I CAN’T FIGURE out the Google Pixel Buds. That’s a strange thing to say about headphones, I know. You stick ’em in your ears, they play music—what’s so complicated?
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Google’s super-capable earbuds are intended mostly as a conduit to the Google Assistant, and to prove that Google’s combination of hardware, software, and AI make for better products. Music’s sort of a byproduct. And I can’t figure any of it out.
The Pixel Buds are Google’s answer to Apple’s AirPods, a light and simple set of headphones you can wear all day. Like AirPods, they’re way more than headphones. They’re the first in what I can only assume will be a long line of ear-puters, helping you (and your virtual assistant) access information, communicate with friends, even get work done. They cost $160, same as the AirPods. The idea is the same across products, but the execution couldn’t be more different.
In so many ways, the Pixel Buds are the opposite of the AirPods. The AirPods are obvious and garish, while the Pixel Buds are subtle and look more like headphones. The AirPods have no wires; the Pixel Buds have one connecting the two buds together. Those are matters mostly of taste and preference. Less subjective is the confusion in the simple act of using the Pixel Buds. Where AirPods are brilliantly simple, pairing and connecting and charging with perfect ease, every single thing about the Pixel Buds confuses me. They sound better than the AirPods (low bar!) but I still find myself grabbing Apple’s miniature toothbrushes when I’d rather just listen to something without solving a logical puzzle beforehand.
Here’s a simple but telling example: Let’s say you’ve paired your Pixel Buds with your phone, but would now like to use them with your iPad or laptop. You can’t just press a button to go into pairing mode. You have to put both buds in their fabric case, fiddle them into just the right spot, then long-press the button inside the case until the light blinks white. Then and only then can you pair a new device. But wait! Once you’ve done that, your Pixel Buds are now in an exclusive relationship with their new device. They might show up in your paired devices list on your phone, but you won’t be able to connect without going back to the case and back to the white light. Meanwhile, I have the same AirPods happily bouncing between a half-dozen devices.
If you use a Pixel or Pixel 2, the pairing process works better, thanks to a Fast Pair feature that pops up when your Pixel Buds are nearby. When it works, it’s really fast, but it doesn’t work all the time. And if Android fragmentation is any guide, Fast Pair won’t be on most other phones for a long time.
The good news about the Pixel Buds: Once they’re in your ears, they’re great. They pump out deeper, richer, louder sound than the AirPods (again, low bar), with at least enough bass to make Sam Smith’s low tenor resonate. They do allow a lot of background noise, but that’s by design: They sit on your ear canals, rather than jammed inside, which is both more comfortable for long periods and better for wearing in public. I can pause my music and hear the world relatively normally, without removing the Pixel Buds. You can get much better, and much better-looking, headphones for this price, but as wear-them-always ear-puters, the Pixel Buds do a lot right.
Even the buds themselves seem well thought out. The microphones handle phone calls crisply, and the swipe gestures make changing volume a cinch. You may not like that each earbud looks like an enlarged Junior Mint, but I prefer the look to the AirPods, which dangle halfway down the side of my face. They do stick out a bit, even on my giant noggin, and the part in your ear canal could be too good for some people.
Then it all falls apart again. Want to stop using your Pixel Buds? You could just tap the right bud, pause your music, drape the buds around your neck, and go about your business. (I love the cable, by the way. I’d much rather be able to keep the Buds together and around my neck than constantly worry about what to do with the one AirPod I just took out of my ear so I could order coffee.) Taking them off doesn’t shut them down, though, and the Pixel Buds are so sensitive to taps that I guarantee you’ll start playing music again by accident.
The only way to properly shut the Pixel Buds down is to take them off, wiggle them back into their holes in the charging case, wind the cable around the edges, and snap the case shut. Then and only then will they turn off. That’s also when they charge, which you’ll need after about four hours of music.
Google’s been working with a bunch of headphone makers in recent months to optimize their devices for use with the Google Assistant, and the Pixel Buds benefit too. When you press and hold the right bud, it immediately starts capturing your audio, and continues until you release your finger. Only then does it process and send your sound to your phone, and spit back an answer from Google Assistant. You can tap twice to hear notifications from your phone, too. It feels so much better than waiting for Siri to beep back at me through AirPods, and makes the Assistant a real two-way experience inside my head.
With the Pixel Buds, all that only works on Android. Which makes no sense, given that the headphone optimization can also work with the Assistant app for iOS. If you’re an iPhone user, Pixel Buds are little more than an overly expensive pair of standard Bluetooth headphones. And only Pixel users get the coolest feature: automatic translation. With the help of Google Translate, you can in fact do something like real-time translation through your headphones. It does work, and feels a bit like magic, even if it’s awkward in practice. You have to hold up your phone so it can speak your translated phrase and hear the other person speaking. Someday, when everyone’s wearing Pixel Buds, it could all be more seamless.
“It could all be more seamless” basically tells the whole story of the Pixel Buds. I like the sound, I like the feel, I even like the way they look. I’m all in on the idea of ear-puters taking over the world, and I enjoy basically having a Google Home with me at all times. But I can’t stand the rigamarole required to use them. And that should be the easy part.
Source: wired.com Image: wired.com