Google Pixel Buds 2 review: Google’s AirPods alternative remains good, not great
Quick verdict: Google has fixed almost everything it got wrong with its first-generation Pixel Buds, with improved comfort, fit and Google Assistant integration, but increased competition in the true wireless space leaves them as headphones for the Google faithful.
- Significant improvements over Google Pixel Buds
- Google Assistant integration
- Audio is slightly flat
- Noise isolation could be better
- Battery life is average
Google's experiments with audio have largely rested on smart speakers more than headphones, with its primary entry the original and rather deeply flawed Google Pixel Buds. While many of Google's experiments vanish into the night never to be seen again, in 2020 Google's at it again with a set of true wireless buds under that same naming structure. Officially they're still just "Pixel Buds", because the originals are no longer on sale and haven't been for years now. Effecitively, they're the Pixel Buds 2.
Thankfully the Pixel Buds 2 are considerably better than the original Pixel Buds, although Google has a lot more competition in this space, especially at the Pixel Buds 2's price point.
- Small, discrete buds
- Generally comfortable
- Design doesn't do much noise isolation
- Cute egg-shaped charging case
The biggest change in the Pixel Buds 2 is the switch from a cabled connection that pretty much everyone hated to actual true wireless bud design. Each bud incorporates a deep black body with rubber wingtip to ensure a fit within your ear, capped with a stark white disc. Those with longer hair could probably wear the Pixel Buds 2 in an entirely invisible way, although my own lack of follicles precludes this. Still, if you feel personally awkward with microphone stalks protruding from your ears, these could be a good fit.
The actual fit of the Google Pixel Buds 2 is also quite nice and comfortable over the medium range, although they don't provide much in the way of noise isolation despite their in-ear design. You can get past that to an extent in the brute force way by pumping up the volume, naturally.
I'm quite enamoured of the egg-shaped charging case for the Google Pixel Buds 2. I may be showing my age here, but it seriously reminds me of the egg that Robin William's Mork used to emerge from. Just me? Like just about every other charging case, the buds snap into the case magnetically when they're close enough. Unlike most of Sony's designs, there's a pairing button on the outside of the case to make it easier to switch to a new device if you need to.
- Easy pairing to Pixels
- iPhone users get less customisation
- Audio is decent but slightly flat without bass boost
- Hands-free Google Assistant is well implemented
It shouldn't be any shock at all that a set of true wireless earbuds labelled as "Pixel Buds" work best with Google's own Pixel phones, or indeed that if you open them up around an existing Pixel phone that you'll get an easy onscreen pairing graphic that ties them to your Google account. That's a common feature used by devices such as the Apple's AirPods Pro or Huawei Freebuds Pro for their own respective phones, because it encourages brand loyalty by way of ease of use.
The story of pairing the Pixel Buds 2 to other phones is an interesting one. If you're an Android user, you can pair via regular Bluetooth and use Google's Pixel Buds app available on the Google Play App store for configuration. That's not an option you'll get if you're a Huawei phone user, given that the US Google apps ban extends to its audio apps. It's not an option at all if you're an iPhone user either. You can still pair via Bluetooth and the Pixel Buds 2 will work at a basic level, but there's an added quirk here that significantly affects the overall value of the Pixel Buds 2.
That's in terms of audio quality. When I first started testing out the Google Pixel Buds 2, I wasn't overly blown away by their audio quality for their stated price, mostly because they were very heavily tuned towards the middle and high notes, dropping a lot of the bass that you might want in a fully formed audio track. The trick here lies in the Pixel Buds app, which includes a "Bass Boost" function. While in some other headphones that might be an optional step, it's absolutely vital for the Pixel Buds 2 if you want to get a better and more satisfying sound.
With Bass Boost enabled, Foo Fighters' Best of You grabs the higher lyric tones nicely alongside the proper thump of the drums as it builds into the chorus. The mix of piano and lyrics on Adele's Hello sounds properly emphatic with Bass Boost on board. Heading towards a more ethereal sound, Prince's Pop Life genuinely does pop – but again, only with Bass Boost enabled. David Bowie's classic Space Oddity gains a lot of warmth with Bass Boost on.
With Bass Boost absent, all of these tracks are listenable for sure, but they're pretty flat and nowhere near as enjoyable, even if you'd traditionally shy away from more bass-heavy music types.
Controls are handled, as they are for most buds of this type via tapping gestures that you'll probably get wrong as often as you get them right while you're getting used to them. I'm not a big fan of tapping at my skull as though I've got an ear infection, but at least Google lets you disable these completely if you'd rather run your Pixel Buds 2 purely from your phone. Again, though, you need the Pixel Buds app in order to make that happen.
One feature you don't need to tap at your ears to engage is the Google Assistant, which can be invoked hands-free with a simple "Hey Google" command for any kind of smart device functionality you'd care to name.
If you're in an area with a lot of Google devices around – and maybe it's just me with more than a few Android devices typically on the test bench plus smart speakers such as the Google Nest Audio nearby that has this issue – it can be interesting seeing how Google handles working out which microphone and speaker combo should handle the request. Assistant typically gets it right with the Pixel Buds 2 if they're in use at the time.
- Battery life is average
- Extra features drain battery life
Google's stated battery life for the Google Pixel Buds 2 is for "up to" 5 hours of playback between charges, with the case able to provide up to 24 hours of full listening time.
As always, manufacturer claims and reality can vary quite a bit depending on your usage and this is absolutely true for the Pixel Buds 2. Over quite a long review period, I'd say that three to four hours is more common, although that's almost certainly due to the fact that I simply won't use the Pixel Buds 2 without at least Bass Boost enabled. There are other audio features, such as adaptive sound that adjusts depending on your environment and attention alerts that can drain the battery further, although I'd typically see at least three hours out of the Pixel Buds before they started running out of juice.
One truly odd feature here is that quite often the Pixel Buds 2 would discharge at distinctly different rates left to right. That presumably points to different function load balancing, with the left bud often reporting lower power than the right bud despite identical usage.
Recharging is via USB-C for wired charging or wirelessly via Qi, which is at least a nice flexible inclusion for true wireless buds at this price point.
The Pixel Buds 2's battery life is still a little below average, especially for headphones at their price point, and that's a disappointing reality.
Should you buy the Google Pixel Buds 2?
- Buy it if you're a Pixel owner who wants to stay strictly in the Google device family.
- Don't buy it if you want longer battery life or you own an iPhone.
Google took its sweet time between Pixel Buds generations. If you just view the Pixel Buds 2 in that context, they're a huge leap ahead. Anyone shifting from the older Pixel Buds would find them a big step up.
However, the reality here is that you have a lot of choices when it comes to true wireless buds and many of them can outdo the Pixel Buds 2 in terms of feature flexibility and especially battery life. It's the battery life that's the biggest dealbreaker for the Pixel Buds 2, because while it's not the worst, it's only just average for true wireless buds at this price point.
Pricing and availability
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Images: Alex Kidman