Google’s Pixel Buds get a lot of things right, especially when it comes to design and fit.
I find them comfortable and easy to wear for long periods of time, though admittedly, just like every other pair of wireless earbuds on the market, they’re still somewhat strange looking. I’d argue the Pixel Buds look even stranger thanks to the cord that connects the two individual drivers, though it does have some advantages.
In many other categories though, Google’s first attempt at wireless earbuds miss the mark, especially when it comes to ease of use, key, expected features, and the case designed to enclose/charge the Pixel Buds.
Right off the top, Google’s Pixel Buds evoke the same fabric-covered design language the tech giant has adopted with many of its other devices this year, including the latest version of Daydream View and Google Home, with the latter device finally officially launched in Canada.
The earbuds’ grey, fabric-clad enclosure features a simple G logo centred on its often difficult to open clamshell design. Sitting beside Apple’s Airpods, the Pixel Buds also look decidedly different. If this was Google’s intention in terms of their first earbuds’ overall aesthetic, the tech giant certainly hit this goal. In an industry rife with plastic and rubber headphone cases — like Apple’s AirPods or Samsung’s Gear IconX, for example — the Pixel Buds rugged enclosure manages to stand out.
The overall look of the wireless earbuds is also equally impressive. Unlike most, I’m fond of the cable linking the headphones together. It makes it more difficult for the Pixel Buds to accidentally fall out of my ears, preventing them from falling to the ground repeatedly, an issue I’ve run into occasionally with other wireless earbuds (I’m looking at you, AirPods).
The adjustable portion of the cord that allows the Pixel Buds to fit in different sized ears is also an interesting design choice I’m surprised other headphone manufacturers haven’t opted to utilize. I’ve always struggled with getting earbuds to fit snuggly in my ears, especially those that sit on the ear like the Pixel Buds. Google’s earbuds are the only ones I’ve ever encountered that haven’t easily fallen out, even while exercising or walking briskly: thanks for that, Google.
Some, however, may find the Pixel Buds’ internal drivers might be a little too large for their ears. In this case, it’s disappointing Google didn’t include different-sized accessories like most other wireless earbuds out there, with Samsung’s Gear IconX headphones being the most prominent example.
I didn’t run into this issue though. The Pixel Buds on-ear design ensures the earbuds fit snuggly in my ears in almost all situations.
Next, let’s take a look at the Pixel Buds’ case. Wrapping the Pixel Buds cable around the earbuds’ case is frustrating and requires an unnecessary level of precision. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that if the headphones haven’t been placed in the case exactly as designed, they won’t charge. In some situations the case won’t even close if you haven’t set the Pixel Buds properly in their case and wrapped the tail end of the earbuds’ connecting cord through the enclosure’s centre.
The Pixel Buds’ case also offers 620mAh of charge on top of the headphone’s 120mAh built-in battery. On a single charge, Google claims the Pixel Buds get five hours of playback. In my experience, the battery life came in at about four hours in most cases, which is more than adequate for wireless earphones you intend to use sparingly.
When the Pixel Buds ran out of power, I simply plugged them in to their case for a quick to-up, just as I often do with Apple’s AirPods.
It’s also worth noting the Pixel Buds need to be paired to a phone while sitting in their case. While not a big deal, this is different from most other Bluetooth headsets on the market. The pairing process, however, is simple and only requires users to hold down a single button for it to begin. Google Assistant then recognizes the Pixel Buds and guides users through the setup process.
Like AirPods, but worse
While the Pixel Buds are designed to work with the Pixel 2 and other Pixel devices, they’ll also pair with any smartphone that features Android Nougat and above. While I mentioned earlier that the Pixel Buds’ pairing process is simple with the Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL, or a device that supports the latest version of Google Assistant, connecting the Pixel Buds to multiple devices — especially after the initial pairing with another device — is not an intuitive process. This causes the Pixel Buds to work like standard Bluetooth headphones.
You first have to hold a button inside the case to put the Pixel buds in pairing mode and from there, enter the Bluetooth settings on your smartphone and connect them the old fashion way. This is also how the Pixel Buds need to be setup to work with an iPhone, for example.
The left Pixel Bud features touch sensitive controls, allowing you to swipe, tap and hold for various functions. In general, gestures work well with Google’s Pixel Buds and are more useful when compared to what Apple’s offers with the AirPods. In a few instances, I found it difficult to raise the Pixel Buds’ volume by swiping up, but this problem only occurred on one occasion.
Unfortunately there still isn’t a way to skip tracks via gestures when listening to music, a feature Apple also neglected to include with the AirPods. It still makes very little sense to me why both Google and Apple haven’t opted to add this feature to their wireless earbuds since audibly saying “next track” or “previous track” in public isn’t something many are likely fond of doing. Of course, you can take your smartphone out to switch tracks, though to some extent this defeats the purpose of wireless earbuds.
Being able to interact with Google Assistant directly through the Pixel Buds though, especially when it comes to the voice-activated assistant reading texts, is a great feature I’ve really enjoyed using. The ability to access Google Translate directly through the Pixel Buds is also a useful feature, though it’s worth noting Google’s translation platform works exactly the same way it does via desktop or on a smartphone, just now through headphones — this isn’t a special version of Google Translate.
Perhaps the most frustrating issue with Google’s Pixel Buds is that they don’t stop playing music when you remove them from your ears like other wireless earbuds. For this reason alone, Google’s audio offering is difficult to recommend.
Passable audio quality
In terms of overall audio quality, I’d put the Pixel Buds about on par with other high-end earbuds I’ve used in the past, including Apple’s AirPods. If you’re expecting incredibly high-fidelity sound that rivals high-end over the ear offerings though, then you’ll be disappointed with the Pixel Buds’ quality.
Because the earbuds’ driver isn’t actually in the ear canal, outside sound isn’t sealed out. This means the headphones feature less bass than in-ear competitors. On the plus side, if you’re like me and aren’t fond of inner-ear headphones, the form-factor most earbuds adopt right now, this is an added bonus. That said, this makes the Pixel Buds comfortable, even when they’re being worn for long periods of time.
This isn’t something I’ve been able to say about other wireless in-ear earbuds — Samsung’s Gear IconX earbuds always make me feel like an insect is burrowing its way through my ear and into my brain.
A decidedly average experience
In the end Google's Pixel Buds are decent headphones, but to some extent feel unfinished. The overarching concept is commendable and there are novel ideas present in the earbuds, especially in terms of how adjustable they are and the way the Pixel Buds meet my specific taste in wireless headphones.
But there are better wireless earbuds out there, especially given the Pixel Buds' $219 CAD price tag, a cost that puts the audio devices in-line not only Samsung and Apple's headphone offerings, but also Sony and other even more high-end headphone manufacturers. It's also disappointing that the headphones are only able to easily connect with a select number of Android devices, though this is to be expected.
When used with the Pixel 2, Pixel Buds are just as convenient as Apple's AirPods in terms of the connection process and this is great. I just wish this ease-of-use extended to more Android devices.
Hopefully Google manages to iron out many of the Pixel Buds' issues via software updates in the future, particularly the ability to skip tracks with gestures
"It's unclear why Google opted to release the Pixel Buds in their current form"