When Google launched its second-gen Pixel Buds in 2020, it created something of a conundrum for buyers of true wireless earbuds. On the one hand, their tiny size, wireless charging, comfortable fit, and excellent integration with Android and Google Assistant made them an attractive choice. But on the other hand, for the price ($179), it felt like Google had left out some important features, like active noise cancellation (ANC), transparency (ambient sound), and the ability to use their standout skills with Apple’s iOS devices.
One year later, those choices put the Pixel Buds into an even deeper corner as new products like the $199 JBL Tour Pro+, $120 Amazon Echo Buds 2, $95 1More ComfoBuds Pro, and $130 Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro have all trotted out great sound, ANC, and transparency.
Clearly, Google has some work to do if it wants the Pixel Buds to remain competitive. But in the meantime, the search juggernaut has a new strategy: If you can’t beat ’em, drop your price.
That’s the apparent philosophy behind the new $99 Pixel Buds A-Series. They look identical to the $179 Pixel Buds, and with a few exceptions, that’s true of their features too.
But Google did have to cut some fat to get to the A-Series’ highly affordable price. Did it go too far? Let’s check ’em out.
One of the things Google got right with the previous Pixel Buds was their size and shape. They’re incredibly compact, and that goes for the buds as well as their charging case. The A-Series preserves it all, effectively delivering AirPods Pro-level portability and convenience for $149 less than Apple’s iconic buds.
The case is wonderfully smooth, easy to open and close, and the Pixel Buds snap into their charging sockets with perfect precision.
But the AirPods Pro have wireless charging capabilities, and that has been stripped out of the A-Series case, replaced by a magnet. Yep, you can attach the case to any ferrous metal, from a fridge to the handlebars on your bicycle. I’m not sure why you’d want to, but it’s a fun feature that I’ve yet to see on any other charging case.
The Pixel Buds A-Series sit deeply in your ear and stay put thanks to the little rubber stabilizer arcs that were preserved from the original design. I suspect the buds would be almost as secure without them, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have them.
The earbuds use a spatial vent to alleviate inner-ear pressure, helping with overall comfort as well as letting some outside sounds get in. For those who jog, bike, or simply walk places where hazards like traffic could pose a danger, it’s a very good thing.
I still found myself wishing for a true transparency mode, especially on phone calls.
Google preserved the 12mm drivers from the $179 Pixel Buds for the A-Series, and it describes the sound quality as “full, crisp audio.” That’s not a bad description. Audio from the A-Series is very clear, especially through the higher frequencies, making these buds a great choice for podcasts and vocally dynamic music like pop tracks from Adele or Lady Gaga, or even opera if that’s your thing.
However, that clarity doesn’t extend into the midranges or bass, and I suspect it’s because of the vented design. It takes a lot of power to overcome the acoustic disruption of outside sounds. Other vented earbuds like the Jabra Elite 85t and AirPods Pro get around this using superb ANC, but the A-Series can’t lean on that.
Even their adaptive sound feature, which automatically adjusts the volume level to match your surroundings, can only do so much.
This is not to say that the A-Series sound bad — quite the opposite in fact, and especially when you engage their bass boost mode — but they’re only at their best when you have a quiet place to listen.
By far my favorite feature of the A-Series is their hands-free access to Google Assistant. Being able to say “Hey Google,” followed by any number of helpful commands, is fun and really convenient, especially when your hands are occupied.
But my least favorite part is that Google still doesn’t support this (or any of the A-Series’ advanced features) on non-Android devices, even if you have the Google Assistant app installed.
It’s an even more baffling situation given that the Amazon Echo Buds give you wake-word access to Alexa on both Android and iOS.
The A-Series won’t win any awards for battery life, but neither will you find yourself desperately wishing it were better than it is. With five hours per charge in the earbuds and a total of 24 hours when you include the case, that’s identical to the AirPods Pro. A quick charge of 15 minutes in the case gives you up to three hours of extra listening time.
Google claims the A-Series’ beamforming mics deliver clear calls, but I found this wasn’t always true. Once again, a quiet environment is your best bet: The moment traffic sounds started to compete with my voice, clarity sometimes ended up being completely obliterated for my callers.
A quick glance at people’s experiences with the $179 Pixel Buds reveals problems with their wireless connection. Some folks complain of audio that falls out of sync between the two earbuds, while others have noticed dropped connections even when their phone was placed in a back pocket. Our own Andrew Martonik initially loved the Pixel Buds but eventually grew weary of these connection issues and stopped using them in favor of the Jabra Elite 75t.
Personally, I never encountered sync or near-distance connection problems, but I couldn’t get more than about fifteen feet from my Pixel XL test phone before the A-Series began to cut out.
Google may have fixed some Bluetooth issues, but clearly not all of them.
I’m not sure there are many people left who would argue that the $179 Pixel Buds are an especially good value, but now that I’ve spent some time with the $99 A-Series, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’re a very good value — as long as you’re an Android user.
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