Google Pixel Buds Pro Second Impressions

I had vague plans to follow up on my original post about the Google Pixel Buds Pro after I had had the time to try them out at the gym. Curiously, that still hasn’t happened: I normally work out on Friday but Ask Paul ran late, and we still have a lot of moving to do before our lease at a storage facility runs out. And so we spent much of Friday afternoon and Saturday working on that instead. But I have spent more time with the Pixel Buds Pro, and I did get the firmware updated, and I think I have enough for a quick follow-up.

First up, I do think I’ll be keeping the Pixel Buds Pro: after going back and forth on the need for a second set of ANC-based earbuds, I finally decided that I didn’t want to use my expensive, large, and excellent Bose QuietComfort Earbuds for everything. And that what I wanted instead was something less expensive and smaller that I could use at the gym and on walks. These are curiously different activities from an earbuds perspective. I need noise canceling at the gym because it’s too loud there, and that renders less expensive earbuds without ANC (like the EarFun Free 2 wireless earbuds and Google Pixel Buds A-Series) unacceptable. But out walking, I need a transparency/passthrough mode (or no ANC) so I can hear the outside world and not be surprised when a jogger comes up behind me or, worse, a big truck goes by.

I’ve been using the Bose for both purposes, but they’re big and bulky, and I’ve never been comfortable using them in either scenario. But each time I’ve tested another set of earbuds, they’ve fallen short in various ways. The Pixel Buds Pro seem like they’ll be mostly fine, however. I’ve taken them on two long walks, and its transparency mode, which passes through outside sound, works well. And based on side-by-side ANC tests, I know that while the Bose offers superior noise cancelation, the Pixel Buds Pro are likely just right for the gym. (And the case is so small, I could carry it around easily. That’s not true of the Bose.)

I’ll find that out tomorrow, finally, but my only issue so far is that the lack of ear stabilization wings feels weird because I’m so used to this feature on other earbuds, and I find myself worrying that one of the earbuds will come flying out of my ear as I walk. That’s never happened and probably won’t, but I would never buy these things for running or jogging. (Indeed, I’m sure there are sports earbuds or similar headphones for this type of activity.) I’m not a jogger, so no worries there.

The other day, I mentioned that I had trouble getting a firmware update to install. True to form, the Pixel Buds Pro upgraded to that latest update just minutes after I posted the article, and I suppose it’s worth noting that they support two types of firmware updates, automatic updates that just happen in the background and then manual updates you need to trigger yourself. The pending update I was waiting on was of the latter variety, and while I’m not fully versed on how this product has been updated over time, I do know that Google has added features like ANC and head tracking over time. And I now know that this update improved the audio experience dramatically.

Overall, the sound is much richer and more immersive than I initially experienced, and while they still don’t quite reach the level of the Bose, they’re very close. And unlike the Bose, the Pixel Buds Pro do support Dolby Atmos for spatial audio, plus an optional head tracking feature that I’ll likely leave off going forward, though it works as advertised. But the bigger deal to me, for spoken word (audiobooks and podcasts) and music sources, is the EQ, which lets you choose between presets like Heavy bass, Balanced, Clarity, and others, and a custom EQ. I found that Clarity was the best preset for my needs, but I also boosted a few things and arrived at something I like even more. It made a big difference.

One thing I don’t like is the Pixel Buds Pro “app,” which installs as an app from the Store but then integrates into Android Settings, where it’s hard to find. I guess this only happens on Pixels, however, and that non-Pixel users will get a standalone version of this app alongside their other apps. Meanwhile, I have to laboriously navigate into Settings > Connected devices > Saved devices > Paul’s Pixel Buds Pro > Settings (gear icon) because Google thinks this kind of integration is a plus on Pixel. I can’t even search for this thing in the apps list, it’s just silly.

The app itself works well, however, and it is full-featured with a lot of customization choices. For now, I’m leaving everything but the EQ as-is, but as noted the other day, I will almost certainly disable the volume swipes, which feel unnecessary to me and can be unreliable.

I haven’t had time to test the Pixel Buds Pro’s audio switch and multipoint functionality yet, but I suspect these will both work best if the other device I’m using is a Chromebook or another Android device. I will test them with a Chromebook and with a Windows laptop, however. (Audio switch lets the buds automatically switch between two audio sources so you can do things like answer a phone if you’re listening to audio on a different device and then go back when you’re done. Multipoint lets the buds stay connected to two devices at the same time via Bluetooth.)

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the Pixel Buds Pro. Tomorrow’s trip to the gym will either seal the deal or complicated matters. We’ll see.

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