Thoughts on Pixel Buds 2: The Buddening
Posted on August 22, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 22 Comments
The second generation of the Pixel Buds wireless headphones have been out for a while and I’ve been interested in picking up a pair, since I have the previous iteration and was looking to upgrade. However, I wanted to get them in the Oh-So-Orange color, which only became available this last week (they will match my current Pixel 4 phone, which is also in that color, for roughly two months, after which time I will probably get the Pixel 5 because I’m that guy). The new Pixel Buds arrived today and I’ve spent the day tooling about with them. Because I just know you’re curious, here are some first-draft thoughts about them.
1. To begin, they look pretty cool. Like the first generation, they come in their own little charging case, and when they’re nestled in there and the top is flipped open (which is a solidly satisfying tactile experience, by the way), it looks for all the world like a cute little robot with bug eyes (at least in the orange variant).
2. When you take them out, they have a bit that goes into your ear canal and a little rubber wing that sits in your outside ear to help make them secure, which for me worked very well and was pretty comfortable. The rubber wing is an improvement over the first generation, which used a loop of cord to secure it in your ear. I didn’t mind that at first, but after a while the cord became less secure, and I was always fiddling with them to keep them in my ear.
3. As with the earlier version, the buds have touch controls, and like the earlier version the touch controls can be, well, touchy — it took me a bit to get used to using them in the last set and I can tell that it will take time for these as well. Unlike in the last version, in which only the right bud was touch sensitive, both buds here are, which I’m not sure I like that much. It just means another hand to train.
4. But on the other hand you can do just about anything with the buds, since they’ve integrated Google Assistant into them and that is, by a significant margin, the most useful virtual assistant. I turned on the voice commands for it (I kept those off last time) and so far have looked up some things, sent texts, called Krissy and navigated through a Spotify playlist. All of that worked seamlessly.
5. They sound fine. I think I like the sound profile of the first Pixel Buds slightly better (it at least feels like there’s slightly more bass response), but that might change as I fiddle with the buds. Out of the box the highs and mid-range are good and the bass is more waved at then entirely present, which is not all that unexpected for earbuds. They are not noise cancelling, which I don’t really mind, but the part that goes into your ear canal a smidge mutes the outside world. That said, I definitely noticed when, while having the buds in while going for a walk, an entire fleet of motorcycles blasted by. However, I was able to crank the volume up enough that while I did not drown out literally dozens of Harleys, I could still hear the music perfectly well.
(Update: 8/26/20: The buds just had a firmware update which includes a “bass boost” option. The bass is indeed boosted, and sounds better.)
6. With that said, because I am doing so many “virtual” events these days — wear your damn masks, people, I want to see real live humans again sometime this decade — I was interested in these less for music than I was for doing these online events without wearing monster earphones. On that score, these things are a winner. Their size make them mostly unobtrusive in my ears (even with the bright orange color), and when I talked to Krissy with them earlier today, she both came through loud and clear, and also told me she could hear me perfectly well through their in-bud microphone. They pair almost instantaneously with my Pixel phone (of course), but also come with Bluetooth, so it will be easy enough to pair them with the laptop I use for events.
(I should note I did get a more-than-trivial number of volume dropouts while I was on my walk, although whether that was do to a poor connection to my phone or because I live in the middle of nowhere and the cell signal will randomly drop to one bar just for fun is hard to say. I’ll see if it continues.)
7. Things I haven’t checked yet: Battery life and their ability to wirelessly charge (still too new), the advertised-as-improved automatic translation feature (no one near me speaks a different language), and how they hold up to strenuous exercise (I went for a walk, not a run). If anything about any of these is hugely negative, I’ll probably update this post, uhhhh, eventually.
Should you get these? If you have an Android phone, particularly a Pixel, I suspect they will be a pretty solid investment. This will be especially the case if you’ll use your buds for more than just listening to music, are comfortable using voice commands for Google Assistant, and don’t absolutely need noise-cancelling. If you’re in the Apple ecoverse, have issues with Google or are perfectly happy with your current set of headphones and/or don’t want to pay a premium for wireless buds, you’re probably fine without them. I’m looking forward to using them more, myself, especially on all those virtual events.
I love my Echo buds. From what I’ve read, the basic capabilities of them vs the Pixel’s are comparable enough to make the choice in buds much about which assistant you prefer. They both have their strengths of course, but I vastly find Alexa to fit my needs more — wondering just what makes you say Google’s system is the better choice by a significant margin?
I did experiment with wireless earphones for video calls, but here bluetooth is too flaky – just too much interference (well, I do have neighbours in radio range…). On the other hand, having a good external audio interface and the software to go with that opens a whole new can of opportunities, like mixing in a laugh track or the sad trombone. Yes, I am _that_ kind of guy.
I didn’t say the ecosystem was better, but the assistant is better.
Google just released a firmware update for the PB2 yesterday or the day before that allows you to adjust the bass response. Early reports say it really does help the low end. I got the PB2 on release, but haven’t gone in and messed with anything since the firmware was released, so I can’t provide an opinion on that. I’m not an audiophile and am not huge on bass, so they already sound perfectly fine to me.
I bought a cheap pair of Skullcandy Sesh buds on sale at Target for 30 bucks. They sound great, work on calls, and I can summon my google asst with some clicks. They get uncomfortable after about 45 mins of wear. Im sure the Pixel buds are way better, but like 100+ dollars better? Tough to say. I do love the orange.
I used to be a sound editor in Hollywood, and one thing I learned was that 90% of the time people don’t need the best audio solution, just a good enough solution. But that doesn’t mean the expensive stuff is a ripoff, just that if you’re willing to deal with a few cut corners 9 times out of 10 it’ll be good enough.
But this is pandemic times so F “good enough,” treat yoself and enjoy!
I guess I find it hard to know where the ecosystem ends and the assistant part begins. I do like Google’s more natural speech abilities, but there were too many things it just wouldn’t “assist” me with–sending texts to my wife and using 3rd party skills, mainly, along with tracking packages (albeit Amazon packages of course)–that I had to let her go. Still, there was a lot to like and I certainly don’t want to get malleted by trying to turn this into an Alexa vs Google debate. The important thing, of course, is that we can all agree that Siri sucks ass.
They look orange enough. What’s the cost?
I loved my AirPods, wireless ear buds rock but that has ended for me since I developed ear issues. I was so sad when I gave mine away.
I drool in your general direction.
Interesting that it is working OK for you on video calls. I recently got my first pair of wireless earbuds (Klipsch T5) and find that when it is in “headset” mode (so the mic will work), the sound quality goes way down. I assume this is because the Bluetooth signal gets split between the audio and the mic.
The result is a lot of “audio artifacts” which, while they don’t prevent me from understanding what folks are saying, are nevertheless irritating enough to discourage using them this way.
Of course I suppose there may be some limitation coming from the strength of the Laptop’s BT signal. Perhaps it will perform better with a phone.
Meanwhile, I can continue to use them in “headphone” mode and just use the laptop mic for input. Or stick with the corded headphones, since I’m not moving about anyhow.
I too get occasional brief drop of audio whilst out perambulating, more so when paired with the left bud than when paired with the right (for some reason Klipsch makes it possible to do either, although I don’t know why. It honestly just makes pairing more difficult, and I can’t see a use case for this “feature”). I think occasional signal interruptions may be a limitation of BT technology.
The Verge also had audio dropout problems – when outside.
I’m not hugely curious about the buds, but I am about the matching circle on your thumb joint. How’d you do that?
Two points: I have never had earbud-located controls that weren’t a pain to use. It’s much easier to use a smartwatch to adjust volume, go forwards or backwards, etc. Secondly, raising volume because of outside noise is harmful to one’s ears. Better to have good noise-suppression. That’s why when I know I’m going to be bombarded by loud noise (like with tools or yard work) I select my (unfortunately) wired etymotics.
Ouch, as an audio snob this kind of hurts. Then again, I’m sitting here looking like Princes Leia with 2lb, $2k planar magnetics clamping down hard on my head. On top of that I strictly listen to Tom Waits and nothing else.
Glad they’re working out for you.
I too have the orange buds 2 and I love them, but, the issue with the audio cutout every 1 minute and 50 seconds is unacceptable. How could they not correct this, and even after the update a couple days ago it’s still not corrected. Customer Support has assured me that there is another update in a couple more days that may correct it. Fingers crossed. I just don’t understand how a widespread problem with sound on an audio device doesn’t get caught and corrected. Everything else… Perfection.
Virtual events and “wear a mask” in the same sentence, how retarded. “Hey buddy on your Zoom meeting, I see you’re not wearing a mask! I don’t want your cyber AIDS!”
Huh. Does “this decade” mean “sometime in the 2020s”, or “by the end of this year which will be the end of the second decade of the 21st century”?
Not sure how long you’ve had them as I skimmed through your article, but I really liked these buds. So much that i exchanged them because I wanted them to work so bad. They cut out. They cut out when listening to music every few seconds to the point of ripping them out of your ear. Was using a note 9 btw. But I’ve seen several comments with several other phones including the pixel.
I ended up with Powerbeats Pro because they have the hook that goes over my ear. Couldn’t find earbuds that would stay in during heavy exercise.
I’m not a fan of noise canceling earphones, or even just loud ones, outdoors as they can really mess with situational awareness. When I’m riding the bicycle I want to hear people coming up behind me.
Saw a nasty accident last year when someone wearing earbuds while walking on the W&OD didn’t hear the cyclist coming up behind them yelling ON YOUR LEFT, made a left turn in front of the cyclist, and got broadsided. Fortunately the Ashburn fire department was right there and came out to pick up the injured fast.
I was gifted a pair of Sony WF-1000XM3s for Valentine’s Day and I absolutely love them, and then a month later when WFH started they became essential. I also live in the country and can only get 10mb cellular internet, so two people trying to do WebEx/Zoom conferences doesn’t work.
I call into conferences wearing these and they are spectacular.
I picked up a pair of Jabra Elite 65t’s maybe a year ago – they run about EUR 150 over here in Europe, so presumably cheaper in the US, but seem to be about the same as the Pixel buds.It had been a long time since technology felt like magic to me. No extra loops or anything for the fit, as they just cram in the ear, the accompanying app has an equalizer, and they stay in my ears with no problem, volume control and Google Assistant integration. Probably a good alternative!
Re: bass response. You may wish to check the fit and see if there are alternative ‘heads’ that might work better. I had to use 2 different ones to make my buds optimal And once I got it right, things were MUCH better.