Apple’s AirPods pair perfectly with iPhones, but what do you get if you own a Google Pixel 2? As of now, that’s a no-brainer: Pixel Buds.
Google’s own take on wireless earbuds isn’t just great for music — the headphones sound a little better than AirPods — but they’re also loaded with intelligence thanks to the company’s Assistant and real-time translation features that could change communication as we know it.
It’s impossible to test out the Pixel Buds and not compare them to AirPods. They share many similarities and differences.
They both cost $159, which is really reasonable for wireless earbuds. Many others wireless earbud models, like the Samsung Gear IconX, cost $199 or more.
They both last five hours on a single charge and come with charging cases that can charge them fully four times.
And they both come with special technology sauce that helps them pair faster and easier with phones as opposed to ripping your hair out muddling with the Bluetooth settings.
Now for the differences. The Pixel Buds aren’t “true wireless earbuds” in the way AirPods and IconX’s are. They have a cable that connects the two earbuds together, which makes them more like wireless “neckbuds” such as the Beats X or Powerbeats 3. And you’ll either like this style or not.
I think AirPods work great, but I still can’t get over how dorky they look. I’m sorry, but until they lose their stems, they’ll never look cool.
Pixel Buds look a little more normal in my opinion. When I first got AirPods (this was when they were still hard to get), people would stare at them all the time, but nobody ever did with the Pixel Buds.
Save for the “G” logo on each earbud, the Pixel Buds aren’t flashy-looking (at least on my black pair) and that’s just how I like them.
The cable that connects the two earbuds is also braided and multi-functional. Not only does it protect the inner wire (yes, there’s a wire inside so don’t cut the cord or you’ll destroy the buds), but it ensures you’ll never lose them.
On my way to the Storm King Art Center, I never feared losing the Pixel Buds during the bumpy hour-and-a-half-long bus ride. It wasn’t at all like that time I lost one AirPod on a plane because of some turbulence.
When I wanted to temporarily take the earbuds out, I simply dropped them around my neck. It’s nice not needing to open the case every single time to stash them.
The cable also doubles as a way to keep them secure in your ears. Google designed the cable so it forms a loop on each end; it works like the wingtip “fins” that nestle into the contours of your ear — a feature of many earbuds today. It’s clever and works well.
Pairing is a little janky
When I reviewed the Pixel 2 and 2 XL last month, I applauded the “Fast Pair” feature that lets you connect compatible Bluetooth headphones without the hassle of diving into the Bluetooth settings. Libratone’s Q Adapt On-Ear wireless headphones paired perfectly with the phones.
So I was expecting the Pixel Buds, which support Fast Pair, to work the same.
I’m not sure if it’s just buggy software or what, but I had several issues pairing them to the Pixel 2’s, despite following the instructions.
You’re supposed to be able to just open the case next to an Android phone running Android 6.0 Marshmallow (or newer) and a little notification should pop up asking you to connect them. In other words, just like AirPods do with iPhones.
In reality, several Android phones (Galaxy Note 8, S8, OnePlus 5) I tested the Pixel Buds with had trouble detecting the Pixel Buds, and in the end I usually gave up and just went into the Bluetooth settings to pair them manually.
I never have this issue with AirPods. They always remember my iPhone and instantly pair to it when I pop them in my ears.
You’re probably expecting this, but the Pixel Buds sound average. They do sound a little better than AirPods, but just barely.
Using them in the noisy subway and cacophonous streets of New York City, I couldn’t really hear a big difference. I’d say the highs are a little crisper and you can definitely hear some stronger and deeper bass, but only if you’ve used both like I have.
For $159, I’m pleased with the audio quality. Obviously, I would have loved top-notch sound, but I can live with them.
The Pixel Buds get nice and loud to drown out the noise around you, but they’re no substitute for real wireless earbuds with noise cancellation.
And speaking of volume: Thank you, Google, for putting touch controls on the right earbud. If there’s any one thing I hate about AirPods aside from their unfashionable design, it’s the lack of volume controls. On the Pixel Buds, you simple swipe forward to increase the volume and swipe back to turn it down. There’s no need to fish out your phone or ask a voice assistant (a big no-no).
Infused with intelligence
The Pixel Buds’ single biggest advantage over AirPods or any other wireless earbuds is their integration with your phone’s Google Assistant and Google Translate.
Pressing and holding the right earbud activates the Google Assistant and you can use it (mostly) like you would its counterpart on your phone.
You can ask it for things like the weather, sports scores, and news briefings. And all of the usual things: playing a song, opening an app on your phone, calling your mom, or texting your best friend.
But you can also ask it to tell you about your day and it’ll tap into all the Google services you gave it access to. It’s useful for reading back your Google Keep reminders, adding events to your calendar, setting timers, and finding random food spots in a neighborhood with a “Are there any _____ restaurants nearby?”
My personal favorite thing is double-tapping the right earbud when I get a notification. After you grant it access to read your notifications, it’ll do it. It was really nice to have my Slack notifications read to during my morning commute. It let me read a book on the train without getting distracted with Twitter and Instagram.
There was only one strange thing I noticed while using Assistant for checking notifications. When I first turned it on, it read Mashable Tech Editor Pete Pachal’s name perfectly. His last name is pronounced “pa-shul.” But after that one time, it changed to pronouncing it as “pack-ul”. I’ve no idea why it decided to change things up, but thought you should know.
While I mostly used the Pixel Buds with a Pixel 2 XL, I did try it out with a Galaxy Note 8, Galaxy S8, and OnePlus 5. Unfortunately, they didn’t work as reliably on these other devices even though they were all on the same Wi-Fi network. Your mileage may vary depending on your Android phone.
The Assistant alone gives the Pixel Buds an edge over AirPods, but the real-time Google Translate feature pushes it above and beyond.
I was really blown away when I tried them out last month at Google’s holiday pop-up shop in NYC and was eager to try it in the real world. Currently, they support 40 languages, including French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian (to name a few).
The idea is that you’d speak in your language into the Pixel Buds and it would translate it in real-time into another language. You’d hear the spoken translation through your earbuds and it’d also appear dictated in the Google Translate app.
Then, another person would say something in their supported language into the Google Translate app and it’d translate it verbally back into your language through the buds.
I had hoped for real-time translation to be the Pixel Buds’ killer feature, but they’re just a nice extra for Pixel owners.
It’s a beautiful dream that has the potential to break down language barriers. And it does work, but with some caveats: The feature only works with Pixel and Pixel 2 phones, and it’s not entirely better than simply using the already robust Google Translate app.
The speed of translations will also depend on how good your internet connection is. I tried translating English into Spanish using the Pixel Buds in a section of the office that always has spotty connectivity and it was slower than at the office where Wi-Fi is lightning fast.
I also noticed the earbuds would sometimes disconnect from the opened on my Pixel 2 XL.
And while most translations are pretty good (I mostly tested English, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese), they’re no different than the results you’d get from the Google Translate website or app. It nails simple sentence translations, but can butcher (not horribly, but the grammar’s off or there’s a better way to say it) longer ones.
I had hoped for real-time translation to be the Pixel Buds’ killer feature, but it’s just a nice extra for Pixel owners. This feature would be a lot more useful if it worked with other phones.
Android’s answer to AirPods
Personal style preferences aside, I think Apple AirPods are perfect for what they cost. They sound good, the case is small, the battery lasts forever, and they pair also pair surprisingly well with iOS devices, tablets, and any device that supports Bluetooth audio.
Google’s Pixel Buds don’t quite match the AirPod’s connectivity elegance, but they are at least comparable in sound quality. The Google Assistant is a sweet bonus and if you’re a Pixel owner, the real-time translation could be useful.
If you’re looking for true cable-free wireless earbuds, you may want to consider other options. But if you don’t mind the cable or see it as a plus (like I do), the Pixel Buds are a good stocking stuffer, especially if you own a Pixel phone.
Google Pixel Buds
Long battery life on par with AirPods • Convenient Google Assistant controls • Built-in touchpad controls • Fit snug in your ears
Occasionally janky connectivity • Doesn’t work as well with non-Pixel phones • Real-time translation only works with Pixel phones
The Bottom Line
Google’s Pixel Buds aren’t perfect, but they’re still the best alternative to AirPods.