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Google Pixel Buds review: The best thing about Google's Pixel Buds is their case

They're not as bad as some people are saying, but the Pixel Buds don't yet translate to a good deal.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
7 min read

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 Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL and Pixelbook. 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."


Google Pixel Buds

The Good

The Google Pixel Buds are lightweight wireless earphones that offer a relatively comfortable fit and decent sound in non-noisy environments. They wrap up nicely to fit in a very compact charging case that delivers multiple extra charges on the go. Their touch controls give you quick access to Google Assistant.

The Bad

Their open design lets in a lot of ambient sound. The "real-time" translation feature is only available to Pixel phone owners, but isn't a big leap beyond the existing Translate app. Bluetooth pairing can be more cumbersome than it should be.

The Bottom Line

The Pixel Buds are perfectly decent wireless headphones with a few extra tricks for Pixel phone users -- but don't expect a "Star Trek"-style universal translator.

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 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.

Enlarge Image

The Pixel Buds are available in colors that match the colors of the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.


Hey, Bud

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 Google Assistant -- 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 Apple's AirPods, 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 music streaming services, 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 priced SoundSport Wireless earphones 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. 

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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 ). 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 Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus. 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.

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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. 

Parlez-vous Google?

To test the real-time translation feature, I had to borrow a Pixel 2 XL review unit we had in the office. The translation feature, which is based on the Google Translation app, only works with Pixel phones, including first-generation models. That seems weird, but for now, that's the deal. (We expect that other Android phones will get the feature in time).

The translation feature works like this: You tap and hold on the right earbud and tell the Google Assistant that you need an interpreter for a specific language. That automatically launches the free Google Translate app, which has to be installed on your phone. You can then hand someone your phone and translate something you say into that person's native language by tapping and holding on the right earbud -- your Pixel Buds' microphone picks up your voice.

The text translation appears on your phone. The person holding your phone can then respond in his or her native language by pressing a virtual button in the Google Translate app and speaking to your phone. You then get a text translation on the screen in your native language, as well a spoken translation in your ears.

I tested the feature using Spanish, French and Hebrew; it currently supports 40 languages. It does work impressively well. The translations are mostly quite accurate.

The only problem with all this is that what the Pixel Buds offer isn't all that special. All they're really adding to the equation is a shortcut to launching Google Translate via Google Assistant and a shortcut for you to speak into your phone without touching it (you touch your earbud instead). 

I was able to perform a slightly less fluid version of the two-way translation with an iPhone X and a set of AirPods. I simply manually launched the Google Translate app, set my desired languages and touched the virtual microphone in the app to speak. The person I was conversing with then tapped on the microphone button to reply in her language. We had to hand the phone back and forth and turn up the volume on the phone, but it worked pretty well.

So while there's some benefit to using the Pixel Buds for near real-time translation, it's not as quite as revolutionary a leap forward as many first hoped when the product was first announced in October.


The Pixel Buds in their charging case.


The problem with high expectations

The Pixel Buds aren't a great set of wireless earphones, but they also aren't as bad as some people are saying they are. Yes, the pairing process isn't as smooth as it should be. But I didn't have a problem with their fit once I got the loops adjusted, the sound is decent (in non-noisy environments anyway) and the charging case is excellent. To me, that case is the biggest bonus feature.

Part of the problem is their price. This is a hypercompetitive market with some established audio players like Bose and Beats that make really solid in-ear wireless earphones. If these cost a little closer to $100 instead of $150, they'd be easier to recommend.

The quick-touch access to Google Assistant is a good feature and will make you want to use Google Assistant more than you already may. But it's not necessarily a killer feature, nor is the "real-time" translation.

I do expect that with some firmware updates the Pixel Buds will improve with time like the AirPods have. And with a little price dip, they'll be worth contemplating. 

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Google Pixel Buds

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Sound 7Value 6