Google’s Pixel Buds are coming to Australia in as little as a couple of weeks, and at $249, they’re not the cheapest headphones going. They do, however, offer a few features that many other headphones don’t, including Google Assistant built in, easy one-touch control, real-time translation, and easy connection. Already the reviews have been published overseas, and if you’ve read some of them, you’ll know that the impressions generally aren’t flattering.
The kinds of commentary made include:
- Poor audio quality, not so much from the earpieces themselves, but because they don’t seal out background noise, making it hard to hear what’s going on in noisy environments.
- Hit and miss voice response; sometimes the commands don’t work, but most of the time they do.
- The frustrating neck cord joining the two ear buds.
- The curious charging case, which although cool, can be rather frustrating as things need to be very carefully placed to make them work.
Overall, there’s been some damning critique of the Pixel Buds in the reviews I’ve read thus far, and I wanted to try a pair for myself. Fortunately, Google have review devices in the hands of the Australian press from today, and so I can give you some first impressions tonight.
First of all, some of those things above – they’re true.
What the other reviewers said about Pixel Buds
The audio quality itself is great. The Pixel Buds put out great quality, loud audio and in a relatively quiet environment, they’re rather enjoyable to listen to. However, as soon as you’re not in a quiet environment, the Pixel Buds quickly lose their cool. In my office, the Pixel Buds worked great. There’s a decent amount of bass and treble, and I don’t mind the quality per se.
Walking on the streets of Sydney, though, and they didn’t work so great. I could barely hear them without cranking the volume, and as soon as I went inside from out, my ears started to rattle as the audio was too loud. Because they don’t seal with your ear canal, or cover your ears like more traditional headphones, outside noise gets in, and it can be very, very hard to overcome.
The voice response, when it works, is brilliant. It’s superbly fast, and almost instantly responsive, provided you’re in a fairly quiet environment. The Pixel Buds do have directional microphones in order to hear your voice clearly, and for the most part, this worked equally well inside and out. While the detection of voice outdoors worked just fine, the accuracy of the speech to text was a little impeded. While Assistant understood that I wanted to send a Telegram message to Rachel, it mangled the content of that message pretty badly. Indoors, it was significantly more accurate. It’s noted, though, that this isn’t a flaw peculiar to Pixel Buds; all Google’s voice recognition can be thrown off by loud noise, and as can recognition on other platforms too.
The neck cord is curious, when Apple’s AirPods are completely cordless, but ultimately, I don’t really mind it. I like it, because if you flick the buds out of your ears to talk to someone, the cord will keep the buds around your neck and ready to pop back in. Only a fool would be tempted to cut this cord, but apparently enough tried that Google needed to warn users not to do so. I guess you can’t put brains in statues.
The charging case is equal parts great and frustrating. Because of the way the buds charge inside the case, they need to be very precisely aligned. If the alignment is off even slightly, they won’t charge, and you can be caught by surprise with flat earbuds. The easiest way to make sure the Pixel Buds are charging is (a) to look for the pulsing green LED in the case when they’re correctly seated, and (b) the Bluetooth connection drops while they charge. This is very handy to know, because if you bump the case and it dislodges a bud, they’ll reconnect to your phone, and this will give you an indicator they’re going flat instead of charging.
What I found with the Pixel Buds
This is a first generation product. Unlike tried and tested headphones, these lack a bit of polish. It’s clear that this is Google’s first foray into worn technology like this, but this isn’t entirely a bad thing. When it comes to audio quality and overall utility, I’d choose something else every time. Bose QC35 II’s, for example, which I reviewed a little while ago incorporate Google Assistant and have superb audio quality, which I could barely fault. It’s little surprise I found them brilliant; they’re a fourth generation product in some ways, and though Google Assistant is brand new, most other inclusions are tried, tested, and loved.
There are some signs that the Pixel Buds are a first generation product though, and primarily these centre on limitations:
- Pixel Buds pair to one device at a time. You can’t pair them to your phone and your tablet at the same time, for example.
- There’s no physical volume control. To adjust the volume, you either adjust it on your paired device (easy enough) or you can use Google Assistant to set it for you (e.g. “Set the volume to 40%”).
- The battery life is a little short, at just 5 hours tops, but frankly for tiny earbuds, this is probably okay.
It’s easy to be critical, but there’s some powerful features too, depending on what version of Android your phone runs:
- Android 5.0 or higher, iOS 10 or higher: audio and tap controls only
- Android 6.0 or higher: Google Assistant as well
- Android 7.0 or higher: Bluetooth fast pairing
- Pixel or Pixel 2 range: Google instant Translate features
Instead of a physical button to press on the left ear-cup like on the Bose QC35’s, a simple touch on the right earbud activates and deactivates Google Assistant. This might not sound like much, but it actually makes voice control very easy. It almost makes you look like a secret agent talking into your wrist, but in addition to being sensitive enough to hear you in loud environments, you can talk fairly quietly, and what noise you do make is aptly masked by your wrist. In short, this means you can talk to Pixel Buds without really disturbing people around you, and that’s important.
The real-time translation feature, while it needs work to make it more user friendly, is incredibly powerful. You can use it to have a just-about real-time conversation with someone in a foreign language, but it is imperfect. While the translation from English to the foreign language works just fine (you speak English into the Pixel Buds, and your phone speaks the other language to your correspondent), the translation from the foreign language back to English doesn’t seem to play audio through the Pixel Buds, making it a bit hard to actually hear the other side of the conversation.
A Babel Fish this is not, but it wouldn’t take much to make it right, and you’d have to expect Google’s working on it.
I don’t think the Pixel Buds are the entirely negative experience that’s been portrayed elsewhere; while there are flaws, to be sure, I don’t know that they’re critical. There’s a section of the market that will find Pixel Buds very, very appealing.
They’re super light-weight, to the point of barely being able to feel them when they’re on (or is it in?) The audio quality is more than ample in the environments the buds are most likely to be used in — indoors or commuting. Let’s face it, the audio quality is less good walking around in a windy city, but let’s also face it, most of us don’t do that for hours a day.
With a 5-hour battery life, you can easily wear them the whole morning, and charge them over your lunch break and wear them all afternoon if you wanted to. I’ve never really been a headphones-all-day kind of wearer, but plenty are, and they’ll likely not be disappointed.
For my usage pattern, though, the Pixel Buds can’t replace my over-the-ear headphones. For starters, multi-device connectivity is king these days; I can watch my TV on the tablet, get off the train, and switch over to music from my phone without touching the headphones. If I’m watching TV and my phone rings, seamless, the audio cuts over. They also filter out background noise much better, and for me, that’s important.
As a one-size-fits-all solution, the Pixel Buds fail; they are simply not for everyone. As a solution for those who like light-weight almost not there audio, who need to be able to hear whats going on around them (without being distracted by it), and who want the ease of voice control, an (almost) hands-free Assistant, these are hard to beat. Other headphones with Assistant built in are far less intuitive, and while I love the QC35s, wear-all-day headphones — especially in an office environment — they certainly are not.
At $249, Pixel Buds aren’t exactly cheap, but if you want to see what smart wearables will look like in a year or two, this is a great way to get an early sneak peak.
Google’s Pixel Buds are $249, and they’re coming to JB HiFi and Telstra stores in December, and will be available on the Google Store soon.