Google’s shot at the future of earphones is admirable, but misses the mark
- Great sound
- Smart Google Assistant features
- Google Assistant features are fussy
- One-touch controls are messy
- Uncomfortable for prolonged use
The Google Pixel Buds sorely want to be the Bluetooth headphones of the future. Their integration with Google Assistant brings AI into your head, telling you the weather and reading notifications at the tap of a finger. It’s also there to be the Babelfish that allows the world to talk in one unified language, with Japanese, French, Russian and more all translating into your native language as they’re spoken aloud.
In reality, though, Google’s Pixel Buds are a nightmare and very much before their time, but in a bad way. Instead of simply being Google’s answer to the Apple Airpods, Google has combined your phone and your headphones into one device and somehow fudged it along the way.
What’s most disappointing about Google Pixel Buds, though, is that, until you really start to use them as intended, they’re actually pretty good.
Google Pixel Buds review: What you need to know
The Pixel Buds are new Bluetooth earphones from Google. Designed to compliment your Pixel smartphone, or really any Android phone, the Pixel Buds do more than simply play music wirelessly over Bluetooth. They bring Google Assistant into your headphones like no other earphones do and can even be used to help you translate foreign speech into English and vice versa.
It’s essentially like carrying around your own personal Google Home, which is great, and in time, maybe all earphones will work like this. However, aside from great sound quality, they’re not worth the price Google wants you to pay.
Google Pixel Buds review: Price and competition
Google is asking you to pay £159 for the privilege of owning the Pixel Buds, which is on the high side for a pair of wireless earphones of this calibre. You can pick up headphones for under £100 that sound just as good, if not better, and that seal out the outside world more effectively. One example is Sennheiser’s Momentum In-Ear Wireless. They’re £10 cheaper and sound much better.
On the other hand, the Pixel Buds are so different that there’s effectively no natural competitor for them anyway. No other earphone offers Google Assistant support or translation (more on which later). The question then becomes whether it’s worth paying the premium for these features or not, a question I’ll attempt to answer below.
Google Pixel Buds review: Design
From a design perspective, at least, you can’t deny the appeal of the Google Pixel Buds. They come with a neat, pocket-sized charging case wrapped in the same soft fabric as on the second-generation Google Daydream View, which is a lovely, lovely thing. The “Just Black” earbuds we were sent for review don’t quite pop like the “Clearly White” or “Kinda Blue” variants, but they do look understated in-ear.
Compared with the silly protrusion and dangling arms of Apple’s Airpods these are a more subtle design choice. The big “G” engraved into the outer surface of Bud is still obvious, but the colouring and the fact that they’re connected with a woven cable designed to wrap around the back of your neck means they’re a little more ‘normal’ to look at.
The cable that connects the Pixel Buds is also used to adjust their fit inside your ear. It’s a little fiddly at first, but once done it’s easy to slip them in and out and does mean you’re not faffing with ear hooks or custom-shaped moulds. You also don’t have to lube your ears up to use them as you do with the the Snugs Only earphones.
Instead of the flat disc design many earbuds used to use or the squidgy in-ear setups that push into your ear canal, the Pixel Buds sit in the recess of your ears – a bit like the Apple Earpods do. It’s an odd feeling at first, especially as, at 14g, the Pixel Buds feel a touch top heavy and they don’t seal you off from the outside world very well either. After a while, too, they start to make your ears ache. Despite being coated in a soft and rubbery plastic, they rub and become uncomfortable to wear for long periods.
Google Pixel Buds review: Battery life
That’s a shame because the battery life is actually pretty good. On a single charge, the Pixel Buds last for around six hours at medium volume. On its own, this isn’t all that impressive. But place them in the charging case for half an hour and you’ll knock that up to 50%, within 45 minutes they’ll hit 90% full.
Google lists the Pixel Buds case as holding a charge of 640mAh, and the Pixel Buds themselves storing around 120mAh. By this breakdown, it should work to about four to five charges from one charge of the case.
Ignoring the downtime when the Pixel Buds are quick-charging, heading out with your Pixel Buds and case means you’ll be able to listen to nigh on 24-hours worth of music without needing to find a plug socket, which is rather nice.
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Google Pixel Buds review: Sound
On the sound front, I’m really impressed with what the Google Pixel Buds are capable of. Compared to my usual pair of Bluetooth earphones, the JBL Reflect Mini, or the pair of Sennheiser Momentum In-Ears I used before them, the Google Pixel Buds are excellent. Bass is deep and punchy and the highs are crisp and detailed. It doesn’t even sound like they drop off much around the mids either. There’s nothing much wrong with them, which is quite an achievement for buds that don’t create a seal in your ear canal to reinforce bass.
By the same measure, it’s also great that there’s barely any sound leakage and I also like the fact that I don’t have to turn up the volume too much to enjoy listening. Comparatively, when using my pair of JBL Reflect Minis, I almost always have to turn the volume of my Google Pixel 2 XL up to near its loudest setting.
Going by headphone audio frequency tests, Google’s Pixel Buds also hit the mark, capable of producing a reasonably flat frequency response throughout the audio spectrum, from around 20Hz to beyond 15kHz.
Google Pixel Buds review: Features
The features department is where the Google Pixel Buds should really excel. A lot of time and investment has gone into making them feel properly futuristic with Google’s Assistant sitting as a layer between your phone and the Pixel Buds, meaning Google Home-like technology is right there whenever you need it at just the touch of a button.
When it works, it’s absolutely incredible. Tapping and holding on the right earbud and asking Google to play some Beck, or something relaxing, fires up Spotify – or your chosen music app – and plays exactly what you asked for, just like Google Home. Tap the earbud and ask for directions, bus times or general questions and, boom, you’ll get an answer. It’s incredible.
It gets better when you realise you can have your texts and WhatsApp messages read to you instead of having to pull out your phone to read them. It’ll also let you write a reply using your voice by initiating a reply and then speaking your message. The transcription capabilities are surprisingly accurate and it’s great at picking out your voice out, so you can have crisp and clear hands-free conversations with little to no background noise getting in the way.
Things get messy, however, when you start to delve into the rest of the features. Swiping turns the volume up and down, and tapping starts and stops music and media. This is all well and good until you happen to get a notification and want to listen to it, or want to dismiss it. The same goes for phone calls. Sometimes it misreads your tap as accept the call when you meant to deny, other times it reads it as a wanting to send a reply to a message instead of simply dismissing it.
Google’s much-trumpeted translation features are also a bit awkward and not as straightforward as shown on stage at Google’s devices event. Activating Assistant and saying “Google, help me speak <insert almost any language>” will launch a speech version of Google Translate. You can say something and in English and it’ll translate it to your chosen language and speak it aloud through your phone’s speaker.
At this point, if you want to continue the conversation, you’ve got to hand your phone over, or at least hold it out like a dictaphone, then tap the microphone button before speaking. You’ll then hear the translation in your ear.
At face value, this is an incredibly cool feature. In practice, it’s cumbersome and I failed to get it to work all that wonderfully. Speaking with a person – admittedly in broken French – led to almost no response, and trying to use it to pick up audio from a video got me nowhere fast. Still, it is cool that you can ask for a phrase in another language and get it near instantly.
I’ve also had various issues around how fussy the Pixel Buds can be with connectivity, with my Pixel XL 2 refusing to play audio from Spotify at one point because it believed the Pixel Buds weren’t a connected headset. They’re also supposed to connect automatically as soon as you open the case. Most of the time this works, but occasionally the simply refuse to connect unless you re-pair them with your phone – not ideal when you’re on the move.
A final sticking point is the how the Pixel Buds only ever turn off once you return them to the case. If you just take them out and stick them in your pocket, they’ll keep on playing, and it’s terribly easy to accidentally tap or swipe the right earbud and enable some function or music playback while packing them away or putting them in or out of your ears.
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Google Pixel Buds review: Verdict
On paper, Google’s Pixel Buds have the potential to change the world, but in reality, they’re a proof-of-concept device packed with innovative features and ideas, none of which work that well.
And the trouble is, while they’re okay as regular Bluetooth earphones, there are plenty of better, cheaper alternatives if that’s all you want, especially since the Pixel Buds’ “best” features are locked to Google’s Pixel range of smartphones anyway.
All of which is a great shame, because the Pixel Buds are different. They’re innovative and clever and exciting all at once. Does that justify spending £159 on them, though? Absolutely not.