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Google Pixel Buds Review: Where did it all go wrong?

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The Good

  • Good battery life
  • Impressive sound quality

The Bad

  • Ridiculous setup issues
  • Uncomfortable to wear
  • Problematic interactions

The Google Pixel Buds are seriously expensive in-ear ‘phones with built-in Assistant functionality, yet several major flaws and quite a few minor ones make them impossible to recommend.

Google Pixel Buds review: Setup

Google’s Pixel Buds are probably the worst things I’ve stuck in my ears since I was four years old, and decided to perform impromptu brain surgery with a blue Crayola.

At least, that’s the intro I was going to go with after really struggling with these things for several days, until I eventually calmed down a bit. For the life of me I couldn’t even get them to connect to any smartphone I tried, with the exception of the Pixel phone (of course).

Automatic connection via the Google Assistant seemed to fail every time, while bypassing the Assistant and just using standard Bluetooth pairing met with just as much success. Even when I did manage to connect the Buds to a device, I often found some other issue. For instance, the OnePlus 5T would only allow me to use them for calls, refusing to function for media at all.

In fact, the only other phone I had any success with, besides Google’s own Pixel, was the iPhone 8. You couldn’t make it up.

After a few days of struggle and strife, the Pixel Buds begrudgingly behaved a little better. They finally paired with some non-Google branded handsets (perhaps after a few attempts, but we got there in the end) via the Assistant or otherwise. I have no idea what, if anything, changed, so maybe I just got ‘lucky’.

Of course, it’s still very much a Russian roulette with these things and there’s every chance you might have a battle on your hands to get them synced with your own device. It’s a risk that you really shouldn’t have to take at this sort of asking price, and frankly baffling when £30 Bluetooth buds from relatively unknown manufacturers show no such issues.

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Google Pixel Buds review: Design

The Buds themselves are a pair of plastic in-ear shells connected via a short fabric cable, which can loop around the back of your neck. While that means less freedom than Apple’s AirPods, the Pixel Buds are also more secure as a result. If one drops out, that tether will keep it from flying off into the gutter somewhere. Always good when you’re running for a bus or working out.

That cable is certainly strong. You can twist and yank on it as much as you like, with no apparent effects. Likewise, the buds themselves can be thrown around with utter disdain (can you tell that this might have happened after some persistent setup issues?) and they won’t crack or chip.

However, when it comes to comfort, you’d be better off with that blue Crayola. The Pixel Buds don’t offer any soft, squishy rubber tips that adjust to your ear shape, for a pleasing fit. Instead, you get quite hard shells which start to chafe after just a couple of hours of use. If you’re using them every day, you can expect the experience to be about as enjoyable as sleeping on a giant cheese grater.

Google Pixel Buds review: Features

When it comes to smarts, the Pixel Buds don’t come close to Apple’s AirPods.

The right bud has a pressure sensor built into the surface, so you can poke it to perform certain actions. A quick tap will pause or resume your media, for instance, while pressing and holding your finger will call up the Google Assistant (on phones which support this feature). You can then issue a command, before releasing your touch for a response.

The Google Assistant isn’t quite up to the standards of rivals such as Amazon’s Alexa just yet, but it’s getting there. You’ll still need to construct your commands carefully, as more conversational requests are often baffling.

Every time you receive a notification, the Assistant will ding in your ear. You can then double-tap the right bud to hear the email subject, full text messages and so on. If you don’t have any notifications, the Assistant will simply tell you the time. Don’t worry if you forget about the whole double-tap feature either, as you’ll be reminded of its existence all of the time for some reason.

Sadly there’s no way to check battery levels as far as we can tell, without going through your phone. Likewise, you can’t skip tracks using the Buds themselves, at least via touch. You have to request a skip with the Assistant instead and we felt rather conspicuous using that approach on a crowded train. This lack of direct control is going to annoy anyone who likes to jump around in playlists, or cut past less favourable songs on albums.

You can at least raise or lower the volume at a touch, simply by swiping the surface, although confusingly a swipe upwards makes things quieter, while downwards boosts the volume. That’s a great way to shatter your eardrums if you’re not paying attention. The jumps in volume are also quite jarring, no matter how gentle your swipes, so we often simply pulled out our phone instead.

The fact that there’s no touch control on the left bud, or customisation options for setting them up how you like, is definitely a downer. And when you pop the Buds out, your music won’t even be paused, as it is on the AirPods. Plus, the sensitivity is a little off, so your taps won’t always register the first time.

One feature which sounded like a real winner when we first heard about it was the Google Translate support. However, in practice this isn’t really much cop at all. For one, you need a Pixel phone for it to work; try it on another handset and you’re simply told to install Google Translate, even if the app is already downloaded. Even with a Pixel, you’ll still need to hold up your phone like a dictation machine so the other person can speak into it, before the translation is read into your ears. So it’s not really any better than simply using Google Translate on your mobile as usual.

Google Pixel Buds review: Sound quality

One area where the Pixel Buds do thankfully impress is the audio quality. Everything from vocals to backing instruments come through cleanly and clearly, to rival any other in-ear ‘phones we’ve tested lately. Bass levels are respectable and we enjoyed every genre we tested, from post hardcore and pirate metal through to trance, classical and even a spot of light jazz. Because we’re just like that.

As for volume levels, the Buds can pump out quite powerful audio on top levels. Of course you don’t get any kind of noise cancellation built in, so your only option when sat next to a noisy kid on a plane is to blast some Set To Stun into your earholes.

Call quality is perfectly fine too. The people we spoke with had no problem hearing us, even in quite breezy conditions, thanks to the Pixel Buds’ powerful built-in mic.

Google Pixel Buds review: Battery life

Battery life is another positive too, with roughly five hours of continuous music playback (complete with occasional Assistant use) per charge. When the Buds die you can slip them back into the case and they will quickly regain power, so you can use them all over again. A full charge in the case will give you three full recharges of the Buds.

You can power up the case battery using a Type C USB cable, and the case itself is pleasingly compact for easy storage. We like the fabric finish although it could use a proper clasp as it doesn't always close up properly.

Google Pixel Buds review: Verdict

At £159, Google’s Pixel Buds are the same cost as Apple’s AirPods and massively more expensive than other wireless earbuds. And as much as we like the sound quality and battery life, we’re frankly baffled at some of the serious shortcomings that make them impossible to recommend.

From the setup issues and limited touch controls, to the fact that they’re simply not comfortable to wear, the Buds are more frustrating and irritating to use than many of their rivals. Here’s hoping these problems can be weaned out for the second generation, but we certainly recommend staying well clear considering the steep cost.

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