Google Pixel Buds Pro review: the sweet sound of redemption

It wasn’t a sure thing that the Pixel Buds Pro would turn out to be good. Google has had a mixed, inconsistent track record with wireless earbuds so far. The original Pixel Buds in 2017 had such an unconventional design that something as fundamental as putting them back into the case was overly complicated. The Pixel Buds 2 moved to a much sleeker, true wireless form factor, but they were beset with connectivity issues and frequent audio dropouts. Google righted the ship with the low-end $99 Pixel Buds A-Series last year, but now all eyes are on the new, flagship $199 Pixel Buds Pro — the company’s first earbuds with active noise cancellation — to see whether Google can really hang with the very best from Apple, Sony, Samsung, and others.

Turns out, it very much can. The Pixel Buds Pro fully resolve the Bluetooth woes of the second-gen model while delivering improved sound quality, longer battery life, satisfactory noise cancellation, and bonus convenience features like multipoint. They’re not the smallest or lightest earbuds around, but Google’s elimination of the integrated wing tips (or “stabilizer arcs”) from prior models results in better overall comfort.

When Google announced these earbuds a couple months ago, it made a point to call out the custom silicon and in-house audio processing that were key to developing the Pixel Buds Pro. Every company with earbuds that are the best at something — think noise cancellation in the case of Sony or transparency mode for Apple — builds its own components to achieve that. According to Google, the Pixel Buds Pro include a custom six-core audio chip (not to be confused with the custom Tensor chip in Pixel phones) that powers the active noise cancellation system, and they also use custom 11-millimeter drivers / speakers tuned by the company’s audio team.

So then, let’s get right to it: noise cancellation on the Pixel Buds Pro is generally quite good for subduing noise at home, the office, or in a coffee shop. But I do notice that some parts of the frequency spectrum (like street noise from passing cars) cut through louder than they would on the AirPods Pro or Sony’s WF-1000XM4 buds. Since the ANC runs on Google-developed algorithms, it’s feasible that firmware updates could further enhance the noise-canceling strength of the Buds Pro. As it stands today, the ANC is more than competent — even if it won’t be bumping Sony or Bose from the top of the mountain.

The Pixel Buds Pro come in four colors. This is the yellow “lemongrass” option.

Transparency mode, on the other hand, is decent but falls well short of matching the natural, airy sensation you get with the AirPods Pro or Sony’s LinkBuds S. Google’s transparency passthrough does the job but has a semi-muffled tonality to it. This is likely, at least in part, because the Pixel Buds Pro no longer have the same “spatial vent” that lets through some natural ambient sound on the 2020 Pixel Buds and Pixel Buds A-Series.

While on the subject of ANC, I’m admittedly perplexed by the feature Google calls “Silent Seal.” The company describes it like so:

Everyone’s ears are unique, so it’s not always possible for the eartips to create a perfect seal that prevents sound from leaking in from the outside. Pixel Buds Pro use Silent Seal to adapt to your ear, to help maximize the amount of noise that’s canceled.

When I asked for more specifics on how Silent Seal works or exactly what is happening, Google spokesperson Marisa DeRose oddly declined to share further details. My best guess is that Google’s algorithms try to optimize the active noise cancellation based on your ear shape and how the earbuds fit you, but the lack of information leaves me skeptical that Silent Seal is really a game changer.

They’re Google’s first earbuds with active noise cancellation.

Google also says that the Pixel Buds Pro contain sensors that “measure the pressure in your ear canal” to alleviate the plugged-up sensation that ANC earbuds can often produce. I did manage to get more particulars on this from product manager Pol Peiffer, who told me by email that the sensors “constantly measure the pressure in your ear canal so the earbuds can actively relieve it and stay comfortable. These measurements never leave the earbud and are erased immediately after they are processed for noise canceling.” This is Google’s solution for the lack of an air vent, but I’m curious as to whether the overall noise cancellation power on the Pixel Buds Pro is being hamstrung by this emphasis on comfort. It’d be nice to have the option to crank it to 11 — ear pressure be damned.

Backing up a bit, the Pixel Buds Pro carry on the design lineage of Google’s last couple models. The outward-facing portion still looks like a Mentos, especially in the mellow yellow color of my review sample, but the rest of the earbud is much more substantial and chunky. When you initially pluck them from the case, the Buds Pro might not seem like earbuds that will be especially comfortable or stay in your ears well. Thankfully, that first impression is misleading.

The design is substantially chunkier than past Pixel Buds — and there’s no integrated fin.

Even without the affixed stability fins from past Pixel Buds, the Buds Pro slid into my ears snugly, and after some twisting and light adjustments, I wasn’t concerned about them going anywhere. I thrashed my head around, and they stayed put. They also passed the standard eating and talking tests without dislodging. It’s certainly easier to (purposefully) remove them than the foam-tipped Sonys or deep-seated Galaxy Buds, but you don’t need to worry about unexpected tumbling-out-of-your-ears mishaps. I’ve noticed they stick out a bit in smaller ears but are more flush and subtle in big ears like mine. And despite the relative heft compared to lighter buds, they stayed comfortable over extended listening. Google bundles the standard three sets of silicone tips in the box, and there’s an ear tip seal test in the Pixel Buds app if you need further confirmation you’re using the right size. The pebble-shaped carrying case is also very similar to past Pixel Buds, with the same eggshell feel and satisfying snap when closing, plus wireless charging.

Microphones on the exterior of each earbud help to cancel out nearby noise.

The Pixel Buds Pro work decently for voice calls.

The Pixel Buds Pro deliver the best audio experience of Google’s lineup thus far. They don’t rival the superb dynamics and rich clarity of something like Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 3 earbuds, and I think the Sony 1000XM4s still surpass them in a head-to-head. I wouldn’t quite rank these in that upper echelon, but for a daily, take-everywhere pair of earbuds, I’ve been pleased with Google’s refinements. The Hold Steady’s “Lanyards” came through with ample bass kick and punchy guitars. Lake Street Dive’s “Nick of Time” showed off their smooth vocal reproduction, and while sampling John Mayer’s “Wild Blue,” the Pixel Buds Pro created ample separation between instrumentation to let the solos shine. In some tracks, the mids can come off as recessed, and I’d like more control over the default V-shaped EQ. Google’s website confirms that’s in the works.

For now, audio tuning settings from past Pixel Buds (like bass boost) are MIA in the Pixel Buds app, but the company plans to add five-band EQ customization sometime this fall. In the meantime, there’s a “volume EQ” toggle that lifts bass and treble at lower volumes to keep your music sounding consistent throughout the range. Audiophiles might be disappointed that the Pixel Buds Pro only support AAC and SBC for Bluetooth codecs — rumors that they would also include LC3 and Bluetooth LE audio are untrue — but I think tuning and audio signature are ultimately more important to how they sound. If you can’t live without LDAC, there’s always the 1000XM4s, LinkBuds S, or even cheaper options.

The carrying case is similar to what came with previous Pixel Buds.

It supports wireless charging and is quite compact.

To ensure the Pixel Buds Pro have fully conquered any unwelcome dropout issues, I tested the new earbuds on busy streets, intersections, and in other environments that would’ve spelled doom for the Pixel Buds 2. But the audio kept playing without any interruptions. That held true whether my phone was handheld or in my pants pocket; the latter scenario can cause audio disruptions for some earbuds, but not these. The connection is simply much more robust this time around.

If you’ve got small ears, the buds might protrude a bit.

Google covers pretty much everything you need with the onboard controls: tap once to play / pause, twice to skip tracks, or three times to go back. You can press and hold to switch between ANC and transparency, and this gesture can be customized (on either earbud) to activate Google Assistant as well. The swipe-based volume controls of the 2020 Pixel Buds have also returned, letting you increase loudness by brushing a finger forward across the earbud surface or lowering it by swiping backward.

The Pixel Buds Pro come with the usual perks of having Google Assistant in your ear; you can ask for the weather or walking directions, respond to texts, request a song, have notifications read aloud, or take advantage of features like Live Translate when traveling — all with hands-free “Hey Google” voice commands. It’s helpful to have these tricks at your disposal, but other specialties from past Pixel Buds — adaptive sound, attention alerts, and the aforementioned bass boost — have quietly been removed. Regardless, I’d argue the biggest new addition to the Pixel Buds Pro is multipoint, which allows you to connect to two audio sources (like your phone and computer) simultaneously.

The Pixel Buds Pro don’t suffer the same connectivity issues as the prior Pixel Buds.

And it works pretty much like a dream: I can start watching a video on my MacBook Pro, hit pause, switch over to my Pixel and start a song on Spotify, and the earbuds play it without delay. Stopping the song and jumping back to the video is just as seamless. When a call comes in, you can just answer it, and the buds will prioritize that audio; it’s a huge plus being able to avoid Bluetooth menus. Every so often, you’ll hear a little hitch in the audio when transitioning between audio sources, but it’s barely perceptible. Voice call performance is acceptable; I was intelligible to my colleagues on Zoom even in a busy coffee shop, and in quieter environments, I never got any complaints about mic quality.

A detailed close-up of the Pixel Buds Pro.

Later this year, Google plans to counter Apple and Samsung by introducing spatial audio with head tracking for the Pixel Buds Pro. So when you’re watching movies or listening to Dolby Atmos music, you can move your head around, and the sound field will shift appropriately. But like always, this is all about ecosystem lock-in and will be limited to Google’s own hardware — so you’ll need a Pixel phone to do anything with it. The Pixel Buds Pro are also capable of intelligent automatic switching between various Android devices, but I don’t know many people using a handful of Android products unless you’ve got a smartwatch or TV that also happens to run the OS.

Battery life for Google’s latest buds is rated at 7 hours with noise cancellation on or up to 11 with it switched off; in several days of testing the Pixel Buds Pro so far, those estimates seem on the mark. And the earbuds are rated IPX4 for water resistance, so you don’t need to worry about getting them sweaty mid-workout. The case is a slightly less durable IPX2, but at least it’s got some level of protection.

My red lemonade matched the earbuds. I couldn’t resist a photo.

Even with all the praise, there’ve been occasional bugs. I’ve had (very) rare instances where audio breaks down and gets unlistenable while watching a video when using multipoint, or the stereo imaging of the earbuds gets thrown out of whack after I manually disconnect one of the two devices. These glitches aren’t unheard of when using true wireless earbuds, and Google has some early kinks to iron out. But on the whole, I’m much more confident in recommending the Pixel Buds Pro than any of the company’s prior efforts, and that boils down to their rock-solid overall connection stability.

The Pixel Buds Pro are Google’s best set of earbuds yet. They’ve shed the connectivity flaws that sank the second-gen model while adding respectable active noise cancellation, longer battery life, and superior sound. And the inclusion of multipoint makes them genuinely more useful day to day. Like any pricey earbuds, you’ll want to try them on for yourself to get a feel for the fit. But assuming the new, bulkier design jibes with your ears, Google finally has a full-featured, flagship pair of earbuds that Pixel fans can enjoy without any back-of-mind reservations or second thoughts — just as it ought to be for $200.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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