Introduction and Unboxing
This is Google’s third attempt at the Pixel Buds. The change from the first-generation corded Pixel Buds to last year’s true-wireless Pixel Buds was significant, and one that resonated well. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is very much Google’s thinking with the Pixel Buds A-Series. These TWS earbuds look the same, have many of the same features, and cost $80 cheaper than the 2020 Pixel Buds.
Pixel Bud (2020) [left], Pixel Bud A-Series [right]
Google’s “A-Series” is normally associated with its Pixel lineup of smartphones. Although the Pixel models are suffixed with a lower-case “a”, they mean the same thing: a similar experience offering to their flagship counterpart but at a lower price point. Before we tell you what’s missing, let’s go over what you get with the Buds A-Series.
The Pixel Buds A-Series is advertised as a premium sounding pair of earbuds with comfortable fit, clear calling, and great battery life. The experience is also deeply integrated with Google Assistant and centered around “Google helpfulness”.
The Pixel Buds A- Series comes with three ear tip sizes, a USB-A to USB-C charging cable, and a quick-start guide.
Now that we saw what’s included in the box, lets take a closer look at the hardware itself.
Hardware and design
The Pixel Buds A-Series are identical in design and fit to last year’s Pixel Buds. The charging case is roughly the same size, but it is 8 grams lighter (53g) since it does not have a wireless charging coil. Overall, we like the rounded shape that’s something like if an egg had only two and a half dimensions. The flip-up hinge is very sturdy and doesn’t wiggle when it’s closed.
The magnetic clasp is strong enough to hold the case closed, but If you dropped the charging case from any height, the Buds will certainly fly out of the case. If you’re clumsy, stay away from sewer grates: Google charges $39+tax to replace a single Pixel Bud A-Series in the event it is lost or damaged.
The Buds themselves are small and weigh 5 grams each and they are light enough that you might forget you’re wearing them. The Buds are mostly made of plastic, but the larger surface of the Bud is a soft matte finish while the backside that faces your head is glossy. Both Buds are rated for IPx4 water and sweat resistance.
Each Bud has a beamforming microphone on the bottom, and there’s a noise reduction mic at the top so the other party in a call can hear you clearly. Each bud is also equipped with a wear sensor: if you pull it out, playback will automatically pause.
The sound is produced by custom 12mm drivers, just like the more expensive Pixel Buds. The Buds are also outfitted with a “Spatial vent” that regulates air pressure inside the ear. This should help with long-term comfort and we’ll examine that later.
Although their design is extremely identical, the components in the Pixel Buds and Pixel Buds A-Series are different. The touchpad on the A-Series can’t detect swiping gestures, which means you cannot adjust the volume using a swipe. There’s also one fewer proximity sensors in each bud, which reduced the overall weight for each Bud by about half a gram.
Fit and comfort
The Google Pixel Buds are a one-size-fits-most deal, the ear tips aside. If you had trouble with fitment on last year’s Pixel Buds and are hoping this may have been tweaked, you’d be disappointed. The fitment is identical and should be okay for most. In my case, the silicone “stabilizer arc” doesn’t really rest where it’s supposed to. Rather, the arc may or may not (usually does not) make contact with my ear.
That’s not to say the Buds are uncomfortable. Even though the Buds are mostly anchored in by just the ear tips, they are still secure and I found them comfortable for prolonged use. If you opt for third-party foam tips, you may find them more comfortable, but may also run into issues when fitting them into the charging case.
Some users have reported that the stabilizer arc of last year’s Pixel Buds may eventually form a fatiguing trigger point on the ear. I can imagine the same thing happening here. The Buds are light, small and should be comfortable for prolonged use for most. Then again, fit tends to be subjective and varies from person to person.
Despite the stabilizer not being optimal for the shape of my ears, they had no problem staying put, even while working out. As with any pair of earbuds, excessive sweat will eventually cause them to slide out so wear a head band, though.
For setup, Fast Pair makes finding a new pair of Pixel Buds simple for Android devices. Neither Pixel Buds model supports multi-point pairing, so you’ll have to manually pair your Buds each time you want to switch from using your Android phone to using a PC.
While the Pixel Buds are technically compatible with iOS, pairing with an Android phone is the way to go. If you have a non-Pixel Android phone, all the features and controls are accessible from the Pixel Buds app. From there, you can change settings, ring a Bud if you dropped it behind the couch, and download firmware updates for the Buds. If you are set on using iOS, you’ll want to have an Android device to manage the settings and firmware updates for the Buds.
Google Assistant is the primary selling point of the Pixel Buds A-Series and its implementation and integration with Android is excellent. Not only will notifications be read into your ear, but you can respond directly from the Buds, without using your phone. This actually works very well and I found myself using it often to reply to messages received while I worked.
You can also talk to Assistant the same way you would on your device to set reminders, timers, ask trivia or check the weather, and ask to dial a contact.
You can press and hold either Bud, wait for the beep and begin speaking. Your query is submitted when you let go of the Bud. The Buds are also always listening for the wake phrase “Hey Google” if you prefer a hands-free method. Tapping either Bud will interrupt the Assistant and resume playback.
You should receive a response from Google within three seconds. It may sometimes take a bit longer, depending on your connection as well.
Once traveling between borders becomes safe again, you can use the Pixel Buds to help you translate. You can use the Buds to ask Google “Help me speak [a supported language]”. I tested them to translate in Spanish and while the translation is very quick, it may miss a couple of words here and there.
When it comes to customization, there’s no way to really change the touch controls of the Pixel Buds. The interface of the Buds and the app are kept as simple as possible. The following are the Pixel Buds A-Series’ settings that can be customized toggled on or off:
Google Assistant “Hey Google”: Enables Assistant to be woken by wake phrase
Play Start sound: The audio blip that plays when you say the wake phrase
Touch controls: Enables or disables touch control
Bass Boost: The only EQ option available, makes bass and sub-bass more pronounced
Adaptive Sound: Automatically adjusts volume based on environmental noise
In-ear detection: Automatically play/pause playback when a Bud is removed
Adaptive Sound is a unique feature of both Pixel Buds models. The Buds can gradually adjust the volume of your music depending on the amount of ambient noise present. I found Ambient Noise to work quite well when taking the dog for a walk. Volume would swiftly but gently go up whenever a car passed by or an airplane roared overhead, the volume reverted to normal levels after the event subsided.
You can always override the feature by manually adjusting the volume. Adaptive Sound is temporarily disabled until the soundscape changes and requires a new adjustment. The Pixel Buds app notes that Bass Boost and Ambient Noise may will probably shorten battery life. This brings us to battery life.
Charging, battery life, and connectivity
The Pixel Buds A-Series are rated for 5 hours of playback on a single charge, and a total of 24 hours with the charging case. The case is charged via USB-C, but wireless charging is not available.
Google explains that this 24-hour rating is based on test runs performed with prototype hardware and power-sucking features are disabled so your actual milage will vary.
In my experience, the Pixel Buds A-Series depleted the charging case by about 5% for every hour of listening time (using both Buds). This resulted in an estimated playback time of 20 hours for the Pixel Buds A-Series on a full charge.
When it came to connectivity, many users experienced choppy signal and a dropped connection with last year’s Google Pixel Buds and the Google Pixel Buds A-Series has updated radios to improve stability.
Sadly, I experienced connection drop-offs that resulted in disconnection, followed by immediate reconnection while playing music that was somehow triggered every time I tried to use Google Assistant. I traced the culprit down to a nearby 2.4GHz Wi-Fi connection (and proximity of the router) that was causing interference with the Buds A-Series.
Sound quality and phone calls
Despite not being able to apply custom EQ settings, the Pixel Buds A-Series deliver well balaned sound with clear mids and highs. Although lows and bass might be lacking for some initially, the Bass Boost option should satisfy those looking for ear-booming bass. Depending on what genres you listen to, trebles may be a little raspy, but the Buds are excellent for consuming podcasts and dialogue.
They sound surprisingly good for a pair of Buds in this price range, and they are sure to impress the average consumer, especially with the Bass Boost enabled. Otherwise, when toggled off, sound was very well balanced with nice emphasis on vocals and mids.
The Buds operate on the AAC codec on both Android and iOS and each Bud is independently connected, so there’s no relaying between Buds.
The Buds use beam-forming mics for voice calls and the noise-reduction mics let me use the Pixel Buds to make phone calls near a busy street with callers reporting they were able to hear me very clearly.
Wrap up, verdict
Before we give our verdict, let’s look at what other products the Buds A-Series are competing against. The first one that comes to mind is the entry-level AirPods, which start at $159. This really comes down to what your primacy device is and whether you prefer Siri or Google Assistant. If you have an iPhone, you will have a better-integrated experience with the AirPods, you’ll just have to shell a bit more to do so. While possible to use the Buds A-Series with an iPhone, it isn’t the ideal experience.
We can’t speak to the sound quality of them, but Amazon Echo Buds offer an in-ear assistant experience similar to the Buds integration with Google Assistant. This will really depend on whether you are more deeply immersed in the Alexa ecosystem. The Buds A-Series are still a bit cheaper.
Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+ is currently priced the same as the new Pixel Buds and they offer far more customization, passthrough sound, EQ profiles, and even wireless charging, but I believe the Pixel Buds package and the Pixel Buds app are more user-friendly.
Last year’s Pixel Buds are actually listed at a discount in many places, so you may be able to find them for just 20 bucks more than the A-Series if you find that the wireless charging and volume swipe controls are worth the extra money. This is only if you manage to find last year’s Pixel Buds, which are widely out of stock.
Much like Google managed to pull off with the more affordable “a” Pixel models, the company reduced costs of Pixel Buds, while replicating the core user experience. The result is a complete set of features in an affordable, portable, and stylish package for a reasonable price.
We give the Pixel Buds A-Series a firm recommendation for their great sound, excellent call quality, and deep integration with Google Assistant. Battery life is not the strongest we’ve seen, but still more than enough. Although they may not be the best sounding earbuds around, they work so well with Android phones and are such a pleasure to use.