Pixel Buds A-Series review: Excellent headphone value for Android users

Google’s Pixel Buds A-Series are kind of unusual, in that they’re new but not exactly an upgrade. They look and sound very similar to last year’s Pixel Buds 2, which debuted at $179 but are now selling for less. However, instead of adding new features — like active noise canceling — they’ve actually lost a few. Why? They only cost $99: The “A” stands for affordability. That new lower price is the real story here and what makes these a bonafide true-wireless value, particularly for Android users. They’re available for preorder now and ship June 17.  

Like

  • Lower price
  • Virtually the same likable design and sound as Pixel Buds 2 but weigh slightly less
  • Hands-free Google Assistant
  • Very good sound for the price
  • Excellent call quality
  • Compact charging case
  • IPX4 sweat-resistant (splashproof)

Don’t Like

  • No swipe controls for volume up/down
  • No real feature upgrades vs. earlier model
  • Average battery life

As I said, lookwise, not much has changed. They feature the same likable design as the Pixel Buds 2, with the integrated sport fin and relatively discrete look. They don’t stick out of your ears as much as many buds do and not only did they fit my ears securely but I found them comfortable to wear.

What’s different? 

There are some small differences, however. The Pixel Buds 2 were already relatively lightweight, but these are even a tad lighter — Google says the Pixel Buds A are “about 20% lighter across the earbuds and the case” compared to the Pixel Buds 2. Along with Clearly White, they come in a new Dark Olive color and incorporate slightly different materials and aren’t two-tone. The inside of the buds have a glossy, as opposed to matte, finish and its color matches the color of the outside of the buds. Additionally, the inside of the case also has a glossy finish and its color matches the color of the buds.

On the surface, the Pixel Buds A look very similar to the Pixel Buds 2.


David Carnoy/CNET

The other thing you’ll notice is that the nozzle that you attach the ear tip to is now made of plastic instead of metal, which presumably is more durable. Also, the Pixel Buds A have two charging pins as opposed to three and they’re missing a sensor. I was worried that meant they had no ear-detection feature (that’s the feature where your music pauses when you pull the earbuds out and resumes when you put the buds back in), but it turns out that Google’s engineers were able to optimize in-ear detection in the Buds A with one IR sensor, according to a spokesperson. So no issue there. 

The case is the same — it’s nice and compact — but unlike the Pixel Buds 2, the A-Series doesn’t have wireless charging, just USB-C charging. These are also missing the swipe for volume control feature — you can’t run your finger across the bud to adjust volume, you now have to use the volume controls on the device you’re streaming from or access Google Assistant by simply saying “Hey. Google,” then tell it to raise or lower volume. For Android users Google Assistant is always-on, listening for your voice commands like Siri does with the AirPods, so you don’t have to tap a button to access it (unless you turn off the feature). 

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But there are subtle differences, with the Pixel Buds 2 (left) having a metal nozzle, an extra sensor and three charging pins instead of two.


David Carnoy/CNET

Lastly, the A-Series doesn’t have the Attention Alerts feature that detects certain ambient sounds, like a baby crying, dog barking or an emergency vehicle siren, and alerts you while you’re wearing the buds. I have a feeling that not too many people bothered with that experimental feature, but a lot of people liked the swipe to control volume feature — it’s one of the Pixel Buds’ signature features. Personally I can live without it for the price reduction. 

Similar performance

Like the Pixel Buds 2, the Pixel Buds A are equipped with Bluetooth 5.0, but they’re powered by a new chipset. When the Pixel Buds 2 first came out, there were widespread complaints that the wireless connectivity wasn’t rock solid — people were getting some dropouts — and while subsequent firmware upgrades improved performance, Google appears to have addressed any connectivity issues with the A-Series. I had almost no dropouts during my testing time, although like every other true-wireless earbud these aren’t completely infallible. 

As far as I can tell, they sound the same as the Pixel Buds 2 — or very close to them anyway. To get optimal sound, you do need a tight seal, but you should be able to get one with one of the three included eartips. These are comfortable earbuds and they do stay in your ears well and can be used for sporting activities, including running. They have an IPX4 water-resistance rating, which means they’re splashproof, the same as the AirPods Pro.

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Like the Pixel Buds 2, the buds don’t stick out of your ears as much as some other buds do.


David Carnoy/CNET

They sound quite good overall, with ample bass that’s not loose or bloated and have decent clarity with a bit of sparkle in the treble. They don’t have the more refined, richer, more open sound of higher end earbuds like the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 or Sony’s WF-1000X series, but their sound measures up well against other earbuds’ sound at his price. There’s a bass boost mode along with an adaptive sound mode that raises and lowers volume according to the amount of ambient noise around you, but the EQ options in the app are limited.

They support streaming using the AAC codec, which both Apple and Android devices use for audio streaming, but not AptX streaming.

They should work well for a variety of music genres, but I did notice they were a bit challenged when I hit them with some complicated rock tracks where a lot of instruments were playing. Again, they lacked the more refined and articulate traits of higher-end buds, but most people should be quite happy with their sound.

I did think these were really good for making calls. To test call quality, I hit the streets of New York and made calls while traffic was passing. The buds did a very good job reducing a lot of background noise during calls and callers said they could hear my voice clearly. For calling, they measured up well against the AirPods Pro, so they seem top-notch in that department.

Battery life remains slightly underwhelming for non-noise-canceling earbuds. They’re rated at five hours at moderate volume levels and you can get an extra 19 hours from the charging case. 

Note that there’s no multipoint Bluetooth pairing that gives you the option to pair the buds with two devices simultaneously — such as computer and a smartphone — so you can seamlessly switch between the two when a call comes in. That’s a somewhat rare but useful headphone feature. However, you can pair these with multiple devices, just not two at the same time. 

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The Buds have are splashproof with an IPX4 water-resistance rating just like the AirPods Pro. 


David Carnoy/CNET

Pixel Buds A: Final thoughts

As I said, this is a little bit of an unusual product because it’s next-gen but not really an upgrade for owners of the previous model. But I think it’s a smart move by Google. As it tries to expand its audience for its true-wireless earbuds, this sub-$100 price is where it needs to play.

You’ve got Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Plus selling for around $100 these days and, even though they’ve been out a while, they remain a good value at that price with very good sound (they have a little more bass than the Pixel Buds) and excellent battery life. The Anker Liberty Air 2 Pro and Amazon Echo Buds are priced around $130. Both those models feature active noise canceling and sporadically go on sale for $100, so they’re also direct competitors that deliver comparable sound (I like the Anker Liberty 2 Pro’s sound slightly better). None of those models have hands-free Google Assistant, however.  

So while I don’t know if the Pixel Buds A are necessarily any better than those competitors, when you factor in their strong design and solid performance, they’re a very good value at $99 and a top pick for Android users. True, they work with Apple devices, but they lack certain features like hands-free Google Assistant or an iOS companion to upgrade the firmware. So Apple users should take a pass unless they also have an Android device.  

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