Can these headphones really be worth $159?
Google's Pixel Buds were one of the more ... under-the-radar announcements back at Google's October hardware launch event. What with the Pixel 2, Pixelbook, Home Mini, Home Max and new services, a pair of Bluetooth earbuds kind of got lost in the shuffle. But now the short-supplied wireless headphones are shipping, and we've had time to use them for ourselves.
$159 is a lot to ask for a pair of seemingly simple wireless earbuds, so we're here to give you all of the information you need before you decide to pick them up for yourself.
The fit is comfortable, but has trade-offs
The design and fit of the Pixel Buds will only truly be familiar to those of us who had Google Glass with the optional earbud attachment. It's a very similar design, with a shallow hard plastic earbud and a bit of a cord that's used to form a loop to keep the bud in your ear. It's designed this way because the earbud itself doesn't have the typical soft rubber tip that goes deep in your ear.
Easily the most comfortable wireless earbuds I've used.
The core feature of this design is comfort — these are easily the most comfortable wireless "earbuds" I've ever placed in my ear. If it weren't for the cord dangling on the back of my neck, I would forget they're there — yes, they're THAT comfortable. Part of that is the super light weight of the buds, but also how they sit in your ear rather than jamming down inside. The cord loop is difficult to adjust and it takes a while to figure out the "right" fit in your ear (with awkward time spent in front of a mirror the first few times) but just like any other pair of earbuds you figure it out.
On the other side of that coin, the Pixel Buds have almost no sound isolation. Because there's no rubber "tip" that goes into your ear to seal out the outside world, you still hear most everything around you. For someone riding a bike down a busy street that's probably a good thing, but if you're sitting in a cafe and want to concentrate it'll be annoying.
Sound quality is surprisingly good
These are headphones, after all, so the sound quality is important — and it's surprisingly good! Even with a general lack of sound isolation letting in lots of noise from your environment, you can get a good range of sound and even a little bit of bass out of these tiny buds. They get louder than I'd ever want for my hearing's sake, but that lack of noise isolation also means that there's a higher chance you'll be turning the volume up a bit higher — not great for your ears, or for the people sitting next to you on the train who probably don't care about your music choices.
Are they as good as wired earbuds of the same size and cost? Nope. But they're definitely better than what I experienced with the Gear IconX 2018 earbuds and are on par with larger "neckbud" type headphones I've used in the past. That's pretty good for a relatively tiny pair of headphones, and will be good enough for most people — even if they don't necessarily give you amazing quality for the money.
They work (almost) completely fine with non-Pixel phones
With "Pixel" in the name, it's easy to think that the Pixel Buds are made to only work with Pixel phones — thankfully, that isn't entirely true. These are still Bluetooth headphones that can be paired with just about anything, but obviously, the best experience of using them comes with a Pixel.
But once you go through the pairing process with a non-Pixel device, the Pixel Buds work just fine. Opening the case fires up the radio and automatically connects to your last device, and the taps and swipes carry over just fine too. Google Assistant even works, though the advanced Google Translate feature does not.
Connecting to multiple devices is a pain
Though the Pixel Buds can work with multiple devices, they are a pain to deal with if you want to regularly switch between phones, tablets or computers. Unlike many Bluetooth headphones that let you cycle through two (or more) paired devices to choose specifically what you want to connect to, the Pixel Buds have no such system.
Your only plan of action here is to place the headphones in the charging case, press and hold the button inside until they unpair from the other phone and you can reconnect a new phone. Going forward if you want to choose what phone, tablet or computer they're paired with you need to just turn Bluetooth off on those other devices or hope that you get connected to your preferred device first.
It's hard to complain too terribly much when the Pixel Buds are very clearly meant to be tied to a single phone for specific times rather than all-day, multi-device listening. But other Bluetooth headphones figured it out — maybe Google could too.
Bluetooth 'Fast Pair' is amazing
This isn't something that's specific to the Pixel Buds — you'll find it on all "made for Google" headphones — but the new Bluetooth Fast Pair is fantastic. Open the Pixel Buds case, unlock your phone, and with a tap you're paired. It's absolutely wonderful, and it removes one of the biggest pain points of Bluetooth audio devices today.
I can only hope that this gets adopted across the industry and makes its way down to the inexpensive headphones out there and doesn't remain a high-end feature, because everyone should be able to experience this.
Google Assistant is FAST ... and needs some polish
Though these aren't the only proper "Google Assistant headphones," this was my first experience with the feature — and consider me super impressed. Rather than using "OK, Google" detection, the Pixel Buds trigger Assistant by pressing and holding on the right earbud (yes, only the right one) to speak the command. Lift off of the earbud, and it finishes taking your input and does what you asked it to do.
It's absolutely ridiculous how fast this is working when connected to my Pixel 2 XL. Most of the speed really comes from the fact that the Pixel Buds don't have to guess when you're done talking — as soon as you lift off of the earbuds, it knows you're done and is ready to give you information back through the earbuds. But the responses come quickly as well.
The only issue, as ever with Assistant, is what it can actually do and how it fails. As we've experienced with Google Home, it's tough to deal with a voice-only interface when things go wrong. Multiple times the Pixel Buds gave me a confirmation-type sound after speaking, only to do absolutely nothing. Rephrasing my question or retrying, it'd hear me and perform the action. Other actions, like "skip forward 30 seconds" while listening to a podcast work, but often didn't resume playback after doing so. Saying "walking directions to X" pulls up the directions on my phone, but doesn't give me step-by-step guidance in the earbuds.
Google's list of suggested Assistant actions for the Pixel Buds is basically the same set of things you'd normally do with your phone, and that's totally fine. But it's how those things are manifested in an audio-only interface rather than on a screen that looks like it needs a little work.
Notifications can get annoying
As part of this Assistant-type functionality, the Pixel Buds also feed notifications from your phone into your ears. Rather than just send you the sound, it also gives you extra information, including the app that sent the notification and if applicable who sent it. It's useful the first couple of times, and being able to double tap the right earbud to read the notification aloud and then also reply via voice is very cool in certain circumstances.
It just takes too damn long to manage notifications through voice and taps.
But considering the number of notifications most of us get, you're likely going to be turning off this feature until you're in a situation where you can't actively look at your phone. Having a podcast or music paused for 5 to 10 seconds so you can try to tap and speak to manage a message in my earbuds just isn't worth it to most people. With dozens of notifications coming in every hour, you're going to be spending a large amount of time managing things rather than concentrating on what you're actually listening to — the whole reason you have headphones on in the first place.
This could easily be fixed by giving control over which notifications come through to the earbuds, but right now the Pixel Buds don't offer that. It's all or nothing.
A fabric charging case?
Just like the Apple AirPods and Samsung Gear IconX 2018 earbuds, the charging case is a big part of the experience of the Pixel Buds — with 5 hours of charge, you need to let the buds sleep in this case and charge back up again periodically. Google loves fabric right now. Look at the Daydream View, Google Homes or new line of Pixel 2 cases — they're all fabric. The same type of stuff makes up the Pixel Buds case.
The case is fine — but what will it look like after several months of daily use?
The case looks nice. The fabric on the outside and soft rubber on the inside are very friendly and easy to get acquainted with. But I have serious concerns about the longterm durability of something that is this soft. The only real structure to the case is around the bottom surrounding the battery (makes sense) but the lid is simply hinged fabric and rubber and the edges are very flexible. Normally I wouldn't be super worried about these sorts of things, but the Pixel Buds charging case is designed to be with you all of the time — in your pocket, in your bag, on the table — and I'm not sure how it'll handle that every day for months on end.
The case's functions are all just fine. There are strong magnets that suck the L and R buds into place for charging, and a handy diagram sticker inside shows you how to wrap the cord around (though I doubt people will hold to this, and that may create some problems with the cord down the road). Three LEDs show the charging state of the case itself, and pressing a button shows the charge state of the buds that are inserted. The case provides "24 hours" of charge for the buds, and charges over USB-C — yes, it can even charge off of a Pixel 2.
Live voice translation
The huge demo feature of the Pixel Buds was their ability to enable realtime voice translation. While it's certainly unique and an amazing feature demo, it doesn't really work like you think it would.
The first hurdle is that the Pixel Buds of course aren't doing any of the translation themselves — they're simply a Bluetooth audio conduit to your connected Pixel phone running the Google Translate app. The way this works, you hold out your phone to where the other person can speak to it, and then the audio is routed into your Pixel Buds. In the reverse, your voice is picked up by the Pixel Buds microphone and relayed out of the phone's speaker.
Realtime translation is extremely difficult, and the Pixel Buds are awkward beyond that.
Technology-wise this is very impressive how the audio is being routed. But the whole experience is more awkward than using Google Translate on a phone with another person already is, as it seems a bit non-personal to be wearing headphones while trying to navigate another language.
Then you run into the other, smaller issue of Google Translate in general having trouble picking up nuance, slang and sentence structure and trying to bring it over to another language. Realtime language translation is really hard, and Google's one of the best at it, but it still isn't great. For the most part, Google Translate still breaks languages down to their most common sentences, leaving you and other person both sounding like they're speaking like a 10-year-old kid. That isn't inherently an issue with the Pixel Buds, but it does create one more barrier to this promised experience of smooth, natural translation on the fly.