Unmentioned during Google’s big hardware event this month was the introduction of a new member of the Pixel Buds family of earphones, the Pixel USB-C earbuds. Bundled in the box with the new Pixel 3 devices or available as a $30 purchase, they’re unglamorous and uncomplicated. Just plug them into the nearest USB-C port and play. Basic.
But the fact that I’m taking the time to review them separately from our Pixel 3 review should tell you something. These basic buds happen to be very good. Superior to the average pair of disposable earphones in both design and engineering, the Pixel USB-C earbuds solve a problem that the tech industry imposed upon us: the extinction of the headphone jack.
Once upon a recent time, we all had a trusty pair of cheap wired earphones always with us, tucked into a jacket pocket or tumbling at the bottom of our bags next to charging cables and lip balm. We could plug those earbuds into our phones, laptops, desktops, or media players, and that universality was good and desirable and lovely. But then Apple and others got it into their heads that the 3.5mm analog audio jack occupied too much valuable space inside our phones, and poof went the headphone jack.
The obvious replacement for our cheap and trusty analog earphones was to be a pair of USB-C earphones, given how USB-C is well on its way to becoming truly universal across the same set of devices where the 3.5mm port was omnipresent. But right up until now, that product didn’t exist. Last year, my colleague Helen Havlak documented the travails of trying to procure a half-decent pair of USB-C buds at a reasonable price. Essential tried to provide an answer and failed. Libratone built what are still probably the best USB-C earphones, but those cost $149.
And now Google waltzes in with a pair of $30 buds that make everything better. The Pixel USB-C earbuds get all the essentials right: they sound great, they’re comfortable to wear, they’re compatible with most modern devices, and they’re affordable.
There’s not a lot to be said about the design of these Pixel Buds. A utilitarian white wire goes from the USB-C plug, which is about the size you’ll find on your phone’s charging cable, up to a pair of pebble-like buds, glossy on the inside and matte on the exterior. Along the way, you’ll also find a three-button remote control that houses the microphone and allows you to access Google Assistant with a long press of the middle button. I might have preferred a black or colored option over the white, simply because those are easier to keep looking clean. That’s no more of a problem than it is with Apple’s EarPods or AirPods, though the latter at least have a case that provides some protection.
As far as fit goes, I doubt anyone will have trouble with the Pixel USB-C buds. Their adjustable cable loop acts as a stabilizer that keeps the buds in place, and I find it works very well for me, quelling any worries about the earphones falling out if I make a dash to catch a bus. I do think those loops will be polarizing, though. You might see them as an ingenious design element, but if you’re like me, you might also get lost in trying to adjust them to be just right. For others, the sense of the loops inside the ear may be an irritant. The earphones are super light, and they would disappear from your consciousness if it wasn’t for their wire — both the way it touches your concha and in its dangling down to your connected device. But then, maybe you like wires.
The sound of the Pixel USB-C earbuds is what really got me intrigued. It’s surprisingly clean and smooth. There’s no discernible distortion to speak of, and I can turn them up to their max volume without being assaulted by excessively hot treble or a weird frequency response. The tonal balance that Google has struck with these buds is good and faithful to the music being played. Voices, especially, sound clear and natural, with maybe a small note of warmth added to them, which makes listening to podcasts or conference calls a nicer experience. For the $30 price, these Pixel Buds do a great job of producing satisfying audio.
I wouldn’t be a critic if I didn’t criticize, however, and the one major downside to the Pixel USB-C earbuds is their lack of a good seal in the ear — which leads to poor noise isolation on the one hand and rather anemic bass on the other. The bass feels lightweight; you’re not going to get any chest-thumping low end out of these earbuds, but it’s still there, and it’s well-integrated into the overall sound. The best analogy I can offer is that it feels like a desaturated — but still crisp and sharp — image of the music. I think this is an acceptable compromise, and I’d rather have this tuning than the one most other companies go for, which is to artificially exaggerate the bass and thus introduce a ton of distortion.
The sound isolation between you and your external environment is minimal with these Pixel Buds, as it was with the original wireless Pixel Buds. It’s still more than you’d get from Apple’s AirPods, as Google’s buds sit a little more firmly inside the ear. The AirPods are completely useless for me on the London tube, whereas the Pixel USB-C earbuds can do a decent job of conveying louder, punchier music over the racket of the train. With both Google and Apple’s buds, you’ll like the ability to interact with people around you without having to take your earphones out, and you’ll dislike the inability to ever disconnect from the surrounding world entirely.
Google likes to talk up its Google Assistant support and real-time translation feature with the Pixel Buds line, but those are things that practically any new pair of headphones is about to get anyway. Assistant is there, but it’s not a compelling reason to buy the Pixel USB-C earbuds. The compelling thing that differentiates these from Apple’s Lightning connector EarPods that cost the same is that the Pixel earbuds plug into USB-C ports. And those are exploding in number. You can even invade the Apple ecosystem with these buds, which work seamlessly via the USB-C ports on MacBooks and iMacs.
I tested the Pixel USB-C earbuds with a variety of recent Android smartphones, including Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 and Huawei’s freshly minted Mate 20 Pro, and every one of them worked nicely with the buds. The same goes for laptops: Chromebooks, Windows machines, and MacBooks all recognized them. Alas, USB-C is not yet out of its fragmented-mess stage of compatibility, and the Nintendo Switch unfortunately doesn’t support Google’s buds. However, I can say that if you buy these USB-C earphones with the intent to use them with most other relatively new devices, you can probably rest assured they’ll work well together.
Unless you’re up to your eyeballs in the Apple ecosystem and Lightning is the most common port on your devices, it’s hard to think of many reasons not to own a pair of these Pixel USB-C earbuds. The Pixel USB-C buds are exceptional in their particular combination of cost, compatibility, sound, and comfort. They sound far better than their price would suggest, and they bring the convenience we used to have with analog earphones back to our modern digital age.
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