Wireless earbuds have only gotten better, cheaper, and more abundant since Apple first introduced AirPods in 2016. Over the years, we’ve seen thoe earbuds go from being the biggest name in the game to just one of many, thanks to legit competition from the likes of Google, Samsung, and Amazon. With the new Pixel Buds A-Series earbuds, Google is bringing serious heat and value to the space, especially for Android users.
You’d be forgiven for thinking these are exactly the same as the Pixel Buds Google released in 2020. They’re nearly identical in appearance and performance, and Google hasn’t added much in the way of flashy new features to entice would-be buyers. The Google Assistant, adaptive volume, and Google Translate functions that were selling points of the previous Buds are still here. Really, the most significant change is in price: The new Pixel Buds are just $100, compared to $180 for the last model.
Android owners who need wireless earbuds should definitely take notice. These new Pixel Buds may not change much, but the gargantuan price drop makes them an ideal option for those who refuse to bend the knee to iOS.
If it ain’t broke…
The 2020 Pixel Buds brought a new, true wireless earbud form factor to Android, with a circular touch panel giving way to a tipped speaker grill that fits snugly in the ear canal using a “stabilizer arc.” That same design is present in the Pixel Buds A, which is unsurprising given Google’s approach to its Pixel A-Series smartphones: Basically the same, but cheaper and released later.
The new Pixel Buds are pretty much identical in appearance to the old ones, though Google has added a new “dark olive” color scheme to go along with the regular white-and-grey model. I’m personally not a huge fan of the olive color, but hey, that’s totally a matter of taste. Touch playback controls (i.e., one tap to pause, two to skip ahead, three to rewind) are still here and haven’t changed a bit.
I’m generally in favor of Google changing next to nothing about the build, as the earlier Pixel Buds were notably more comfortable than Apple’s basic AirPods. I’m also a big proponent of silicone-tipped speakers as opposed to just shoving some plastic down your earhole, and the aforementioned stabilizer does a fairly excellent job of keeping the Pixel Buds A locked tight in the ear. You may have to rotate them for a second or two after inserting them to get a secure fit, but that security is better than anything AirPods can offer.
You also won’t have those telltale white stems coming out of your ears, which is a nice bonus.
The Pixel Buds A’s egg-shaped charging case is largely unchanged, though according to Google’s spec sheet, it can’t charge wirelessly like the previous model could. You’re stuck with USB-C charging, which is sure to be fine for a majority of users but may upset people with immaculate cable management skills. One thing to point out is that even if you get the dark olive Pixel Buds, the case is still white.
Initial setup and moment-to-moment usability have also remained static from the previous generation, for better and worse. Any Android 6.0 device with Bluetooth enabled can use Fast Pair to connect to the new Pixel Buds A right out of the box by simply opening the case near the phone and responding to an onscreen notification. A Pixel Buds Android app acts as a home base for all device settings, including the unimpressive “adaptive sound” feature from last time which adjusts volume based on the environment. Android users also get access to the full suite of Google Assistant features through the Pixel Buds A’s built-in microphone.
If you’re an iPhone user like me, go ahead and strike the entire above paragraph from the record because it doesn’t apply to us in the slightest. A Bluetooth pairing button on the back of the case will help you pair the Buds with an iPhone, but that’s all you can do. They will output whatever Bluetooth audio you ask them to, but if you want to fiddle with settings in the Pixel Buds app or use the full range of Google Assistant features, you’ll need an Android phone. I was mostly fine with this last time, but I am slightly disappointed Google didn’t come up with some kind of iOS solution in the year between its Pixel Buds launches.
That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone, as AirPods are roughly just as limited on Android phones, too. I mostly blame capitalism for incentivizing that kind of device exclusivity. Still, in terms of build and features, spending $100 now on the Pixel Buds A gets you about as much as spending $180 would have a year ago for the older Pixel Buds. Luckily, the same holds true of sound quality.
Sound quality was never the problem
The previous Pixel Buds were powered by custom 12mm drivers in each earbud and that hasn’t changed with the Pixel Buds A. As far as I can tell, the sound package here hasn’t been compromised at all. It also hasn’t been noticeably improved.
For the simple act of listening to music, the Pixel Buds A deliver the goods. Subtle elements of dense compositions are plenty audible instead of getting overshadowed by sounds at the front of the mix, which can happen in cheaper earbuds. Just like last time around, the bass is more “acceptable” than outright “good” sometimes, but it’s never enough of a problem to ruin a song. It just doesn’t always punch as hard as it would on more expensive earbuds, like the Bose QC Earbuds. Overall, the sound is as clear and impactful as you could reasonably ask for considering the price.
My favorite testing material (and general music recommendation) this time is Outkast’s seminal album Aquemini. It’s got some of the coolest and most varied instrumentation around, with a ton to chew on in every song, and that’s before you get to the part where Andre 3000 and Big Boi are the coolest people alive. The Pixel Buds A did an admirable job of bringing that classic sound to my ears.
The only minor complaint I have about the sound is that Google opted for passive noise reduction via physical seal instead of incorporating any active noise cancellation. Normally, it’d be ridiculous to ask for ANC in earbuds this cheap, but Amazon just changed the game by including it with the $120 Echo Buds. As it stands, you’ll hear a decent amount of outside noise depending on the environment, so it might be best to pause your songs on the subway platform.
Finally, battery life is another area where Google opted not to change much. The older model was rated for five hours of listening time, with a fully juiced-up charging case extending that to 24 hours. That’s exactly the same as the Pixel Buds A, which gave me almost precisely 5 hours of music before the low-battery ping started sounding off in my testing. That’s deeply average, but good on Google for not cutting back on battery life to keep costs down, I guess.
Better options for iPhone owners
As I noted earlier, the new Pixel Buds A are made to work best with Android. Apple devotees can certainly use them as basic Bluetooth earbuds, but they won’t be able to change settings or take advantage of other Android-specific features. The price is definitely appealing even with that in mind, but you can do better:
Amazon’s latest Echo Buds ($120) have great sound, genuinely effective ANC, and a device-agnostic app for adjusting settings
Apple’s entry-level AirPods ($160) have a steeper price, but seamless pairing and full Siri functionality make them ideal for iPhone power users
If price and sound quality are all that matter to you, you’ll have a tough time finding a better value than the new Pixel Buds. I still would opt for the Echo Buds over them just because I care a lot about ANC, but you can’t go wrong either way. Welcome to the age of excellent and cheap wireless earbuds.
A-Series wins again
Android users are familiar with the company’s hardware cycle by now. The first version of a device will be fine but maybe a little overpriced, so the eventual A-Series version is usually the cheaper and better bet. Case in point: Pixel 4 was alright, but the Pixel 4a came along to cut its unnecessary flourishes and drop the price to become a much better value. The Pixel Buds A-Series doesn’t break that trend.
For just $100, Google kept the same very good audio and comfortable form factor intact without seriously compromising on features. Battery life, Google Assistant, and the disparity between the Android and iOS experiences are all the same as last time. If you got the older Pixel Buds, then there’s no reason to buy the Pixel Buds A. If you didn’t do that, congratulations on waiting until an objectively better value arrived.
Sometimes it’s worth playing the long game.