Like AirPods but designed for Android phones

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Google Pixel Buds

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Google Pixel Buds, Google’s wireless earbuds that will compete with Apple’s AirPods and Amazon’s Echo Buds, go on sale on Monday for $179. I’ve been testing them for the past several days, and I think they’re a great buy for folks who want some of the features of AirPods but who use Android phones instead of an iPhone.

At $179, they have similar features to Apple’s $199 AirPods with wireless charging case, but don’t have the noise-cancelling technology that makes the $249 AirPods Pro so great.

But, Google might face some trouble launching these right now. Millions of people have lost their jobs and are stuck inside as the coronavirus continues to spread around the U.S. I think wireless earbuds are most compelling when you’re commuting on the train or walking through the city. Still, some folks may find some value right now in using them to listen to music while walking around the block, working at their desks or exercising at home.

Here’s what you need to know about the new Google Pixel Buds.

What’s good

The new Google Pixel Buds are way, way better than the first generation, which I found uncomfortable, clunky and couldn’t recommend.

They’re basically Google’s version of AirPods. There are two buds that plug into your ears. You store them in a small carrying case that charges them when they’re not being used. I like that they’re relatively discrete — they don’t pop out or hang down — and sort of just look like I stuck two Mentos mints in my ears. (Google is only selling white buds right now, but they’ll be available in green, orange and black in the coming months.)

They fit in my ears right out of the box. There are two other sets of rubber tips you can swap on for the best possible fit. I liked that I could shake my head and they didn’t feel like they’d fall out. They’re also sweat resistant, so you don’t have to worry too much about them getting damaged while you work out. Google said it uses special vents to help prevent the feeling that you have earphones in, that sort of clogged feeling you get when you stuff in some headphones. I noticed this, and the Pixel Bus feel lighter as a result, just like AirPods Pro do.

You don’t need software to pair but you can control the Pixel Buds in settings.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Google Pixel Buds connect easily without any fiddling in software. You just open the case and Android shows a notification asking if you’d like to pair them with the phone. Tap it and you’re good to go, though there’s an app to manage the Google Buds if you want to change settings later. (You have to pair them using the Bluetooth settings on an iPhone but, if you own an iPhone, you should just buy AirPods.)

Google Pixel Buds

Todd Haselton | CNBC

They sound really good, right on a par with most headphones in the same price range like AirPods. They seem to put more weight into bass response, which was noticeable right in the opening of The Beatles “Come Together.” But they sounded fine no matter what I was listening to, whether it was country, jazz or rap. I liked that I could say “Hey Google, play music by Miles Davis,” and they would just start playing — like “Hey Siri” on AirPods.

Google Pixel Buds

Todd Haselton | CNBC

There’s an “Adaptive Sound” mode that you can turn on which optimizes volume depending on what you’re doing. It’s super subtle, though. I turned it on and then turned up the volume of a TV to simulate a loud environment (since I’m social distancing) and noticed the volume went up just a hair. I think noise cancellation, like on the AirPods Pro, would have been a better feature here.

I liked that I could easily control the volume by sliding my finger forward or backward across either the left or right pod. If I tapped it once, I’d get notifications. Those touch controls extend into calls and music controls, too. A single tap answers or ends a call. A double tap skips songs forward, and a triple tap skips songs back.

The carrying case has a nice weight to it and uses USB-C charging, which is the same that most modern Android phones use. That means you only need to carry one cord with you. The case supports wireless charging, like some AirPods and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, and I found it convenient to just leave it charging on a wireless pad on my desk.

The Pixel Buds use a modern USB-C charging port.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Battery life is good. Google promises 5 hours of music listening from the earbuds and up to 2.5 hours of talk time. The case will recharge them and provide up to 24 hours of talk time before you need to recharge it. That’s right on a par with what AirPods offer. I noticed that one bud had 10%  less battery life than the other at one point, though, which means I may not have had it properly seated in the case.

What’s bad

Google Pixel Buds in their charging case.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I know a lot of people like to place calls using earbuds because they’re so convenient to use while you’re out walking or just sitting at your desk listening to music. In a test with my wife, she said it sounded like I was on speakerphone and that I was “a little distant.” She was also able to hear my keyboard in the background as I was taking notes and said that the voice quality was “a little fuzzy and not super clear.” 

But I was able to hear her perfectly, even though she was using her phone on speakerphone. Your mileage may vary here, though. Some people love AirPods for phone calls while others think they sound bad. 

There’s this cool feature in Pixel Buds where they’re supposed to help you speak another language. I wish it was more seamless and that it could just detect a language someone was speaking to me and read back whatever was said through the Pixel Buds. But it doesn’t quite work like that.

You can use them with Google Translate.

Todd Haselton | CNBC

I tested the translation using a YouTube where someone was speaking French. I held the side of one bud to activate Google Assistant and said “help me speak French.” My Google Pixel phone opened up the Google Translate app. I told it I wanted to translate French to English, then tapped and held the Google Assistant button again and hit play on the YouTube video. As the video played, the French speaker’s introduction was picked up by Google Translate and then spoken back to me in English.

But, it played through the phone’s speakers instead of through the earbuds, which wasn’t very useful. That’s by design: You’re supposed to just speak something and English and then it’s supposed to read what you’re saying out loud in another language through the phone’s speakers. Again, I wish the buds could just hear another language and tell me what someone was saying — it seems like that’s not far off.

Another downside: The translation feature only works if you have one of Google’s Pixel smartphones. It doesn’t work with other Android devices, like Samsung’s Galaxy phones.

Google Pixel Buds

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Finally, I mentioned the touch controls earlier, and they’re usually pretty good. They can also be super frustrating. A long press and hold brings up Google Assistant, which I used to control my music and to ask quick questions, like the weather. Google Assistant understood me well, but sometimes I didn’t hear the chime telling me she was waiting for me to speak. Or I wouldn’t press long enough so I’d activated the notifications alert instead of Google Assistant. That meant I’d tap the side and start speaking but Google Assistant would start reading me notifications instead. Google can probably fix this in a software update.

Should you buy them?

Google Pixel Buds

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The AirPods Pro are my favorite earbuds on the market since they’re tiny, have great battery life and include noise cancellation. But, if you use Android and want something a bit cheaper but still high quality, I think the Pixel Buds are the next best bet. They’re really good, and I think Google will only make them better with software updates.

They’re comfortable, sound great and have a solid case that uses modern USB-C charging and wireless charging. They also pair super easily with Android phones and give you the Google Assistant wherever you are. For $179, they’re priced right.

There are some features that I think will get better with time. Google Translate is really neat, and I wish I could travel somewhere to test them out in real-time. But, it’s also just easier to use the Google Translate app if you want to talk to someone.

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