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Find me a critic who would recommend any company’s first-ever earbuds priced at $159, and I will find you that critic’s sordid history of wire-transfer scams on Craigslist. Headphones and earbuds have to cater to so many tricky, subjective variables: various ear fits, sound preferences, and desired features. Nobody gets that right the first time, and even for longtime companies, one fan’s treasure is another audiophile’s trash.
Google isn’t the company to buck this trend. Its Pixel Buds arrive as an admittedly ambitious entry to the sector, with promises of pristine sound quality and Google Assistant-fueled superpowers. And as Google’s first-ever entry to the earbud world, they’re not all that terrible. Some of their features range from compelling to downright cool.
But between this price point, inconsistent sound quality, underwhelming voice-assistant features, and glaring use issues, I have to wonder how long Google actually weighed and tested what it was about to launch, as opposed to rushing its own answer to Apple’s AirPods.
Before you rage in the comments
Pixel Buds work via the Bluetooth 4.2 protocol, which means they are, first-and-foremost, another pair of wireless earbuds. You know, the ones that smartphone makers think you actually want, to make up for their profile-slimming, feature-reducing urge to end the 3.5mm headphone-jack era. I bring this up because we have other articles and comment threads with no shortage of thoughts about that business decision. I strongly urge you to direct your 3.5mm-sized rage to those threads instead of here.
Of course, the Pixel Buds’ identity is tied pretty directly to Google’s Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones, which shipped without 3.5mm jack support. Again, there’s a comment thread to rage about that business decision.
Wireless headphones can offer more convenience and reasonable sound quality by way of newer Bluetooth sound protocols like AAC. And since the Pixel Buds rely primarily on Bluetooth 4.2 and therefore work on a range of Android and iOS devices, we’ll look at Google’s product as an option in the wireless-headphone sector for those who do want that option, whether or not their phone forces that choice.
Straps versus stems
On paper, the Pixel Buds are clearly designed to compare to Apple’s AirPods and, in terms of listed features, seem superior. They both offer roughly five hours of wireless playback and carrying cases that double as in-a-fix charging cases. They both include “tap the earbud” commands. They both contain a built-in microphone and direct ties to major smartphone voice-assistant features. They’re both fixed plastic bulbs in design, meant to be situated at the edge of your ear canal to let sound reverberate.
The differences between the two products begin on the aesthetic level, and the best thing we can say about the Pixel Buds is that you’re less likely to lose them than Apple’s wireless product. For one, the total package is bigger than what Apple manufactured. Instead of a stem extending from the primary earbud unit, Google attaches a larger plastic bubble. Thankfully, this increased size doesn’t add significant weight or bulk when wearing the things, but it also doesn’t seem to add particularly improved battery life or other hardware tweaks. (I also actually think the round design looks surprisingly cool in my ear canal. It gets compliments, and I like it more than Apple’s stem, but that’s a matter of preference.)
A nylon string connects Google’s Buds, which you’ll either love or hate. I’m of the mind that deathly fears losing something as small as an expensive earbud, so I have no problems with the strap. But there’s something to be said about how fancy the tiny, separated Apple AirPods feel in comparison. The Pixel Buds’ strap is long enough to wear either in front of or behind your head, though I didn’t care for the nylon feel on the back of my neck.
But Google’s carrying case is definitively worse than Apple’s version. When you want to charge your Pixel Buds, you have to situate them perfectly into the case’s holes, and this requires fitting them in as if the holes were your ear canals, as opposed to the way the AirPods’ stems just fall into place. This isn’t necessarily difficult, but there is more of a required push-to-confirm feeling, and getting that wrong means you can miss the Buds’ crucial battery-charging connection via little golden connectors.
Google also did a terrible job affording room for the Buds’ nylon strap. The case includes a little graphic that encourages users to wrap the strap all the way around the inside of the case, but you have to carefully wind the strap and then tug on it to get it to fit as Google instructs.
The alternate option is to just let the strap dangle outside the case, which would honestly be fine… except that Google didn’t cut a little opening in the case to afford room for the strap hanging out. Instead, the case’s flap has a magnetic clasp, and Google would much rather you get the strap tidy-and-snug so you can clasp the case shut, as opposed to the normal use case of “just slap ’em in and go.” It’s a totally tone-deaf design, and in regular use, I’ve rarely been in a situation where I want to take the extra time to wind the strap around.
In practice, I’ve had roughly five hours of constant playback from fully charged Pixel Buds. However, the carrying case’s internal battery did not consistently deliver as much of a “fast charge” as advertised. Google says you can get “up to an hour” of listening with only 10 minutes of charging, but I found on a couple of occasions that over an hour of charging in the case resulted in less than an hour of listening time on the Buds. Like the AirPods, the Pixel Buds cannot be turned off, and if you toss them into a laptop bag or throw them on a bedside table instead of putting them back in their case, they will slowly drain. I hate this for both products, but the Buds’ annoying case makes this an even more glaring issue.
A misleading loop-fit feature
How do you feel about bulbous, plasticky earbuds being wedged in your ear, particularly default iPhone earbuds? You’re likely in for the same love/hate scenario with Google’s debut offering. I personally avoid such earbuds, and the Pixel Buds didn’t disabuse me of this notion. The Buds usually grew as painful for me after 2+ hours of use, just as any other similar products do.
Google misleads by telling shoppers that the Buds’ extra “fit” option will help matters. The nylon strap winds into each Bud and leaves a little loop, and Google instructs users to push the loop into the Bud so that it expands into your outer-ear zone (technically, to fill out your ear’s concha). But in testing, the extended nylon loop never secured or stabilized the Bud’s ear placement, particularly during vigorous exercise. Unlike other earbuds with firm-plastic frames, the Pixel Buds’ stability lives and dies primarily on how it fits in your ear. If you sweat a lot, expect to do some adjusting in the middle of a workout.
Worse, Google does not clarify exactly where to put the primary, speaker-loaded Bud portion. It’s big enough that you can either shove it into the opening of your ear canal or have it slightly recessed but still firmly in place. I never quite found a perfect, “this is definitely where it goes” sweet spot beyond twisting and fine-tuning the placement until the sounds seemed most emphatic.
In terms of sound quality, Pixel Bud users don’t necessarily get $159 of pristine performance. Instead, they get $159 of what Google thinks will impress you: on-the-fly equalizer tricks.
This was a tricky issue to test, and I emphasize that sound-quality reviews are subjective as heck. But I can absolutely confirm that Pixel Buds do some weird things to some songs. The issue comes from Google’s desire to emphasize the Buds’ speaker placement, which is split into three little openings—two for normal/higher frequencies, and one for bass resonance. The Pixel Buds thus employ a party trick of over-emphasizing any panned audio elements so that they sound definitively far-left or far-right in your ears.
With a lot of modern pop music, like the latest Kesha and Taylor Swift albums, these equalization effects add a noticeable “sparkle” to high-gloss production elements, like percussion, backing vocals, and synthesizer tones. When the effect appeared to sound the way Google wanted, it was enough to make me say, “oh, these headphones are unique.” But I never felt like they made songs sound better and clearer, and they never drew out particular instruments in compelling ways. They did, at least, appear to find the right bass balance, in terms of filling sonic space without sounding overwhelming, and AAC quality never sounded particularly harsh or compressed.
On the other hand, with older albums (particularly The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds) and louder guitar-rock stuff (like Megadeth’s Rust in Peace), the Pixel Buds have no idea what to do. The result: older songs sound decidedly flatter and muddier, and bass tones get lost in the mix. I even found this distinction played out in different decades of hip-hop production. Older Tribe Called Quest and Snoop Dogg songs had underwhelming bass performance while newer Kendrick Lamar songs had their sonic elements spread out in fine fashion.
And no matter what kind of music you listen to, there’s a volume-threshold issue. Once you surpass a certain loudness, the Buds start to sound a little scratchy. This is admittedly a high volume, but the Pixel Buds already sound scratchy before matching the AirPods’ max volume.
Google representatives would not answer specific questions about speaker placement, impedance, frequency range, or how any automatic equalization might work. The rep instead offered a statement: “We do actively manage the sound—everything from the AAC codec, to DSP algorithms, to the hardware design all help deliver great audio.”
This article and images were originally posted on [Ars Technica] November 20, 2017 at 06:01AM
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