Google's Pixel Buds Aren't Even Close To Being Good

All photos: Adam Clark Estes

There was always something off about the Pixel Buds. Google released the smart, wireless headphones a full year after Apple released the AirPods. But the Pixel Buds aren't exactly wireless, and they're not exactly smart, either. In fact, after spending a few days with the product, I'm prepared to say it: the Pixel Buds suck.

The Pixel Buds suck, but they shouldn't.

Pixel Buds

What is it?

Wireless earbuds for Android phones

Price

$249

Like

Easy access to Assistant

No like

Basically everything else

Google is a remarkably enormous tech company that's made some neat hardware in recent years. The Google Home and its new junior edition, the Google Home Mini, are giving the Amazon Echo a run for its money. The Daydream headset is a delightfully different take on virtual reality. And despite some hiccups in the first generation, the Pixel 2 is a pretty great smartphone. In light of all this hardware success, I expected to be blown away by the $US160 ($210) Pixel Buds, which feature Google Assistant on demand as well as real-time foreign language translation.

That didn't happen. The Pixel Buds confused me as soon as I opened the box. They're wireless earbuds, but they're not truly wireless - there's a cord connecting them together. And although they're bigger than the AirPods, the Pixel Buds feature the same five-hour battery life. They also come in a charging case, but it feels flimsy, like a takeout container. The case and earbuds combo is so unintuitive that Google includes instructions on how to wrap the wire around the case so that it will close. The company even sent me a gif to make it extra clear:

Image: Google

The confusion didn't stop with those little details. The Pixel Buds use a new, proprietary Bluetooth trick to make it easier to pair the device to your phone. Guess what? It's not that easy. When you do the initial set up with the earbuds, you have to put the case next to your phone, open it, and hope that your phone recognises the signal. This worked fine when I paired the earbuds to a Samsung Galaxy S8, but I soon learned that not all Pixel Buds features are available on the Samsung device. In order to take advantage of the Pixel Buds' ability to translate foreign languages in real time, you have to use them with a Google Pixel or Pixel 2 smartphone. When I tried connecting the Pixel Buds to a Pixel 2 to test these features, the phone wouldn't connect to the earbuds.

I'd like to say that using the Pixel Buds was maddening or frustrating. That wouldn't be precise, though. It's confusing. I finally got the earbuds to pair with the Pixel 2, but only after emailing Google and getting instructions for a reset process that involved a button inside the case that I hadn't even realised existed until the company pointed it out. You can only connect the Pixel Buds to a single Android or iOS 10 device at a time, and I was unable to connect them to my MacBook, though I was able to connect the earbuds to a newer Chromebook that can run Android apps. It's worth noting that Google only lists Android and iOS as compatible operating systems. By the way, the Google Assistant capabilities only work on Android Marshmallow or higher, and the fast pairing feature only works on Android Nougat or higher.

If Apple products are so self explanatory your grandparents can use them, this Google product is so counterintuitive that figuring out the nuances feels like solving a trigonometry problem.

I did get the translation feature to work, by the way, and it's just as confusing as everything else about the Pixel Buds. You'd think that you could just tap the right earbud and ask Google to translate what you're hearing, but it's more complicated than that. You do have to tap the earbud and ask Google to translate, but then you have to open up the Google Translate app and hold your phone in front of your foreign language-speaking friend. And, of course, your phone must be a Google Pixel or Pixel 2.

The Pixel Buds play music too, and it will sound ok. I'd compare the quality to the wired Apple EarPods. Like the EarPods, the Pixel Buds have two speakers - one facing forward and one straight into your head. Also like the EarPods, the Pixel Buds rest on your ear rather than create a firm seal in your ear canal, and I should point out that the earbud itself is quite big, not good for teeny ears. The resultant sound is crisp but surprisingly one-dimensional. The vocals on "Ready for the Floor" by Hot Chip come through cleanly, but the whole song sounds limp, since the Pixel Buds produce so little bass. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" by John Denver sounds terrific, although that song always sounds great to me.

Audio is middling, but the Assistant stuff is cool. The right earbud features a touch-sensitive surface that lets you play or pause the music, adjust the volume, beckon the Google Assistant (if your phone is new enough), learn the time, and listen to your latest notifications. It's a little bit too slick, though, as I found myself accidentally hitting play any time I touched the earbuds. I'd pause my music, for instance, take the buds out of my ears, and then inadvertently hit play again when I set them on the table. It was confusing!

And yet, like a lighthouse blinking on a faraway shore, I think Google is up to something good. The idea behind the Pixel Buds is appealing, even though this initial implementation is a bit of a mess. Tapping your ear to get a readout of your latest notifications is a cool idea. You can even use Assistant to send a text message or find a nearby coffee shop. The AirPods do stuff like this with Siri, too, but in my experience, Google is just better at natural language processing. As I learned from testing the Google Home, you can just talk to the robot, and the robot knows what you want. And at best, the Pixel Buds are a little Google Home in your head.

I think Google jumped the gun on this product. The company announced the product in a whirlwind of hardware announcements last month, a splashy event that included some things that were obviously experiments. (We're looking at you, Google Clips.) The Pixel Buds feel like an imperfect version of what Google was really trying to do. In an ideal world, that pesky wire that connects the two earbuds and requires special instructions would not exist. If Google really wanted to sell the most earbuds to the most people, the Pixel Buds would work equally well with any device. Heck, assuming Google values user experience, the earbuds would be able to connect to more than one device at a time.

When I step back and think hard about the Pixel Buds, my head explodes. Not in a good way. It's utterly insane that the one truly unique thing Google did with the Pixel Buds, on demand language translation, is a thing that will only work with Google's own smartphone. I'd expect this shit from Apple, sure. But Google is the champion of the open platform. Android is supposed to be the egalitarian alternative to the iOS fiefdom. Now it feels like Google is walling in its own kingdom.

I'd be less grumpy if the Pixel Buds cost $80, but they cost $249, $20 more than the AirPods. For that price, you might as well spend $399 and get Sony's truly wireless earbuds, or $US250 on the Bose Soundsport Free, both of which work with Google Assistant. Or you could just buy AirPods. In a shocking plot twist, the Apple earbuds are more versatile than the Google earbuds and actually work with Android devices. Why anyone would buy a wireless gadget that only worked with specific devices is beyond me. Unfortunately, the Pixel Buds are currently sold out, so even if you actually want to buy these crappy things, you'll have to join a waiting list.

Good luck with that, Google. Or actually, better luck next time.

README

  • Google's answer to Apple's AirPods at $20 more
  • Terrible user experience due to poorly conceived design
  • Only connects to certain Android devices
  • Cool translation feature only works with Google Pixel phones

Comments

    Being a little harsh about Google exclusive functions. Google are not masters of open platform anything - they work hard to make their services useful on Android and Chrome above every other platform, with iOS next because it's popular. For example, they actively worked hard to kill Windows Phone by not supporting it.

    I'd expect this shit from Apple, sure. But Google is the champion of the open platform. Android is supposed to be the egalitarian alternative to the iOS fiefdom.

    How naive do you have to be to believe that?

    Android is every bit as closed as iOS. Try creating an Android phone without permission from Google, and without including its very closed apps.

    Google is champion only to google, and no one else.

      android is open source.

        Android itself is open source, but all the stuff that makes it useful (ie Google Apps and Google Play Services) are all part of a closed system, the use of which is dictated by a restrictive EULA.

      Try creating an phone that runs iOS full stop. Apple will never let it happen. Now that is a walled garden with security guards and guard dogs at the gate.

      I could well be wrong, but I thought anyone could stick Android on some hardware and sell it, royalty-free. You only have to pay Google some cash if you look to include Play services and Store on it? Hence you (certainly used to) get loads of Chinadroids that straight out of the box you had to root, load Play services and Store onto if you wanted them to be genuinely useful.

    I have a pair, and this article is full of crap......

      Wow what an amazing contribution you’ve totally changed my mind!!

      How about actually mentioning the parts that are crap? And why they’re wrong?

      I had a pair and found that this article largely mirrored my experience.

        Review also mirrors another I’ve read so it’s not isolated. That said I’m not sure EarPods are the alternative if you’re not an iOS user.

        That’s not to say there won’t be people that love them, but they do seem flawed in certain regards.

        Last edited 27/12/17 11:29 pm

    Oh dear that cord. back to the drawing board Google

    I've got a pair with a pixel and I have to admit I'm pretty happy. Sound quality is great and the integration with Google assistant has worked well for me. Phone calls are fine too. I did have a few issues when first connecting them to the phone but it only took a few minutes to resolve.

      Totally agree, to be honest one of the better pairs of headphones I've owned. Sure putting them in the case is about 2 seconds more effort than standard headphones but if you can't remember how to do it after doing it once I'd be concerned. I find the sound great, they're really comfortable (I love that they are so easily adjustable) and tap and hold for assistant is a huge step above the functionality offered by other headphones. Haven't tried translate yet and granted is seems slightly cumbersome but it's something extra other headphones don't offer. Plus the charging case charges them super fast. I went from flat to 15% in about 2-3 minutes. Each to their own but I'm super happy with mine.

    If you think android is open source you dont know what open source is.

    All google apps .. the apps you actually use to do anything with the phone, are closed source as are the drivers. Ios is based on darwin which is just as “open source”.

    Although I've never tried them, I have noticed that Google is a bit hit and miss on its accessories..... And it's phones.

    Have tested the IQ buds from Nuheara. They are truly wireless and pack a heap of punch tech wise and lots of customisation. Give them a review and and compare them to the pixels, Sony or Bose products! I'd love to know what you think.

    I think its ironic that the biggest gripe with Airpods is the fact its easy as to lose one and be left with one airpod and your then required to buy a whole new set. The Cable connecting is a way of preventing that from occuring yet its the first thing you've complained about with the Google Pixel Buds.

      As a potential buyer that was a concern of mine. However, since purchase I have found if the regular EarPods fit you well, the AirPods are almost identical, with the stem being a bit thicker, and will fit the same. If the only two places you keep them are your ear or the case, the chance of losing them is highly unlikely. Also, each part can be bought separately if you happen to lose one of the pods or the case. You do not have to buy a new set.

      Since my experience, my thoughts on a connecting cable have become more neutral than positive. I mocked Apple, although I’m a long time fan, for the design, but now seeing a glimpse of their “truly wireless” future has got me excited for what’s next.

      I think the writer is simply comparing two fundamentally different design philosophies, and prefers truly wireless. I’ve found the PixelBud cable to help because I couldn’t get them fit easily (although that’s probabaly just my ear). I also prefer truly wireless for that extra freedom, and I think although the tethered design may be beneficial, if they fit without fault the cable is unnecessary.

    Even if they worked mickey mouse , they are still just over priced buds ,
    but that seems to be the trend with Google stuff .

    I am kind of bummed to have read this article and hear such negative thoughts on the earbuds. I have AirPods, which work wonderfully, but these Pixel Buds have been on my mind since the original announcement because of that translate feature.

    Honestly thought about buying them just so I could have a conversation of some kind with my girlfriend's grandparents (they are greek). But the translate feature just sounds horrible. And being that it was the only reason for wanting these Pixel Buds, I'll just have to wait until the next generation comes.

    These Buds are wireless. That's a cord between the two not a wire. This review is terribly biased and false. Gizmodo should take it down as it is damaging towards Google and borderline defamatory

    These Buds are wireless. That's a cord between the two not a wire. This review is terribly biased and false. Gizmodo should take it down as it is damaging towards Google and borderline defamatory

      Lol, defamatory? They don't work very well in the reviewer's opinion. It's not defamation to say "I don't like your product and don't think it works very well."

    I have a pair of pixel buds paired to a pixel 2xl and I love them. Easy to pair, even I knew of the button in the case , what sort of reviewer doesn't know the product he is reviewing ? I love the cord as it secures the buds if they fall out of your ear, the sound is very good and the Google assistant works brilliantly, a two year old could put these back in the case with one eye shut. This is a rubbish review written by an Apple Sheep that can see nothing beyond the Apple logo

    Received my Pixel Buds yesterday. No issues. Haven't tried the translator but will probably never use it. As everyday airpods, big thumbs up Google. Great design. I like the cable that connects the two pods - makes it easy to handle the pods simultaneously and if one drops out it doesn't fall on the floor. As for putting them back in their case, have no idea why the author required a video to understand this procedure. It's simple, intuitive and well explained in the packaging. Overall, found the review above very unhelpful and borderline dishonest.

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