Despite the onslaught of leaks in the days and weeks leading up to Google’s big Pixel launch, the company managed to fit in a few surprises.
One of the biggest was the new Pixel Buds, bluetooth wireless earbuds optimized for Google’s new Pixel phones. But the Pixel Buds are much more than just wireless earbuds, they’re essentially Google’s answer to Apple’s AirPods: bluetooth buds with touch controls and Google Assistant built right in.
The $159 earbuds (available in November) wirelessly charge in their case (the case charges via USB-C port). Google says one charge will last up to five hours and the case itself is good for four charges. The case is covered in a gray cloth similar to what’s on the Google Home Mini and the cord on the buds is also cloth-covered.
The buds themselves are on the larger side. I have smaller-than-average ears and have a difficult time wearing most round earbuds, but the tip is smaller than the outside of the bud, which is good. A small section of the cord loops out next to the bud to help the tip stay in (unlike AirPods, the Pixel Buds don’t actually sit inside your ear).
The more I used them, the more I was struck by just how similar they were to AirPods. The outside of the right bud is touch-enabled: you can adjust the volume, pause or play your music, and call up Google Assistant by swiping or tapping.
The touch controls on the demo pair I used were on the buggy side, but I was particularly happy so see volume controls as that’s one feature I keep wishing AirPods had.
Likewise, the Pixel Buds are designed to seamlessly pair with Android devices much like the way AirPods are optimized for iPhones. When you open the case near a phone running Nougat or higher, a notification pops up on your screen asking if you want to pair them. There’s even an on-screen graphic of the buds reminiscent of Apple’s notification.
Still, as a happy recent convert to AirPods, I can safely say that the Pixel Buds don’t look or feel nearly as premium as my AirPods do. Being able to adjust the fit by pulling on the cord is a nice touch — and the buds do fit in my ear better than I expected — but the overall look of the Pixel Buds is much closer to some low-end earbuds I’ve worn than what I’d expect for $159.
If you can get past the looks, though, they did sound pretty good in my initial testing, which was in a noisy demo room.
Of course, the most intriguing aspect of the Pixel Buds isn’t the way they look, feel, fit, or pair, but the fact that they have Google Assistant built in. And Google has used Pixel Buds as an opportunity to showcase just how powerful that can be.
That relationship shined during Google’s onstage demo when the company showed how the Pixel Buds use Google Assistant to provide real-time translations via Google Translate. The combination of Google Assistant, Translate, and Pixel Buds almost perfectly showcases the “AI + hardware + software” approach Google CEO Sundar Pichai kept emphasizing throughout the launch event.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a feature I was able to test myself as spotty Wi-Fi and LTE connections made it impossible to use, but it’s without a doubt the feature I’m most looking forward to testing when it’s time for a full review.
And that might just be the point of the Pixel Buds: They may not look or feel just as great as AirPods — even though their basic functionality is nearly the same — but they open up many more possibilities for what’s possible thanks to Google’s ever smarter Assistant.