Google Pixel Buds A-Series review: Cheaper, lighter, better
Quick verdict: Google's pared away some key features from the Pixel Buds to make its low cost A-Series headphones, but if you're an Android user, they're features you can live without anyway.
- Good, balanced sound
- Fair battery life
- Comfortable and light fit
- Cheaper than regular Pixel Buds
- No Olive colour for Australia
- Ambient sound can be hit and miss
- No iOS app
Google's not a company known specifically for its audio, although it's made some strides with devices like the Google Nest Audio speaker and to a lesser extent, its Pixel Buds range.
The first generation Pixel Buds struggled due to poor physical design. Google fixed that up for the Pixel Buds 2, although they wouldn't be my first port of call when shopping for true wireless buds in the $200+ price category.
That's where the Pixel Buds A-Series come in. Like the similar A-Series Pixel phones, they're deliberately cheaper headphones, shaving away a few key features found on the 2nd gen Pixel Buds in return for leaving more money in your wallet.
The end result is a set of headphones that's significantly more appealing, especially if you're an Android phone user.
From the outside, you might not spot a lot of difference between the Pixel Buds A-Series and their pricier counterparts.
Both sets use the same rounded egg – or maybe it's meant to be reminiscent of skipping stone – charging case design, which slips nicely into a pocket or bag when you need to get mobile.
There's an exterior pairing button at the back and a USB C charging socket at the bottom of the case. It's quite a plain design that almost feels like a throwback to the classic early days of the Apple iPod. Google probably wouldn't welcome that comparison, but that's the reality for stark white products of any type.
The one catch here for Australians is that Google makes the Pixel Buds A-Series in 2 different colour types. It manufactures Pixel Buds A-Series in "Clearly White" and "Dark Olive" finishes.
However, if you buy one in Australia you wouldn't be aware of the Dark Olive variant. Dark Olive Pixel Buds A-Series are not going on sale here, which is a pity, if only in consumer choice terms.
Also, I'll be honest, because it totally sounds like a gritty Popeye reboot and I want that to exist so badly.
Pop the case open and the comparisons with the "full" Pixel Buds 2 continue. Each Pixel Buds A-Series bud is a small disc with a stabilising fin and a rubber tip. You get a selection of tip sizes in the box that should suit most ears.
I found the default middle sized tips fine for my own use, and even when out running never felt like they were at risk of falling out.
I don't have any hair to help stabilise or catch errant wireless buds, so that's more of an achievement than you might think.
The Pixel Buds A-Series are slightly lighter than the Pixel Buds 2, and that does give them a greater degree of comfort, at least within my ears. That kind of comfort can vary, but I've had no issues even after lengthy wearing periods or when sweating during exercise.
Speaking of sweat, the Pixel Buds A-Series are IPX4 rated, so they'll take a little body moisture. Swimming with them or putting them through a washing machine would be inadvisable.
The Pixel Buds A-Series are less expensive than the regular Pixel Buds 2. That probably makes you wonder what you're not getting in return, especially when it comes to audio quality.
Here, the news is good. I do have some concerns over the Pixel Buds A-Series' audio output, but most users aren't likely to miss the features in the regular Pixel Buds 2 as much as they'll welcome the lower price point.
You don't get wind reduction when listening to audio, but honestly I'm not sold on that as a killer feature in the first place.
You get a different set of tap features onboard. The Pixel Buds A-Series only support single and double tap functions where the full Pixel Buds also allow for swiping for volume control.
Is that a huge loss? It depends on your usage. A lot of the time I find the touch and tap controls more annoying than anything else, pausing music on the regular Pixel Buds when I wanted to adjust volume. There's always your actual phone or other paired Bluetooth device to control that anyway.
What you do get is Google's Ambient Audio feature. Ambient Audio lowers and raises volume in reaction to events taking place around you. If a noisy truck is trundling down your street you'll get a volume boost, and then a dip when it's passed.
To test this out, I went for a couple of street runs within my allowed 5km radius from home with the Pixel Buds A-Series ensconced in my ears. Ambient Audio does work in a reactive sense, but it can be a bit of a flow killer when you're deep in music appreciation simply because of the volume variance it introduces.
I ended up disabling it because I'd prefer to have a set volume and awareness rather than variable volume, but your own usage may vary.
Like the Pixel Buds, you also get Google's Bass Boost feature, which emphasises bass if you choose to enable it. When I reviewed the Pixel Buds 2, I noted that the Bass Boost was genuinely needed in order to make the most of their otherwise flat sound.
Google has clearly been tweaking its audio algorithms, because it's not quite as simple as that with the Pixel Buds A-Series.
I found myself enabling and disabling the Bass Boost feature a lot more this time around, depending on what I was listening to.
As an example, Prince's "Bambi" lost a lot of its bottom end without bass boost enabled, because it's such a guitar-heavy track. However, I preferred the more generalised sound on the same artist's "Kiss" thanks to its higher end sensibilities.
Overall, the audio quality of the Pixel Buds A-Series is good for its price range. Tracks like Sinatra's classic "New York New York" capture the highs of the trumpets without losing the richness of Sinatra's own voice, while deliberately more thumping tracks like Living Color's "Cult Of Personality" captured both the cymbal highs and guitar lows well.
There's a small trap here depending on the phone you're using. The Pixel Buds A-Series are just a set of Bluetooth headphones and you can pair them with anything that supports Bluetooth.
However, if you do want to enable or disable adaptive sound or Bass boost, you must have a full Android phone to do so. If you're on one of Huawei's not-quite-Android handsets, or more likely an Apple iPhone, you can use the Pixel Buds A-Series, but only with whatever setting they're currently on. If adaptive audio is on, it's stuck on in that case.
One other way that Google's cut the price on the Pixel Buds A-Series is by dropping the wireless charging capability of the Pixel Buds 2. That's very much a convenience play, but not one I'd drop $120 extra for.
The smaller size and especially the lighter weight of the Pixel Buds A-Series means that they do struggle in a relative sense when it comes to battery life. Google's clearly aware of this limitation, stating that the Pixel Buds A-Series are good for up to 5 hours of listening time. That's the same battery life as the Pixel Buds 2, and it's just a tad under the average for wireless buds.
In my own testing, figures of around 3-4 hours were more common to hit, although obviously volume and bass settings can affect quite how much power you do churn through. It's not terribly hard to find other sets of true wireless buds, even at the Pixel Buds A-Series' lower price that can manage better.
Should you buy the Google Pixel Buds A-Series?
- Buy it if you were keen on the Pixel Buds 2.
- Don't buy it if you want best in class battery life.
Google has made some smart improvements with the Pixel Buds A-Series. The most obvious and blunt is the price point, because at $159 they're quite solid competitors to a lot of entry level true wireless buds. That's especially true if you were considering the more expensive Pixel Buds 2. Is wireless charging and wind reduction worth an extra $120 on top? I don't think so.
However, they're not the best option for iPhone users, and it is disappointing that Google won't offer the Dark Olive option in Australia at launch.
Pricing and availability
How we tested
The Pixel Buds A-Series were tested over a 1-week period, letting the batteries fully run down over multiple listening sessions indoors and outdoors. Current lockdown restrictions did limit how well I could test some features outdoors, especially ambient sound.
Images: Sarah Brandon