Be warned before proceeding, this is a review written by someone who has AirPods, loves them, and will be viewing the Google Pixel Buds intentionally through that lens. I will not talk about them in a vacuum and I will not give Google a pass because this is their first foray into earbuds. I like a lot of what Google is doing these days, especially in terms of hardware, so I’m going in looking for another win for them.
Because this is a 4,000 word review about headphones, here’s a quick overview in a new feature I’m calling:
The BirchTree Byte1
- They look great and don’t have an obnoxious battery thing you have to wear around your neck
- They sound good in quiet the medium noise environments
- Google Assistant is reliable and has some cool tricks with notifications
- Charging/carrying case is slightly too big and fiddly to use
- The lack of in-ear detection is more frustrating than I expected
- Setup appears to be easy, but was very buggy/time-consuming for me
- Sever audio issues in noisy and windy environments
- The headline translation feature is just a worse version of a feature that already exists
Setting up Pixel Buds was a bit of a chore. It took a bunch of tries to get the Pixel 2 to even see the Pixel Buds were around (see above video for the headache). When they finally saw them, I couldn’t tell what I had done to make them work; I just cheered and moved on.
Once they did see each other, a notification appeared on the phone that said I could pair these headphones. It’s not as fancy as the smoothly animated AirPods sync, but it is the same general concept. Tapping on “PAIR & CONNECT” starts the pairing process.
Form there it’s pretty quick and easy. You can choose to make call history and contacts available to the headphones and then you can go through the Google Assistant setup. It’s a few more steps than AirPods, and I felt like I was fighting to get these to talk to each other, but once it worked, it was pretty quick and worked fine.
Pixel Buds have a similar sound to AirPods and EarPods. There may be some differenced that audiophiles can explain, but to my ears they sound effectively the same.
One difference I noticed immediately is that these sit more on the outside of my ears than Apple’s earbuds. This means that they feel more precariously perched in my ears, and I’ve been paranoid about them falling out, but it also means they let in a lot of outside noise. Seriously, in terms of how much these block out the outside world, these feel like they do nothing. If I sit here with them in my ears and nothing playing, I feel like I hear everything exactly the same as if they weren’t in my ears. There’s a tiny, tiny difference, but it’s so minute I find it hard to notice. AirPods also let in a lot of outside noise, but it’s even more the case with these.
On the one hand I kinda like this; being able to hear my surroundings perfectly fine while also listening to music or a podcast is great at times. At the office I can wear these and still hear everything around me. For the type of job I have, this is a good. It’s more hit and miss when walking to and from work, as it’s nice to have a better ear towards traffic around me (especially when crossing the street), but it also means that traffic makes me turn up the volume more than I’d like.
I should also note that I took these out on multiple workouts (5k outdoor runs) and they were good overall with one major caveat. They did a great job staying in my ears and the short, fabric wire connecting the earbuds never got caught on my neck or in my shirt to cause them to fall out. They did get a little uncomfortable as they became a bit unbalanced (aka when the wire is falling more on one side of your head than the other) and I had to adjust them.
Also, when running on a more windy day, I found the wind would get in my ears and completely drown out what I was listening to. I was listening to ATP and despite turning the volume to 100% could not make out what anyone was saying for a good 5-10 minutes when the wind picked up a bit. As a man of science, I happened to have my iPhone with me and switched the output to them and I could hear perfectly fine. I tried a song in Apple Music and it was very similar. I could tell music was being played, but I could barely make out what it was. I was like listening to music from a party at a house halfway down the block: you know there’s something playing, but you can only barely make it out.
Despite these issues with hearing in the wind, I do quite like the audio from Pixel Buds. Audiophiles will likely scoff, but they sound good to me and succumb less to issues with comfort and usability than other headphones. That ambient noise thing is really a double-edged sword, though.
Touch controls on wireless headphones are tricky, apparently. AirPods do this best in class, in my opinion, but I’m not in love with their solution either. Here’s how AirPods work:
- The only gesture they recognize is double-tap. You need to physically tap your headphones twice to make them do something. What can they do? Glad you asked:
- You can set the double-tap to trigger Siri, play/pause, next track, previous track. The right and left AirPods both have this and can be independently configured to do one of those tasks.
This works pretty well, as the configuration options are nice in that they let you pick what controls are best for you2, but it’s not ideal because tapping on something in your ear is not exactly comfortable in all cases. It’s usually fine, but skipping forward 5 times in a row is more uncomfortable than it should be. I’ve also found that when the temperature gets to around 0° F (-17° C) they become slightly less reliable, almost as if the accelerometer inside is frozen in place.
Pixel Buds instead have a touch-sensitive surface on the right earbud. There are no settings for the actions here, and this is what you can do:
- Single tap: play/pause
- Double Tap: Google Assistant reads your current notifications
- Long press: ask Google Assistant a question
- Swipe forward: volume up
- Swipe backward: volume down
First off, I’ll say I very much enjoy touch controls over tapping when the earbuds are in my ears. It’s never uncomfortable and I got used to the controls very quickly. That said, this system isn’t without issues.
First and foremost are accidental touches. Pixel Buds don’t have any way to know if they’re in your ears or not, so they accept touches as soon as they are taken out of their case. This is a big difference from AirPods, as the tap controls and other playback options don’t appear until you put them in your ears. What this really means is that they will respond to touches basically as soon as you take them out of their case. I found myself routinely play/pausing my music while I was simply handing them before I put them in my ears.
That said, swiping forward and backward on Pixel Buds felt very natural and I did it al the time. It’s a more physically satisfactory feeling than tapping on my AirPods when they work correctly.
That “when they work correctly” is a bigger caveat than I expected, but it’s really just par for the course with my regular Android experience. I mentioned that a single tap on the headphone would play/pause, but I’ve only been able to ever make it pause. Tapping after something is paused has never worked for me. The only way I’ve been able to get it to work is to double tap to make Google Assistant start reading my notifications, and then double tap again to end the notifications. After this, my music will resume. This has been consistent across multiple music and podcast apps, as well as after rebooting and re-pairing the earbuds. This is super frustrating.
The case these come in is fine, although I think I’d like it more if I didn’t have AirPods to compare them to. The fabric on the outside of the case is very soft, and the interior is made of a hard rubber that combine for a uniquely Google-y look and feel. Despite being made of soft materials, the core is strong and you really have to put pressure on this thing to deform it in the slightest. I’d put it this way: I wouldn’t stand on this case, but I’d be more than comfortable sitting on it.
I only have 2 complaints with the case: one, it’s too damn big. In the grand scheme of things it’s not terrible, but coming from the AirPods case that fits in my mini jeans pocket with room to spare, this thing is massive. While I was able to add AirPods to my “everyday carry” without even noticing them in my pocket, the Pixel Buds case needs to go in my full size pocket and I always notice it in there. When I’m wearing a more skinny style of jeans, it’s honestly a non-starter.
The second complaint I have is that putting the headphones in the case is more fiddly than I’d like. The cable that connects the earbuds needs to go somewhere, so I get it, but it’s something I miss from AirPods every time I coil these things back up. Oh, and it’s a little odd that the cable is slightly too long to be wrapped how they say you should.
The wire gets stuck in the back of the case if you wrap it normally, so you have to either wrap it loosely (and risk the cable preventing the case from closing) or cram it down a bit so it fits. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s something that could have been made notably better by making the wire a few millimeters shorter (more on this topic in the last section of the review)
The great news is the case has about one extra day of charge in it, just like AirPods, so I never run out of battery. They also make more use of space in the case, as there are 3 lights that will show you the case’s charge level. I find this much more immediately understandable than AirPod’s green/orange light.
Google Assistant is way better on the Pixel Buds than Siri is on AirPods. I won’t go into the differences between Siri and Assistant overall, but there are 2 things that make this much better.
One, Google Assistant is far more responsive than Siri on AirPods. On my AirPods, I have to double-tap on my ear, wait for the “bloop bloop” sound effect, and then ask my query. On Pixel Buds I have to hold my finger to my ear and ask my query. The microphone is listening to me basically from the moment I put my finger to my ear, and it works every time. The removal of that (usually) short wait time makes all the difference.
Two, you can double-tap on the right earbud to listen to your unread notifications. When you do this, the Assistant voice will tell you how many notifications you have and can read them back to you. This could be redundant for people with smart watches, but if you want to see what you have missed and aren’t looking at your phone, this works. It will also “ding” in your ear when a notification comes in. You can turn this off if you find it annoying, but I kinda like it.
I wish that there was some way to reply to these notifications as they’re coming in, but I don’t know how often I’d actually use it. Still, when I get a text from my wife when I’m out on a run, it sure would be nice to interrupt the notification and say “reply that I’ll be home soon” or something.
Multi Device Sync
One of the things I really like about AirPods, and while Google never said anything about it in their media for the device, but I hoped there would be something, anything here. Sadly, there is not. I have 2 other Android test devices running Android Nougat and signed into the same Google account and these devices have no idea I’ve paired Pixel Buds with one of my Android devices.
Maybe most people have one Android device and they won’t care, but this is one of those things were embracing Apple and going all in on their hardware (phone, tablet, computer, and streaming box) is magical.
The Little Things
AirPods succeed in large part because of all the little things they do great. Here’s some of the AirPod stuff I like, and how it holds up to the Pixel Buds.
The big thing that I can not get over is that Pixel Buds don’t know when they’re in my ears. I had become accustomed to using AirPods and having them play/pause and connect/disconnect from my phone whenever I put them in or took them out of my ears. This simple interact is so natural and wonderful that I just got used to it. So when I pulled my Pixel Buds out and let them hang around my neck for a few minutes, I was surprised to hear them still playing. No, instead they will only automatically disconnect from my phone and pause playback when they are put back in their case or if you just get too far away and they lose connection to your phone. Using Pixel Buds really put into focus how important a feature that is for me, and how much I miss it when it’s gone.
Pairing is dead simple on AirPods, and while I covered this experience earlier, I felt it was worth reiterating here. My challenges getting the devices to see each other is something I’ve heard some people have with AirPods too, so I won’t hold up my one experience as what everyone experiences, but even if it went perfectly smoothly, there are more steps that you must go though to get them working. You will also get numerous notifications after they are initially set up to do even more tweaks and enable more features. This was not horrible, but it felt more like a “process” than the seamless AirPods experience.
The AirPods case has numerous magical bits going for it. First, it is tiny. The Pixel Buds case is small, but not small enough to be something you throw in a pocket and forget about; you always know it’s there, and even a pair of semi-skinny leg jeans make them a total no-go in a way I’ve never had to worry about AirPods.
The AirPods case stores about 24 hours of charge and so does the Pixel Buds case. For my use, this means I only have to charge either of these once every week. It’s just built into my routine that I plug in the headphone charger every Friday when I get home from work.
It’s stupid easy to put AirPods back in their case. The way they get sucked in with magnets is always satisfying, and it make sure I always know when I’ve put them in the right way. Basically, there is no way to put them in wrong. For something you put in and out of their case constantly, this is important. Pixel Buds are good, but nowhere near as great. They don’t have magnets guiding them in perfectly every time and they don’t snap into place so you know you did it right. The charging light turns on when you get it in right, but even after a few weeks, I still don’t feel like I have this nailed down yet.
And there’s also the matter of charging the case. AirPods charge via Lightning today3 and the Pixel Buds use USB-C. It works exactly the same, and depending on what sort of household you have, one cable with be more available than the other, but both comes with the needed cable in the box. This is totally personal preference, but I think Lightning is a better connector than USB-C, but I know there is going to be a lot of push back to that.
Finally, the AirPods case is easy (and satisfying) to close after the earbuds are back inside. The Pixel Buds is again just okay here. AirPods are totally wireless and therefore are totally put away when they are dropped in the case, but Pixel Buds have that pesky wire you still need to deal with. Google has a clever solution in that you need to wrap them around the outer rim of the case and stick the remainder in the middle with the earbuds themselves. This works fine, but it requires relatively exact motor skills. This would be more forgivable if it was optional, but the case will not close unless you put the cable in exactly the right way.
From a design perspective, I think Pixel Buds look really good. Seriously, while Apple has been crushing it with sleek metal and glass designs for years, Google has quietly come up and created a design language for their products that is both soft and elegant. The case looks good and is much softer than it appears, but the buds themselves look really great in my opinion. I have the white ones with an orange accent, and I think it’s a really good look. I still prefer true wireless, but these are the best looking wired-wireless earbuds I have ever seen.
The last thing I can even think to mention (how many words can be written about headphones!?) is that I truly miss the battery widget from iOS. I miss being able to look at my today view and see the charge level of my headphones. Or even flipping the case open next to the phone to see the automatic pop up that shows the case level as well as each earbud’s individual charge. Pixel Buds show their charge level on the connected devices screen in the Settings app4. This is fine, but it’s not as seamless.
Oh, and you thought I was going to get all the way through this review without mentioning the HEADLINE FEATURE of Pixel Buds? Think again, because the Google Translate feature on the Pixel Buds is...not good. No seriously, this is probably the worst way to use Google Translate with someone else. It sucks because it makes half of the translation experience invisible to one of the parties (the person without the Buds).
Basically, you use the app exactly the same as you can right now sans-Buds, but the only real difference is that only you will be able to hear the translated version of what someone else says to you. This means you still need the phone just as much (so no gain) and the person you are talking to doesn’t know if you’re being quiet because the translation is still reading to your or if you’re thinking. They also don’t know what you’re hearing, so if Google got something wrong in the translation, they can’t correct it. Furthermore, because you each have to be handling the phone, this is all happening in close proximity and I can’t tell you how awkward it is to listen to something in your headphones while someone is just staring at you. This is an awkward feature that adds nothing and only detracts from an already challenging situation. Yuck.
The Google Pixel Buds are Google’s first foray into headphones, and I think for a first effort they did relatively well. I think if these came out in 2015 they would be lauded as something special in the headphone market, but they are a few years late for that. AirPods really changed the conversation and raised the bar for everyone. Because of this, I’m somewhat torn in my overall feelings.
On the one hand, I think these look good, sound nice, and have killer Google Assistant features built in. They are quite comfortable to boot.
On the other hand, I am annoyed (if even mildly) by the wired nature of these earbuds, the case adds friction every time I use it, lack of next/previous track functions is obnoxious, audio quality in wind is basically zero, and the lack of little features that make me go “whoa, these are awesome!” add up for me.
Here’s what it comes down to for me: $159. That’s the exact same price as AirPods, and it’s relatively pricy (although not insane) for non-audiophile wireless earbuds. I never regretted paying that much for AirPods because they impressed me so much. Yes, it was the most money I’d ever spent on headphones, but they were leaps and bounds better than anything I had ever used. I’d heard headphones that sounded better, as with other sound products, there is more to headphones than just the audio quality. Pixel Buds made me question the value I was getting with them quite a bit.
The super quick sync of AirPods was a wiz-bang feature that wowed people up front, but the reason people still talk about AirPods with such adoration today is because of all the things they do right in day-to-day use. Pixel Buds seem to be birthed with the idea that easy sync was the thing and then slapped their own awkward translation feature on top. They didn’t get the details right and ultimately didn’t make something that can hold a candle to AirPods.
If you have an iPhone, there’s no question the AirPods are the better buy. If you have an Android phone, I still think the AIrPods are a better buy. They’re not quite as amazing as they are when paired with an iPhone, but they still deliver a better overall experience than Pixel Buds. That said, if you want the product that’s as similar to AirPods as possible but refuse to buy something from Apple, this is probably your best bet.
And if you’re an iPhone user who is wondering if these would be good for them, they technically work but you really should just get AirPods if you’re going to spend this much. If AirPods don’t fit in your ears, I still don’t think these are the ones for you, and you should keep looking. Everything that’s unique about these requires Android, and ideally a Pixel 2.
I will be keeping the Pixel Buds because I balance an unusual iOS/Android life and want a pair of small, wireless headphones for both phones5. If I were a normal person I’d definitely return them and stick with the AirPods. There are many other options out there for headphones, but this isn’t exactly my normal beat, so I’ll defer to the experts on other options.
- If you love this or hate this let me know on Twitter. I love it, but know it’s corny as hell. ↩
- For me it’s play/pause on the left ear and skip forward on the right ear. ↩
- Although a wireless charging case is supposedly coming this year to let them charge via Chi wireless charging as well. ↩
- Or by swiping down with 2 fingers from the top of the phone and tapping the little “expand” button by Bluetooth to see connected devices. ↩
- Sharing between iOS and Android can be a mild pain. Not something horrible, but something that throwing a little money at can solve. ↩