Pixel Buds Series A

The Google Pixel Buds Series A really fit the "reasonable sound quality with great convenience" hole that was in my headphone lineup.

Pixel Buds Series A
Pixel Buds Series A, in Dark Olive.

I have a lot of Bluetooth headsets (Sony WHXB900N, GeeKee G350, Soundpeats True Wireless, Soundpeats Q12, Fiio BTR3) and most of them are junk and experiments but it's been a long time since I've used a corded headset so I guess the experiment proved at least one thing; I'll put up with some limitations for the convenience.

The exceptions are the Fiio BTR3 which is a Bluetooth receiver and USB DAC which allows me to use my existing wired headphones (most notably my Pansonic HJE900 and my AKG K545) over Bluetooth using the LDAC codec.  Very high-quality sound and allows me to continue to use my existing headsets with the convenience of Bluetooth.  When I'm doing more critical listening I will very often use one of the two headsets with the BTR3 and enjoy the music as it was meant to be heard.

However, while the above setup works really well it's still just a little janky for a "grab it and listen" convenience factor, thus the Sony WHXB900N.  They are by far not the best in the Sony lineup but they're pretty good.  I have to heavily EQ them to calm down the bass but mids and highs are pretty nice on them and with EQ the bottom end is tolerable as well.  They are the "XB", or "Extra Bass" models so I knew what I was getting.  I figured I could tweak the sound profile in EQ and I was mostly right.  Not as good as the two headsets above, but about 90% there and that's good enough.  Just like the Fiio BTR3, the Sony 900N's do LDAC and therefore the audio is as transparent as we're going to get with Bluetooth today. Hopefully, in the future, the codecs and transports will continue to improve (especially the headset profiles; they're still AWFUL!).

The others are pretty low quality but were handy to keep in a pocket or to use while mowing, and that's really about all that I can say about them.  

NOW the Pixel Buds Series A

Google has had a few varieties of these, the originals were pretty daft, the second ones were I felt a bit over-priced and said to have questionable sound quality, but the Series A at $99 was a lot more interesting.  I had already considered if they would be good to own but had not purchased them until I upgraded my Pixel 3XL to the Pixel 6 and the Series A buds came free with the phone; cha-ching!  However anything I talk about here will be considering the retail price of $99, not what I paid, but none the less this is not a full review as those can be found all over the internet and done better than I'd do it.  I just wanted to capture a few thoughts on them.

I will mention a bit about the sound quality of course; they're fine.  They're better than the junk Bluetooth headsets but closer to them than the Sony 900N's.  The sound stage on them is similar to any other in-ear and like most things they do need a bit of EQ to brighten up the mids and highs.  I saw a few reviews saying they were not very bright and I have to agree, but it's mostly correctable in EQ.  The separation of instruments is very reasonable, details are reasonable, and in general, I feel like they're perfectly adequate for casual listening.  The Bluetooth codec is only AAC, which is a far cry from the quality that LDAC has but it's reasonably okay for this level of earbuds.

By design, they are not very isolating so you do hear quite a bit around you while wearing them.  Not to the point where you have to turn up the volume to compensate but they certainly let in a lot more sound around me than my AKG's and of course the Sony 900N's (with ANC).  However, as mentioned, this is by design.  These are designed to be worn all the time, in all situations, so you want to have some awareness of what's going on around you.  But please, don't wear earbuds while riding your bike.  Please, really, don't.

Features

The Pixel Buds 2 had a lot of fancy features like adjusting volume and recognizing certain sounds around you and muting or alerting you; Series A has neither feature.  But they do have all the normal features one expects on modern earbuds; play/pause, next, prev, answer, mute, hang up, and Google Assistant.  Would it be nice to adjust the volume?  Yes.  But I can live with it.

Just want to mention that in case you're not aware when headsets/earbuds/etc say they have "Google Assistant" it means that they support some quick gesture or button or otherwise some method to bring up the Assistant in the earbuds and listen for commands.  Your phone is still doing all of the Assistant duties, so if you're connected to the computer for example you're not magically going to get Google Assistant.  That said, when connected to the phone it does work reasonably well although it does take a little getting used to as it just emits a light "bong" sound and then you start talking.  If you don't talk and just let go it will read your notifications and tell you the time.

Positives

They are very comfortable once you understand the intended position in your ear; basically, I insert them with the little rubber finger up a bit and then "screw" them into my ear so the little rubber finger bit is tucked into my ear.  They stay in place well, although like most earbuds I find that chewing tends to make them walk out of my ears.  I have worn them for 5+ hours at a time which is not something I can usually do with earbuds as they are almost always just a little uncomfortable and wind up feeling like they're pushing in a spot or two and making my ears ache; these do not which is very nice.

You can force a connection to these from any other device while they're in use on another device.  I honestly don't know how common this is, maybe it's a shortcoming of my Sony 900N's but once they're connected to something I have to manually disconnect them and re-connect them to another device, such as flipping between my phone and my computer.  So if I take them in the backyard, turn them on and realize they're connecting to my computer I have to go back inside, login, disconnect, then go back to what I was doing.  Luckily these just work; try to connect from another device and they disconnect from whatever they're connected to and connect to the device you're trying to use them with.  I find this makes them very convenient to swap between using them on the computer and my phone where the 900N's almost exclusively stayed connected to the computer because of the faffing to swap them around.  It's not a big deal until you do it a bunch.

The case just works; which is a lot more than I can say about the GeeKee or Soundpeats.  The GeeKee require fiddling and alignment and messing with the rubber coating to make them charge in the case.  Both the GeeKee and the Soundpeats randomly either self-discharge or turn off/crash/something and the only way to get them working again is to plug them in and let them charge for a few minutes and then they seem fine.  This isn't the end of the world but if you keep them in your pocket 24/7 to use any time and they're randomly not working it's pretty frustrating.  So far the Pixel Buds Series A just work; they snap right into place in the case without any fuss and they charge up fast (15 minutes for 3 hours of music!) and they always just work as soon as I remove them from the case.  Time will tell if they have any weird quirks when not using them for extended periods but so far they just work which is nice.  I did a little experimenting with the case charging and decided it charges at about 2W and the internal battery is likely around 600mA.  It takes around an hour to charge if near empty.

As far as runtime, I'm getting about 6 hours of music or other audio and that's charging them at about 35%.  The case should charge them at least 4 times so that agrees with what I've seen in a few reviews saying Google's runtime estimates are conservative.  Your mileage may vary, but I estimate at least 30 hours of music listening which is plenty.  I have not let them sit around unused for weeks at a time so I'm hoping there's not any significant self-discharge to worry about but otherwise battery life seems more than enough for me.

Dislikes

I honestly don't have many dislikes except the Connect/Disconnect sounds are EXCEPTIONALLY LOUD.  I don't know why they are so loud but they are ear-searingly loud.  Why, Google, why?

Desktop Use

And just a side note; I have been using these at the computer quite a bit and they've worked well for that duty.  I can walk around all over the house with very few dropouts, sound quality is good, and as mentioned they are very comfortable, and yet I can hear the family trying to get my attention when needed.  I have found that AAC has pretty poor latency compared to LDAC, so I've had to compensate in Pulse Audio on my Fedora install and tell it that they have about 160ms of latency or movies/youtube/etc looked out of sync.  Luckily this is easily done and everything is in perfect sync with this minor tweak.

Color and Design

I did opt for the Dark Olive as I did not want white; I would have preferred the Black of the Pixel Buds 2 but it is what it is.  The case was still white, which is unfortunate, so to keep it in good shape and add a little protection I got a skin for the case as there doesn't seem to be any good options for any real protective cases (all reviews seemed to indicate they didn't stay together, kept the lid open, didn't fit right, etc...  I didn't want to fool with it).  Here's a picture of the case with the skin on it in case you're wondering what that looks like.

The pairing button is optional. Lines, you can barely see them!

Yeah.  Nailed it.

Final Thoughts

Are they worth $99?  I may have never purchased them before, but after using them for a few weeks I feel that it would have been a good buy.  Sound quality is okay, comfort is great, convenience is superb, and we've already determined that I'm way down the path of convenience wins ;)

And...  Well, this.

It's not dirty unless you think it's dirty.