Google Pixel Buds review: Lost in translation
When they debuted at Google’s product event last October, the Pixel Buds delighted tech pundits and mainstream audiences worldwide. For a brief couple of days, it seemed like the vision of an elegantly multilingual society - a la Douglas Adam’s Babel Fish - could be realised through technology.
Now, the Pixel Buds have finally come to Australian customers. Unfortunately, it looks like Google’s hardware team does not prove as adept when it comes to headphones as they are with smartphones.
As it turns out, the future isn’t quite here yet.
Type: In-Ear Headphones
Dimensions: 20.4mm x 20.4mm x 20.5mm
Weight: 14 g
Audio Output: Stereo
Built-in Microphone: Yes
Durability: No IP rating
Voice Assistant: Google Assistant
Pack Ins: Portable charging case, USB Type-C cable
Battery Life: 5 hours per charge. Up to 24 total
Colors: Just Black, Clearly White, Kinda Blue
In terms of how the Pixel Buds look, there’s a lot to like here. At a glance, the threaded design and ear-moulded shape looks really appearing. Even if it’s not quite true wireless, the Pixel Buds look really stylish and modern. They look like the kind of cheeky and geeky hardware that Google are becoming more and more recognised for in recent years. Alongside the Google Home and the Pixel smartphone, the Pixel Buds are a natural fit.
Unfortunately, all the above compliments have to be tempered by the fact that when it comes to actual feel factor and comfort level involved, the Pixel Buds fall far, far short of where they ought to be. The ergonomics are all off. In fact, they’re uncomfortable enough that I ran myself back through the manual’s pictographic instructions several times to make sure I was wearing them correct. Surely, Google wouldn't ship a pair of headphones this uncomfortable to wear. Right?
The situation is further hurt by the touch sensors on either side of the Pixel Buds. These feel far more sensitive than they ought to be and I frequently found myself accidentally calling up the assistant or pausing a song whenever I tried to adjust the fit of the buds themselves.
To their credit, the quick and easy setup is one area where the Pixel Buds do have a bit of an edge. You simply tap and hold the pairing button while the buds are the in their snazzy fabric case, wait for it to flash, turn on Bluetooth and wait for the custom notification to pop up on your Android smartphone.
A few steps tick-boxes later and you’re good to go. All in all, it’s pretty comparable to the way that Apple have streamlined the pairing process between their AirPods and the iPhone.
As uncomfortable as the Pixel Buds are, I like the Google brand enough that maybe - just maybe - things could be salvaged if they delivered a top-notch level of audio quality Unfortunately, they fall short here as well.
When listening to albums like Billie Eilish’s don’t smile at me and Dessa’s Chime, I found that the stereo speakers in the buds delivered a reasonable level of quality but often got a little bogged down by both distortion and the odd fit of the Pixel Buds themselves. The latter here allowed for far more outside noise to leak into the experience than I would have liked.
As for the Pixel Buds’ vaunted translation capabilities, well, they actually come pretty close to the hype - albeit with one major, incontrovertible caveat. You don’t *really* need the Pixel Buds to access the translation capabilities of Google Translate. You kinda just need the app itself. The real-time translation demo the company showed off at their product event last year? You can more-or-less have that experience via most other sets of Bluetooth earbuds.
In addition, your mileage is almost certainly going to vary. Google Translate handles some languages better than others. Some languages are only supported in a text-only format. Sometimes it’ll get stuck up on grammar or mishear a key word and there’s always a several-second delay on the Pixel Buds reading the translated audio back to you. It’s far from perfect. Still, we had a reasonably delightful time testing it out around the office.
Once more for the people up the back: Your. Mileage. Will. Vary.
The Bottom Line
Compared to the rock-solid hardware they share their branding with, Google’s Pixel Buds are unequivocally a bit disappointing. They’re not comfortable to wear, they don’t sound particularly great and the even the headline act of real-time translation isn’t quite all it's cracked up to be, nor is it really exclusive to the Pixel P.
The thing is though, there’s a lot of software-side things that Google have done here that I really would love to see transplanted into other, better sets of wireless headphones. The easy-pairing? Great. The ability to have the Pixel Buds read you notifications as they come to your phone? Also great. Even the real-time translation - while still in need of some refinement here and there - is still a feature that I quite like, it’s just one that I’d prefer transplanted into another (better) set of Google Assistant-friendly earbuds.
There are a lot of great ideas here. Unfortunately, they’re let down by the disappointing reality of the hardware involved. Google aren't really known for their expertise in the headphones space, and it shows.
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