Google Pixel Buds review: Smart wireless earphones scuppered by clunky, fiddly design

Steve Hogarty
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Google Pixel Buds

Having unceremoniously removed the 3.5mm headphone jack from the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, Google’s come out with its own pair of wireless earphones to make up the difference. The Pixel Buds are Google’s answer to the Apple AirPods, and they come with a few advantages over those little white dinglets, chief among which is that you don’t look like a bit of a prong when wearing them.

The Pixel Buds are also connected by a piece of string, which makes them more difficult to misplace and more secure while exercising or cycling. (I’ve been stringing them through the collar of my coat while commuting to avoid them pinging off and falling down an open drain).

Unlike the AirPods they have some basic touch controls. By tapping or swiping on the right earbud you can pause and resume music, adjust the volume, answer calls and – as this is a Google device – summon the increasingly omnipresent Google Assistant, who responds to your voice commands to play music, read notifications, give directions or answer general questions.

The microphone, situated inside the earbud, works well enough to understand what you’re asking of the Assistant. She easily interpreted commands given while strolling around noisy city streets, and I could accurately dictate responses to WhatsApp messages without having to raise my voice and draw the attention of London’s population of wandering ne’er-do-wells, with their cruel put downs and cutting jibes.

When not in use, the buds live inside a little fabric-lined box, which can charge them a few times over before needing to recharge itself. But here’s where the Pixel Buds begin to fall short. The box is flimsy, and the buds don’t turn off unless placed inside them. Getting them into and out of the box is fiddly business, and so is positioning them comfortably inside your ears; accidentally tapping the right bud as you finger it into place will occasionally pause or resume whatever you’re listening to.

The Pixel Buds’ most intriguing feature – that it can be used, Babelfish-style, to perform real-time translation between two spoken languages – is in fact a trick that the latest version of the Google Translate app can perform all by itself. The translation technology works remarkably well (as long as you’re happy waving your smartphone around in front of a stranger in a foreign country) but the buds largely act as earphones while your phone does the heavy lifting.

Battery life is decent, you can go a few days before the case itself needs a recharge. And audio quality is actually not too bad, though not comparable to what you’d get from a similarly priced pair of headphones. The buds don’t fit snugly in the ear canal either, and so ambient noise seeps in. If you commute by train, that’s a dealbreaker.

An interesting proof-of-concept with some truly impressive features, the Pixel Buds underperform on too many basic counts to recommend. Fiddly and awkward, this Google hardware has growing up to do.

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