Reviews

Pixel Buds 2 Review

After the tepid reception to the original Pixel Buds, Google has gone back to the drawing board and produced the Pixel Buds 2 as a TWS (Totally Wireless Stereo) option rather than the derided corded option of gen 1. 

The corded Pixel Buds were ok in terms of sound, but their complicated charging case and other factors, including that cord, didn’t make for a great user experience. The industry was also moving more to TWS style buds at the time of the original Pixel Bud release, so the corded option at the time was a strange choice.

Google has decided to go back to the drawing board on their headphones, this time with more focus. Over half a year prior to the announcement of the Pixel Buds 2 at their Made by Google event in October last year, Google Senior VP Android Hiroshi Lockheimer tweeted a laundry list of what he thought was the ‘perfect pair of truly wireless buds’, so we can see what their Senior VP thought they should have:

So what did we get?
Pixel Bud 2 Specs:

  • Custom-designed 12mm dynamic speaker driver
  • Passive noise reduction
  • Spatial vent for in-ear pressure reduction and spatial awareness
  • Sweat and water resistant (IPX4)
  • Bluetooth 5.0 (Pairs with any Bluetooth® 4.0+ device)
  • Dual beamforming microphones
  • Voice detecting accelerometer
  • Battery
    • Ear Bud: Up to 5 hours of listening time and up to 2.5 hours of talk time. 
    • Charging Case: Up to 24 hours of listening time and up to 12 hours of talk time 
    • 10-minute charge of earbuds in the wireless charging case delivers up to 2 hours of listening time and up to 1 hour of talk time
  • Charging
    • USB-C charging port
    • Qi Certified

The Pixel Buds 2 launched in the US earlier this year for $179 USD, and after a wait, Google has finally brought the buds to Australia. Priced at $279, the buds are only available in Clearly White, though options for ‘Oh So Orange’, ‘Quite Mint’ and ‘Almost Black’ will apparently be available ‘soon’.

So, with a; that in mind, Google sent through a review unit last week, and with a few days of (admittedly heavy) use, how do they go? 

The Pixel Buds 2 come in a tiny charging retail box, but it matches the compactness of the Pixel Buds themselves. There’s not a lot in the box, you get the buds in the wireless charging case, as well as three differently sized (small, medium {attached to the buds already} and large) eartips, a quick start guide and a USB-A to USB-C cable to charge the case. 

Setup is stupidly simple, at least with any device running Android 6.0 or above with the Fast Pair feature popping up a pairing prompt when you open the case, tap it and you’re done.

Of course Pixel Buds work best with Android, but you can use them with, and manually pair them to any device including iOS. To pair to those devices hold the pairing button on the case and the buds enter pairing mode, simply go through your Bluetooth pairing settings as normal and you’re good to go.

You can pair the Pixel Buds 2 to a couple of devices, so that’s a neat feature, although Fast Pair doesn’t exist on Windows it’s still pretty quick to detect and connect to the buds.

There is an app for the Pixel Buds 2, but only for Android at this stage. You access all the features through the settings in Android on a Pixel phone, but if you’re using anything else the app mirrors the functionality of the Pixel settings.

From the app or settings you can turn on HD Audio, enable calls or media and contact sharing. You can also get info on gestures, Find your buds, get info on the touch controls (yes, they’re touch enabled) and enable in-ear detection. You can also check out the firmware and more to make sure you have the latest software on board.

Finding the Pixel Buds is a handy feature, and easy to do. All you do is jump into the app, and hit ‘Ring’ on either the left or right bud. The ringing from the bud increases until you pick it up, it’s not the loudest, but it’s darn handy when you’ve dropped one.

You don’t need a power brick to charge the Pixel Buds 2, either sit the case on a Qi certified wireless charger or just plug the supplied cable in and you’re good to go. The only rider for Wireless Charging is that you need to make sure your Wireless charging case is positioned correctly over the coils. Yes, the Pixel Stand wireless charger is almost useless to charge these as the coil is too high – Oh Google.

There’s some indicator lights on the case, one internal and one external. The external one lights up when you plug in the cable, or sit it on the wireless charger, then there’s an internal one which blinks as you drop in the buds, and turns orange when they’re charging. Individual indicator LEDs for each bud would be nice, but it’s ultimately unnecessary really.

Battery life is actually pretty decent, with my use over the last 5 days pretty much lining up with the ‘5 hours of listening time’ promised. I haven’t had a chance to burn through the capacity of the wireless charging case yet, but I’ve recharged twice and there’s still power in there and they top up the buds super quick when you drop them in.

There was a bit of weirdness with the buds dissipating power at different speeds, but they top back up to 100% after you drop them into the case.

I do have some notes on the Wireless Charging Case itself.

Firstly, I’d heard the open/close sound on the case was satisfying, but it’s like a dang fidget spinner, I have to put it out of reach to stop myself opening and closing it constantly. Secondly, the eggshell texture on the case feels amazing. The case slides into the pocket easily mostly thanks to the smooth pill shape, but  the eggshell texture also doesn’t pick up the horrible fingerprints that other cases, like that on the Huawei Freebuds 3. Thirdly, when you drop the buds into the case to charge, they stay in there, securely, there’s no rattle or movement, they’re just in there until you pluck them out to use – at which stage they come out easily enough.

I’d like to see another colour option for the case as the white seems destined to pick up smudges – though it hasn’t yet. It appears there’s a third party option – currently unavailable – from Nomad listed on the US Google Store, but no word on if/when it will be available in Australia.

The Pixel Buds themselves are extremely comfortable to use. I had no need to try out the eartips, however the medium ones already fitted to the buds straight out of the box fitted my ears nicely. The buds don’t quite sit flush with your ears, but they’re pretty good, with most people not able to tell I’m wearing them from front on.

Comfort wise, they’re good. The stabiliser tucks into your ear and keeps them in place quite well even if you go for a run, or ride. I did both, but never felt the buds were in danger of falling out. I did find that after wearing them for an extended time (about 4 hours), the rear stabiliser did start to wear a bit on the back of my ear.

The buds are IPX4 water resistant, so don’t swim with them or have a shower, but feel free to work out to your sweaty hearts content.

Once they’re in, they also sound pretty decent. The 12 mm drivers do a good job at the mid to high range, but like most ear buds they struggle with bass, so listening to some heavier stuff at the gym may not be as bass-heavy as you’d like, but listening to some light music is good. They’re excellent for podcasts and audiobooks though. 

The Pixel Buds 2 don’t contain Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), but the silicon tips do form a decent seal in your ear canal to block out most sounds. The upside of this is that you don’t get the weird pressure build-up when you use ANC buds like the Sony XM3, or Airpod Pro buds. Instead Google included a ‘Spatial vent’ which reduces the in-ear pressure, as well as allow for ‘spatial awareness’.

As someone who exercises outside, I love the spatial awareness feature which allows me to hear a car coming if I’m crossing the street while running, or on a bike, but if you use your headset for the train or bus, you may prefer a more sealed in option with ANC. 

To combat the lack of ANC, Google did include Adaptive Sound, which optimises the sound based on environmental noise. So, it makes it louder when there’s background noise, and softer when you’re in quieter areas.

The buds themselves are touch sensitive, so with a combination of taps, or swipes you can ‘control your media, manage your calls, or use your Assistant’. The list of gestures can be found in the Settings section – and you’ll probably need a refresher or two before you’re completely comfortable remembering all the controls. 

TapPlay/Pause Media
Answer Call
Double TapNext track
End / Reject call
Stops Google Assistant
Triple TapPrevious track
Swipe ForwardRaise volume
Swipe BackwardLower volume
Touch and holdTalk to Google Assistant (You don’t need to wait, just touch and start talking).

Best thing for me though is that you can apply the touch gestures on either bud, this is helpful for when I’m at work and can only have a single bud in – a problem I’ve encountered on other buds which have you tap on the left or right ear bud. 

The press and hold touch gesture to call the Google Assistant is good, but frankly I just kept saying ‘Ok Google’ as the in-ear detection was flawless. Even riding I found the Assistant easily accessible, and all hands-free!

The gestures are mostly intuitive, but I’d love to be able to customise them. That’s certainly possible with Google’s proclivity for updating features, but I won’t hold my breath.

While it’s not a touch gesture, the Pixel Buds 2 do support in-ear detection which means you can just remove one to have your audio automatically pause, and it restarts once you put the bud back in. It works pretty well, though there’s a second or two before pausing which is always awkward with someone in front of you wanting to speak to you.

Google has also included Translate functions in the Pixel Buds 2, just like the originals. The theory is you can hear translations in your ear, while someone speaking another language can read your English > (Their language) on your screen. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to test this out in the limited time I had – but I hope to update this as soon as I do.

Should you buy them?

The Pixel Buds 2 set Google’s standard for wireless ear buds. They’ve removed the headphone jack from their higher end Pixel line, so an option for those users has definitely been wanting.

The Pixel Buds 2 are, for me, a must buy. They tick the boxes for TWS buds, and though they have a few rough spots, they’re mostly software based – which Google is actively fixing with firmware updates. 

I’d love to get Active Noise Cancellation, but it’s not a killer feature for me as I’m more inclined to be working out – where the spatial awareness is very much appreciated – but that, and some more grunt in the bass line are my only two real concerns. 

I love the fast pair functionality, but I can also pair them with my laptop and switch back and forth if I need to.

Pixel Buds 2 Review
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