Let's start by hammering home the point that Google has a frankly confusing release strategy, when it comes to their hardware. Sure, here in the UK we enjoy most of their launches, from the PixelBook Go to the Pixel smartphones every year, but for the majority of our international colleagues, Google hardware is hard to come by, and they often have to import products from elsewhere. But, regardless of your geographical location, it's really easy to take one cursory glance at their new budget-friendly in-ears, the Pixel Buds A, and be frankly astonished that Google did not just choose to launch these globally in a heartbeat. We certainly would.
And why, you may ask? Well simply because for a meagre $99.99, these are the best in-ears money can buy, and we'd carefully suggest that these might be better than in-ears that cost more than three times that amount. They really are that good.
So let's take a step back, and focus on the hardware for a moment. Already, we don't feel Google receives enough credit for their versatile, tactile and frankly inspired approach to hardware design. From the fabric-clad Nest Audio to the gorgeous resin-coated Pixel 5 (which we're still yet to review, Google), as soon as you pick up the Pixel Buds A case it is, as Mr Mobile puts it; "a grand slam of tactility". The white surface of the case isn't a soft even coating, it's almost rugged in the sense that there's some grip to it, making it almost feel like an egg, both in the colour hue and handfeel. The colour LED just under the lid is semi-hidden, so it's soft light isn't as distracting, and the magnetic attraction between the lid and case is just strong enough to make the entire operation feel secured. It's not that the sheer act of grabbing the case, removing the units and putting them back is an essential part of the quality of the experience, but at the same time; Google's Pixel Buds A are the best feeling in-ears to use.
Not only that, but there are little touches, little strokes of genius that you again wouldn't expect at this particular price point. Like their pricier sibling, the Buds A have rubber fins, which give you a more snug and secure fit. That essentially means that you twist and lock the buds into place, and throughout our weeks of testing, they proved more comfortable and more secure than all other buds we've tested in recent years.
There's a simple touch surface on each bud, which gives you quick access to all the expected features, but like it so often is with Google, it just feels that much more satisfying to use. It has primarily something to do with the size of the touch-enabled area. It's a tad bit smaller here than elsewhere, meaning if you have to do adjustments while wearing the buds, you won't accidentally play, pause or skip. They only ever activate, when you want them to, something that's surprisingly rare in this particular space.
And then there's the Google Assistant functionality, and let's start by pointing out that of course, other in-ears have full Google Assistant functionality, and use somewhat the same methods for activation and utilisation, but at the risk of repetition; by making it so incredibly seamless and easy, Google sort of tricks you into using the assistant a lot more often. By holding the right unit, and waiting for a satisfying confirmation sound, the entire Assistant suite opens up, and you can have him, or her, read out calendar events, the weather forecast, play a news broadcast, or quickly access calls. It simply works every single time without fault.
Google has designed an audio interface, which both comfortably and effectively makes for smooth transitions when you have to send texts as well. The first few times, the assistant will provide you with a well-explained guide as to what you should do when you want to respond to text, but afterwards, it's a series of lovely beeps and boops, which makes it effortless to quickly reply to incoming messages. We tried having several conversations over our period of testing, and besides some small issues with punctuation, we were able to conduct those conversations with almost no hassle. It really is something you get incredibly addicted to. Add to that several touches, which makes pairing and usage so much smoother, such as not needing an app to change settings or check battery life, with that information being right in the notification section, and you get something that just feels like a pair of AirPods for Android. They feel proprietary.
Then there's the sound. It's important to note that there's no active noise cancellation here, but thanks to a solid physical seal, they do feel firmly secure in your ear, and the passive cancellation that stems from that is frankly surprising. The sound is generally excellent, particularly at this price point. Stereo separation is brilliant, and from advanced symphonic rock arrangements to smooth RnB, the Buds A deliver surprisingly strong audio quality, something we'd bet most average consumers would appreciate immediately, in spite of the lack of proper ANC. In addition, you even get excellent Bluetooth range, which is wider than on most competing sets of buds.
You don't even sacrifice IP certification, because there's an IPX4 rating here. You do miss out on wireless charging, which is a shame, and perhaps our only real complaint, and that's at a price where no competitor offers it either. Honestly, it's hard not straight up recommending these to every Android owner. They are masterfully put together.