Google Pixel Buds
THE FIRST GOOGLE HEADPHONES PROMISE SCI-FI LIKE REAL-TIME LANGUAGE TRANSLATION. SO DO THEY TALK THE TALK?
DEVICES WITH NEAR-MAGICAL language-translation capabilities are one of those tropes that’ve been a sci-fi staple since the original Star Trek’s Universal Translator — Google even named its first online translator ‘Babel fish’ after the small yellow fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which, when inserted into a user’s ear canal, spat out alien languages in the native user’s tongue. Well, the search giant’s now taken that homage to another level with its first set of Google-branded headphones, the Pixel Buds.
These are largish earbud-style headphones connected together via a braided cord and, unlike most of today’s in-ear headphones, they don’t come with detachable rubber tips to get the right (tight) fit for your ear. Instead, they’re designed to ‘hang’ in the same manner as regular earbuds, although the braided cord also has a small loop section, which is meant to be resized and tucked into your ear to help keep them in place.
While the fact that these aren’t in-ear monitor (or ‘canalphones’) style buds means they don’t isolate outside noise as well as others, they do deliver nice crowd-pleasing audio that offers a warm and phatt lower-end but maintains enough clarity that you don’t feel like you’re missing any detail.
The right bud also houses touch-sensitive controls, which somewhat helps justify their rather bulbous design. You can swipe up or down to change volume, tap to pause or resume playback, and tap twice for a Google Assistant-powered general info update. Lastly, you can tap and hold to issue commands to Assistant, eliminating the need to speak the usual “OK, Google” command phrase... although that doesn’t entirely remove the stigma attached to issuing commands to your phone in public.
We had a somewhat mixed experience with the Buds when it came to fit. While the left bud didn’t pose us any serious problems, we constantly had trouble getting the right-hand bud to sit properly, requiring a lot of fiddling each time we put it in to get audio projecting into our ear correctly.
To its credit, Google has got a few things very right with these buds. The magnetic carry case is particularly excellent, making it quick and easy to both neatly stash the Buds away and get them out again; it’s also how you charge the earbuds, and there’s a backup battery inside that’s good for an estimated 24 hours of extra runtime.
So what about those real-time translation smarts? Well, they’re actually provided via the Google Translate app — and you’ll also need to be using a Google Pixel handset (any of the four available models) for this feature to function properly. So does it actually work? Well, while it’s not going to eliminate the need to learn a new language just yet, it will let you have functional, if stilted, conversations across 40 languages. With the Google Translate app open, the Buds-user taps and holds the right bud and speaks a phrase in their native language, with the Translate app on your Pixel phone automatically translating and then speaking out the foreign-language equivalent (or as close as it can get) through your smartphone’s speaker. Inversely, it can also decode a foreign language spoken into the phone’s mic, and play the spoken translation back through the Pixel Buds. With any other set of earbuds, this feature doesn’t seem to work, with all audio blaring through the phone’s speaker.
The Pixel Buds make translation a less awkward and more rewarding process, but nevertheless, they’re somewhat stilted by Google’s own Translate app, and the uniqueness of this feature is somewhat undermined by the fact that you need a Pixel phone to use it. That makes the audience for these rather narrow — and, frankly, there are better-sounding and cheaper in-ears out there (like the Jaybird Freedom 2’s we’ve reviewed on page 53), which are much easier to recommend.
WITH THE GOOGLE TRANSLATE APP OPEN, THE BUDS USER TAPS AND HOLDS THE RIGHT BUD AND SPEAKS A PHRASE IN THEIR NATIVE LANGUAGE, WITH THE TRANSLATE APP ON YOUR PIXEL PHONE THEN AUTOMATICALLY TRANSLATING AND THEN SPEAKING-OUT THE FOREIGNLANGUAGE EQUIVALENT