Google Pixel Buds A-Series review: price is everything

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With the clunky newly named Pixel Buds A Series, Google is trying to do more than just introduce a much cheaper set of true wireless earbuds: the company wants to get it right this time — and do it right for under $100. The Pixel Google’s second-generation buds were certainly an improvement over the company’s original wireless earbuds; let’s never forget the most overly complicated tote bag of all time. But the earbuds of 2020 came with their own problems. At the top of that list were concerns about stability. Google has never been able to connect the two Pixel Buds together as reliably as many competitors, and some owners still complain about audio dropouts even after numerous firmware updates.

Google has succeeded in its goal in several ways. The $99 Pixel Buds A-Series are more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time than the more expensive earbuds. They keep the same enjoyable sound quality and hands-free “Hey Google” access to Google Assistant and features like real-time language translation are still handy tricks to have at your disposal. The carrying case is just as fun to fidget with as before (although the wireless charging is lost) and has the same satisfying thump when you close it. Google promises the same five hours of uninterrupted battery life, with a total of 24 hours when you charge the case.

The bad news is that Google didn’t completely fix the connectivity issues, although it did bring some improvement. I recently spoke with Google’s Sandeep Waraich, who discussed some of the changes to the A-series buttons that were intended to improve wireless reliability. Each earbud is individually connected to the source device. Both the antenna and chipset architectures are optimized for stronger transmit power and range to avoid cross-body audio dropouts. It even has an all-new chipset in it, although Google refused to tell me who makes it.

But in my experience so far, the Pixel Buds A-series still has more occasional blips and audio interruptions than many of its competitors. It’s not as much of a problem as before, and I’ve really only encountered it on the road (and on busy streets with a lot of wireless interference), but it’s still something you’ll run into every now and then. But I find it’s easier to tolerate this sort of thing for $99 than the $179 Google is still charging for the 2020 Pixel Buds.

Google also told me about some subtle improvements it made to the physical design. The A-Series earbuds look nearly identical to 2020’s Pixel Buds, but Waraich says the non-removable “stabilizer arch” — a source of discomfort the last time around after extended listening — has been made softer and smaller than before. I have big ears and the hook never seems to settle into the folds of my ear the way it should, but the Pixel Buds A-Series are solid and stable anyway.

The Pixel Buds A-Series look just like the regular Pixel Buds.

Google also shaved a few milligrams of weight off each earplug. The Pixel Buds A Series is available in white or olive green, and the inside of the carrying case is now color-matched to the earbuds you get. In the ear, the Pixel Buds still have a very discreet, flat style and can be hard to spot when looking directly at someone.

They still have a discreet design that sits flat against your ear and doesn’t protrude far.

The acoustic architecture is unchanged, so the sound signature between the Pixel Buds and Pixel Buds A-Series is very consistent. That’s a good thing. Google strives for a full, natural audio reproduction and that’s what you get from these earbuds and their 12 millimeter drivers. You can still enable the “bass boost” option in the settings to give the bass some extra spice. Even with the bass boost active, the Pixel Buds don’t match the boominess of something like the Jabra Elite 75ts or Sony’s WF-XB700s. Still, there is a level of clarity that surpasses many earbuds that sell for $100. Waraich told me that Google increased overall volume across the board after some customers found that the 2020 Pixel Buds couldn’t spin as high as they’d hoped.

The carrying case is also similar, although it doesn’t have wireless charging.

But while the Pixel Buds A-Series can get louder, they still have to deal with a lot of the outside world. Like the previous model, these A-series earbuds just aren’t very good at noise isolation. While working from the outside seating area at my local coffee shop, I heard an annoying level of traffic at all times. I think it’s partly due to their vented, airy design, but Google seems to struggle with this more than other companies.

You can use hands-free voice commands by saying “Hey Google.”

The Pixel Buds A-Series can easily connect to Android phones with Fast Pair.

Google says it has modified the spatial vents to allow less noise from the outside in, but it’s still a noticeable drawback to these earbuds. I think it inherently has something to do with the fit and “soft” in-ear seal that Google had in mind with the design. What has become clear to me is that the next flagship Pixel Buds really need some form of active noise cancellation to counteract this. I know there are people who prefer to be aware of what’s going on around them, but you get a bit too much of that with the Pixel Buds.

I already mentioned the loss of wireless charging, but other sacrifices Google has made to hit the $99 price point aren’t so obvious. The forward/backward swipes that let you easily control the volume on the Pixel Buds are gone; now you are limited to just tapping for track checks. The A-series earbuds also have the function for “experimental” attention alerts that can detect specific sounds, such as sirens, dog barking or a crying baby. And the LED that is on the? within of the Pixel Buds case (to indicate the charging status of the buds) is also history. These omissions make sense to me, and Google has at least retained other important vital features such as IPX4 water and sweat resistance. Voice calling also continues to be a strength of Pixel Buds on the A Series, with dual beamforming microphones that take your voice well out of noisy environments and maintain clarity during phone chats or work conference calls. Voice commands to Google Assistant were also recognized loud and clear.

The “adaptive sound” feature, which automatically adjusts the volume based on your environment, is also inherited from the 2020 Pixel Buds. It works pretty well and only activates when there are persistent changes in the ambient noise as you move between different locations, but I’m old fashioned and prefer to control the volume myself rather than let algorithms do it. The Pixel Buds A Series still supports Android’s Fast Pair feature for a quick setup. The companion app is built-in on Pixel smartphones, but you can also get it from the Play Store on other Android phones. This lets you locate your earbuds, toggle settings like bass boost and in-ear detection (another thing Google hasn’t skimped on), or check the battery level of the earbuds and housing. However, such an app does not exist for iOS.

By sticking to much of what worked best on the 2020 Pixel Buds — namely sound quality and hands-free voice control — and improving on other parts that didn’t, Google has landed an attractive set of $99 earbuds. The Pixel Buds A-series hasn’t completely eradicated the biggest problem that dragged down their pricier older sibling, and the level of outside noise your tunes compete against may put some people off. But even with some things Google left out, you’ll get a better overall product for less money.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge