Google Pixel Buds Review: The Assistant Only You Can Hear

Easy setup, easy to use, fast charging and Google Assistant makes these an option worth considering

During the company’s Oct. 4 event Google introduced two new smartphones, the Google Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL. While they were just the headline products announced, Google also announced a number of other hardware additions including some other second-generation products like the new Google Home(s) (Mini, Max, and Plus), and the new Daydream View headset. In addition, Google also announced a first-generation hardware product in the form of the ‘Pixel Buds’. There are Google's first Bluetooth earphones, they are now available to buy through the Google Store, and they are priced at $159.99.

Specs

Unfortunately, Google did not specify any detailed audio specs in the main announcement. Likewise the product page is largely missing these details and when asked Google was unable to provide any further information on the audio specs. So detailed information on those aspects are currently not available. However, these are earphones which come with a variety of sensors including a microphone, an accelerometer, and one which fuels the capacitive touchpad. Battery capacity of each earbud is rated at 120 mAh which Google states should provide up to 5 hours of playback. In addition the included charging case is listed as holding a 620 mAh capacity - which can provide an additional charge to the earbuds while on the go.

In terms of the physical dimensions, the Google Pixel Buds measure 0.8-inches in length, 0.8-inches in width, and 0.8-inches in height, while weighing in at 14 grams combined weight). As for the case, this measures 2.6-inches in length, 2.6-inches in width, 1.1-inches in height, and weighs in at 43 grams on its own - or 57 grams when the two buds are housed within the case. The Pixel Buds are available to buy in three distinct color options which are named to coincide with the main Pixel 2 phone colors - Just Black, Clearly White, and Kinda Blue.

In the box

As is the case with Google’s new line of hardware in general, the unboxing experience is strictly more of a formality than a user-focused experience. So there is not much in the way of unboxing value. As for the contents, again things are kept quite simple here with the package containing the Google Pixel Buds, a carry case which also acts as a charging case, a USB-C to USB-A charging cable, as well as quick start and safety guides.

Design & Hardware

Google’s line of hardware is understood to be technology-first. This is often reflected in the design of its products. As while the Pixel 2 and 2 XL come with some new hardware implementations (such as Active Edge), their general look is more on the minimalist side. This is certainly the case with the Pixel Buds as while it is clear Google has thought about the design, the actual product looks very bare-bones. That is not necessarily a criticism however, as this is in many ways Google’s design philosophy now. After all, like the rest of Google’s hardware options, the Pixel Buds are all about what they can do, not necessarily how they look. For example, once the Pixel Buds are removed from the case for the first time there is effectively very little time spent admiring them. There are no buttons at all, very few touch controls to get used to, and the overall immediate experience is very limited. They are just a pair of headphones. Likewise, the buds themselves lack any real or notable design points - they are just buds… round, black (unless you opt for a different color), and plain. The cord connecting the two buds - is just a cord... with woven largely the only tangible descriptor available. At the very superficial level all  you are getting is two round, plain, button-less buds, attached by a small, woven, cable.

However, one design point which Google has simultaneously been clever at, while likely managing to save on cost, is using the cable as a means of accounting for different ear sizes and shapes. Instead of the more traditional method of including a variety of eartips and wings in the box allowing the user to customize the size for a better fit, Google has used the cable to create a loop above each ear bud. These can be adjusted by pulling up (or back) on the loop and the idea is to create enough of a loop where the cable snugly fits into the upper rim of the ear - in anatomy terms close to the inferior crus of the antihelix. This then sort of acts as the grounding for the earbuds and when placed in the ear, they lock into position. Does it actually work though? Well, sort of. This will require a little tweaking at first to really position them correctly (as it is easy to think they are positioned right when they are not) and once you have figured out the right sized loop and they are locked in, they do stay in position. Arguably, they do stay put as well as any other method used by headphone makers these days, although due to the finicky nature of setting up the loop, this might not be ideal for some users. As these are much less plug and play and much more I’ll be there in a minute.

The other issue with this design is when the right size is found there is no way to lock in that size so that it stays that way going forward. Moving the earbuds (for example putting them back into the case) often results in accidentally adjusting the custom loop you have created. Meaning that when you put them back in the ear again you are effectively back to square one again. Of course, this is a very minor criticism as it is not massively time-consuming to adjust the hoop each time until it is in the right position. But compared to other options which you just change the tip to the right one first and from then on they always fit tight and securely, it is a bit more of a pain point. So while it is not ideal, it is an interesting approach. To Google’s credit, and in spite of these not actually being positioned as ‘sports headphones’ the Pixel Buds do remain in position in the ear even during gym visits, including when running. The design here does not lend itself well to gym visits (for example Google doesn't mention any sort of IP rating which largely suggests if they are sweat-proof, they are probably not officially rated as such), but the design seems durable enough for average and moderate gym use. Although, those looking for a dedicated set of headphones for the gym will be best off looking elsewhere to be on the safe side as these should be considered more of a lifestyle product than anything else.

To briefly touch on the design of the case, this is one of the bigger letdowns of the Pixel Buds as it is just not user-friendly enough. Part of the reason for this is again Google’s focus on simplicity. The case itself is fabric-based to match Google’s general fabric obsession and the clasp (if it can be called that) is a little questionable. For one thing, it will be interesting to see how this holds up over time.

Clasp aside, the storing of the Pixel Buds in the case is a tedious affair to say the least. The cable connecting the two buds is supposed to wrap around the outside of the case although the fitting is not great. Which means users are left having to constantly play with the wrapping of the cable to get the Pixel Buds into the case firmly enough to be able to close the case. This is presumably an issue Google anticipated as the Pixel Buds even include a visual diaphragm advising on how you should re-pack them when not in use.

Another issue with the case is how it does not provide any obvious way of letting the owner know that the Pixel Buds are charging, or for that matter, any obvious way of knowing how much battery the case has, while the case is closed. All of this has to be read when the case is open which sort of defeats the purpose of the case. Not to mention, it is not even that clear as to how the LED system works with the whole thing becoming more of deciphering exercise than it should be. The whole case is just far more complicated than it needs to be.

Sound Quality & Performance

Sound quality is good. If you are looking for a quick and straightforward answer then there it is. The sound quality is good and certainly better than had been expected before testing. How good the sound is however, is another question entirely. In answering that with another snap judgement - they are not massively impressive sounding headphones. For those who are used to the very best sound quality from headphones and earphones, these will sound a little deflated and/or flat. It is just not top quality sound. This was mostly found to be the case at the top and lower ends of the spectrum - and of the two, the top end (surprisingly) is what was found to be the flattest. Which is contradictory to what is often encountered with personal audio products as the tops are usually what is most prominent due to the size of the tweeter being more accommodating in a smaller product like headphones than the size of a driver needed for lower frequencies. So for example the very cheapest headphones and earphones often sound more “tinny” as this is an example of them overcompensating on higher frequencies. But that is not the case with the Pixel Buds as not only is the top end not overly prevalent, but when it is noticed, it is quite deflated.

Some reviewers no doubt will argue that the sound is well-balanced and while to some level that might be true, it is due to the same issue of being flat sounding. For example, it is not so much that the tops/mids/bass are so balanced, but more so that they (especially the tops) are far less defined than what is often encountered (or expected) at the premium end. In this case, while the Pixel Buds sound balanced, that is not the same as them having a well-balanced output. To reiterate the early statement - if you are used to the very best sound quality from your headphones and earphones then you will find the sound here a little deflated. That said, there is nothing wrong with the sound per se and as already mentioned, these earphones do sound good overall. The output is clean, clear and will be good enough for most users. Arguably, they are as good as a number of other currently available options - although the difference being that most other options can be picked up at a much cheaper price than these. Which is another aspect which needs to be taken into consideration. If you are all about the audio quality then for $150+ there are better options out there for sure. Much better. One area where they are pretty good though is the volume department. Although the volume does suffer in the same respect as the quality as while at top volume these headphones are loud (and again louder than a number of alternatives), there are also louder options available - and for about the same or less money. One of the major positives of the volume is there are no issues with the quality of the sound when played at higher volume levels which is not always the case with earphones such as this. In short, while loud they are not the loudest and while good they are not the best.

What seems to be the biggest issue for the Pixel Buds is just how processed they sound as they are certainly more processed than what you might expect. Due to this more artificial sound, the result is the quality is very consistent and while that might be considered a good thing it is not in this instance. As it is too consistent in areas where it shouldn't be - such as across genres. For clarification, these were reviewed and used with a Pixel 2 XL and while streaming music from the likes of Google Play Music. So there is already quite a bit of processing going on. But taking into consideration the already various ways in which the audio is being processed before reaching the ear, the Pixel Buds still sound more processed than they should. As a result of this we did reach out to Google to try and clarify whether more processing was occurring at the earphone level and Google did confirm this to be the case. Stating digital signal processor (DSP) algorithms are in place, as is some additional ‘digital tuning.’ While this is likely nowadays to be the case for similar products emerging from companies who are not traditionally associated with audio products, in Google's case this has resulted in the Pixel Buds producing a very heavily processed output. Whether that is an issue for the consumer will depend on whether the consumer in question prefers their listening experience to be a more natural one or not. For some, the quality will sound just that little bit too polished.

As for the general performance of the headphones, this is very good. The Pixel Buds connect well, maintain that connection well and the Google Assistant works to a good - although not great - degree. Likewise, due to the minimal design and lack of hardware controls, there is not a lot that can actually go wrong. The touch sensor on the right earbud is the only actual means of control and is where all the action happens. Besides double tapping for notification updates, or long-pressing for Google Assistant, swiping one way increases the volume while swiping the other way decreases the volume. Closing out the controls, a quick tap in the center will start and stop the music. Which is where another criticism can be leveled as these earphones as there is no easy way to skip through songs. Instead, skipping a track forces the wearer to use Google Assistant which becomes tedious and especially for those who have complicated playlists and do often skip through tracks. Other than picking up the smartphone and skipping songs (which defeats the purpose of having on-board controls) the user will have to hold down the right earbud and say “play next song.” while some may say that is an OK compromise, the same argument could be made for volume control. Personally, when at the gym skipping tracks is much more useful than adjusting the volume. The same can be said for on the train, out for a walk, at home, and any other situation where one might find themselves listening to music. So arguably, it would have been more useful to have the swipe actions result in track skipping and force the user to use Google Assistant to adjust the volume. Although maybe that is the point - maybe Google wants more people to use more features through Google Assistant and so made sure that most of the useful actions are Google Assistant-forced actions. If that is the case then mission accomplished. Although it has not resulted in the most user-friendly of experiences.

Google Assistant

By and large, Google Assistant is the point of these headphones. While a number of smartphone owners will already have access to Google Assistant directly on their phones, or in their homes via Google’s line of Home products, the Pixel Buds are aimed at bringing the functionality of Google Assistant on your phone, to your ear. And generally speaking, it works very well.

The use of Google Assistant on the Pixel Buds is as simple as holding down the right earbud which launches the listening feature. From here, speaking a command in the usual way results in Google Assistant complying in the usual way. In a similar way to holding down the home button on a Pixel 2 phone, the benefit here is that you do not need to initiate a hotword phrase like “OK Google” to make use of the Assistant. Instead, it can all be done in a more discrete way thanks to the Pixel Buds. Although of course, you do need to still voice a command for Assistant to do anything. That is, with the exception of providing you with a quick update on new notifications. As one of the clever design aspects here is double tapping the right ear bud quickly commands Google Assistant to provide you with an audible update on what has happened - since the last time you checked your phone. During this action the assistant will firstly advise of the time followed by announcing whether you have any unread notifications - as well as reading out those notifications if the app is supported. The same goes for when a notification comes in real-time. During these instances the Pixel Buds sound off a small chime to let you know that a notification has arrived along with quick feedback on where the message is from (Inbox, Hangouts, etc). Tapping the right ear bud at this point then commands Assistant to open the message and read the contents aloud to you.

So all in all the integration of Assistant works as to be expected with a nice level of feedback provided on notifications and in a reliable manner. The same goes for general usage of the Assistant (non-notification usage) which again works rather well. Asking the Assistant anything you would normally ask your phone works as it should and largely without issue. Although there are some areas where the system could be improved. Like for example, if you press on the earbud and ask Google to “play music” it automatically interprets this as “play music on YouTube.” Instead of contextually understanding the command. It would be better for instance, if Google Assistant understood “play music” as ‘I have a Play Music/Spotify subscription so play music through that service.’ In fairness to the Pixel Buds though, this is pretty much an issue with Google Assistant in general, as the same outcome happens when using the shortened ‘play music’ prompt on a smartphone. So unless the default YouTube action is what the user is looking for, the user will need to make use of more specific commands - even for Google’s own non-YouTube apps. In those instances, when a more precise command is used the integration with the Pixel Buds works as it should. As for compatibility, Google Assistant functionality through the Pixel Buds is available to any Android device running Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) at a minimum. However, owners of either model (standard or XL) of the Google Pixel or Pixel 2 are also able to make use of additional functionality including the feature Google used to market the Pixel Buds during its October 4 event - language translation.

To cut to the chase, this is a work in progress. Without a doubt translations work when using the Pixel Buds and the feature is as Google suggested. So those looking for a quick and easy way to translate to another language (and just as importantly, hear translations from another language), the Pixel Buds will suffice. Where some issues come into play however, is in the consistency of the quality of translations. Google originally penned this feature as a new way in which users will be able to engage in fuller and richer conversations with people who speak another language. While this is true to an extent, the translations offered are not always correct and unfortunately with a feature like this, they need to be - as wrong translations can lead to severe misinterpretations of what is being said. Furthermore, the more complex a conversation the more prone the feature is to either being wrong or incapable of translating. For example, it seems the feature does not like translations of lengthy sentences. Not only does this slow down the translation time greatly, but at times, it results in only portions of the translations being given and not the entire text. So it is somewhat reliant on short and snappy sentences and therefore in its present form is more suited to a tourist looking for quick translations than anything more in-depth. Another issue is that support for languages still seems to be limited and certainly not as varied as other forms of Google translate. So while it will attempt to translate in a number of languages, its understanding of some languages is fairly limited. Even with languages it would be expected to be better at such as German. As Google Assistant on the Pixel Buds had a very difficult time in understanding some basic German sentences and translating them accordingly.

Of course, most of these criticisms could be leveled at Google Translate in general as this is the underlying (real) feature in use here. But this leads to another criticism. As while there are benefits to using an in-ear approach (only you hearing the translation in your ear is very useful), the feature itself is not widely different to just using Google Translate on the phone. In fact, the phone is still needed, as is the Google Assistant app which the Pixel Buds force you to download. Therefore, much of the process is the same whether you are using the Pixel Buds or not. Taking away one of its major selling points.

Battery Life & Connectivity

The Pixel Buds on paper are designed to offer a decent return on battery life with Google stating that as much as five hours of usage can be had off a single charge. Which for this sort of wireless headphone product is at the higher end. In testing, this proved to be a fairly accurate suggestion as the Pixel Buds do last a considerable amount of time before needing to be charged again. A typical gym visit (around one hour) where the headphones were in consistent use resulting in a battery drain of about 20-percent. Simply extrapolating that result will in turn suggest Google's quoted five-hour total time is achievable. Which is largely what was found during testing. On average and when purposely trying to drain down the battery (streaming music via Google Play Music over Bluetooth at the loudest volume setting) the battery typically lasted around 4.5 hours. This did fluctuate a little but the drop in battery did consistently work out to be around 20-percent on average per hour. It is worth noting that occasionally the battery meter (available in the Google Assistant settings under the new dedicated Pixel Buds page - shown below) proved to be inaccurate at times, with the earphones running out of battery in spite of the meter in the app still showing 20-percent remaining. So it would be wise to not take the listed battery measurements as guaranteed and instead view them as more of a guide.

One of the benefits of these headphones is that the case is able to charge the Pixel Buds when not in use. The case itself comes with a 620 mAh battery and Google reckons this is enough to provide “multiple charges” where needed, with Google also noting that as much as “24 hours of listening time” is possible when the case’s power capacity is fully utilized. This was a little difficult to verify in real-terms although the case does prove more than capable of charging the Pixel Buds from empty to full at least once. That combined with the initial five hours of usage does suggest the very worse case scenario is ten hours of usage when away from home. This is not only the worst case scenario, but likely to be a very rare scenario as the case does adopt more of a trickle charge approach. Whereby each time the headphones are used (an hour or two at a time) the battery gets a quick top up when the buds are stored backed in their case, with the cycle repeating each time they are used and stored again. In the situation where the battery does need to be fully replenished, one hour in the case (without the case connected via USB to a main power source) is more than enough time for the Pixel Buds to receive an empty-to-full charge and be good to go for another 4-5 hours.

On the topic of connectivity, one aspect that needs to be highlighted is just how easy these headphones are to pair to an Android phone for the first time. This is due to the Pixel Bud’s use of ‘Fast Pair’ which allows the buds to automatically pair to a smartphone without any manual input by the user. If an Android phone is nearby, unlocked and has Bluetooth turned on, then once the Pixel Buds are taking out of the case a notification will pop up asking whether you want to pair the earphones. Once the notification is tapped the process is largely automated resulting in a very easy setup procedure. If for whatever reason the pairing does not automatically start, a quick charge of the earbuds in their case via the USB Type-C cable will normally rectify this. In either case, the Pixel Buds can be manually paired to a smartphone in the normal way - by heading through the settings menu to the Bluetooth section and initiating the connection while also holding down a small button within the case to push the Pixel Buds into pairing mode. The only major caveat for making use of Fast Pair is the Android device need to be running Android 7.0 (Nougat) at a minimum.

Initial pairing aside, once a connection has been established the Pixel Buds showed no issues when it came to maintaining that connection. If anything, these earphones proved to be extremely reliable in this respect and certainly more so than other products tested. The signal received was always solid and always remained solid throughout longer periods of usage. Some Bluetooth headphones and earphones do have a tendency to drop off when distance is thrown into the equation although that did not seem to be the case with the Pixel Buds. It should be expected that these earphones are able to maintain a connection up to 10 meters away and that proved to be correct. Likewise, walls and other obstacles blocking a ‘line of view’ did not impact on the quality or consistency of the connection once established. In every respect, the Pixel Buds proved to be very solid headphones at the connection level.

Wrap Up

There are two ways at evaluating the Pixel Buds. The first is as a debut personal audio product and the second is as a Google product. As for the first, the Pixel Buds are an excellent first-generation product and provides consumers with a solid overall sound quality, a reliable wireless connection (very important), and a tight hands-free experience with a connected smartphone - especially a Pixel 2. As for the second, due to this being Google there is always going to be a heightened state of expectation on the quality and performance. While that is a little unfair, it is still what happens and on that note these do not quite meet those lofty expectations. There is just too many small nuances and things that have to be ignored to be able to say this is a great Google product. Likewise, Google’s dependence on software optimization has led to an overly-processed sound quality. Not one which greatly detracts from the listening experience (or even lowers the quality), but one which results in an overly-polished sound. This is not one for the audiophiles.

Should you buy Google’s Pixel Buds?

If you own (or plan to buy) a Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL then arguably these are the best headphones for you - as they are largely designed with those phones in mind. Well, designed with Google Assistant in mind. Which cuts to the core of the Pixel Buds and the decision-making process. Ask yourself this one question - do you use Google Assistant?

Answer A:Yes, all the time” These are the headphones for you.

Answer B:Yes, sometimes” These might be the headphones for you.

Answer C:No, I’m Bixby 4 life” These are not the headphones for you.

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