The 2017 Pixel Buds were one of Google’s worst hardware launches in the company’s history. Really, these things were an utter nightmare. Their sound quality, feature set, awkward fit, and finicky case might have been tolerable as a free pair of buds included with a Google-branded phone—but not a standalone $160 purchase.
Any hardware refresh had enough work to do to catch up to 2017’s standard of quality and convenience, but Google put itself into a deeper hole by launching this month’s Pixel Buds 2 nearly three years later. Lucky for us, the company’s new Buds, priced at $180, have turned out to be real buds. As in, buddies, homies, the kind I wanna lug around with me on a regular basis.
Google needed some good hardware news right about now, and that news comes in the form of Pixel Buds 2: a solid, competitive option for everyday earbuds in the year 2020. “Competitive” does not mean “perfect,” but it does mean they’re worth considering next time you think about buying earbuds.
Caveats and equipment
Before we dive in, I’d like to offer my usual “audio is tough to review” caveats. Ars Technica is not a dedicated audio-review site, due in part to the field’s highly subjective nature, and that goes triply for devices that slide into an ear canal; one person’s perfect fit is another person’s utter annoyance. Still, I’ve been reviewing audio hardware for years at Ars Technica with aims to be as transparent about my opinions and testing methods as possible so that you can triangulate how your aural opinions might line up.
Additionally, while preparing this review, I tested other major modern Bluetooth earbud options, including the Jabra Elite Active 75t, the Beats Powerbeats Pro, Jaybird Vista, Sony WF-1000XM3, and Apple Airpods Pro. All of these, along with Pixel Buds 2, have a charging carrying case in common, along with wireless Bluetooth functionality as your only connectivity option.
I did all of my testing on my personal smartphone: a Samsung Galaxy S9. It has a 3.5mm headphone jack as driven by a high-quality DAC, which is a big reason I favor this phone. But while I prefer a hearty pair of wired cans when I want to take in every piece of the aural picture, I’ll admit that convenient, high-quality Bluetooth earbuds have a place in my regular audio diet.
Cool? Cool. Let’s jam.
Case, fit, and the beginning of many Airpod comparisons
Google Pixel Buds (2nd gen)
Pixel Buds 2 waste no time inviting a comparison to Apple’s Airpods line. The launch model comes in a tone of white that’s almost a Pantone-perfect match for Apple’s. Their carrying case is nigh-identical in terms of dimensions: 63×47×25mm (2.48×1.85×0.98 inches). Its case is a hair bigger than Apple’s Airpods Pro case in each of those dimensions, but the total size is possibly identical, owing to Google’s new case having much rounder top and bottom edges.
As a result, Google already pulls ahead of the competition with the best earbud case we’ve seen thus far. Its matte finish is more handsome as a practical, handheld case than Apple’s glossy, finger-smudged finish; the latter looks like an old iPod in comparison. Google’s noticeably smoother edges feel better to either cradle in your hand or to tuck into a pocket. And if you’ve seen video coverage of Pixel Buds 2 thus far, you’ve seen—and heard—people repeatedly open and shut the case for a reason. Mmm. Whoever set the magnets and the carving of this plastic pattern knew what they were doing, in terms of the speed, the magnetic clasping, and even how the click sounds when this opens and shuts. The lead designers on that team deserve a raise before they’re poached, Google.
Outside of their case, the Pixel Buds 2 are, like their predecessors, designed differently from most competitors. Though this time, that’s not a terrible thing. (Seriously, Google, who thought itchy expandable nylon straps through the ear canal was a good idea?)
The Pixel Buds 2 shift from a hard plastic earpiece to a rubberized tip, meant to insert directly into your ear canal, much like how the Airpods Pro did compared to its predecessors. You get three size options for these tips. Unlike most of its major competitors, Google is still married to this idea of a secondary bracing point for your ear, so the Pixel Buds 2 also include small rubber “wings.” Personally, I am fine with these, because they do two crucial things: they take a tiny percentage of earbud bracing out of your ear canal (and every smidge of assist there helps), and they help users feel the bracing point required to get the Pixel Buds 2 to their maximum audio-quality level.