One of the most interesting and fastest-moving areas of personal technology over the past few years hasn’t been smartphones, tablets, or even smartwatches. Rather, the action and excitement have been around truly wireless headphones — earbuds like Apple’s AirPods that require no wires and don’t care if your phone has a headphone jack (because, odds are at this point, it doesn’t).
While a few niche startups were first to put truly wireless headphones on the market, Apple really defined the scene with its 2016 release of the AirPods, showing what a good execution on the idea is like: reliable wireless connectivity, at least five hours of battery life, and a compact, easy-to-use charging case.
Since then, we’ve seen Samsung release several iterations of its own wireless earbuds before landing on a (mostly) working formula with this year’s Galaxy Buds. Many smaller companies, such as Jabra and Jaybird, have put out products that try to address the remaining AirPod faults, such as the lack of a customizable fit or poor sound blocking characteristics. Even Apple is selling multiple versions of truly wireless earbuds between the AirPods and its Beats brand.
This fall, however, things are heating up across the major consumer tech companies. Amazon and Microsoft are releasing their own wireless buds with features that are unique to their respective strengths: always-listening microphones for the Alexa voice assistant and integration with Microsoft’s Office productivity software. Amazon’s Echo Buds also promise active noise reduction, which is something we’re starting to see more wireless earbuds offer; Apple is expected to add it with its next-generation AirPods at some point in the near future.
So where does that leave Google? We’re expecting to find out this week when the company hosts its annual Made By Google event. Rumors have said that, along with the Pixel 4 smartphone and Pixelbook Go Chromebook laptop, Google is planning to announce a new set of wireless headphones called the Pixel Buds 2.
This won’t be Google’s first attempt at this kind of product. Two years ago, it launched the original Pixel Buds, which accompanied the Pixel 2 smartphone, its first model without a headphone jack. The first-gen Pixel Buds were, frankly, bad. They weren’t true wireless buds because there was an awkward wire connecting the two earbuds. The charging case was clumsy, and it made it difficult to put the earbuds into it. They had touch controls that were hard to use and frequently recorded errant taps. They also let in far too much outside sound to make them practical in busy urban environments.
The first-gen Pixel Buds left a ton of room for improvement
Unlike the Pixel 4, there hasn’t been a ton of details released on what the Pixel Buds 2 will look like or how they will function. At the very least, we expect Google to ditch the wire between the earbuds to make them truly wireless. We also expect them to follow Apple and Amazon’s lead with always-listening microphones for even easier access to Google’s Assistant than the first-gen model. No more tapping on the earbud; just say “Hey Google” to make your request, and the earbuds will comply.
It would be smart of Google to also make the new Pixel Buds better at blocking outside sounds so they can be used on a busy street or during a subway commute without having to crank the volume to the max and potentially damage your hearing. Even better would be active noise cancelation, like Amazon’s Echo Buds.
But mostly, Google has to make sure they work well and are easier to use than the first-gen model. That includes everything from how they fit in your ears to how they go into the charging case to how you interact with them when you’re wearing them.
Much like smartwatches, truly wireless earbuds often provide the best experience when they are paired with devices made by the same company. While you can use AirPods with an Android phone, you miss out on a lot of the niceties that you get when they are connected to an iPhone or an iPad. Similarly, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds perform best when they are connected to a Galaxy smartphone, and Microsoft’s Surface Buds will have the most functionality when they are connected to a Windows 10 computer. Most people buying a set of wireless earbuds are likely going to purchase the ones that match their phone maker.
Amazon might be Google’s biggest competitor for selling wireless earbuds to Android phone owners
In light of that, Google isn’t really competing with Apple here. It’s more likely to find tougher competition with Amazon. The Echo Buds, which are arriving before the end of this month, are priced aggressively and have active noise cancelation, which can make a huge difference for a lot of people in their day-to-day use. They also provide easy access to Amazon’s Alexa assistant as well as direct access to Google’s Assistant on your phone.
We have yet to put them through a full review, but our early impressions were positive, and the noise cancelation function does make a significant difference in how much of the outside world is blocked out. I can see many people opting for the Echo Buds solely for that feature and because you can get it in a set of buds that costs just $130, unlike the over-$200 Sony earbuds that offer similar active noise-blocking characteristics.
All of that means that the Pixel Buds 2 have to perform, and they have to do so without costing more than the $159 first-gen version. We’ll be watching — and listening — closely tomorrow to see what Google brings to the table.