Google Pixel Buds Pro review: Google goes premium - MrLiambi's blog


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Monday, 3 October 2022

Google Pixel Buds Pro review: Google goes premium

Google is a relative newcomer to the headphones market. The company's technology - Google Assistant - has been present in headphones for a number of years, but in terms of the hardware, the Pixel Buds Pro are only Google's fourth set of headphones.

The Pixel Buds started the trend in 2017, but it wasn't until 2020 that the next-gen Pixel Buds attempted to revamp the experience. These were joined in 2021 by the Pixel Buds A-Series and now by the 2022 Pixel Buds Pro.

In many ways, the Pixel Buds Pro feel like a change of direction for Google, abandoning one of the original premises of the Buds, but still putting Google services at the core.

Design and build

  • Case: 63.2 x 50 x 25mm; 62.4g / Earbud: 22.33 x 22.03 x 23.72mm; 6.2g
  • Pebble-like case
  • Case: IPX2 / Buds: IPX4

Google hasn't strayed too far from the design path set out by previous Pixel Buds models with the same pebble-like case. It's a little wider than the 2020 Pixel Buds or Buds A-Series, but the look and feel is much the same. It's still strokably smooth, something to turn and caress in your hand, while your mind is somewhere else.

The case is larger because the buds themselves are larger. The design has also changed quite a bit, larger through the body and ditching the hook designed to hold the Bud into your ear. We'd only ever found that to be irritating, so its removal pleases us quite a lot.

With a larger body there's an increase in weight, with each Bud being a gramme heavier than the Buds A-Series. That might not sound like a lot, but it's about a 20 per cent increase in weight.

This is mostly driven by a change of philosophy for these headphones: Google previously used to talk about not cutting you off from the outside world and now the message is very much about cutting you off (if that's what you want). We find that the new design is more comfortable, more secure, and performs better, but it's also true that these buds seem unnecessarily large. 

There are four colours to choose from, with that flattened touch-sensitive cap now punctuated by external mic grilles, there to help power the noise cancellation and transparency modes the Buds Pro offer.

There's IPX4 protection for the earbuds, meaning they don't mind a splash of rain or a little sweat, while the case offers IPX2 protection too. It's not the highest level you'll find on earbuds, but it's enough to give you peace of mind if you get caught in the rain.

Importantly, the Pixel Buds Pro are really comfortable and we've found that long listening sessions pose no problem.

Connection, setup and control

  • Google Fast Pair
  • Multipoint Bluetooth

The Pixel Buds might be naturally seen as Android's rival to the AirPods, and connecting to an Android phone is certainly easy. Thanks to Google Fast Pair, when you open up the Buds case, they will be detected by your phone and you'll get an invitation to connect.

It's just about as simple as that, with Pixel devices natively giving you controls for the headphones, while other Android devices will invite you to download the Pixel Buds app for further control. It's not absolutely necessary, but this app handles firmware updates and many of the advanced settings, so you'd be advised to get it.

The neat thing about Google Fast Pair and using these headphones is that when you move to a new device, it will recognise these as headphones you've previously connected to your Android device and offer to connect them to the new one, because they are linked to your account.

There's support for Bluetooth multipoint. This will allow you to connect to more than one device. This is platform agnostic, so you can connect a phone and your PC, for example. It's a recent technology, the downside being that it won't support higher-resolution connections when using multipoint - and you'll have to toggle it on in the app, or it just won't be available.

The coloured ends of the Pixel Buds Pro are touch sensitive, allowing a range of taps and swipes to control them. The taps are very much universal by this point in time - single tap to play/pause, double tap to skip tracks, triple tap to restart the track or go back. Then you can swipe for volume up or down, while a press and hold provides customised functions.

This can be different for each side, for example to toggle ANC or transparency, or to access Google Assistant.

Basic functions are simple, but with baked-in Google Assistant, the aim is that you can do a lot more with these headphones either using touch or your voice.

The Google Assistant experience

  • Voice control
  • Notifications
  • Full Google Assistant access

To get the most out of Google Assistant on your headphones you'll need grant it a range of permissions. This will allow Google Assistant to access your notifications, deliver sensitive information when your screen is locked and access your contacts and so on. You'll get a little tone in your ear to indicate a notification, you can then tap and release the bud, giving you more tones, at which point your notification will be read to you.

You'll be walked through the whole process when you first pair your headphones with a phone and some of this isn't handled by the Pixel Buds app, it's controlled by the Google Assistant settings that manage how the service works with external devices. You'll also be able to specify within the Google Assistant settings what you want to know about - so if you're not interested in notifications from certain apps, you can turn those off.

Back to the actual experience itself, and it's multifaceted, but not hugely different to other devices that support the service. Press and hold for a tone, you can then talk to Google Assistant and get the normal responses you might want - like asking a question or controlling a linked smart home device - or you can use the Ok Google hotword to trigger a reaction via voice. You can, as with other iterations of the service, use it to control some aspects of your device, like requesting music or even asking for directions to a particular location, at which point Google Maps will fire up and start telling you where to go.

Then you have the option to reply to messages, so when a WhatsApp message arrives, for example, you can listen to it, speak your reply, have it confirmed and send it. It's pretty similar to the experience you'd find on WearOS or through Android Auto - because it's all powered by the same Google Assistant.

At the same time, not much is different in this regard to other headphones offering Google Assistant - although we did find the Buds Pro to respond a little faster than the likes of the Sony LinkBuds S, which are a little slower. If you're a die-hard Google Assistant fan, that makes the Buds Pro an obvious choice.

At the same time, you can disable Google Assistant if you think you'll never use it - and that's perfectly reasonable, because there's a lot more to these headphones than just the AI smarts.

Sound performance and ANC

  • 6-core audio chip
  • 11mm speaker driver

There are lots of elements that make for great sound quality and when you're out and about, active noise cancellation (ANC) is a big part. ANC is dependent on a lot of things working - a fit in your ear with an effective seal, as well as the power within the headset to detect and adapt to the environment you're in. The ANC works well, tackling those background noises, stripping out things like the hiss of aircraft noise or the chatter of others in a café. It's a great solution and while we've seen more effective ANC for some of Jabra's headphones, or Sony's flagship WF-1000XM4, we've been really impressed with the Google experience.

Transparency is available on a tap, meaning you can then be more aware of what's happening around you, great for ordering a coffee or listening to station announcements on a train - or just to be more aware when you're out walking in busy places.

We found the call quality to be good - with no complaints when making calls, but callers could clearly hear background noise while on calls. This is an area we've found Samsung to offer great noise cancellation - so the Galaxy Buds Pro might be an alternative you consider.

The ANC contributes to a great foundation for sound quality. The Pixel Buds Pro put in a solid performance that easily sounds better than previous Pixel Buds models. Much of this comes down to better fit and design, although it's boosted by supporting high-res music through AAC. Of course you'll need a source device that will support that, as well as a music service that offers hi-res audio, like Tidal, to get the best results. What's interesting is that Google hasn't chosen to support other codecs, like aptX HD or LDAC, which are also widely supported on Android phones.

The Pixel Buds Pro sound nicely balanced, well suited to most music genres, movies or voice, but there's no control over the sound output, except for Volume EQ, which aims to balance the bass and treble at lower volumes.

Some devices might have system-level controls to control the output - for example on a Sony Xperia you'll have DSEE, Dolby sound or 360 Reality Audio for example - but that's not something that Google's own Pixel phones offer. That means you'll get different results depending on your connected phone, as the headphones themselves don't offer any of these options.

Google will be bringing a five-channel EQ to these headphones at some point in the future which will help you to further adapt them to your preferences. Google will also be bringing spatial audio through a future update, to support more immersive audio effects from both music and TV content and it's a shame these features aren't on the headphones from launch.

Overall, the sound performance of these headphones is great. Backed by that solid ANC and a nice neutral sound, over many months of listening, it's hard to find many things we don't like about them. However, we did occasionally find that the sound quality dropped - often a temporary thing fixed by pausing and restarting the music and it feels like this might be a bug. We tried switching between AAC and SBC to see if this made a difference and it didn't appear to, but it only seemed to happen on the move - and not noticeably on phones we tested the headphones with.

This might point to some sort of connection weakness and certainly something to listen out for if you're considering buying these headphones.

Battery life

  • USB-C and Qi wireless charging
  • ANC: 7 hours, 20 hours total
  • No ANC: 11 hours, 31 hours total

The battery life on the Pixel Buds Pro is typical, offering around 7 hours from a charge (with ANC) and 20 hours total from the case. These are Google's figures and we've found them to be pretty accurate - with great feedback when you connect to your phone so you can see how much battery is left. The battery life will also display on an Android phone in the Bluetooth toggle in quick settings.

The battery life of course depends on how you use your headphones and can be extended by reducing ANC use, giving over 30 hours total.

Charging comes thanks to the USB-C connection on case, which also supports Qi wireless charging. This means you can just drop it on the charger in your car or at home and they'll be ready to go when you are.

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