Wireless headphones were around long before Apple took away the headphone jack and introduced AirPods in 2016. For years now, Bose, Beats, and a handful of companies have streamed your playlists, and, in some cases, offered up in-ear fitness coaching minus the cord.
Now, Google is finally making a bid for your ears. Last month, as part of its impressive new family of hardware devices, the company announced its first pair of almost wireless earbuds, Pixel Buds. However, despite being a bit late to the party, Google is quickly catching up to speed and, in some areas, surpassing its shiny competitors. Pixel Buds are a strong example of this, providing certain services that completely change how you use your earbuds.
Ahead, our first take on everything Pixel Buds have to offer, from Google Assistant know-how to real-time translations.
Unlike AirPods, Pixel Buds are not a completely wireless pair of headphones — they don't plug into your phone, but there is a cord connecting one ear piece to the other. They're neck buds. For those who feel stressed at the thought of losing a single earbud (replacing one AirPod costs $69 out of warranty), the cord is a nice compromise. This one is fabric, which rested comfortably around the back of my neck.
Instead of arriving with multiple interchangeable fins to assure proper fit, the Pixel Buds cord forms an adjustable loop around each ear piece. I'm not a fan of interchangeable ear pieces — I never seem to find ones that fit just right and taking them on and off is a pain — but I wasn't sure how I would feel about Google's "loops" either. Would they really keep the Buds in my ears?
Fortunately, the answer was yes. The loops were both easy to adjust — simply slide the cord up and down to get the fit right — and the Buds stayed secure, even when I sprinted while wearing them.
Pixel Buds come in a gray, fabric covered charging case that is soft to the touch and fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. The case, which charges via a USB cord, has three LED light indicators to show you its battery level. Simply tap a button on the inner righthand side of the case to see how much battery life is left: Three white lights indicates a charge of 75% or more, two white lights indicates 50 to 75%, and one white light indicates 25 to 50% charge remaining. If you see an amber light, you should plug in your case, stat.
The Buds themselves fit in the two magnetized pockets inside. When they're securely placed, you'll see a green LED light that indicates they're charging. Getting the Buds to fit correctly inside the case may take a try or two, but wasn't as tricky to get used to as I anticipated: Put one bud into its pocket and wrap the cord around the outside twice, using your pinky to help hold it in place. Then, pop in the second Bud and tuck the excess cord in the middle.
After an hour of listening, my fully charged Buds were at 85%. A quick, ten-minute charge in the case boosted the battery 5%.
Pixel Buds pair with Android and iOS , so you can use them with an iPhone or Pixel 2. But if you want all the perks they have to offer, you'll want to use them with the Pixel 2: You only get access to the Google Assistant and Google Translate features on Google's smartphone. Those are the two tools that really distinguish Pixel Buds from other wireless headphones, so if you're paying $159 for a pair, you'll want them.
There are a series of easy-to-use gestures when you have the earbuds in: One tap on the right earbud lets you play or pause music and answer an incoming call; two taps turns the power on and lets you get phone updates from Google Assistant; tapping and holding lets you talk to Google Assistant or end a call; and swiping up and down adjusts the volume.
These gestures worked well, although I sometimes had trouble getting the Buds to distinguish between when I wanted the Assistant and when I was trying to change the volume. When I did use the Assistant, it was usually for sending a text verbally or asking a quick question. For anything more visual, such as asking for directions, I used the Assistant on my Pixel 2.
The sound quality was clear and strong, though it's important to note that Pixel Buds are not noise canceling. They're semi-occluded, meaning you'll still hear sounds around you. I like this aspect, since it means I can listen to music and still hear when my boss is trying to get my attention at work or someone calls my name on the street. However, those who are used to the total sound-blocking power of over-ear headphones might not.
Annoyingly, although you can tap to pause your music, you won't be able to turn the Buds off completely until you put them back in their case.
The integration of Pixel Buds with Google Translate is arguably the most exciting feature. Although it doesn't feel natural to have someone speak to you in their native tongue while you wear earbuds that translate their words, it's an incredible asset, especially if you're traveling somewhere you don't know the language. Pixel Buds can translate up to 30 languages right now.
I tested the Pixel Buds translation tool with an Arabic-speaking friend. It worked; there was about a one second translation delay, which isn't bad, but it can make a conversation full of pauses. Our frustrations, however, focused more on Google Translate's language capabilities rather than with the Pixel Buds' proficiency. Google Translate had some trouble with complicated sentences and slang, though I was, for the most part, able to get the basic gist of what my friend said.
To get real-time translations, you'll need to use the Google Translate app. When you're speaking, tap and hold the right earbud to see your words transcribed in the other language. To hear what the other person is saying, tap the microphone icon on the app. The words are then translated in-ear about a second later.
If you have a Pixel or Pixel 2, Pixel Buds are worth the investment. Access to Google Assistant and Google Translate sets the Buds apart from their competitors. As Translate improves, Buds will become an even more valuable buy. The adorable charging case doesn't hurt, either.
If you're an iPhone or other Android user, the decision is a bit harder. With an iPhone, you won't be able to use the unique functions Pixel Buds has to offer, as non-Pixel users can't take advantage of Google Translate.
Still, one thing is crystal clear: If this is what the future of earbuds looks like, it's an exciting one.
This piece has been updated to note issues with turning Pixel Buds off.