Google Pixel Buds review: Bluetooth earbuds are a missed opportunity

Google Pixel Buds review: Bluetooth earbuds are a missed opportunity


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Google Pixel Buds review: Bluetooth earbuds are a missed opportunity” was written by Samuel Gibbs, for theguardian.com on Monday 4th December 2017 07.00 UTC

The Google Pixel Buds are a set of wireless neckband-style Bluetooth earbuds that have a few fancy tricks up their sleeve, including the ability to near real-time translation. But are they really that good?

First things first, the Google Pixel Buds are not entirely wireless, unlike Bluetooth earbuds such as the Bragi Dash Pro or Apple’s AirPods. Instead there’s a cable running between the two earbuds, which is a shame, as cables between earbuds are no longer needed, and it frequently gets tugged and caught by clothing restricting the moment of your head.

Fit

Google Pixel Buds review
The cable pokes through a hole in the earbud to form a loop. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The cable pokes through a little hole in the earbuds to form a size-adjustable loop that sticks into your ear to help keep them from falling out, similar to the “wings” used by competitors. Unfortunately the loop changes size when the cable gets tugged.

The Pixel Buds have no sound isolation, but instead just sit in your ear and direct the sound into your ear canal with a similar earbud shape to Apple’s EarPods.

While in-ear comfort depends on the shape of your ears, I found the Pixel Buds to be uncomfortable to wear for any period longer than about 30 minutes, causing ear ache. That’s not the case for most canal-bud style wireless earbuds. They are less comfortable than the AirPods.

Sound

Google Pixel Buds review
The buds snap in and out of the case with magnets. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The Pixel Buds actually sound good for earbuds that have no isolation. They don’t have thunderous bass, nor particularly sparkling highs, but they have a relatively well-rounded sound and can be cranked up to uncomfortable listening volumes.

A swipe left or right on the right earbud adjusts the volume. I found the differences between each step of the volume too large, ending up either too quiet or too loud to comfortably listen. I resorted to setting volume with my phone, but as soon as you swiped on the earbuds it went back to either being too quiet or too loud.

The rest of the controls work well. Tap once on the right earbud to pause or play music (you can’t skip tracks through), tap twice to read out the time and your latest notifications, or tap and hold to talk to Google Assistant.

Google Assistant

The latter is the Pixel Buds’ ace in the hole. Talking to Google Assistant is so fast. Put your finger on the earbud and speak, and release it to have Assistant answer. Nothing else is that fast, not even the AirPods with Siri on an iPhone. Of course, it only works when you have an internet connection, but it’s pretty handy.

Assistant alerts you each time a notification arrives and can read them out on demand, just tap on the right earbud when the chime sounds, or double tap at any other time. When it works, it does so surprisingly well, but I found that sometimes the system would stop working, failing to notice that there were notifications waiting for me despite the phone vibrating in my pocket.

You can also reply via voice transcription if you have an internet connection, or if you ignore enough of the notification chimes Assistant will silence notifications for the next 30 minutes. Some will love the notifications, but others will find them incredibly annoying, disrupting whatever they’re listening to.

Translation

Google Pixel Buds review
Google Translate will perform near real-time translation of any one of 40 languages. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The Pixel Buds’ party trick is tight integration with Google Translate, but it only works if you have one of Google’s Pixel line of smartphones. Activate Assistant and say “help me speak French” and it’ll fire up Translate on the phone. It then uses the app’s real-time translation system, piping part of the audio through the earbuds.

You tap and hold to speak, then release to hear the translation played to whomever you’re trying to converse with through your phone. Pressing a button on the phone and talking into it will lead to a translation being played into your ear when the button is released.

The Translate app does the same thing, with two buttons on screen without needing the Pixel Buds, which in some ways is more straightforward. It’s a gimmick I’m not sure I would use, preferring to just use the phone alone as it’s easier to explain to someone who doesn’t speak your language how it works when you can both hear the results, and it’s pretty rude to speak to someone with earbuds in.

Case

Google Pixel Buds review
The cable wraps around the inner ring of the case. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The Pixel Buds come with a little fabric case to store and charge them. They magnetically clip into little docking holes to charge, with the cable looping around a ring inside the case. There’s a small button on the inside of the case that contains some LEDs that tell you how charged both the case or the earbuds. It works OK, but doesn’t feel like the most robust of cases. I fear for its longevity.

Pairing them was meant to be as simple as opening the case near a Pixel 2 smartphone and tapping on a notification. It didn’t work. No matter what I did the notification didn’t appear. In the end I resorted to manually triggering pairing by pressing and holding the button. Then everything worked as described by simply tapping on the notification on my phone.

You have to perform a similar procedure to connect the Pixel Buds to other devices such as iPhones or Windows 10 PCs.

Battery life

Google reckons you’ll get five hours constant listening out of the earbuds, while the case holds 24 hours battery life. This seemed about right, although I couldn’t test the five-hour claim as they hurt my ears too much to continue listening for five hours straight, but I didn’t have to charge them over a week and a bit of listening to them around two hours a day in stints.

Connectivity was rock solid, and call quality was pretty good too, with both sides of the conversation clearly audible unless it was windy, when I couldn’t hear a thing thanks to the lack of isolation.

Observations

  • It’s very difficult to put them in your ears without triggering a control such as starting music playback
  • If wound tight, the cable doesn’t quite fit in the case, requiring an extra fold
  • They can only connect to one Bluetooth device at any one time

Price

The Google Pixel Buds cost £159 (buy here).

For comparison, Apple’s AirPods cost £159 (buy here), the Bragi Headphone cost €169/£149 (buy here) and the Bragi Dash Pro cost €349/£308 (buy here).

Verdict

The Google Pixel Buds are an interesting but flawed set of wireless earbuds. The smart features, battery life and sound are good, but the volume control is poor and we’ve moved past the need for a cable to connect wireless earbuds.

Some might like the lack of sound isolation – I do not and I didn’t find them comfortable for any extended period. The case is cute, but has a flimsy hinge and cloth covering, which do not instill confidence that they’re built to last.

In many ways the Pixel Buds are a missed opportunity. Maybe next year.

Pros: rapid Google Assistant, Translate, good battery life, good sound

Cons: no isolation, a cable, questions over durability of case, not all features work with all devices, no multi-device connection

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