The sub-$100 (around ₹7,300) Google Pixel Buds-A fall squarely in the affordable segment of true wireless headphones (TWS) in the US but in India, they are around the mid-range at ₹9,990—and if you are still using wired, in-ear earphones, they may seem quite expensive.
The audio-tuning and features in most true wireless headphones (TWS) headphones in India suggest that the companies expect you to wear them when you are listening to music. In the case of the Pixel Buds, it’s evident that Google sees these as a device you will wear otherwise too.
Like most things Google, the Pixel Buds-A are all about the software. An intelligent algorithm enhances volume based on your surroundings, though the impact of this wasn’t too evident during my week-long use of the device. They also have dual-beamforming mics to pick your voice from ambient noise when you are on calls, which works quite well. I have used them to take phone calls in the gym and outdoors, with very few complaints.
However, they don’t have active noise cancellation (ANC), a technology that even the much cheaper Nothing Ear 1 offers. Interestingly, though, ANC on the Ear 1 is about as good as passive noise cancellation (PNC) on the Pixel Buds. I often heard the loud Punjabi tracks over my own music at the gym, or a car honking relentlessly on the road, on both.
ANC uses real circuitry to recognise noise and produces sound waves to cut it out, while PNC depends on the earplugs to physically block out sound. ANC is almost always better. If headphones cost ₹10,000, they should have ANC as a rule.
The actual sound signature on the Pixel Buds is what gives some indication of the direction Google is taking. They are quite good with high and mid-frequencies, and decent with bass. This tells me that Google wants you to use these to listen to podcasts, take calls and speak to the Google Assistant. They are not meant simply for music, something most Indian users buy TWS products for.
For, if the Pixel Buds-A are good for music, so are the less expensive Ear 1 mentioned above. In fact, bass-driven tracks, like Live In Fear by Mark Crozer or even Linkin Park’s Wretches And Kings, aren’t as impactful on the Pixel Buds as they should be.
It’s not that the bass is bad. It’s just low, so it will not impress those who like loud, thumping bass. My playlist includes Bangla music, quintessential Salman Khan songs, classical rock bands and much more, and the Pixel Buds-A don’t particularly fail any genre. Could they be better? Sure. Are competitors in this or lower price ranges any different? No.
The Pixel Buds-A also have the Google Assistant built in. Other than gesture controls to play, pause and skip tracks, you can long-press on either earbud to call the Assistant and bark commands. It will also read out some notifications, including text messages on WhatsApp. But good luck if you are trying to understand “Hinglish” messages spoken out by the Assistant.
If you happen to be abroad, the Pixel Buds-A will also help you with translation. A combination of the Buds and Google Translate app can be used to translate spoken word in real time, although this is neither intuitive nor truly dependable. But these are features no other TWS buds will give you right now.
However, you won’t get any of the software features—barring some gestures—if you want to use this with an iPhone. This is understandable, given that Apple’s AirPods lose functionality with Android devices too. There’s no way to even update the Pixel Buds-A’s firmware on the iPhone, which seems like going a tad too far. Google confirms this, saying that the Pixel Buds will “function like any standard wireless Bluetooth headphone” on iOS.
The Pixel Buds app for Android allows users to download firmware updates when needed and try a “bass boost” option that marginally enhances the bass response. None of this is available for an iOS device. You can only tap to play, pause and skip.
That brings us full circle. Apple’s AirPods Pro are notably better in terms of audio quality, albeit more expensive. Nothing’s Ear 1 is comparable, cheaper and better-looking. So Google is really charging the premium for the Google Assistant, which may be a hard sell for the regular Indian customer. That is perhaps why the company isn’t selling the even more expensive Pixel Buds in India (it uses the A moniker for affordable alternatives of its Pixel products).
To be fair, the software features of the Pixel Buds combined with Apple’s audio quality should be the least we should expect from every TWS over the next five years or so. With that in mind, one must admit that the Pixel Buds-A will fit the needs of early adopters and real tech enthusiasts. If you think of headphones as commodities, though, look elsewhere.