Google has been working hard over the past year to push Google Assistant in as many places as possible. Between smart speakers, basically every phone on the market, and even laptops, the Assistant is in a ton of places. Recently, it’s been extending to headphones, and just in time for the Pixel 2 to ditch the headphone jack, Google has debuted the first earbuds with Assistant built-in, the Pixel Buds.

The best gifts for Android users

THE FEATURES |

Google Assistant built-in

Without a doubt, my favorite thing about the Pixel Buds is Google Assistant integration. Most headphones have some way to access Assistant or Siri when they’re connected to your phone, but the Pixel Buds don’t actually use your phone’s assistant, it uses its own.

Like the Bose QC35 II’s which debuted the functionality, the Pixel Buds have Assistant baked directly in, meaning there’s no waiting for your phone to react to ask a question or give a command. You access Assistant by tapping and holding on the right earbud and it immediately starts listening. Once you remove your finger, the results are quick as well.

Having Assistant built into your earbuds is something I don’t think you can truly appreciate until you’ve tried it, but for me, it’s a massive selling point. I love essentially having a Google Home connected to my ear, always ready to control music, answer questions, and so much more.

Notifications mixed in with your music

Assistant isn’t the only clever thing on the Pixel Buds, though. Another is notifications. This is totally optional, but if enabled, the Pixel Buds will notify you of incoming messages and other notifications directly on your headphones, even making it a breeze to quickly respond.

If you don’t wear a smartwatch, this is a really handy feature, but it’s not really for everyone. When you get a lot of notifications through the day, having them interrupt your music would be annoying. Personally, I don’t mind it, but not everyone will agree on that one. What I wish Google would do is offer a filter for notifications, disabling things like social media or emails perhaps, leaving just messages. This is something a lot of smartwatches offer, so hopefully, it’ll extend to the Pixel Buds.

Live Translation that’s (sort of) right in your ear

The feature Google has been hyping up surrounding the Pixel Buds has been live translation. Using Google Translate and Assistant, you can use the Buds to translate another language in real-time, but it’s not as cool as it sounds if I’m honest.

It’s very cool and works fine, but it’s very much overhyped

To do this, you need to pull out your phone which reads out what you say into the Buds to the other person. Then they use your phone to speak, and the Buds read out the translation. It’s very cool and seems to work fine, but I think it’s very much overhyped. This is a cool trick that could come in handy, but pulling out your phone and using the Translate app feels much more natural to me.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that this only works if you have a Pixel device, first or second generation. That’s a little annoying, but it doesn’t really surprise me. If you want to try it on other devices, the Bragi Dash Pro actually offers the same basic experience, but you’ll end up paying more for it (and it won’t be using Google Translate).

SOUND QUALITY |

Out of everything I’ve heard from other reviewers and early owners surrounding the Pixel Buds, sound quality has easily been the most divisive, so let’s talk about it.

In my personal opinion, I think the Pixel Buds sound great for what they are. You can absolutely spend more money to get truly wireless headphones that sound better, and you can even spend less to get wireless or wired headphones that sound a lot better.

To make the product that the Pixel Buds are, though, Google had to make trade-offs, and some of those affect the sound quality. For one, there’s the design of the actual earbud. Instead of digging into your ear canal and sealing off the rest of the world, the Pixel Buds just kind of float there, anchored in place by the fabric loop and rubberized design.

That means there’s absolutely no noise isolation when listening to music, but it also means you can hear your surroundings when it’s important and talk to the Assistant without that weird feeling in your ears that most earbuds cause when talking. That’s something important to the Pixel Buds because you’re constantly going to be talking to the Assistant.

However, this does negatively affect the overall audio quality. The Pixel Buds are not amazing in this area, but they definitely aren’t bad. For the size and design, you get a surprising amount of depth and bass with your audio, and everything is very clear. The volume the Buds are capable of is also impressive. To draw a quick comparison, I highly prefer the quality of the Pixel Buds to that of Apple’s AirPods.

The reason sound quality is such a divisive issue on the Pixel Buds is the price tag. At $159, you have to deliver good audio, regardless of the features present. Unless you’re an audiophile or have your expectations set too high, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the Pixel Buds in terms of sound quality. Sure, you can get better audio from other options, but they don’t offer what the Pixel Buds do.

HARDWARE |

The Buds

Let’s talk about the actual earbuds themselves. These aren’t traditional in any sense of the word. As mentioned, Google has gone for a design that sits in your ear rather than digging inside. This is part of the reason why there’s minimal sound isolation, but I don’t see it as a negative point.

For one, this design fits very well in the ear, and stays there. That’s thanks to two things. First, the rubber coating on the bud helps give it a bit of grip. Further, the fabric loop coming out of the bud anchors it in your ear, keeping it there through whatever you throw at it. (But since it’s fabric it could very well end up gross with earwax — mine haven’t yet.)

And I have to say, I’ve been astounded at how well these stay in my ear. Walking and running posed no problem in my experience, and these are the first earbuds I’ve used that managed to stay in my ears while playing disc golf. Generally, that fast movement rips earbuds out. As a point of reference, AirPods also managed to stay in my ears in the same way, but I did have them fall out a couple of times in some situations where the Buds did not.

But your results may vary. This sort of design is meant to be one-size fits all, but it definitely isn’t. For some people, the Pixel Buds absolutely won’t stay in their ears and even if they do, they might not sit properly to where the audio sounds like it should. The fit is completely dependent on you, which is unfortunate.

The Touch Controls

Google has also implemented touch controls into the Pixel Buds and they’re great and very intuitive. A single tap pauses your music, a tap and hold triggers the Assistant, and a swipe to the front or back raises or lowers the volume. These controls are responsive and very reliable.

However, they’re not perfect. They can be a bit too responsive at times, leading to a lot of accidental touches. Further, there are things missing, like the ability to skip a track. Thankfully, this is something Google can update over time, but regardless, the touch controls are one of my favorite features of the Buds.

The Cord

2017 has seen most wireless headphones than ever before, and there are a lot of good ones. However, there are two main categories when it comes to wireless earbuds. For one, there are “truly wireless earbuds.” Examples of this include Apple’s AirPods and Samsung’s Gear Icon X. On the other hand, there’s the more tried and true “neckbud” form factor which is what we get with the Pixel Buds.

There’s nothing wrong with that at all, as this form factor still has a fair number of advantages. However, Google is basically putting the Buds right alongside truly wireless competitors when it comes to pricing and marketing. To that end, a lot of people have immediately dismissed the Pixel Buds. I don’t think that’s fair at all.

SET UP AND PAIRING |

Fast Pair is a revelation for Bluetooth

One feature that the Pixel Buds are basically debuting on Android is Fast Pair. This actually works on all Android devices as long as they meet certain specifications, and it’s really handy.

If you set up the Buds for the first time, just open the case and turn on your phone. Within seconds you should see a notification which gives you the option to connect to the Pixel Buds. It’s an extremely easy way to get connected that requires none of the passcodes or trips to settings that Bluetooth headphones have required for ages.

Once you’ve paired, settings up the Pixel Buds is a breeze. Just follow Google’s on-screen instructions to adjust the fit and set up Google Assistant integration (more on that in a bit), and you’re good to go. It’s fast and easy every time.

But do they work with other devices?

While Fast Pair on Android is great, these are still good headphones if you’re using them elsewhere, and they work perfectly fine with everything.

On iOS you’ll need to connect the old-fashioned way, but once you have, volume controls and pause/play still work, and you can even trigger Siri if you want to do that for whatever reason. This is important to note, Google’s Pixel Buds work essentially the same when it comes to core functionality on iOS as they do on Android. That doesn’t go the other way around with AirPods, which only work on Android with a pause/play button and music, so Google deserves some credit where it’s due.

Beyond phones, the Pixel Buds also successfully worked for me on my Google Pixelbook and my HP Spectre laptop with no issue. Simply resetting the Buds and pairing as a traditional headset did the trick just fine. To do that, you’ll just need to press and hold the button inside of the charging case for a couple of seconds.

THE CHARGING CASE |

Unlike most neckbuds, Google has included a charging case with the Pixel Buds, and it… works. The fabric design absolutely screams Google, but it’s not a perfect experience by any means.

For one, the process of wrapping up the cable is more tedious than other earbuds, but you get used to it quickly. At this point, I can wrap up the Pixel Buds in the case in maybe a couple of seconds more than it takes to place AirPods back in their case.

My other complaint is the size. This charging case is a bit too big. Its footprint in your pocket is manageable, but the thickness is annoying to say the least. I don’t enjoy having it in my pocket all that much, so generally the case ends up in my backpack. It’s unfortunate, but it’s something I can live with.

BATTERY LIFE |

Charging wireless headphone is something you’ve got to live with most headphones nowadays, but thankfully, they’re getting better and better with endurance. Google claims that you can use the Pixel Buds for about 5 hours on a charge, and I found that pretty accurate. On one extended session of around 2 or so hours, the battery was down to about 60%.

The charging case provides another 24 hours worth of juice and charges up the Buds pretty quickly. Google says you can get around an hour’s worth of listening time in about 10 minutes.

THE LITTLE THINGS |

– USB-C all the things

USB-C is awesome, we all know this at this point. What I especially love about the Buds, though, is that you can use USB-C to charge the case with your phone. While that’s a niche use case, it’s pretty handy if you’ve forgotten to charge the Buds up on the go.

– Google should probably upgrade the documentation included in the box…

Most of the time we disregard the documentation included in the box with our tech, but with the Pixel Buds, you kind of need it. Setup can be done without looking at anything, but there are little questions that you’d want answered in the documentation. For one: how to reset the Buds. That information is readily available online, but it seems like something pretty basic that should be included in that documentation.

FINAL THOUGHTS |

Google’s first generation of hardware last year was impressive. For round two, we had high hopes, but there have been a lot of flaws. The Pixel Buds are a product rooted in great ideas, but they don’t deliver like many hoped. Little things like the quirky case and cord and divisive sound quality don’t reflect great on the product at the end of the day.

It’s really the $159 price that hurts the Pixel Buds. If Google was selling these for $99 or even $129, they’d be viewed in a much more positive light, but they aren’t. Personally, I can recommend at least trying the Buds if they appeal to you at all. I haven’t been disappointed in them, but they aren’t for everyone.

There’s a lot Google can learn from the Pixel Buds, though. Changing things up in the second generation with an improved case and truly wireless form factor will make these a great product; they’re just not quite there yet.


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