Google made a lot of predictable announcements at its October 4 hardware event, such as second-generation Pixel smartphones and new additions to its Google Home portfolio. One of the more unexpected (aside from life-logging Clips) was Google Pixel Buds: Tethered wireless earbuds that give you the power of the artificially intelligent Google Assistant.
An odd fit with a not-so-stylish design
Pixel Buds are wireless earphones in that they connect to your phone via Bluetooth rather than a 3.5mm headphone jack. They connect to each other by a wire, however, so they aren’t true wireless earbuds like Apple’s AirPods or Bragi’s The Headphone.
In our first impressions handling them, they look and feel unnecessarily large. The fit feels odd at first because it’s not sitting in your ear canal, and that means it’s not snug. Google told us it would feel like a better fit the longer we wear it, so we’ll have to wait and see if that’s true. There’s an adjustable loop (via the wire) at the top of the earbuds to help keep them in place.
We like the color options for the Pixel Buds: Clearly White, Just Black, and Kinda Blue. But we’re not yet sold on the design. The Pixel Buds’ bulbous size makes them feel as though they could fall off at a moment’s notice. We’ll have to use them for a lot longer for a final verdict.
Google Assistant and instant translation
The main draw for these earbuds is access to the Google Assistant . Tap and hold the right earbud to start talking to Assistant and it will respond to whatever you ask. You can ask it for the weather or directions (your phone will detect if you’re walking and give you walking directions), place a call, play a song, send a message — essentially almost anything you can ask the Google Assistant on the phone is fair game with the Pixel Buds.
It’s doesn’t sit in your ear canal, and that means it doesn’t feel snug.
This was hands down our favorite part of the headphones. There’s zero delay between when you press and hold on the right earbud and when you can start talking, and responses were speedy. It felt futuristic.
A single tap on the right earbud will play and pause tracks, and this is what had us worried a little bit. There was a clear one to two second delay between the tap and when the music actually paused. We found ourselves tapping again just to make sure it paused, only to hear the music pause and play again. It was a little frustrating, and we’re hoping that time delay gets shaved down before release.
You can swipe your finger left and right on the earbud to increase or decrease the volume, and it did the job instantly.
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
The other exciting feature with the Pixel Buds works in tandem with Assistant: Instant translation via Google Translate. Tap and hold the right earbud and say “help me speak Japanese,” 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 be holding the phone in front of the person you’re chatting with so they hear the translation from the speaker.
The person you’re chatting with can then tap the icon on the smartphone screen and say a phrase in their language, and you’ll immediately hear the translated sentence in your ear. The on-stage demo was impressive, but it didn’t exactly translate the same way in our short experience (pun intended).
Assistant’s responses were speedy without delay.
Simple phrases and sentences worked really well, but anything more technical ended up with a few errors. Think about it — you’re still using Google Translate, which is an excellent and useful translation tool, but it’s no secret that it struggles with complicated translations. The Pixel Buds and Translate struggled with places and names as well.
It’s undoubtedly an exciting feature, but it’s not really new and no one has gotten it perfectly right yet. We don’t think the Pixel Buds will either, but Google’s attempt is a huge step closer. We’ll have to do more testing to see how it fares.
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, but it will likely expand to other devices in the future.
Sound quality and battery
We didn’t get much of a chance to really listen and inspect the audio capability of the Pixel Buds, but from what we heard we can tell you with certainty that they get loud. Incredibly loud. Sound was balanced, without sounding tinny or bass-heavy, though we’ll need to do more testing for a final verdict.
Google said the earbuds should last for 5 hours of listening time on a charge, which isn’t amazing for tethered wireless buds, but the portable charging case can charge you can get up to 24 hours of listening time in total. The case uses pogo pins to wirelessly charge and there’s a button you can press to see how much battery the earbuds have when they’re in the case.
Google Pixel Buds Compared To
We’re not fans of the case, though, for a few reasons. It’s wrapped with this nice, soft fabric, but it feels as though the fabric was placed over cardboard. The case feels cheap and flimsy. It was also not easy to quickly open it — you may need to make use of your fingernails because of how it closes. When you put the Pixel Buds in the case, you also have to wrap the short wire and place it a certain way. It needs to be faster than this — I should be able to plop my earbuds in and continue on with my day, as you can with Apple’s AirPods or other true wireless buds, without the need to pay attention to how the wire is folded.
Availability and price
The Pixel Buds will set you back a whopping $159, and we think that’s absolutely bonkers. It’s a ridiculously high price for earbuds that aren’t fully wireless. We’re not sure the instant translation is worth the high price, though we are pretty happy with how Assistant handled itself.
The Pixel Buds are available for pre-order now — but it looks like they’re already out of stock.