Yesterday, Google announced the second round of its very own Pixel phones, but it also expanded its small universe of “Made by Google” hardware. One of the new products under that umbrella, and a first for Google, are the Pixel Buds. They’re around-the-neck wireless earbuds (or “neckbuds”) that, in some ways, resemble Apple’s AirPods.
Much like Apple, Google has done away with the headphone jack on its new phones, so selling a pair of its own wireless headphones makes sense. They’re even priced exactly the same as AirPods, at $159. However, there are plenty of differences between the Pixel Buds and AirPods that are worth elucidating at the outset, even if we’ve only gotten a very brief chance to try them so far, and can’t really say much about the sound quality just yet. (If you want to know much more about Pixel Buds alone, check out our own exclusive first look at the product.)
How they work
Battery: Pixel Buds have about five hours of battery life, and come with a carrying case that can recharge the buds four times. Right off the bat, that’s pretty similar to AirPods, with the only real obvious advantage going to Apple’s smaller, more easily pocketable case.
Fit: Like AirPods, Pixel Buds use a more open-air design than many other small, wireless earbuds. That means they sit placed against, not in, your ear. That lets you hear more ambient noise, which is good if you don’t want to be too isolated, but bad if you’re going for maximum sound quality. Unlike AirPods, the Pixel Buds’ fit is adjustable. The cloth cord that connects the two earbuds can actually slide up through a loop in each bud to slip into the folds of your ear. Here’s a GIF:
Connection and compatibility: Google apparently did some fiddling with the Bluetooth on Pixel Buds so that it’s easier to connect them than normal Bluetooth headphones. It’s too early to say if it’s as good as the results that Apple got with the W1 chip that’s in AirPods and other headphones.
You’ll be able to use the Pixel Buds with other phones, with Google Assistant features working on any Assistant-enabled Android device, and the fast pairing working on any phone running Android N or higher. The language translation is exclusive to Pixel Buds used with a Pixel phone. So they’re similar to AirPods in that you won’t get the complete experience when using them with other phones, but a few more features travel with Pixel Buds than with AirPods.
Controls: Pixel Buds offer a bit more control than AirPods do. You can tap to play and pause music, double tap to read out notifications, and more importantly, swipe across them to adjust volume — but only on the right one. AirPods are limited to tap controls, and don’t have as much surface area available for that as the Pixel Buds do.
This is likely to be the most talked-about feature of the Pixel Buds, and potentially one of the clearest advantages, but only if it works. Google is saying that the earbuds are capable of doing real-time translation, which is an idea that’s often promised but almost never delivered in this form factor by tech companies big and small.
The idea is that you can tap and hold on the Pixel Buds, speak, and then the translated speech will come out of your Pixel phone’s speakers. The person you’re talking to speaks back into the phone, and you hear them in your native language. Bragi sort of got this idea working on its most recent product, the Dash Pro, and many other startups have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in crowdfunding and VC money trying to do this.
But the “Babel fish” dream is nowhere near fully realized, and it’s not clear that Google’s the one that solved most of the problems. After all, unless both of you are wearing earbuds with no phone necessary, isn’t it easier to just talk into a translation app? For what it’s worth, Dieter was dubious about this feature in the brief time he spent with Pixel Buds, and I’m always loathe to believe any rosy onstage demos.
Regardless, it’s a cool idea that Google can hopefully quickly iterate on. (Lord knows the company has the resources to try.) Google says the feature supports 40 different languages, too. There’s a good chance this first attempt at earbud translation doesn’t work, but it’s something that Apple doesn’t have yet in AirPods, regardless of Siri’s new translation capabilities.
A big selling point of both Pixel Buds and AirPods is that they give you more immediate access to the companies’ digital assistants without requiring you to take out your phone. So as far as including that feature goes, it’s a draw for now.
As for the quality of that assistant, Google probably has the advantage? Let’s just say that no digital assistant is as good as promised, and leave it at that until we get a chance to really test these buds.
Wireless earbud nomenclature is quite the headache for such a benign topic, but while Google’s new buds are going to often be referred to as “wireless earbuds” because there’s no plug running to the phone, know that they (obviously) have a wire running between them. AirPods don’t, because they’re what we’ve taken to calling “truly wireless earbuds.”
This one’s extremely up to you. Many people don’t like the idea of truly wireless buds because they are potentially easier to lose, and see something like Pixel Buds as more convenient since you can drape them around your neck when not in use. Others like the freedom and futuristic feel of truly wireless earbuds, and some might not even consider the Pixel Buds to be in the same category as AirPods.
Of course, it behooves Google to pitch Pixel Buds as a competitor to AirPods. Because if you start comparing them to other around-the-neck wireless earbuds (like Jaybirds or JBLs), the Pixel Buds will definitely underperform those on battery life and, probably, sound quality, and won’t be as good for sport settings. And, of course, so will AirPods.
And the winner is...
Just kidding. These two products are going to be endlessly compared in the coming months, so we just wanted to break down what the differences and similarities are. It’s fascinating that Google’s moved into this space, just like it is with all the other hardware markets it either entered or re-upped its presence in this week. We’ll definitely have a full review of the Pixel Buds in the near future, so keep an eye out for that.