Google‘s 2020 Pixel Buds, despite some notable flaws, are some of my favorite Bluetooth headphones — and I say that as an audiophile who’s persnickety about sound quality. They had a balance of sound quality, features, comfort, and smarts that few headphones can match to date.
Unfortunately, Google appears to have just killed them. I can only hope that’s because there’s an even better follow-up on the way.
As noted by Android Police, Google has removed the Pixel Buds’ product page from its online store in the US and Canada. You can’t easily find a link to the Pixel Buds. Going there directly just tells you the product is out of stock and redirects you to the cheaper, $99 Pixel Buds A-Series.
As much as I personally loved the 2020 Pixel Buds, their likely retirement makes some sense. Many users experienced connectivity issues with the earbuds even after numerous updates, and that ultimately made them harder to recommend than they should have been. For this reason, the A-Series are, in practice, the better headphones.
Though they lost the volume gestures and wireless charging, they offered similar smarts, comfort, and sound quality, and (in my experience) superior microphone quality and connection stability. Considering wireless charging is something most people could live without and ‘hey Google’ detection is remarkably reliable for volume controls when you don’t have access to your phone, it made little sense to opt for the more expensive buds.
I’m hoping the removal of the ‘regular’ Pixel Buds means some kind of revision or Pixel Buds ‘Pro’ is on the way, which better differentiates the two tiers along the lines of Apple’s AirPods and AirPods Pro. There’s no firm indication that’s happening this year, but here’s what I’m hoping for from a potential update:
Active noise cancelation
The 2020 Pixel Buds notably omitted active noise cancelation, a feature present in many earbuds at its price range. That made it a tough sell against some of the competition. For some users, the lack of ANC is a dealbreaker, so Google would undoubtedly introduce ANC on a potential Pro model. Preferably, this ANC would be adjustable, so you could set it just right for your preferences.
Ambient transparency mode
Along with noise cancelation, an ambient sound mode can be very useful when you want to listen to music or an audiobook while still being aware of your surroundings; you might appreciate that when walking down a creepy alley at 3 AM, for example. Even if the headphones were to come without noise cancelation for some reason, I’d appreciate the addition of an ambient mode to make the headphones a little more versatile.
If it sounds like I’m just copying features from the AirPods Pro… well yes, I kind of am. Spatial sound is the future of headphone audio, and Google would be remiss to release a premium set of headphones without some kind of implementation — especially with more streaming services supporting this immersive feature.
Music has traditionally been optimized for speaker listening, but spatial audio evens the playing field for headphones. When done right, it can add a ‘3D-ness’ to sound which can outperform even the best surround speaker setups.
A largely unchanged design
The Pixel Buds and Pixel Buds A-Series are probably the most comfortable true-wireless headphones I’ve worn. Comfort will of course vary from user to user, but part of this is simply because the Pixel Buds are so much smaller than the majority of competitors; they’re among the few that can fit people with small ears, in my experience.
Realistically, it’s likely that a Pixel Buds Pro would be larger in order to accommodate a larger battery; noise cancelation adds significant battery drain. Still, hopefully, Google can keep the headphones relatively compact.
It’s 2021. Bluetooth headphones have no excuse to constantly disconnect or fall out of sync under regular use conditions.
I miss the days of just being able to plug in headphones from one device to the other. These days, switching Bluetooth headphones from your phone to your laptop and/or desktop tends to be a cumbersome process instead, requiring finagling with annoying menus. Google could go a long way toward remedying this by allowing the headphones to be connected to two devices at once with automatic switching.
Alternatively, as automatic switching is sometimes a little unreliable, the Pixel Buds Pro could introduce a command such as ‘hey Google, connect to my laptop/phone.’
Another problem with Bluetooth headphones is latency, which can be particularly annoying for gaming and music production. Currently, the Pixel Buds use the AAC codec (and SBC for the lowest-quality connections), which makes them virtually useless for low latency applications. I’d love to see Google use the new AptX Adaptive standard, which can reduce latency to about a quarter of current values. Bluetooth 5.2 is supposed to reduce latency further as well.
Premium earbuds to match premium Pixels? Don’t get too excited.
Rumor has it that Google is going all out with the Pixel series this year. After an unusual phone for an unusual year with the Pixel 5, Google is reportedly planning to return to the Premium space in a big way this year, going so far as to create its own processor for the first time. The company will also reportedly return to having two models in the line-up, one in the upper-mid tier of performance and features like the Pixel 5, and another with top-notch specs.
It’s only fitting that the company would want to introduce an audio experience to match. The problem is that the seemingly discontinued Pixel Buds were released just last year, and it would be unusual for a company to introduce a replacement so quickly. Then again, it’s unusual for a company to seemingly discontinue a model so quickly, so a man can hope we’ll learn more come this fall.
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