Google’s had great success with its line of A-branded smartphones, offering all the important features at a lower cost, and now it wants to do the same for wireless headphones.
The Pixel Buds A-Series, which are out in Australia next week, look almost identical to last year’s $280 Pixel Buds, but go for the much more wallet-friendly price of $159. They’re small and light as far as true wireless buds go, fit well thanks to a built-in flexible stabiliser fin, and don’t move around or dangle out, at least in my ears. They’re also water resistant, last around five hours per charge and can get another 19 hours worth of juice from the included charging case.
The soft tips, which come in three sizes, are shallow and comfortable, sealing the ear but not making it feel clogged. The tradeoff for how small and comfortable the buds are is that, unlike many popular competitors, the Pixel Buds do not offer active noise cancellation.
Musical and phone call performance is very impressive at this price and size. The sound is natural and clear, although out of the box some might feel the low end is lacking. Google offers a “bass boost” mode that more than rectifies this, but warns activating it may eat into your battery life.
Being a Google product, the buds of course offer clean integration with the search giant’s other products. Pairing and settings are seamless on Pixel phones, but also pain-free on any Android, while you only get a fairly basic experience on iPhones or PC. The buds also offer essentially the most reliable Google Assistant experience you can get; just hold a bud with one finger while you ask for directions, a playlist, to call a friend or whatever else you need.
Elsewhere you can also set the buds to read your notifications automatically, pause when you remove one, make a loud beep if you’ve lost them, or work with the Assistant’s impressive but rarely necessary live translation feature.
So what’s missing given the $120 price drop? I only noticed two things: the A-Series no longer has hardware volume controls, and the case no longer has wireless charging.
The former isn’t really a problem, as you can change volume with your phone or by asking the Google Assistant. The buds can also automatically adjust volume when the level of ambient noise changes. But needing to charge the case with a USB-C cable is an annoying step backwards if you’re already used to dropping your buds on a pad or the back of your phone for a top-up.
All up these are comfy and convenient buds that offer a huge value if you use Assistant and don’t often listen in trains or other very noisy places, and they stack up with some of the best for sound. They are far from the cheapest wireless buds on the market, and far from the fanciest. But like the lower-priced Pixel smartphones before them, the A-Series buds strike a great balance that makes it hard to justify paying $400 for headphones.
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