With the release of the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, Google showed that it is serious about AI. Together with machine learning, it presented its new phones as vessels for pioneering software as opposed to radically progressive hardware.
At the same time, the company announced Pixel Buds, the companion wireless headphones that can do real-time language translation. Yes, really – they’re akin to the babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The Pixel Buds can do this very well, but everything else about them is badly thought out. The design is ugly, but worse than that, the headset hurts to wear for more than 10 minutes.
The inevitable comparisons are with Apple’s AirPods, but Google hasn’t aimed to replicate them. Unfortunately, the Pixel Buds are a much worse product so maybe it should have.
Price and availability
The Pixel Buds are on sale now for £159 from Google, though at the time of writing, there’s no stock in the UK.
Design and build
The Pixel Buds are not a bastion of modern design. Large rounded exteriors house the touchpad and microphone on the right ear, but the left lump is merely there for symmetrical reasons. And then, the earpieces themselves are horrendously uncomfortable.
More than any other bud style headphone we’ve used for some time, the Pixel Buds hurt to wear. Taking them out after even just 20 minutes use and our inner ears ached with the angular pressure applied by the odd shape. They sit awkwardly at odds with how an actual ear is shaped, and it hurts to push them in for an elusive better fit.
Each bud has two pin connector points where the units charge in their case, but because this is the part that touches your inner ear it makes them feel unrefined and is an odd design choice. Needing a metallic connection to charge the Buds is at odds with the growing trend for seamless wireless charging in consumer technology.
This is all before we mention the Buds are connected with a piece of string (yes, string) that also inexplicably act as part of the fitting mechanism. It simply doesn’t work, with the user needing to make a little loop to fit into your ear to help with fit. This is largely useless, and the Pixel Buds always feel like they are going to fall out.
The string is also there to let you hang the Buds round your neck when not in use, and to help you avoid losing them.
To charge, you place each bud in its little dock in the fabric case, and wrap the string around the outside and tuck it in before closing the case. The case itself feels rough and unfinished despite the nice fabric coating, with a plastic and sharp feel to the lip that looks like a cheap choice of materials and finish.
Sound quality and features
How frustrating, then, that we can’t outright dismiss the Pixel Buds. The sound is very impressive for a unit of this size and with no in-line amplifier.
Bass response is good considering these do not form a good seal in the ear canal, with clear mids and trebles representing our music and podcast collections excellently. So, it’s a shame that we are in mild physical pain while wearing the Buds.
Another thing to note is that you only get the full set of features if you have a first or second-generation Pixel. Other Android phones can use Assistant, but not the translation feature. Google is aggressively promoting the benefits of buying into its ecosystem with this choice, though Apple is the same.
You can even use them as headphones on iOS, but you don’t get Google Assistant. You do get basic Siri integration which is good to see (and somewhat surprising), but Siri is not as useful as Assistant, and you can’t access the translation feature.
A tap on the right earbud pauses the music (as well as hurting your ear), a swipe forward or back adjusts volume, and a long press activates Google Assistant. Talking to the Pixel Buds during the long press is pretty seamless, and it works just how you might be used to using Assistant on your phone or Google Home.
You can’t skip track though, which is a smaller reminder to the user that Google hasn’t put music playback front of mind when making the Pixel Buds.
Assistant can also read your notifications out if you want, which is more useful than you might think, if slightly intrusive and could be overwhelming for some.
Aside from poor fit, the other problem with the Buds is connectivity. Using the older Bluetooth 4.2 standard (newer devices use the advanced version 5.0) means we encountered random blips in audio. More worryingly, the Buds wouldn’t stay connected to a device once we’d returned them to their charging case and then took them out again.
The Buds can annoyingly only be paired to one device at a time, but when they disconnected inexplicably from our Pixel 2 each time they’d been in the case we got pretty annoyed. In fact, we even had to contact Google support to even get them to work in the first place, as our review unit required a hard reset straight out the box, with no instructions as to how to remedy this odd error.
The Buds connected easier with our resident Pixel (first-gen), but it’s unacceptable for a £160 set of headphones to constantly disconnect and baffle the user each time you put them in your ears and expect them to work.
Battery life is consistently acceptable at three or four hours on one charge, and the case holds enough power to charge up and keep them going for twenty-four according to Google. We found ourselves charging the case about every three days after continuous use.
This is, again, a massive shame as the headline real-time translation feature of the Pixel Buds is excellent – a real ‘wow’ moment in tech that we don’t see all that often. Only requiring one Pixel phone and one set of Pixel Buds, you tap and hold the right bud for Assistant and say, for example, “help me speak French”. Google Translate then auto-opens on your phone and you hold the right bud again and speak in your native language.
On your phone, your words appear in real time with the text translation into the other language below. The phone then reads the text out loud for the listener. They can then tap a button on-screen and speak back directly into the phone, with the translation coming in correctly back to you through real time text, and audio into the headphones.
It’s close to magic, and genuinely works. It is a useful tool if you travel lots and can’t be doing with a dog-eared phrasebook, but you’ll have to fork out for a Pixel phone too for the privilege.
But – and this is a big but – you can do all of this already on the free Google Translate app, simply using your phone’s microphone and speaker. It’s not as ‘real-time’ as the Buds, but leads us to conclude Google is simply dressing up an old feature as a new one.
This means the crux of the matter is these are £160 headphones that are so badly designed we can’t even comfortably listen to a whole album on them without wanting to tear them out and massage our poor bruised ears.
How Google could have got the basic ‘must not hurt’ part of the Pixel Buds so wrong is indicative about how relentlessly they are pursuing intelligent software. Like the Pixel phones, this is at the expense of hardware design.