When Google unveiled its Pixel Buds in October, they promised to be a futuristic take on wireless headphones.
But in real life, Pixel Buds fall short.
The buds, which cost $US159, aren’t terrible headphones by any means. They sound good, they look good, and they do most of the things Google promised they would.
But a handful of issues make the buds uncomfortable, annoying, and a little disappointing to use. The buds don’t feel like a forward-looking product, but a product that’s just barely keeping up with its competitors.
I tried the Pixel Buds for about a week. Here’s what I thought:
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There are a lot of things I like about Pixel Buds. Unfortunately, the fit isn't one of them.
The buds don't come with varying sizes of rubber tips, so you're stuck with a one-size-fits-all situation. Except the buds don't fit all ears, at least not comfortably.
Trying to jam the Pixel Buds into relatively small ear canals is nothing short of painful. They're simply too big, and they chafed a bit in the process of getting them in.
I will say that once the buds are in your ears, they stay there. The band can be pulled through the buds to form an adjustable loop, which you can use to then sort of anchor them in your ears. This really helped them stay put, and made me feel like Google was at least acknowledging that not every ear is exactly the same size.
I suppose that over time, you'd get used to the fit. And if you have larger ears -- as in, you always need the largest rubber tip on earbuds for a snug fit -- you'll probably be just fine. But do you really want to spend $US160 for headphones that may or may not physically hurt you? I'm not so sure.
I appreciate audio quality and can recognise the difference between $US20 headphones and $US200 headphones, but I'm not an audiophile. I was testing the Pixel Buds to determine if they'd be great headphones for the majority of people.
In that case, they succeeded.
Like a lot of earbuds, the Pixel Buds aren't great at handling bass. I listen to a lot of hip-hop and R&B, and I didn't get the deep bass I was accustomed to. But it wasn't a deal-breaker for me, since the buds still sound great. Everything sounded clear and crisp, and there wasn't any of the tinniness you'd get with cheaper headphones.
The noise cancelling on the Pixel Buds is just OK. They don't claim to be fully noise cancelling, which is good because in a lot of situations, they're nowhere close. But I did find that while walking down the street -- a busy New York City footpath, no less -- the buds filtered out a good deal of outside noise. I suspect that if the Pixel Buds fit me better, the noise cancelling would be vastly improved.
What makes the Pixel Buds different from standard wireless earbuds is the touch controls on the side of the right ear bud. You can use this to adjust the volume, bring up Google Assistant, and translate different languages (which I'll get to in a minute).
The touch controls are very cool. Swiping left or right on the ear bud changes the volume, double tapping will announce all your notifications, and pressing and holding will bring up Google Assistant. (Assistant is handy, but not worth getting into. It works the same as ever, and unless you're a hardcore fan of digital assistants, most people won't find themselves using it very much.)
I have one major gripe with the touch controls, though: You can't change, or re-map, those controls. That's fine until you realise there's no way to skip to the next song. It's incredibly frustrating. You feel like you're in the future, bopping along to your music, until a song you hate comes on and you have to dig through your bag to find your phone in order to skip it. A first-world problem, to be sure, but a problem nonetheless.
The translation feature was easily the most exciting part of Pixel Buds, and it holds up -- kind of.
If all you need is simple, occasional word translation, the buds are great. But if you're hoping for a real-time translation service that will enable you to have a regular conversation with someone who speaks in another language, you'll be disappointed.
There's a lot of lag time in between when you say something and when it's translated. That's to be expected, and it didn't really bother me. But the buds seemed billed as a conversation tool, and they really can't do that -- not yet, at least.
Google Translate also seems to have more trouble translating from English to another language. We tested it out with 10 different languages, and the translations went more smoothly from other languages into English.
At the end of the day, the feature is basically just a glorified version of Google Translate (Literally. You'll need the standalone Translate app on your phone to get it to work). While there are some nifty commands to activate it -- 'OK Google, I need a Greek translator' -- there's not much that's new here. Oh, and it only works with Pixel phones.
Something I love about the Pixel Buds, and about Google's hardware products in general, is their look and feel. Google makes products that are genuinely different from anything else on the market. Using textiles feels refreshing and very hip, and it makes Google products more pleasant to hold and use. The fabric of the case combined with the cord that connects the headphones makes the Pixel Buds feel very sporty.
If there's a downside to that, it's that the Pixel Buds don't exactly have a 'luxury' feel. I didn't mind that because I look to Google for fun products geared toward the everyman, but if you're spending $US160 on headphones, you may expect them to seem more high-end.
One small, though annoying, aspect of the Pixel Buds is how they fit into their case. The cord wraps around the sides of the case and tucks up in the top, and it took my a few tries to get the hang of it. Unlike AirPods, which just pop into their respective slots and you're done, Pixel Buds took a bit more work. It wasn't a major inconvenience, but definitely a small annoyance.
I was so excited about the Pixel Buds, and I really wanted them to be great. Unfortunately, I can't wholeheartedly recommend buying them.
There are a lot of excellent things about the buds. The battery life is solid (aided by the charging case), and they look great. I was impressed by their sound quality, and I thought the translation features worked fine, if not quite as advertised.
But I just can't get over the fact that the fit was physically painful for me. Comfort will vary from person to person, and you might not mind their size, but I'd be remiss not to mention this aspect of the earbuds, based on my personal experience with them.
Curiously, I also found the Pixel Buds paired more easily with an iPhone than they did with the Pixel phone. I tried pairing the buds with two different Pixel devices and not only the did the quick-pairing feature not work as advertised, but they didn't manually pair with either Pixel phone on the first try. Since the headphones were billed to be the companion to the Pixel, I expected them to pair seamlessly.
For its first foray into headphones, Google did an OK job. There is plenty of room to grow here. But because the name 'Google' is on these headphones, we've all just come to expect a lot more.