August 19, 2022
All four new color variants of Google's Pixel Buds Pro.
Enlarge / All four new color variants of Google’s Pixel Buds Pro.

Google

Google announced the Pixel Buds Pro earlier this year as an apparent upgrade to Google’s impressive 2020 earbud refresh. “If you liked Pixel Buds 2, you’ll love Pixel Buds Pro” was likely music to the ears of anyone who had been charmed by Google’s audio-redemption plotline.

Ahead of their retail launch today, with nearly a week of Buds Pro testing, I learned that these new $199 earbuds do not do what the AirPods Pro did for the original AirPods. While some aspects have improved, others have regressed—so it’s tough to recommend Buds Pro over the competition.

At least the Bluetooth connectivity is better

When they debuted, Buds 2 stood out in an increasingly competitive portable-audio fray (and ran circles around Google’s first stab at the segment in 2017). They’re still my daily drivers thanks to their impeccable sound balance, attractive aesthetics, comfortable fit, solid battery life, and nifty egg-shaped case. I still recommend them to Android smartphone owners—or, in a pinch, the $99 Pixel Buds A, which nearly match the 2020 version in features and audio quality. (As a longtime Buds 2 owner, I’ll continue to compare the new Pixel Buds Pro to those earbuds for the rest of this review.)

But Pixel Buds 2 have issues, particularly their lousy Bluetooth signal consistency. It’s practically a given that sound will stutter in and out of one earbud at least once a week, forcing me to go through a cycle of putting them back in their case, disabling and re-enabling Bluetooth on my phone, putting the earbuds on again, and resuming a song or podcast. I mentioned this issue in my 2020 review, and it has never truly been fixed. It’s a testament to how much I otherwise love the Buds 2 that I put up with this particular engineering failure on Google’s part.

In five days of Pixel Buds Pro testing, I can at least confirm that their Bluetooth signal consistency is a massive step ahead of Buds 2—and many other Bluetooth earbuds I’ve tested. I have yet to notice a single drop in audio signal no matter where I’ve listened, from rides on crowded buses to sweaty workout sessions.

This may be thanks to Google increasing the size of each earpiece. Inside the Buds 2, a small, plastic fin extends to a point where it can brace against a user’s outer ear, which I find quite comfortable over long periods. Pixel Buds Pro skip this fin and instead extend each earpiece’s guts roughly that distance to contain more parts (all while keeping the Buds series’ delightful egg-shaped charging case concept intact, with the same comfortable size, design, and satisfying click upon closing). The result: This year’s model sits a little less elegantly in the ear, with a silicon ear tip (replaceable, comes in three sizes) and one edge of the Pixel Bud Pro doing the bracing work. It’s fine, but Buds Pro have more weight and heft than Buds 2 and have inferior bracing, so I still prefer Buds 2 for lengthy listening sessions on a comfort basis.

I generally prefer earbuds that rely on silicon ear tips, so Buds Pro benefit there, and they glide into and out of the ear by way of a natural twisting motion. After using Buds Pro for the first time, Google offers a “seal check” test on Android handsets. This plays some musical tones and confirms through onboard mics whether any of its sounds are bleeding out due to a bad fit (which I confirmed by jamming the Buds Pro into my ear incorrectly and running the test). It’s a nifty feature.

ANC is decent, but “transparency mode” is opaque

Google wants you to confirm that seal to test these earbuds’ new feature: active noise cancellation (ANC). Buds 2 didn’t include ANC processing of any kind, and as a first-generation stab at the concept, Buds Pro do a decent job—all while leaving battery life relatively high.

This category is where Buds Pro win handily in side-by-side tests with Pixel Buds 2. The 2020 models can seal pretty decently into ears, but their level of audio bleed in noisy environments is something its users, at best, get used to. Buds Pro are a noise-canceling revelation in comparison. However, another side-by-side test confirms that Apple AirPods Pro do a better job with ANC. When swapping earbuds in my home with some noise in the background, AirPods Pro sound a bit more refined, though I wouldn’t call this comparison conclusive.

Where AirPods Pro win out more handily is their ability to process noise-canceling frequencies in more dynamic scenarios. While jogging in my neighborhood or walking down a crowded street, Pixel Buds Pro suffer from some “swirling” artifacts, where nearby noises unnaturally emerge in only one ear but not the other. The result feels like an audio version of the “uncanny valley,” where something sounding the slightest bit off feels all the more disorienting because it’s close-but-not-quite. To be clear, this noticeable distortion happens infrequently, and I don’t notice this effect while sitting at a cafe or on a bus. But I can’t replicate it on AirPods Pro.

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