The follow-up to Google’s Pixel Buds have been announced. With its lightweight construction, extensive range, and mysterious A.I. features to come, it feels like Google is ready to go toe-to-toe with Apple’s Airpods.
Just one problem. It’s not going to happen until Spring 2020.
What does Google have planned? I’m just as curious as the rest of you, so I took a sneak-peek at Google’s launch event.
Designed like a river stone
When the Pixel Buds and their accompanying case were put in my hands, Google’s reps were quick to tell me it was designed to feel like a river stone. It has a rounded, oval shape and matte finish grip. It does feel nice, and has a slight weightiness to it. This hints at the additional 24 hours of use time the case provides. The buds alone carry a mediocre five hours of battery, and the case can charge through USB-C and wireless chargers.
The Buds are exceptionally light, evenly-weighted, and easy-to-fit. I didn’t have to finagle much to find a secure fit. Google attributes this to the three-point anchor system, comprised of the wingtip, earbud, and slightly more-pronounced curvature along the bottom of the bud that acts as the third contact point.
My ear canal is rather large, and I typically need to swap to larger silicone buds on any earbuds I own. The Pixel Buds surprised me in with the ease I was able to pop the buds in, shake my head about, and not worry one iota about them falling out. This is a huge plus for the fitness-minded, who will also enjoy sweat-, water-, and dust-resistance on these buds, though exact specifications haven’t been determined.
Thankfully, the Pixel buds don’t protrude like Shrek ears, but sit flush in the ear. They’re way smaller and less obtrusive than Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds. Mint Green is my favorite color of the four, but you can also pick from Oh So Orange, Just Black, and Clearly White. I’m glad to see black available, since these colors don’t exactly blend in. The sides are touch-sensitive, enabling taps and swipes to pause, play, or skip through music tracks, but you can also just ask Google to do it.
A football field’s range and secret A.I. features
Google’s focused on software as a selling point, and the Pixel Buds are no exception. As one would expect, we have the Google Assistant on-board, enabling queries, music control, and language translation, but the company also teased a new A.I. feature for the Pixel Buds which will be processed on-device. While features like Google Translate currently require connection to a phone, perhaps this on-board machine learning can eliminate the need for connection on features like this.
We’ve also seen headphones that can tune sound specifically to your ear shape, and since audio was a feature we weren’t able to test, it could make sense that these two, yet-to-be-seen features are related.
Range is another big selling point for these buds. Although the company is mum on specifics, Google claims that these new buds can be an entire (unobstructed) football field away from their source and maintain connection.
I asked about indoor use, and a rep explained that they have been able to have the buds and source on separate floors and maintain connection. So, I better not hear any skipping during exercise. More details on this will be announced nearing the bud’s release.
Well, how do they sound?
Google isn’t yet offering audio tests, so this crucial point remains an open question. But true to Google form, several software tricks will attempt to set the Pixel Buds apart.
The first is adaptive sound, which is a feature similar to what we’ve seen on a number or headphones and cell phones. Essentially, this will adjust the audio so it works best in your environment. Two mics on each earbud form dual-beams of focus to help the Pixel Buds narrow in on a your voice and drown out other sounds.
Working concurrently with this is the voice accelerometer, which uses bone conduction to detect vibrations from your jaw so the Pixel Buds know when you’re speaking, and therefore when to perk the mic’s ears up. This should help eliminate unwanted background noise from coming your conversations.
Spatial vents act as a pass-through so you can hear the world around you.
Spatial vents act as a pass-through so you can hear the world around you. This isn’t digitally faked, in this case. Instead, a physical vent allows the sound in. It wasn’t hard to hear anything with the Pixel Buds in my ear, but there was also no music playing.
How well these buds balance the noise around you with the audio you want to hear hinges largely on how well the beam-forming mics, voice accelerometer, and spatial vents can come together to make clear, crisp, uninterrupted sound.
That’s all for now. The Pixel Buds are planned to launch in spring 2020 at $179. I’m eager to give them a full test when launch day arrives.
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