In both 2020 and 2021, Google debuted new versions of its Pixels Buds, the second of which was a $99 model with loads of features. For the third year in a row, the company has new true wireless earbuds, but this time it added a key feature: active noise cancellation (ANC). With the Pixel Buds Pro ($200), Google finally has earbuds that cover all of the bases, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that they’re also the company’s best yet.
The Pixel Buds Pro look like the more mature sibling of the previous two models. Where the Pixel Buds (2020) and Pixel Buds A-Series were both circular with an eartip off one side and a “stabilizer arc” off the other, the Pixel Buds Pro are more of an oval shape. That fit wing on the back is gone, but the shape of this new version fits nicely in the contours of the ear. Although they don’t have that extra stabilizer, I never had any issues with them jostling loose at an inopportune time. Plus, they’re still quite small, and tuck in securely without the need of additional parts.
There’s still a defined circle on the outside of this IPX4-rated Pro model, and that’s where the earbuds accept taps and swipes for the on-board controls. Those are mirrored on both sides, with single (play/pause), double (skip tracks forward) and triple taps (skip tracks backward) as the actions. A long press will alternate between ANC and transparency modes while swiping forwards or backwards adjusts the volume.
That long press action can be configured to summon Google Assistant, if you prefer not to activate it with a spoken cue. What’s more, you don’t have to mirror that option, so you can have Assistant on one side and ANC controls on the other. For the sound modes, you can add a third option that turns both ANC and transparency mode off, but by default, it will only toggle between noise canceling and ambient sound.
The IPX2-rated charging case is nearly identical to the one that came with the A-Series. The main difference is the inside doesn’t match the color of the earbuds and the one for the Pro model is a smidge larger. Google moved the status light from inside the case on the 2020 model to the outside in 2021, so you didn’t have to open it to see the battery levels. It’s on the outside here as well, with the pairing button around back and the USB-C port on the bottom edge. Flicking open the flat circular-shaped holder with your thumb is still satisfying and the compact size is easily tucked into a small pocket for transport.
Software and features
Google uses a six-core audio chip that’s powered by its own algorithms for active noise cancellation. The company has also added a feature called Silent Seal that maximizes blocking and minimizes any sound leaks. The tool can adapt to your ear shape when ANC is on, with sensors that “constantly” monitor the pressure and relieve it to keep things comfy. All of this combines to do a solid job battling constant noise like a sound machine or human voices and cackling cartoons on TV.
Transparency mode, however, could use some work. Google says the Pixel Buds Pro “process a wide range of frequencies” to keep things sounding “natural.” During my tests, that wasn’t the case. Sure, the ambient sound option allows you to hear what’s going on around you, but it’s far from natural. It’s muffled, so you’re acutely aware you have earbuds shoved in your ears. And for this reason, it’s easy to raise your voice during a quick conversation.
On Pixel phones, the Pixel Buds app is system-level software that’s accessible through the Bluetooth menu. Simply tap on the gear icon next to the earbuds’ name and you’ll get access to everything. There’s also a shortcut option in the widgets menu, if going into settings is too much. This allows you to get to the Pixel Buds Pro features with a single tap. On non-Pixel Android devices, you’ll need to download a standalone Google Pixel Buds app from the Play Store, but the features are the same.
Inside, you’ll get battery percentages for both earbuds individually. The level for the case also appears when the buds are connected, but still docked inside. Below that are options for fine-tuning Google Assistant, finding lost earbuds, touch controls, sound modes, an eartip seal check and more. You can also turn automatic audio switching between Android devices on and off, ditto for multipoint connectivity for iOS, laptops and more. Under the sound option, there’s the ability to select ANC, transparency mode and off, as well as the option to disable Volume EQ (more on that in a bit). The Pixel Buds app also lets you opt for HD audio and whether or not you want to use them for calls and media audio.
Google allows you to disable a lot of these features as well, including things like in-ear detection (automatic pausing), touch controls and even Assistant. Most companies will let you turn one or two of these off, but Google gives you the ability to go without even its handiest items should the need arise.
Speaking of Assistant, hands-free access returns when you say “Hey Google.” Similar to the way Apple lets you summon Siri without pressing a button on AirPods, this works exactly like you’d expect. You can have Assistant read out notifications for as many apps as you like or you can limit it to just a few. Google Translate is still here as well, offering “real-time” help in over 40 languages via Conversation Mode. Simply ask Google Assistant to “help me speak French,” for example, or you can open the Translate app directly to lend a hand. This is a useful feature, and the text translation appears in real-time, but the spoken version via Assistant is slightly delayed. This pause would make an in-person conversation a bit awkward, especially if you aren’t looking at your phone. But, it will help you in a pinch.
One gripe I have with the Pixel Buds Pro is with what should be a simple task: pairing. The Pixel 6a I used to test the earbuds recognizes the case is open in about three seconds, showing a notification at the top of the screen. Even if I put the buds in immediately, they’re still not fully paired, and I had to tap the notification to enter the Pixel Buds app and then tap once more on “Connect.” If the Pixel 6a was the last device I used the earbuds with, this should happen automatically – no additional taps required. Or, at the very least, I should be able to fully connect them from the notification.
Both the Pixel Buds (2020) and A-Series lacked sufficient low-end. The latter had a bass boost option to help matters, but it was an all or nothing setting and it still wasn’t great. Neither set of earbuds had presets or a manual EQ either. On the Pixel Buds Pro, Google has remedied this problem, as its latest version has pleasantly punchy bass across a range of genres. Whether it’s a snappy kick drum in Shane Smith & The Saints’ mix of country and rock, the synth-driven pop hooks of Charli XCX or the booming beats of Kendrick Lamar, what the company has done with the bass here is impressive. It remains clear and tight, and it never becomes overbearing.
Google has also done well to reproduce subtle details. Even in the chaos of Underoath’s Voyeurist, the texture of drums, the grit of distorted guitars and the nuance of the singer’s deep growl are all easily distinguishable. Not only are they there, they’re dynamic. Overall, the audio is big and open, so when a track is meant to be soaring and atmospheric, like parts of “Thorn” on Voyeurist, you get that effect. Not all earbud companies can muster this, but Google does a great job keeping things spacious even if they aren’t “spatial”… yet.
Speaking of, the one big feature that isn’t ready for the Pixel Buds Pro yet is spatial audio. Google says it plans to update the earbuds to support immersive sound this fall, offering it for movies and TV shows on compatible Pixel phones. Details are scarce at this point, but I expect the company will have a lot more to say about it when the time comes. The feature could arrive with the Pixel 7 and Android 13, both of which should also debut around that time. And hopefully some of that info has to do with music.
A new feature Google has added to the Pixel Buds Pro is called Volume EQ. Basically, the tuning adapts when you adjust the loudness, so “highs, mids and lows are balanced and nuanced at any volume.” The company explains that this allows you to hear every aspect of a song even at a low level. Volume EQ does a solid job there, and perhaps the most impressive part is how the bass stays punchy when you turn the sound down. Vocals come through clear and subtlety in guitar tones are still distinguishable in the mix.
Google makes some lofty claims about “crystal clear” calls on the Pixel Buds Pro. Most headphone companies do this, and the actual results can vary greatly from what’s on paper. Google says large microphone openings on the outside are covered with mesh to minimize wind noise. Beamforming mics on the inside work alongside a voice pickup unit (bone conduction) so you can be heard in noisy environments.
In practice, things are just okay. Voice quality is decent, but it’s not the clearest I’ve experienced on earbuds by any means. There was even a fuzziness to the audio during a video call in Meet. And while the Pixel Buds Pro do a decent job blocking constant rumbling, like a clothes dryer or noise machine, they’re not as good with things like TV sound and voices. Google could also improve performance here if it fed your voice back through the earbuds, to keep you from feeling like you’re shouting even though transparency mode is active during calls.
Google is promising up to seven hours of listening time with active noise cancellation enabled and up to 11 hours with it turned off. With a fully charged case, the company says you can expect another 13 hours of ANC use or 20 more hours without it. What’s more, Google has included wireless charging, a feature that was missing from last year’s Pixel Buds A-Series after the company offered it in its big 2020 redesign. Lastly, there’s a quick-charge feature that gives you one hour of ANC listening time in five minutes.
During my tests, those numbers were nearly spot-on with real world performance. With ANC on, I came 10 minutes short of Google’s rating. Given that neither of the previous two Pixel Buds models had active noise cancellation, Google has more than doubled the non-ANC listening time here and I managed just shy of the stated 11 hours. You’ll even get two more hours than those two sets of buds even with ANC turned on, so the company has clearly improved things when it comes to battery life for its most premium model.
While it may be enticing to compare Pixel Buds Pro to AirPods Pro, the two sets of earbuds aren’t really direct competitors. Apple and Google are catering to their respective customers, reserving the most attractive features to people who own iOS and Android devices. However, a quick run down the features list will indicate Google has checked nearly every box Apple does for $50 cheaper (at full price). The only real omission is spatial audio, which Google plans to introduce soon.
Once again, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds line is a better foil for Pixel Buds. Though Samsung catered heavily to iOS users in the past, its recent earbuds give the perks to the Android faithful. 2021’s Galaxy Buds Pro offer good sound quality, ANC and several other handy features, but with only five hours of battery life (eight hours without active noise cancellation or Bixby voice commands). Galaxy Buds Pro were also $200 at launch, though we’ve seen them for $125. What’s more, Samsung has an Unpacked event coming up next month where we will probably see a new model. So if you’re considering the company’s earbuds as an alternative to Google, I’d recommend waiting a couple of weeks before making a final decision.
Google’s best earbuds yet are also its most complete package thus far. All of the features that made 2020’s redesigned Pixel Buds and the A-Series follow-up such compelling options for Android users, especially Pixel owners, are back. And while the Pixel Buds Pro are $20 more than what we got two years ago, the 2022 version is much improved. Active noise cancellation and the refined sound quality are equally impressive, and well worth the extra money. As long as Google can deliver spatial audio quickly and it works well, the only thing lacking is call quality, which may not be a dealbreaker for you.