Google Pixel Buds Review: Good but not great

Alex Kidman 7 December 2017 NEWS

Google's Pixel Buds offer fine audio quality, but the much-lauded translation feature isn't that great, and neither is the physical design.

Quick Verdict
If you adore all things Google then the Pixel Buds will do fine as wireless headphones for your Pixel 2, but the physical design introduces issues that can irritate, and the translation feature isn't that great.

The Good

  • Decent audio quality
  • Quick pairing once connected
  • Private language translation
  • Good battery life

The Bad

  • Manual pairing is a chore
  • Cable is tough to wrap into case
  • Real-time translation is really just Google Translate

Google grabbed headlines at its Google I/O event not so much for the heavily-leaked Google Pixel 2 and Google Pixel 2 XL, but for its first range of Google-branded Bluetooth headphones, the Google Pixel Buds, designed specifically with the new Pixel phones in mind.

Google's taking on not only Apple's AirPods, but the entire audio world with the Pixel Buds, and that's a big challenge.

Sadly, it's a challenge that the Pixel Buds aren't quite up to.

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Design

If you were to name a style choice for wireless headphones in 2017, the odds are pretty good that you'd opt for single bud-per-ear because that's not only what Apple's AirPods do, but also numerous other sets including Samsung's Gear IconX, Jabra's Elite Sport and BlueAnt's Pump Air Wireless, to name but a few.

Instead, Google went with a more traditional cabled design, albeit one with a fairly pretty fabric mesh design for the cable that wraps around the back of your head.

Each bud rests lightly within your ear, and if your lugs are anything like mine, you may find you have to slide them around a little to get the fit just right. That's a learning curve that exists for most bud-type headphones.

Google also provides a carrying case that, like all the others of its ilk, also acts as a battery pack to charge the Pixel Buds when not in use. It's a small, fabric-covered box that slips easily into your pockets when not in use.

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Installation

In theory, the first time you open up the Pixel Buds and remove them from the casing, they should spring into pairing life and seek out nearby Pixels (or other compatible Android devices), which should then spring up a pairing window in a very similar style to the way Apple's AirPods pair with iOS devices on the same account.

Note how I said "in theory", there? Good, you're paying attention. Despite the instructions insisting this would happen at some point, I never once saw a handy pairing connection screen on any Android phone I tried pairing the Pixel Buds with, which meant that I had to go through the far more laborious process of pairing them manually.

This involves tapping a near-invisible button on the inside of the case while the Pixel Buds are still in the case, then finding them via the standard Bluetooth menu on an Android handset.

These days you're lucky if you're in an area that doesn't have dozens of Bluetooth devices all happily broadcasting their location, so the wait to properly identify the Pixel Buds can be a lengthy one.

If you use multiple Bluetooth devices, that also means you've got to repeat the process each time you need to switch to a new device or back to an old one.

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Performance

Pairing woes aside, the good side of the Pixel Buds is that, on the whole, they do deliver reasonably solid audio for most tastes. Unlike smaller bud-only type earphones, there's a slight bias towards a more bass-heavy tone, although not one that's likely to feed the appetite of the heaviest bass fan.

There's no noise cancellation on offer, and the design of the buds means that they're not even particularly noise isolating.

However, Bluetooth headphones are nothing special and the Pixel Buds are meant to sell themselves on their innate Google-ness, which means that they're equipped with all sorts of ways to work with the Google Assistant.

All of the controls for the Pixel Buds are managed via the right ear, where a tap can pause/play music or accept a call, a swipe can adjust volume up or down and a long hold will invoke the actual assistant. This works by listening to your voice as long as you hold your finger to your right ear.

Even in noisy environments, pickup of my basic requests worked quite well. I can't quite say the same of the general tapping of the right earbud because it's super-sensitive. Expect to start and pause your music multiple times while putting them in your ears unless you're very careful to keep your fingers clear of the right touch zone.

Assistant access isn't a unique feature for the Pixel Buds, but it does have one feature that only works with the combination of Pixel Buds and the new Pixel phones, and that's the heavily-hyped "real-time translation" feature.

On the plus side, testing with Japanese, both spoken by myself and taken from audio samples from a Japanese language textbook, the Pixel 2 XL I used for testing translated very well indeed.

On the minus side, you might notice I didn't reference the Pixel Buds in that equation, and that's because the "real time" translation Google's talking about here actually takes place on Google Translate running on a Pixel/Pixel 2/Pixel 2 XL exclusively.

The only benefit you get from the Pixel Buds is that when words are spoken into the translate app, the mechanical translation is spoken to the headphones, rather than broadcast through the phone's speakers. Sure, that's slightly more private than having it broadcast a little louder, but it's hardly groundbreaking.

Honestly, it feels much more like Google pushing users towards buying Pixels than an attempt to make the Pixel Buds stand out on their own accord.

What precisely is stopping Google from letting Google Translate send audio to the Pixel Buds on other handsets? It can't be processing power because the Pixel 2/XL are running on the exact same hardware as a host of other premium handsets.

You're going to appear awkward using Google Translate no matter what you do, so limiting that functionality to its own handsets won't make that much of a difference.

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Battery life

Google rates the Google Pixel Buds as being good for up to five hours of battery playback time, with a further 24 hours on offer through the charging case. Recharging the case involves plugging it into any standard USB-C adaptor.

That five-hour figure is entirely achievable in real-world use. I've managed to get through entire working days with the Pixel Buds in fairly frequent use, and the capacity of the case means that I didn't even have to plug it in all that often.

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Verdict

It's easy to see what Google was pitching for with the Pixel Buds, given that it's now into its second generation of handsets without standard headphone jacks in place. The Pixel Buds are more than just a standard set of Bluetooth headphones and are an illustration of where Google wants to take this kind of smart device.

It's just that, unless you're hopelessly in love with everything Google and absolutely must stay on brand, there's not much of a decent argument in favour of the Pixel Buds themselves. There are many examples that offer Google Assistant integration plus fitness features or better audio.

Real-time translation sounds like a great idea, but the practical application of it shows that Google's really just cheating to keep it a Pixel-exclusive feature. When Google can build Translate directly into the Pixel Buds in a future generation, then it'll really be onto a world-changing technology.

For now, the Pixel Buds are OK, but they're not essential.

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Alternatives

The rapid expansion of handsets that lack standard headphone sockets has led to numerous alternatives if what you're after is a lightweight set of Bluetooth headphones.

If you're on a strict budget, consider the Flowfonix Buddies or Cygnett Freerun headphones. For those of a more sporty persuasion, the heart rate tracking abilities of the Jabra Elite Sport or Bioconnected HR+ might be a better fit.

If you want to confuse folks about your smartphone brand allegiance, you could even opt for a set of Apple's slightly less expensive AirPods.

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Google Pixel Buds: What the other reviewers say

SiteCommentScore
Engadget"At best, they're decent; at worst, they feel unfinished."N/A
TechRadar"The Pixel Buds are a compelling set of wireless headphones that mostly succeed in executing their ambitions."3.5/5
PC Mag"The design, performance, and feature implementation result in a product that's much closer to the Nexus Q than a Chromecast or a Pixel."2/5
CNET"The Pixel Buds are perfectly decent wireless headphones with a few extra tricks for Pixel phone users "8.6/10

Pricing and availability

Google sells the Google Pixel Buds in Australia for $249 outright.

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Specifications

Product Name
Google Pixel Buds
Audio connectivity
Bluetooth
Battery Capacity (headphones)
120 mAh
Earbud weight
14g
Case weight
43g (without buds)
Price
$249

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