I am one of the (unfortunate?) early adopters of Pixel Buds 2. There has been a lot of press about them and equal amounts of complaints about their stability.
This brief review will list some of my likes and dislikes and link to my community post at Google Support…
Since the release of firmware version 552 back in September the buds are now mostly reliable. The periodic cut-outs/balance-shift issue appears to be resolved and the other issues do not occur frequently enough to cause frustration.
The “dual-mono” effect still occurs occasionally, at most a few times a week. Sometimes it will self correct, sometimes it will correct after pausing and un-pausing, sometimes pausing from one bud and un-pausing from the other but sometimes the only way to resolve it is to return at least one bud to the case. There is a new feature “Sharing Detection” which is supposed to detect when you and a friend are wearing one bud each (it hasn’t worked reliably for me) and switch the buds into dual-mono with independent volume control. This is an indication that the buds are capable of “dual-mono” however if you have this feature switched on there is a chime that sounds when it switches into that mode. As my “dual-mono” feature is not accompanied with a chime and I have the feature turned off I don’t believe it is directly related.
The other issue that still presents occasionally is the random disconnections regardless of battery level. This issue presents less frequently than the “dual-mono” issue, perhaps once a week or once a fortnight. The bud makes the downward chime indicating a disconnect and sometimes both buds will then disconnect and refuse to reconnect. To reconnect I have tried restarting Bluetooth, restarting my phone and hard-resetting the buds. Sometimes all it takes is switching Bluetooth off and back on but on at least one occasion the hard-reset was the only solution.
It is worth mentioning that I now have a warranty replacement/refurbished Pixel 3a XL. I had a charging issue with my original Pixel 3a XL and after a support call to Google they recommended replacing it. I don’t know if the charging issue was an indication of other internal problems but I suppose it is possible. I have now had the “new” phone for a couple of weeks and I haven’t had to hard-reset the buds since pairing them. The “dual-mono” effect has occurred with the replacement phone but “random disconnects” occurred less frequently so it may only be a matter of time.
I am happier with the buds since fw552 and, while not perfect, they are much improved. I now use them so much more than before that I now often hit the 15% “low-battery” level and occasionally lament the limited battery capacity.
For the sake of clarity, I use my Pixel Buds primarily with my Pixel 3a XL. I keep my phone updated to the latest patch and at the time of writing this article my Pixel Buds are updated to firmware 550.
I also have a Fossil Sport WearOS smartwatch paired to my phone. The thought had struck me that it may be interfering with Pixel Buds’ reception, however, during testing, I tried disconnecting my watch for a day and the noticed problems still occurred.
What I Like
The Design: The main thing that I like about the Buds is their aesthetic design. They look cool and they are compact. They also have a low profile. I can almost use them lying down with my head on my pillow without feeling them in my ears.
Covert Listening: Up until purchasing my Buds I was using over ear headphones when I went out for a walk. Sometimes I was a little self conscious about them (but on other days they were a good way to discourage people from engaging me 😉) and on hot days they get sweaty. I can wear the Buds under my beanie on cold days and for hot days they are sweat resistant.
Late Night Listening: I often use them in bed to listen to an Audiobook so as not to disturb my wife if she is already asleep. Older bluetooth headphones all have obnoxious blue flashing LEDs that flare in the darkness like an emergency vehicle. The Pixel Buds have no LEDs (that I know of) except on the battery case (the only downside for late listening is the really bright, white LED on the battery case when you put them away).
Single Bud Listening: I like being able to wear one bud on its own. As I mentioned above, they are low profile and I can lie on my side with my head on my pillow without too much pressure on my ear but I often take that bud out and just listen to one. It’s also handy when you want to listen to something but also be aware of your surroundings. For example, listening while your children are home learning 😉.
The Fit: When you get the fit right, they (almost) never fall out. In the privacy of my own social isolation I jumped up and down like a mad thing trying to make them fall out and only during certain combinations of tips and activity was I able to get them to fall out. During my normal usage they never fall out.
Touch Controls: I have an older pair of bluetooth headphones that have touch controls on one cup. You can swipe forward to skip forward, back to skip back, up to increase volume, down to decrease volume and a hardware button to play/pause/answer calls. They were pretty good but the gestures were quite long and only on one side.
The teeny tiny Pixel Buds also have touch control and I assumed that they would be very fiddly to swipe on such a small surface. I was wrong. They are easier but it’s more of a brush than a swipe. Brush either Bud forwards to increase volume, back to decrease. Tap them to play/pause/answer, double tap to skip forward and triple tap to skip back. They are the basics but there are also other features that use long tap or tap and hold.
They work surprisingly good however occasionally swiping forwards can dislodge a Bud not fully engaged in your ear and repeated tapping on a Bud lodged in your ear can sometimes get uncomfortable.
What I don’t like
There is only one thing I don’t like about them, their performance. There are a number of annoying issues that I have noticed. All of these issues have been noticed for firmware versions 295, 296 and 550.
- Audio Cut-Outs – What I am referring to are small breaks or glitches in the audio periodically. Usually in both buds, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes milliseconds apart between buds (left-to-right or right-to-left).
- Dual Mono/Echo Effect – Occasionally the audio will become diffused or sound like it’s echoing. It sounds to me like they are both playing in mono and one side is delayed by milliseconds. I have also noticed this more than once during a phone call.
- Balance Shift to Left Bud – Sometimes subtle, sometimes severe. Occasionally I will notice a large shift to the left bud to the point where it almost sounds as if the right bud has switched off. Removing the left bud proves the right is still functioning but at a lower volume. More commonly is a slight drift to the left bud. It is most noticeable when listening to spoken word like an audiobook. The central listening position seems to shift subtly to the left and after a minute or so the audio will glitch/cut and the balance will be central again.
- Cupping Hands Over The Buds/Ears – This one is not in my normal operation but I thought I would try it since many people had mentioned it. Cupping my hands over my ears caused the left bud to stop and only the right bud to function. This always happened when I covered both ears and occasionally happened when covering the left only or the right only.
Further testing showed that sometimes the right bud will cut leaving the left bud functioning. It turns out this activity is a pretty handy way to determine which bud is currently the “master” and which is the “slave”. The “slave” will be the bud that cuts out. You can force one bud to be the “master” by removing it from the case first (if battery levels are equivalent).
- Intermittent Problems
- The right bud disconnecting while displaying greater than 70% battery.
- The buds (or a bud when using one) not automatically connecting and having to go into my phone’s Bluetooth settings to manually connect.
- Occasionally needing to hard-reset the buds and/or reboot my phone to make the performance stable.
I have performed some rudimentary tests on the fit and on the audio glitches. My finding are below.
I tested all three rubber tips; small, medium, and large:
- Small Tips: They fit tight in my ear canal. I thought this was the correct fit at first because I was used to other wired, in-ear buds where you have to jam them in deep to get them to stay in. However, jumping around with a bit of effort, I was able to dislodge them. The tiny stabilisers on the back of the buds wouldn’t engage properly. When I tried fitting them to my son’s much smaller ears I noticed that the tips were barely entering his ear canal and the stabilisers were fully engaged. So I tried the…
- Large Tips: They fit tighter in my ear as a whole. The stabilisers were fully engaged. It was much harder to dislodge them, it was even a little harder to remove them. After wearing them like this for a few days I felt that maybe they were a little too tight so I went back to the default…
- Medium Tips: They really are the best of both worlds and I guess that makes my ears average, in the fat part of the bell curve. I’m not a super active kind of guy, and especially so in social isolation, so during the occasional light run or brisk walk I never have any problems with them falling out.
The Cut-Outs and Balance Issues
The most recent breakthrough I had with testing the cut-outs and balance issues was determining which bud is the “master” using the hands-cupped-over-your-ears method. Using this method I was able to determine that the balance/glitch problem happens when the right bud is the “master”.
I originally found, with careful listening, that when the glitches occurred regularly, they corresponded with a balance shift to the left and then a correction in balance. The glitch would either be simultaneously in both ears or right-to-left. When I timed the duration between each glitch…
…it appeared that there is a loop of about 1:50 between balance corrections. This time of 1:50 has been mentioned elsewhere online with respect to audio cut-outs so I assume I am experiencing the same phenomenon.
Once you know to expect a glitch at 1:49/1:50 you can listen very specifically for the balance shift. The balance shift anomaly is much easier to detect when you can countdown to it happening.
I had noticed that the balance glitch didn’t always happen. Sometimes I could listen with my buds with absolutely no issues. It turns out that the glitch-free listening was likely when the left bud was the “master”. If I removed the left bud from the case first, often I could have glitch-free listening. If I cupped my hands over my ears the right bud would cut. However, if I forced the buds to cut a few times, with my cupped hands, often it would start the glitch loop.
Once I notice a couple of glitches, I started timing again. 1:50 loop, same as the other scenario however I noticed that this time the buds were cutting left-to-right. I also could not detect any shift in balance.
To summarise my findings:
- Right Bud “Master”:- 1:50 glitch loop, audio cuts right-to-left, balance shifts to the left slightly and then corrects after the glitch.
- Left Bud “Master”:- Usually stable listening, can force it to loop by performing hand cupping audio cuts, 1:50 glitch loop, audio cuts left-to-right, no balance shift detected.
There is some speculation that the limitations are due to the small physical size of the buds and consequently the minimal space available for bluetooth antennas (one such mention in this article). If the problems are due to hardware and can’t be corrected with firmware, I will need to decide if the performance is a dealbreaker. Removing the left bud from the case first every time is not a fix, it is a work-around and it isn’t perfect.
One of the reasons I purchased Pixel Buds were because of Google’s boast that their long-range Bluetooth connectivity could reach across a football field, in the open, or three rooms away indoors (see picture). As I work from home, I had hoped to be able to leave my phone on my desk and/or on charge and be able to interact with it while moving about the house. In reality, even with the phone in a central location in my house I can barely move more than one room away before they start dropping out. And no, I don’t live inside a faraday cage!
I really want the Pixel Buds to be good! I sincerely hope that the issues I am facing can be addressed with firmware updates. When they work properly, they are great! This gives me hope that a solution can be found.