Attractive design. Nice charging case. Promising translation software.
Fit is a bit loose. Translation software might have trouble with accents.
- Bottom Line
The Google Pixel Buds are wireless earphones that can potentially translate anything you say into another language.
In the classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book series, a "Babel fish" is a universal translator you stick in your ear. Google's Pixel Buds aren't just a pair of wireless earphones to listen to music with: They're the company's attempt at a Babel fish. Speak into the buds in one language, and your phone's speaker pumps out another. If Google manages to nail the translation software ahead of the Buds' release in November, they'll have a major leg up on Apple's wire-free AirPods.
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Solid Wireless Audio
The Pixel Buds are a pair of Bluetooth earphones connected by a fabric-covered cable that goes behind your head. They sat a little loosely in my ears, but I didn't have much time to try to adjust them for a better fit. Tapping or stroking the outside of the right earbud pauses music, changes the volume, or launches Google Assistant on your phone.
Google says the earphones have five hours of battery life on their own, and that there are four more full charges in the included half-ounce charging case. The case, by the way, is very pretty: it's a little pouch, using similar fabric to the Google Home speaker line. Coiling the cable into the case properly takes a little practice, though, and it's best for people who enjoy being precise.
Sound through the earbuds was fine. They aren't noise-canceling or anything like that, but listening to a few songs in a noisy demo room, I got perfectly acceptable sound quality with noticeable bass response. We'll have to play our full set of test tracks to make final decisions about audio performance.
Why We Went With the Hitchhiker's Reference
The real pitch here, though, is the translation software. While you can use the Pixel Buds to listen to music with any phone, and trigger Google Assistant on any Assistant-compatible Android phone, they work exclusively with Pixel phones to enable a live translation experience between 40 different "language pairs." That means you can speak into the buds in one language, and another language will come out of your phone. Or someone else can speak into your phone, and it gets translated back into your earbuds.
At least, that's how it worked on stage, with presenters speaking perfect English and Swedish to each other. When I tried it in a way-too-noisy demo room, I spoke English and it came out as Spanish or French just fine. Great! But if I tried to speak French, it couldn't cope with my American accent. And the room was just too noisy for anyone to successfully speak back to me.
Thus, the Hitchhiker's reference and not the Star Trek universal translator. In the Hitchhiker's world, often things sort of don't work, or work in unexpected ways. The jury's definitely out on how well the language translation software will work at launch.
How They Do It
There isn't any special magic in the earbuds that do the translating. It's happening on your phone. Like with the other translating earbuds out there, the Bragi Dash Pro with iTranslate software, all that's happening is that the translation app is using these particular earbuds as a trusted device.
It's a great idea. But even if it works, it may be awkward. I travel a lot, and I'm not sure I want to hold out my phone to people and make sure they speak into it clearly so it understands them. The ability of the phone to understand various languages in noisy environments will be key.
Otherwise, design looks like the main reason to buy the Pixel Buds. In terms of fabric and color, they match the Pixel phones and the Google Home speakers. They're a bit pricey compared with traditional wireless options like the BeatsX, for instance, but we'll have to see how they compare in terms of sound quality. We'll have a full review closer to their release.
PCMag.com's lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed hundreds of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets in more than 9 years with PCMag. He's the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project, one of the hosts of the daily PCMag Live Web show and speaks frequently in mass media on cell-phone-related issues. His commentary has appeared on ABC, the BBC, the CBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, and in newspapers from San Antonio, Texas to Edmonton, Alberta. Segan is also a multiple award-winning travel writer, having contributed… More »
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