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Up close with Pixel Buds, Google's answer to AirPods

Neckbuds that talk to the Assistant

Photography by James Bareham

Google is making wireless headphones that are specifically designed to be the first and best option for people who buy Google phones — just like AirPods are designed for iPhones.

The new Pixel Buds borrow a lot of ideas from Apple's AirPods: they have a new, easier way to pair with your phone, they come in a little battery case, they use touch controls, and they have tight integration with an intelligent assistant. They're also priced exactly the same, at $159, and are coming out in November.

On the other hand, Pixel Buds are neckbuds, not truly wireless earbuds. They lack some of the technical whiz-bang of the AirPods, like auto-detecting when they're in your ear. The choices Google made with the design of Pixel Buds speak to Google's emerging values when it comes to its hardware products: be pragmatic and lean on Google's core technologies whenever possible.

Neckbuds aren’t cool, but having headphones sitting around your neck all the time is definitely convenient.

The Pixel Buds are wireless headphones with a cloth cord connecting the left and right side. They are, as I said, neckbuds, though that isn't a word you're likely to hear Google utter. But in some ways they're nicer than traditional neckbuds.

The cord that connects them is both shorter and more flexible than other neckbud cords, and the fact that it's cloth makes it slightly more comfortable. It also doesn't have a battery bump or physical control pod. Everything is integrated directly into the buds themselves.

That cord is also key to the relatively unique way the Pixel Buds are worn. They're earbuds, not in-ear headphones, and they don't fit into your ear canal at all — not even as much as Apple's AirPods do. Instead, they nestle into your outer ear and stay anchored in place by a small loop formed by the cord. You adjust the cloth cord to a length that fits your ear and then pop them in.

Photo by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

Product manager Adam Champy says that Google didn’t like the way in-ear headphones force users to handle sizing. "You're either asked to take the headphone apart, or put something in your ear that won't fit." He says that the loop fits into a "non-sensitive" part of the ear and the whole system is "stable enough to go running with."

The Pixel Buds come in a little cloth-covered case that can also recharge them when they're low. Google says they should last about five hours on a charge; the case can charge them four times.

I watched a demo of the new pairing workflow, and it's pretty straightforward. When you open the case next to your Pixel phone (the auto-pair feature only works with Pixels), a little notification pops up showing the Pixel Buds and their battery life. You tap the notification and kapow, paired.

The case has a couple little slots to put the earbuds in, with contact points to charge them. The cord wraps around a channel and tucks in between the buds. In theory, it's a nice, elegant system for storing and charging your earbuds. In practice, I can't yet speak to whether or not it really works well. The units I tried were preproduction, and the case needed tweaks to its physical design to make it easier to open and less fiddly to wrap the cord around and close it.

I also am reticent to give any final verdict on the thing that actually matters most with headphones: how they sound. That said, they exceeded my expectations for both quality and bass response — but my expectations weren't super high.

Google chose to make these headphones "semi-occluded." Unlike in-ear headphones, they don't seal your ear canal, but instead sit just over it. That’s good if you want headphones that don't block out the world around you entirely, but it's not necessarily what audiophiles will want.

I'm definitively an in-ear headphone user (with a side of Bose over-ear noise-canceling headphones on planes), so I was very skeptical. But the Pixel Buds surprised me a little: they had clear highs and did a better job with a bassline than earbuds in this style generally do.

Aesthetically, I don't think anybody has figured out a great way to make wireless earbuds not look kind of dopey. Google's attempt is to turn the earbuds into a large package with a big, touch-sensitive area. They come in three colors — white, gray, and black — and they have a tiny plastic bauble on the cord with an accent color that matches the accent colors on the Pixel 2 phones.

You control the earbuds with a few different gestures on the right earbud: tapping it maps to play / pause. Swiping forward increases the volume and back decreases volume. Google found that trying to swipe up and down sometimes ended up making the headphone pop out. If you hear a notification chime come in, you can double tap to have it read aloud to you. Unfortunately, there's no accommodation for skipping tracks, nor is there a way to customize the controls.

Google says that software updates to enable something like skipping tracks might come in the future; there are no promises, but the company is exploring options. The earbuds will update "silently," meaning Google can just push out changes through Android phones automatically. There’s emphasis on Android there, however: although Pixel buds will work with an iPhone (and even Siri), they can only be updated when paired to an Android phone.

The real purpose of the Pixel Buds is to give you faster and easier access to Google Assistant. If there's a thing that stands out about them, it’s how well that works.

To activate Assistant, you just hold your finger down on the right earbud and start talking. The Pixel Buds send your voice to the phone immediately when you do this, without making you wait for a beep or a confirmation or whatever. When you lift your finger, there's a very subtle audio cue and then the Assistant speaks its response back to you.

This sort of experience is closer to the thing everybody's been hoping for with AirPods — something like the movie Her where an audible computer is always there, waiting to listen. It removes friction by removing latency: you just tap and ask. It’s not worth breathless exclamations about how this enables the next step in computing, but I did find it fast and convenient.

I am less sure if the other headline feature for the Pixel Buds will be as convenient, but it is certainly impressive. Since the Google Translate app can translate between 40 different languages — that's 1,600 combinations — so can Pixel Buds. There's another pop culture reference to evoke here (the Babel Fish from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), but translating with Pixel Buds is not that seamless.

You hold your finger down on your ear and say "help me speak French,” and speak a phrase. When you lift your finger, the Translate app speaks and displays your translation. Then the person you're speaking to holds a button down on your phone and says their reply, which you hear in your ear.

I'm a little dubious that this is any more convenient than just passing your phone back and forth and doing everything there, but it worked really well in the demo: a fairly natural voice in my ear translated what the other person said. It's not quite in real time, but it's very fast.

Like most of the hardware Google has announced this year, Pixel Buds emphasize practicality over style. As silly as they may look to some, it's convenient to just have a pair of headphones sitting around your neck all the time. You can grab them and put them in your ear without fiddling around with the case. However, I do wish that they would turn off automatically when they're not in your ear. (That's another thing Google is looking into, since the body of the bud is technically a capacitive sensor.)

I wouldn’t expect Pixel Buds to sell in huge numbers and compete with Apple’s AirPods. You can use them with any phone, but they’re meant to work primarily with the Pixel phones, and neither new Pixel will sell at volumes remotely comparable to the iPhone.

It seems clear that removing the headphone jack requires some sort of vision of what a better headphone experience can look like. And like so much of Google’s new hardware, the Pixel Buds are far more pragmatic than flashy — and pragmatic is nice. But as with any headphones, we really need to give them a full review before we can say if they're good.

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Video Credits

Sup. Producer: Sophie Erickson
Director: Vjeran Pavic, Tyler Pina
Editor: Tyler Pina
Camera: Ben Williams
Photo: James Bareham 
Audio Mix: Andru Marino