I wonder if Google knew, when it announced the Pixel Buds at its smartphone launch event in October, that they'd steal the show. Everyone was buzzing about Google's "Babel Fish", the dream of real-time translation realized in these tiny Bluetooth headphones.
Except really, it wasn't. Rather, Google was just doing what the Bragi Dash Pro had already done before it: using its headphones as a pipeline to a translation app living on the smartphone.
Read this: The best hearables 2017
Still, it wasn't nothing, and there were other reasons the Pixel Buds intrigued us. The fact these were Google's riposte to the AirPods and Samsung Gear IconX, i.e. a pair of Bluetooth headphones it could really call its own, made us wonder whether Google could improve on the competition.
With Apple and Google waging war on the headphone jack, ditching the wires is presenting an opportunity for more headphones that go beyond basic music listening. Doppler's untimely demise was unfortunate, but the fact remains that our ears are becoming increasingly lucrative real estate.
So has Google made the big splash we'd hoped it would? Now we've managed to spend a week with them, here's our verdict on Google's Pixel Buds.
Google Pixel Buds: Design
The Pixel Bud design is, in a word, awkward. Like Apple's AirPods (and unlike the Samsung Gear IconX or Bragi Dash Pro) the Pixel Buds sit just over your ear canal. Google calls it "semi-occluded"; I call it a pain in the ass. Personal preference may vary here, but I'm someone who likes a good seal and the Pixel Buds let in far too much noise. I live in a city, and so Google's earbuds are competing with the sound of passing cars and God knows what else. In this battle, the Pixel Buds tend to lose.
The earbuds are held together by a cloth cord, which feeds through each bud to form an adjustable loop which sits in the fold of your ears. That makes them slightly more adjustable than AirPods, but it's clumsy. Every time I take them out of their case I need a moment to get the loop right, only to find myself fiddling with them again a few moments later because, once again, I didn't get it right the first time. I hoped this was something I'd get better at, but after a week the process is no less frustrating.
At least once you've got it right, the cord mechanism keeps the Pixel Buds in place, and they managed to stay in when I took them out running. For what it's worth the AirPods always become a nuisance the moment my ears start getting sweaty. The Pixel Buds have complied better, so the point goes to Google there.
There are three colors of bud to pick from: black, white and a grey-blue that Google calls "Kinda blue"; all three come with the same black cord. That connecting cord means the Pixel Buds aren't totally wireless in the way other hearables we've tried are. That cord is meant to sit behind your neck like most Bluetooth running headphones. The length is fine, but not really adjustable.
The Buds come in a small square charging container covered in a soft cloth, but putting them back in isn't as simple as slipping the AirPods in their case or dropping the IconX in their tiny charging home. Rather, it's an haphazard procedure of correctly aligning the earbuds in the right holes and then wrapping the cord around in a loop before feeding it back between the earbuds, so you can close the lid. I've got it down pat now, but it's by no means simple. Google even put a sticker on the inside of the case roof showing how it's meant to be done, a small admission that it's not as self-explanatory as it should be.
The case will charge the Pixel Buds when they're inside, and there's a little light to indicate the battery level. It's also used to provide cues when pairing. Speaking of which…
Google Pixel Buds: Setup and features
Like AirPods, the Pixel Buds are made to work best with Google's flagship phones, and I've been using them with the Pixel 2 XL. They'll work with any Android handset or iPhone too, but the Translation feature is kept just for Google's homemade Pixel handsets.
Pairing on Android is supposed to be a process of simply opening the case by your phone, which should automatically recognize it. In reality this has only worked 50% of the time I've tried. The alternate method is to hold down the button on the inside of the case until the indicator light starts flashing, and connecting to it in your Bluetooth settings.
When it does get it right the pairing is fast, and on Android you'll get a short walkthrough explaining the Assistant (on iPhone you'll be able to speak to Siri instead) and a few other features. As well as being a direct line to Google Assistant's giant brain, the Pixel Buds can also read out messages, play your music, and yes, act as a translator, which I'll go into more depth on later.
Chances are you'll be putting down the $159 primarily to listen to music through these, an experience I've found sometimes great, but often frustrating due to both design and input oversights. Sound quality is surprisingly good on the Pixel Buds, but it's massively betrayed by the semi-occluded design, which just ends up letting outside noise drown the sound in noisy. I've also had a lot of Bluetooth cut-outs when putting my phone in my back pocket (which I do a lot with larger handsets like the Pixel 2 XL).
The right earbud is touch-sensitive, letting you tap to play/pause music, and swipe to adjust the volume (no changing tracks though). Headphone touch controls are often more problematic than they are useful, and often not sensitive enough, demanding the equivalent force of a slap to the face just to start your Beach Boys playlist.
Sensitivity on the right earbud is good, but suffers due to the design. It's fine for tapping on the go, but I keep inadvertently starting/stopping music when taking them out of my ears and placing them down. A few times I've caught the faint sound of music while working at my desk, realizing my phone has already made it halfway through a playlist because I accidentally activated them when placing them down.
Google Pixel Buds: Assistant and translation
I know, I've talked a lot about what Pixel Buds get wrong, but here's something they get very right: Google Assistant. A long hold on the right earbud will open the line to Google's AI, and to the Pixel Buds' credit it's the best Assistant experience I've had so far.
That's because a) there's no "Ok, Google" to say; all you do is hold, speak, and let go. And b) it's fast. Really fast. It's fast in listening and in responding (assuming you've got a good internet connection). I don't tend to use any virtual assistants outside of the home, but I've found myself using Google's on the Pixel Buds just because it's so easy. Voice detection has been mostly good in practice - the Buds do lock onto your voice when you're speaking - but in noisy streets it's never going to be as accurate as a quiet office. Oh, and iPhone users, the same long tap will let you speak to Siri, but there was more delay when I tried this compared to talking to Assistant on the Pixel 2.
The Pixel Buds make Assistant feel more immediate than it's ever felt before, but it's a shame that this massive plus is bogged down by so many negatives. Another thing I like is how Assistant will read out notifications as they arrive, and a double tap will even read the content of the messages to you.
The hearable competition
- Bragi Dash Pro reviewA deftly smart hearable; a sub-par fitness tracker
- Samsung Gear IconX reviewSamsung brings the fight to AirPods and the rest of the hearable gang
- Living with AirPodsA surprisingly smart set of headphones bring hearables into focus
- Nuheara IQBuds reviewAnother great hearable to augment your audio
But you're really here to read about translation, aren't you? Well there's good and bad news. Good: It works. Bad: It's not as impressive as you probably think it's going to be.
As I said at the start, the Pixel Buds are simply another way to use the Google Translate app on your phone, which is something the Bragi Dash and Dash Pro also do. Like Bragi, Google promised seamless real-time translation, and like Bragi it's not quite there... yet.
I've found Google's method to be easier than Bragi's, however, even if it leans on the Translate app and only works with Pixel phones, which seems like a strange partition when all of the brainwork is being done on an app supported by Android and iOS. Ecosystems kinda suck.
To start translating, you just need to hold down on the right bud and say "Help me speak Spanish" or "Translate French", to which Assistant will respond by opening the Translate app on your phone (doing it without the app will just send Assistant into a spiral of confusion). The idea is that you then hand the phone to the person you're talking to, or just point it in their direction. You hold down the right earbud, say what you want to say, and it will come out of the phone translated. Then the other person will hold a button down on the phone, speak into it, and the translated message will be related back into your ears.
I tried this out with a friend and it was perfectly fast at translating, at least on a Wi-Fi connection (you can download languages offline too). These days Google is supporting translation for over 40 languages, and you'll be able to do all of them with the Pixel Buds.
The end game for all of this is to have translation living on the bud. It's what Doppler was working on before it kicked the bucket and Bragi has expressed intentions to get this feature living on the earbuds before long. If you have a Pixel, the translation tool is a neat trick, and once the conversation is flowing it's pretty slick. But there's nothing stopping you from doing the same thing by passing the phone back and forth, and unless you're already wearing them the hassle of sticking in your Pixel Buds isn't going to provide much extra benefit. In sum, it's a cool trick, but it doesn't feel like a worthy reason to buy these.
Google Pixel Buds: Battery life
The Pixel Buds' have a battery life of about five hours, same as AirPods, a bit less if you're using a lot of Google Assistant. However you can get up to 24 hours of play time in total when you include multiple recharges from the case, which itself juices up via USB-C.
The case is larger than the one the AirPods come in, but less awkward to slip into a pocket than the Samsung Gear IconX's, which I find to be too thick. I'm also a big fan of the cloth exterior, even though I know this has little to no bearing on anything. Just a nice little touch.
- Google Assistant is seamless
- Sound quality is good
- Respectable battery life
- Awkward design
- Too much sound leak
- Hearables shouldn't be this tricky