The Pixel Buds A-Series drop niche features to deliver a hands-free Google Assistant experience for under £100
- Reasonably priced
- Lovely form factor
- Seamless Google Assistant functionality
- Mediocre battery life
- Could be more comfortable
Google may be most people’s go-to search engine, but its headphones have failed to achieve the same kind of industry dominance. Its first-generation Pixel Buds earphones were held back by fussy controls and an uncomfortable fit, while the true wireless 2020 revamp were delightfully designed but beset by reports of unstable connections and audio dropouts.
Undeterred, the tech giant is back with its second pair of true wireless earbuds – the Google Pixel Buds A-Series – and this time around the Pixel Buds package is available at a far more palatable price.
If you’re craving a hands-free Google Assistant experience, the Pixel Buds A-Series may be just the Android earbuds you’ve been looking for.
Google Pixel Buds A-Series review: What you need to know
The Google Pixel Buds A-Series are effectively a “lite” version of the 2020 Google Pixel Buds. They’re true wireless earbuds designed for Android users – although you can connect them to any Bluetooth device, you’ll need a device running Android 6.0 or higher to use Google Assistant and the Pixel Buds companion app is only available on the Google Play Store.
The buds retain the same IPX4-rated design as their predecessor, while both pairs of headphones operate wirelessly over Bluetooth 5.0 and employ custom-tuned 12mm dynamic drivers. Codec support remains limited to SBC and AAC.
Stated battery life is unchanged, with up to five hours of audio playback for the buds and up to 24 hours including the charging case. Those figures drop dramatically if you’re using the A-Series for phone calls and virtual meetings: talk time is stated at just two-and-a-half hours for the buds and 12 hours total for the buds and charging case. Fortunately, the A-Series charge quickly. A full charge takes an hour, while 15 minutes in the case is enough for three hours of audio playback.
The A-Series share most of the features of the 2020 model. Hands-free Google Assistant and real-time language translation via Google Translate are both present and correct, as is “adaptive sound”, which optimises the volume of your audio content based on how noisy your environment is, and the bass boost mode.
In fact, you’re not missing out on much by buying the cheaper model. Wireless charging functionality has been removed from the charging case and the ability to adjust your volume using touch controls has been scrapped, but they’re the only headline omissions.
Google has also omitted support for “attention alerts”, which drop your volume down when the buds pick up the sound of a baby crying, dog barking or the siren of an emergency vehicle, and “sharing detection”, which allows two people to use an earbud each and control volume independently.
Google Pixel Buds A-Series review: Price and competition
The Google Pixel Buds A-Series are yet to receive a firm release date in the UK but you can join the waiting list for them via the Google Store. The headphones will set you back £99, which while not cheap, is pretty reasonable for premium-brand earbuds and significantly less than the £179 launch price for the 2020 version.
Around the £100 mark, you’re not short of true wireless alternatives, but no other options offer hands-free Google Assistant integration. As other true wireless rivals require touch controls to hail Google, the A-Series don’t have any direct competitors aside from their more expensive stablemate.
Huawei’s FreeBuds 4i are available for £80, offer light-touch active noise cancellation and are a great choice for fans of pop music, while the stylish Urbanista London (currently £84) also feature ANC and deliver engaging, impactful audio.
If you’re looking for something cheaper, both the Creative Outlier Air V2 (currently available for £45) and 1More’s PistonBuds (£40) support the use of voice assistants including Google Assistant and are well worth checking out.
At the other end of the price spectrum, the Bowers & Wilkins PI7 (£350) deliver best-in-class audio quality and innovative audio retransmission along with Google Assistant support, while Sony’s WF-1000XM3 are an excellent option if you want top-notch noise-cancelling performance at a more wallet-friendly price of £169.
READ NEXT: The best headphones under £50
Google Pixel Buds A-Series review: Design and comfort
The A-Series are launching in two colours: “clearly white” and “dark olive”. The white version differs slightly from the clearly white 2020 Pixel Buds in that the earbud’s accents are a light grey rather than black, while the dark olive is a brand new colourway.
I was sent the dark olive variant and I rather like the hue – it’s different without being garish. Aside from the colour, the A-Series look identical to their predecessor, and the pairs’ dimensions differ by a matter of micrometres.
Much of the praise I had for the 2020 iteration rings true again here. The circular capacitive touch panels are flat so don’t stick out of your ears, making the earbuds very discreet. Non-removable stabiliser fins keep the buds secure in your ears, and you’re provided with a choice of three sizes of eartips to help achieve a snug fit in your ear canals.
One of my few criticisms of the 2020 Pixel Buds’ design was that their eartips caused my ears to ache after prolonged use. I had a similar experience with the A-Series, so stopped wedging the tips right down my ear canals, which improved matters at the cost of slightly less effective sound isolation.
Another design aspect that carries over from the 2020 Pixel Buds is the inclusion of spatial vents on the buds. These let in a certain amount of external sound and seek to reduce the feeling of plugged ears while increasing your awareness of what’s going on around you. My ears never felt clogged while using the A-Series so the vents do seem to work. However, the sound they let through leaves them in an odd middle ground between buds offering top-notch sound isolation and open-fit buds such as Apple’s AirPods.
Google Pixel Buds A-Series review: Connectivity
As I mentioned earlier, the 2020 Pixel Buds were plagued by connectivity issues. Numerous users reported random disconnections and some had individual earbuds giving up on them entirely.
I had no such problems while testing them last year, but after digging them out to compare with the A-Series, I was unable to get the right bud working. It displayed as fully charged in the Pixel Buds app while sitting in the case, but once removed it disappeared entirely and wouldn’t play audio.
Umpteen factory resets were unable to rectify the issue and despite being able to see that a firmware update was available, I couldn’t download it via the Pixel Buds app as the right earbud wouldn’t register as connected.
By contrast, I’m yet to experience a single connection issue with the A-Series and both buds are functioning exactly as intended. They connected instantly with my Realme smartphone and maintained a steady connection throughout longer listening sessions. Whether they’ll stand the test of time is impossible to say, but at this stage it seems that Google has ironed out the serious flaws that affected the 2020 model.
Google Pixel Buds A-Series review: Features
Touch controls return from the 2020 iteration with one notable omission – you can no longer swipe forward or back to increase or decrease the volume. I’m a fan of volume touch controls on earbuds so their absence is disappointing, even if it is an understandable cost-cutting measure.
The touch controls that remain are simple and responsive. A single tap on either bud plays or pauses your audio, a double tap skips forward a track and a triple tap plays the previous track.
In-ear detection also makes a welcome return – remove either of the buds and audio will pause, pop them back in and it resumes. I expected this feature to be dropped for the cheaper model so was pleasantly surprised to see it included.
Like their predecessors, the Pixel Buds A-Series hang their hat on hands-free Google Assistant integration, and suffice to say, it’s very well executed. Long pressing either bud hails Google Assistant, though it’s far easier to utter the wake words “Hey Google” or “OK Google”.
The A-Series’ microphones consistently registered my voice commands and reacted with minimal delay, letting me adjust volume, skip tracks and open apps with ease. You can also opt to have notifications read aloud to you through the earbuds, but it’s prudent to be selective about which apps you have notifications enabled for – you run the risk of being bombarded by a constant stream of alerts.
The much-touted real-time language translation feature operates in the same way as it did with both the original and 2020 Pixel Buds. It’s simple to engage: simply ask Google to help you speak a specific language and it will open up the Google Translate app on your phone. Hold your finger on either earbud, speak and the phone will replay what you’ve said in your chosen language.
When receiving a response, hold down the microphone button in the Translate app and your phone will listen to what’s said, translate it and play it back via your earbuds.
It’s a neat feature, but as you need your phone to hand throughout the process it’s a bit clunkier than you might imagine. It’s certainly more convenient than having to flick through a foreign language dictionary, but if you’re hoping for free-flowing, hands-free conversation abroad, you’re going to be disappointed.
READ NEXT: Our favourite noise-cancelling headphones
Google Pixel Buds A-Series review: Audio and call quality
Like their predecessors, the A-Series house 12mm dynamic drivers designed to deliver “full, clear and natural” sound. They certainly do the clear and natural parts well. Treble sparkles and vocals are presented with plenty of detail, making the A-Series great for listening to pop and rock music.
“Love Race” by Machine Gun Kelly and Kellin Quinn is a track characterised by swift, powerful guitar riffs and layered vocals and was delivered with gusto by the A-Series. The various vocal components were all communicated with clarity, while the A-Series kept up with the rapid change in dynamics and tempo gamely.
To get close to a “full” sound, you’re definitely going to want bass boost mode engaged. Without it active, the A-Series suffer from a lack of impact in the same way their predecessor did. Tracks sound a little flat and the buds don’t deliver the necessary low-end weight to deliver a truly rich listening experience. With it on you’re still not getting a supremely powerful low-end response, but the balance is better and the overall sound quality is reasonable for a pair of £100 earbuds.
Due to their incorporation of spatial vents, the A-Series are always letting in some ambient sound. This isn’t an issue when listening to audio in quiet environments, but it impacts immersion in locations where there’s a lot of background noise. On a busy train, I found myself having to crank the volume to maximum to drown out what was going on around me.
To their credit, the A-Series remain controlled when pushed to their limits but they do feel a little on the quiet side at full whack. They don’t possess the ear-shattering power of some of their competitors, which is probably a good thing for your hearing, but there were a number of situations in which I felt they would benefit from a bit more volume. This is of course totally subjective – those with ears more sensitive than mine are unlikely to have such complaints.
One aspect of the A-Series’ audio presentation I don’t much care for is their use of “adaptive sound”, which tweaks volume automatically depending on your environment. It’s a clever but imperfectly executed idea – I often found I needed to readjust the volume manually after it automatically shifted so ended up switching the feature off a day or so into testing.
I haven’t any such complaints about the call quality of the Pixel Buds A-Series. Those I spoke to via the A-Series said the dual beamforming mics picked up my voice well and reported that they were able to hear me clearly and consistently. I recorded a few voice clips to hear for myself and while I wouldn’t describe the recordings as crystal clear, my words were intelligible and not swamped by background noise.
Google Pixel Buds A-Series review: Verdict
For the most part, the Google Pixel Buds A-Series have made sacrifices in the right places to keep costs down. With the exception of the swipe gestures used to control volume, I didn’t miss any of the features cut from the 2020 version.
Sound quality is respectable, too, if you’re accustomed to open-fit earbuds that let sound in, though personally I prefer having ambient sound reduced as it helps increase immersion. And while the minimalist design is spot on aesthetically, I still had comfort issues after an hour or two of use – in this respect, again, your mileage may vary.
That said, the A-Series’ big draw remains their seamless integration of Google Assistant, and here they can’t be beaten. As long as the issues that affected the 2020 model don’t resurface, the Pixel Buds A-Series are the buds to buy for those that can’t live without Google’s super-smart voice assistant.
The Pixel Buds A-Series drop niche features to deliver a hands-free Google Assistant experience for under £100