Google Pixel Buds
“Overpriced and not truly wireless, the Pixel Buds still offer some unique Google-centric features.”
- Instant translation is fun, relatively accurate
- Loud audio with full bass
- Controls work well
- Charging case takes you off the grid
- Expensive for tethered earbuds
- Charging case hard to close, feels flimsy
- Earbuds fit oddly
The true wireless earbud revolution, which has only recently shifted into high gear, has been dominated by Apple’s AirPods. Despite showing up late to the party, they’re less expensive and easier to use than most competitors, most of which still haven’t lived up to expectations. We hoped that Google would kickstart the party by jumping into the fray with its own true wireless buds, and offer Apple some real competition. But when Google finally revealed its Pixel Buds, some air (no pun intended) went out of the room.
Instead of offering fully wireless, independent buds in the vein of Apple’s AirPods and Bragi’s The Headphone (among many others), the Pixel Buds come tethered together with a small wire like so many “wireless” buds before them. Reliably connecting two thimble-sized gadgets through thin air (and your skull) has stumped many startups, and it seems even Google doesn’t yet have a good solution.
Still, while they don’t compare directly to the AirPods, the Pixel Buds make a valiant (if flawed) first attempt at staking their own ground, offering intuitive tap controls and some distinctive features to set them apart from the crowd, like real-time translation. In our Google Pixel Buds review, we dig deep so you can decide if the latest from big G are the wireless earbuds you need on your holiday shopping list.
Little grey box, big black buds
The Pixel Buds arrive in a clean white box that reminded us of the packaging for Google’s first real hardware win, the Chromecast. Inside, a felt-covered grey box sits on a throne of Paper-Foam, that molded, soft-touch cardboard everything seems to come in these days. Beneath it you’ll find instructions in multiple languages, and a USB-C charging cable.
Google’s cloth case, about the size of a ring box, looks different than most we’ve seen, but it’s less elegant in design than Apple’s easy-flip capsule. Opening it via a tiny black flap takes nimble fingers. The Buds inside are bulbous discs connected to U-shaped earpieces, resting on magnetic cradles. They would be average sized for true wireless buds, but they’re monstrous for tethered ones. Along with our black pair, they also come in white and blue.
The charging case is both an added bonus and a necessity.
The case’s fuzzy exterior feels good in your hands, but the lid seems a little flimsy, as if it might be easily separated or crushed in your pocket. Winding the snazzy, braided cable to fit inside is also something we’ve yet to get used to. Google actually provides a GIF to teach you how, but the cable always wanted to jump back out before we snapped shut the lid.
A trio of LEDs inside the case reveal battery life: A single dot lights up solid green when your buds are fully charged and flashes white when pairing, while all three glow white to reveal a fully charged case. Battery life is rated at five hours for the buds themselves and 24 hours with the case, mirroring exactly (you guessed it) Apple’s AirPods. Most tethered competitors at or even below the Pixel Buds’ $159 price range offer eight to 10 hours of playback, so the charging case is both an added bonus and a necessity. Fast charging gives you an hour of playback on a 10-minute charge.
While experiences may vary, we found the Pixel Buds more finicky to pair than most wireless earbuds, true or tethered. Like Apple’s AirPods (broken record, we know), they are designed to auto-pair, but that didn’t play out as designed.
For Pixel phones, you’re instructed to simply open the case to pair. When we went to pair them to the Pixel 2, though, the buds didn’t show up in the Bluetooth menu. After some futzing with the pairing button (and restarting the phone) we finally got them connected.
If you’re connecting anything but a Pixel, Google’s instructions point you to a helper site, which is a little convoluted. At the bottom are instructions for “Reconnecting” (tapping twice on the right bud) which got us connected. Below that are instructions to hold the button inside the case for manual pairing as an alternative. Why Google didn’t simply put a Bluetooth symbol on the nearly invisible button is beyond us.
Purpose-built to sit just inside your ear canal, the Pixel Buds never quite feel secure. As Google promised, we mostly got used to the fit over time (and had zero issues with them falling out), but it was odd each time we reinserted them. The loose fit also means very little ambient noise isolation, so office chatter and plane engines leak right through. On the bright side, the adjustable braided cable is silky smooth and barely registers on your neck.
A single tap on the right earbud will play and pause tracks while swiping forward or backward controls volume. Both worked perfectly, in sharp contrast to most similar designs we’ve encountered. The fact that Google’s earbuds don’t fully seat in your ears may be partly responsible: When earbuds dig into your ear canal, it’s uncomfortable to tap too hard.
Interestingly, volume isn’t something we had to deal with much. That’s because the Pixel Buds are about as loud as we ever needed them at their lowest setting. Moving up more than two notches was too loud for our ears, and each step up raised volume more than we’d like. You can adjust volume more granularly directly on the Pixel 2, but we’d prefer more control on the buds.
Google obviously heard some of our control concerns, however, as the company has added more options in an update that began rolling out in May 2018. Song skipping, previously unavailable, is a welcome new inclusion to the tap-control arsenal. Originally, double tapping simply allowed you to hear notifications as they arrived, but with the update Android users can set it to skip to the next track by accessing the Pixel Buds under the Google Assistant app and enabling the option in the settings. Meanwhile, triple tapping (traditionally the command for skipping back a track) will power down the Pixel Buds with the new rollout — though we’d still love a way to skip back.
In addition, Google has added an easier way to move between devices (such as your phone and computer), by simply selecting the buds from your previously paired device. While this may not be a monumental change, difficulty in pairing is among our issues with the Pixel Buds, so we’re glad Google is working on it.
Google Assistant and instant translation
A big draw for these earbuds is easy access to Google Assistant. Tap and hold the right earbud to start talking to Assistant, and it will respond to commands, giving you the weather or serving up directions (your phone will detect if you’re walking and give you walking directions). You can also place calls, skip songs, send text messages, and control streaming services — almost anything the Google Assistant can do on the phone is fair game with the Pixel Buds.
While many wireless earbuds offer similar features for Google Assistant, Siri, or Samsung’s Bixby, Google’s Pixel Buds are smooth in operation. There’s almost zero delay between when you press and hold on the right earbud and when you can start talking, and responses are speedy too.
Perhaps the most exciting feature works in tandem with Assistant: Instant translation via Google Translate. Tap and hold the right earbud and say “help me speak Spanish,” or one of the 40 supported languages. On your Pixel 2 smartphone, you’ll see the Google Translate app open up but with a unique interface specifically when it detects the Pixel Buds are connected. Tap and hold the right earbud and say a phrase, and the smartphone will then speak the phrase in the language you request. You’ll need to hold the phone in front of the person you’re chatting with so they hear the translation from the speaker.
Using Google Translate with the earbuds is fluid and easy, and could be great for traveling.
The person you’re chatting with can then tap the icon on the screen and say a phrase in their language, and you’ll hear the translated sentence in your ear. We practiced with one of our multi-lingual colleagues, a native Spanish speaker from Colombia, and both of us were impressed at how accurate the translation was. Our colleague even tried to mess with the app by using her region’s word for “cool,” chévere, and the app didn’t falter. The app also picked up the Mexican preference chido, with no trouble. In fact, we had to work pretty hard to dig up an error, using city-specific slang to throw it for a loop. Even proper names, like street names, worked better than expected.
It’s not really new, but using the feature with the earbuds is fluid and easy, and we could see it coming in handy while traveling. The app can still struggle at times, but it’s a huge step forward on the path to fluid conversation abroad.
The Pixel Buds will play audio from any Android phone running Android 5.0 Lollipop or higher, and from iPhones running iOS 10 and higher. To make use of the Assistant, you’ll need an Android phone that’s running Android 6.0 Marshmallow and higher. If you want the instant translation feature, you’ll have to purchase a Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL smartphone for now.
We’ve already seen some early reviewers ranking the Pixel Buds among the best wireless headphones they’ve heard. To them we say: It’s time to check out some more wireless headphones. You can get a lot from a $100-to-$150 pair of Bluetooth buds these days, including sound that far outshines what Google’s buds offer.
That said, for the vast majority of users, the sound the Pixel Buds provide will be just fine. It’s not fantastic, it’s not sparkling, vibrant, present, or any other coveted buzzword audio reviewers pull from our bag of tricks to get users excited about great sound. But it gets the job done, both for listening to music and for fielding phone calls, which come through clearly from both sides.
Luckily, for those keeping score in the Android/iOS Battle Royale, the Pixel Buds don’t sound much worse (or better), than Apple’s own AirPods. They just sound different. In short, the preference between them will be based on taste. Both sets of headphones are tuned to appeal to — or at least abstain from offending — the largest number of people possible. But, where Apple aims for a more balanced and brighter touch, Google goes low (quite literally) with a bass-forward sound signature that will appeal to ears nursed on Beats and their bass-heavy ilk.
Kick and tom drums, bass guitar, and other lower register instruments make their presence known in every track, boosted well above their placement in the studio mix, without going full-on, bass-head bonkers. The result is a sound that serves up some weight and fullness to your music, especially down low, while leaving a lot to be desired when it comes to presence and definition in the upper registers. Midrange and treble-focused percussion gets the shortest end of the stick, as snare drums and cymbals sound smeared and smoothed over at the moment of impact, almost as though every drummer has switched out their drumsticks for timpani mallets.
That lack of sparkle in the middle frequencies is shared elsewhere, too, obscuring presence and clarity in everything from the jangly brass of an acoustic guitar string to the whisper of a singer’s lips as she approaches the microphone for an intricate verse. The result is a warm and almost lazy sound that’s never off-putting, but rarely engaging.
Google’s Pixel Buds offer a limited one-year warranty which applies only to Pixel Buds purchased in the U.S. or Canada.
Google’s Pixel Buds are a solid first entry in the world of wireless earbuds, and for Pixel phone buyers, they provide some unique features that may be worth consideration. At $159, however, they don’t offer the kind of features and performance we expect from buds connected by a cable.
Is there a better alternative?
Apple’s $159 AirPods are any easy upgrade for anyone irritated by the Pixel Buds’ cord, especially if you own an iPhone. Other solid wireless choices at or near the Pixel Buds’ price point include The Headphone from Bragi at $149 (though it doesn’t come with a charging case), and Jabra’s Elite Sport, which are fully waterproof and include fitness tracking for $200-250.
For both Android and iOS users, there are a ton of great choices in the tethered wireless earbuds marketplace, many of which offer better performance and more features for less than the Pixel Buds, with the caveat that they don’t come with a charging case. V-Moda’s Forza Metallo Wireless are a great choice for less cash, boasting killer sound, a secure fit, and sweatproofing to take on your daily workout. While not sweatproof, Shure’s similarly priced SE215 Wireless offer excellent sound, and can also be plugged in for versatile use. If working out is your main bag, you’ll want to check out Jabra’s Sport Pulse Wireless Special Edition, which offer sweatproofing and workout features like a heart-rate monitor.
How long will it last?
From the braided cable to the hard-plastic shells, Google’s Pixel Buds feel well built. That said, the case’s rather flimsy lid is of some concern, especially for those who are hard on their gear.
Should you buy it?
Unless you’re a Pixel phone owner who travels abroad on a regular basis, we’d recommend looking elsewhere. While the Google Translate feature is cool, it’s not much better with the Pixel Buds than what you’ll get straight from your phone, and aside from extended battery life in the case, there just aren’t enough extras here to warrant the price. We expect Google’s next version to be fully wireless, which, if they can keep all the features offered here, should make them a more serious competitor.
Update: Added info about new features rolling out. By Ryan Waniata
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