Pixel Buds: Headphones finally get smart

Way back in 2012 I made the decision to purchase the Galaxy Nexus HSPA+. I was an android/Samsung guy in those days — my phone before the Nexus was the Vibrant — and the prospect of having a phone that truly baked in all the great Google stuff that I was already using across all my devices proved too tempting, so I went with the “Google phone”.

Back then Google provided updates like traffic for your daily commute via Google Cards, which were kinda clunky but also hella brilliant. The “a ha” moment for me was when I was walking into the Las Vegas airport for a flight back to Los Angles and the Google Card popped up with my flight information and gate number. This was what I was expecting from a phone that was built purely for the Google ecosystem.

Did I turn into a regular Google phone customer? Not quite. The overall experience left far too much to be desired and as a result I’ve had an iPhone from the 5s through to the 7 plus. I tell this Galaxy Nexus story as a preface to my experience and expectations when it comes to Google products.

Ushering In Voice Assistants

The biggest initial benefit to the Pixel Buds is they give you pretty much omnipresent access to Google Assistant. The Pixel 2 phones have squeezable sides which makes it very simple to summon the Google Assistant — assuming you didn’t perform that squeeze accidentally, which happens for me at least a couple times a day. The ability to offer up voice commands by simply tapping the headphone is great for when you are driving and don’t want to futz with your phone. It’s also nice to have it read through your shopping list as you maneuver your shopping cart to the dairy section in the back of the grocery store.

Sure, you can use the phrase “OK Google” to accomplish much of this but most of the time I don’t want the information to be blurted out to everyone in my immediate vicinity. This is true when I ask Google Assistant to play the latest episode of Masters of Scale, read an audio book, cue up the latest LCD Soundsystem record…or remind me whether or not we need more of the yogurt my daughter loves.

Short Diversion: Let’s Kill off Hearables and Ear Puters

I was listening to a recent Wired podcast where this new wave of headphones was described as Hearables and Ear Puters. That needs to stop. Immediately. We already have widely accepted nomenclature for these types of product advances: we merely add a prefix of “smart” and use the same name we’ve always used. No need to get too cute here when we can just stick with smart headphones.

Overcoming The Douche Factor

Let’s be real: these smart headphones come a little too close to reminding me of the bluetooth d-bags who were constantly on their bluetooth having conversations in the most inappropriate places. Google Glass was also widely considered douche-tastic once people saw what it actually looked like. Fortunately Apple has done Google a solid by making preposterous looking Air Pods. When I first saw the Air Pods I thought they were an April Fools joke and when I confirmed that nope, they were a real thing, decided immediately that I would never own a pair.

The Pixel Buds actually look a bit like the headphone ear pieces lead singers will use in concert and I like the fact you can drape them around your neck if you want to give your ears a break. I did make one call with them during a Costco trip and while I can only imagine what some of the people in the store thought about me as I carried on in conversation as I perused the shockingly cold produce cooler, it was a nice way to kill two birds with one stone, as I would never actually hold a phone up to my ear to talk on a phone. My, how times have changed.

The Voice Assistant Wars Just got Good

While Apple had a massive head start with Siri, it’s been clear Apple had no idea how to truly develop this technology. Amazon followed suit with the Echo and now has a dominant position in the voice assistant space. Taking a page from the Apple app store, the Echo has thousands of “skills” that are being developed to make the Echo more useful and ultimately encourage people to buy more stuff from Amazon.

I personally found Siri to be so useless that I almost entirely gave up on voice assistants as a gimmick. Once the Echo took off I decided to give voice assistants a try again and could quickly see the benefit. The big problem is the Echo is stuck in one location which makes it difficult to incorporate into your everyday life. I do have Alexa play podcasts, read books and perform basic math functions when I am doing work in my home office; however the Echo Show in my kitchen has become a very expensive kitchen timer as I use it primarily to keep track of when the food I am cooking is done.

The area where Google is poised to dominate the digital assistant space is with smart phones, and the good news for them is people always have their phones with them. While I have no idea if Google has any interest in developing a “skills” market like Amazon, I do know they have an army of engineers who are pretty damn good at making crazy useful products. So I expect Google’s assistant to continue to grow in terms of overall usefulness.

Bluetooth Blues?

I am by no means an audiophile, however I’ve had a monthly music subscription as far back as the early days of Rhapsody, so I feel confident my experience will ring true for most. I purchased a pretty high quality set of Sony wireless bluetooth earphones when phone makers said “headphone jacks? We don’t need no stinkin’ headphone jacks!”. The sound produced by those high-ish end bluetooth headphones was pretty good, it was simply a pain to power them up and then carry them with me.

The tried and true wired ear bud version was great because it was so easy to stow them anywhere. And they are cheap so you can keep a set at home, one at the office, etc. This is not the case with the expensive Sony headphones so at some point I simply stopped using them and went back to my wired ear buds and only listened to music on my laptops which still have headphone jacks. This is clearly not what smartphone makers had in mind when they killed the headphone jack.

The Pixel Buds have the same issue as far as needing to be powered up pretty frequently. While the sound isn’t as good as the Sony wireless bluetooth headphones, it’s still pretty solid and totally acceptable. The good news is the ear buds sit in a case that carries a much longer charge, so you can power up as needed. Once the technology develops to the point a single charge will carry you through an 8 hour day the bluetooth headphone market will probably experience the highly sought after hockey stick growth curve.

The good news is the convenience of these smaller smart headphones are going to make them easier to carry with you all the time. So I expect to use them much more frequently than my Sony bluetooth headphones.

Bringing it all Back

This past week I was sitting inside a palapa in Punta Mita when we were discussing our travel plans to head back to the states. I asked my phone for what time my flight was and it quickly popped up my itinerary, complete with date, flight number and departure time. It reminded me of that flight out of Las Vegas 5 years ago. Google can still provide highly relevant, personal information at an instant; the ability to summon and deliver a vast expanse of information has evolved and improved substantially during that span.

Of course you need to give Google access to your gmail account in order for the Google Assistant to be able to provide this information at the appropriate time. I’m clearly fine with that given my interest in a smart phone and a set of smart headphones that provide ease of use and the most personalized experience possible.

In this regard I do view the Pixel Buds as the first truly smart headphone product given the direct tie in with Google Assistant. While it may not carry the day as the winner in this space in terms of overall market share, the Pixel Buds are the first widely available headphone that has gone beyond superficial “smartness” like playing, pausing, and answering phone calls. Once the battery life for smart bluetooth headphones extends beyond 5 hours my guess is the total volume of voice based search and commands will grow exponentially much like mobile traffic has grown to dwarf desktop traffic.