Google Pixel Buds: What I learned in my first afternoon with the headphones
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 to reviewers and some early buyers alike, and I have a pair in my ears right now.
I’ve used the Pixel Buds for just an afternoon, but here’s what I’m finding about them so far.
See at Google Store
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 in my ears — 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) but just like any other pair of earbuds I think I will be able to 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 here are my quick thoughts on sound quality. My initial take is that 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.
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.
This is as good a place as any to remind you that the Pixel Buds are only designed to work with Pixel phones (either generation), at least when it comes to the advanced features. Google could definitely expand this further in the future, but it support documentation right now only talks about the Pixels when it comes to Fast Pair, Assistant and Google Translate.
Google Assistant is FAST … and needs some polish
Though these aren’t the only proper “Google Assistant headphones,” this is 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 an is ready to give you information back through the earbuds. But the responses come super 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.
I’m probably going to turn off notifications
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 I get, I’m likely going to be turning off this feature until I’m in a situation where I can’t actively look at my phone. Having my podcast or music paused for 5 to 10 seconds so I can try to tap and speak to manage a message in my earbuds just isn’t worth it to me. And with dozens of notifications coming in every hour, I’m going to be spending a large amount of time managing things rather than concentrating on what I’m actually listening to — the whole reason I 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.
TBD — voice translation
The final fun part of the Pixel Buds — and their one true differentiator — is the promise of real-time language translation via Google Translate. Not expecting my Pixel Buds to show up today I don’t have the means to test this just yet, but I plan to. I have already lowered my expectations, understanding that it can’t possibly consistently work in the same seamless way as Google’s demo on stage in October, but I’m cautiously optimistic after seeing how quickly Assistant works for other things.
If Google has figured out how to get the latency down, and deal with ambient noise (the big issue) it could be a fantastic tool. We know the core Google Translate experience is good, but the rest of it has to be perfect or it’s going to get really frustrating.
That’s it for now — let us know in the comments what else you want to know about the Pixel Buds and we’ll do our best to answer!
See at Google Store
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