Google's Pixel Buds, the company's $159 (£159, AU$229) in-ear wireless Bluetooth headphones, were the surprise hit of the company's October hardware event that also saw the unveiling of the , and . What captivated the gadget press -- and the wider media -- was the headphones' advertised ability to deliver "real-time" translation of spoken languages. Many publications likened it to the Babel Fish of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" fame. Engadget said the feature "will change the world."
Now that they're here, well... let's just say the translation singularity hasn't quite arrived.
What you get instead is a decent if unremarkable set of wireless headphones that has an interesting, if somewhat cumbersome, integration with the (admittedly excellent) Google Translate app that's long been available on the phone that's already in your pocket. In fact, the Buds' best tricks are reserved for owners of Pixel ($319 at Amazon.com) and Pixel 2 phones only.
That said, my experience with the Buds wasn't the outright disaster that other early reviewers seem to have experienced. And I wouldn't be surprised if they get better in the future with additional software tweaks -- and, ideally, compatibility with a wider range of phones.
The Pixel Buds have a few design traits that help distinguish them from a crowded field of competitors. Shaped like Menthos candies, they're available in color options that match the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL phones, and have an open design that doesn't keep out noise (you don't jam the buds into your ears). The adjustable loop at the top acts as a kind of fin to help keep the buds securely in place.
On the right earbud there's a touchpad that allows you to pause or play music, adjust the volume and answer calls. With a touch of that surface you can also access -- it comes up really quickly -- and issue voice commands to play music, send a text or get walking directions. Double-tapping on the right earbud after hearing a notification alert tells Google Assistant to read the new message to you.
The Google Assistant feature works quite well, but I'm used to being able to double-tap on touch-enabled headphones and have the track advance forward or skip back. That feature is sadly missing at this time. In essence, this is the same complaint that people had about, which -- pre-iOS 11 -- had limited touch controls and made you use a voice command to skip a track forward. With Google Assistant, you can say, "Next" while using the most popular , including Spotify. But the problem is you have to access Google Assistant first.
First I had to fiddle around with the 'buds to get them to sit well in my ears. Once I adjusted the loops to the right length, I got a pretty secure fit and found the Pixel Buds lightweight and relatively comfortable to wear. Bose's similarly pricedearphones are little more comfortable to wear and fit a little more securely -- and their tips seal out more ambient sound -- but the Pixel Buds' design grew on me over time.
I'm also a fan of the included compact charging case. You drop the 'buds in and wrap the cord around the inner rim of the charger (no, these aren't totally wireless earphones like the AirPods ($145 at Amazon.com)). The charging case features a USB-C connection, not Micro-USB, so you only have to carry around one cable for your Pixel phone -- or another Android device that charges via USB-C -- and your Pixel Buds. The case is arguably the best thing about the headphones.
Battery life is rated at 5 hours, which isn't bad, but it's also not great. The charging case delivers multiple charges, according to Google, allowing you to get up to 24 hours of battery life on the go. I didn't listen to them for 24 hours straight, but I did use them through the course of the day without a problem. Like the AirPods, they charge quickly in the case. A 10-minute charge seems to get you about an hour's worth of battery life.
I initially paired them with a. It was not an automatic pairing process. The instructions said that if I charged the case for 10 minutes and then opened the case near my phone it would pair. It didn't (I later had the same problem with a Pixel 2 XL). But there's a little button in the battery case that if you press for 3 seconds, while the buds are in the case, manually puts the Pixel Buds into pairing mode. They paired fine after that -- and re-paired after the initial setup when I did open the case. But the setup process could have been better.
While the Buds didn't sound great, they sounded better than I thought they would. Due to their open design, they sound pretty open and have a reasonable amount of bass and clarity -- at least with less demanding music (acoustical material, for example). Throw something a little more complicated at them, like Rag'n'Bone Man's "Human," and things start to get a little muddy and distorted, particularly at higher volumes.
Like a lot of these in-ear Bluetooth headphones, the Pixel Buds have their moments where you say to yourself, "OK, that sounds pretty good." And then they fall down a bit with other tracks, making you question your initial judgment. In terms of sound, they're in the same league as the AirPods. And like the AirPods, they let in a lot of sound from the outside world, so they weren't great for walking around the noisy streets of New York (if your priority is hearing music rather than situational awareness). However, for the gym, at home and at the office, they were good.
It's worth noting they'll pair -- and work -- with Apple mobile devices, but you can't touch the right earbud for Google Assistant and you don't get access to the "real-time" translation feature that Google is touting.