flat EQ doesn't make for a very exciting listening experience even with the impressive bass and detail, and settings in the app still feel limited.
You won't be disappointed if the Pixel Buds Pro are bundled in with your new phone, and they're still worth considering on their own. But there's nothing in particular that makes them an absolute must buy. If you're an iPhone user, maybe look elsewhere as these buds are geared for Android.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.