Tech Guide

Google's answer to Apple AirPods headphones is a failure on all accounts

Key Points
  • Google's $159 Pixel Buds are direct competitors to Apple's AirPods
  • They feel and look cheap, are uncomfortable to wear and don't work well
  • Worse, the highlight feature, the ability to translate, failed in most of my tests
Google's new headphones promise amazing translation features, but they're really bad
Google's new headphones promise translation features, but they're not good

Google's new Pixel Buds, the company's first-ever branded headphones, are not worth buying.

The highlight feature of Pixel Buds, which I'll dig into in a bit, is the ability to tap into an Android smartphone to translate languages in real-time. Unfortunately, that didn't work as well as expected.

And, while the Buds are ultimately supposed to be Google's take on Apple's popular AirPods, they fall short in several ways.

Let me explain.

Limited support

You can squeeze either phone to bring up Google Assistant
Todd Haselton | CNBC

First, know this: while the Pixel Buds will work with iPhones and Android devices that have Google Assistant, the translation feature works only with Google's Pixel smartphones. That means the target audience of folks who can really use these to their full potential is super small.

The Pixel Buds look cooler than AirPods

The Pixel Buds
Todd Haselton | CNBC

My biggest complaint with Apple's AirPods, which I own and love, is that they look downright silly, as if you've decided to walk around town with a white plastic pair of strange-looking earrings. The Pixel Buds look way better. I have a black pair and they don't look as awkward as AirPods, simply appearing as little round wafers sitting in each ear.

On the plus side, Apple's AirPods are also really easy to set up: open the case with the buds inside near an iPhone and you'll get an alert to pair.

That's supposed to be true of the Pixel Buds, too, but in my tests that pairing process only worked once. The rest of the time I had to manually pair them by holding down a button, opening the Bluetooth menu on my phone and then tapping "pair." Google may need to update the software to fix that.

They're cumbersome and cheap

Pixel Buds vs Apple AirPods
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Pixel Buds might look better than AirPods, but there's a downside. The Pixel Buds are way more cumbersome, with a cord that connects the two buds and a clunky case that can be hard to close when they're inside. I found myself fumbling to get them fit in my ear properly, too, which isn't an issue with AirPods.

They also feel cheap, from the plastic covers to the charging case, which seems like it's made out of a material one grade above cardboard. I never once got the impression this was a premium product.

They're not very comfortable and the audio is so-so

Wearing the Google Pixel Buds is uncomfortable, though they look better than AirPods
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I can sit at my desk listening to AirPods for most of the day without them feeling too irritating. The Pixel Buds aren't comfortable at all, though. They're kind of bulky, so there's a lot of plastic touching my ears, and they don't slide in and sit as comfortably.

Also, since the fit isn't very good, I found that the audio wasn't any better than a set of $30 wireless Bluetooth buds I have sitting at my desk. That's a big deal, considering these cost $159.

They can translate in real-time, sort of

Todd Haselton | CNBC

The stand-out feature of Google Pixel Buds is that they're supposed to be able to translate spoken languages in near real-time.

In my real-world tests, however, that wasn't the case at all.

I took the Pixel Buds out on the streets of Manhattan, speaking to a Hungarian waiter in Little Italy, multiple vendors in Chinatown and more. If you press the right earbud and say "help me speak Chinese," for example, the buds will launch Google Translate, you can speak what you'd like to ask someone in another language, and a voice will read out the translated speech through your smartphone's speakers. Then, when someone replies, you'll hear that response through the Pixel Buds.

The microphone on the Pixel Buds is really bad, so it barely picked up my voice queries that I wanted to translate. I stood on the side of the road in Chinatown repeating myself at least 10 times trying to get the phone to pick up my speech in order to begin translation. It barely worked, even if I took the buds out and spoke directly into the microphone on the right earbud, and often only translated half of what I was trying to ask. In a quiet place, I was able to allow someone to respond to me, after which I'd hear the English translation through the headphones. That was neat, but it barely ever actually worked that way.

To mitigate this, I found it was just easier to manually open the Google translate app, speak into my phone's microphone, and then let someone else also speak right into my phone. This executed the translation nearly perfectly, and meant that I didn't need the Pixel Buds at all.

Should you buy them?

The Pixel buds charging case and the Apple AirPods charging case
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Nope. There's nothing I recommend about the Pixel Buds. They're cheap-feeling and uncomfortable, and you're better off using the Google Translate app on a phone instead of trying to fumble with the headphones while trying to translate a conversation. The idea is neat, but it just doesn't work well enough to recommend to anyone on any level.