Turning Google Assistant into your own personal translator, Google's Bluetooth earbuds attempt to make spoken communication between different languages possible. Unfortunately, they are not the fabled 'Babel fish' they were made out to be. Here's why they are pretty underwhelming.
The Babel fish is probably the oddest thing in the universe, according to Douglas Adams' classic novel Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Brought to life
The $249 Google Pixel Buds aim to emulate the Babel fish by putting Google Translate in your ear, but there are a few major limitations that will frustrate would-be polyglots looking to traverse the galaxy.
The Pixel Buds aren't the cheapest Bluetooth earbuds around, but in return you also get a sturdy little carry case which doubles as a charge dock. The earbuds offer a five-hour battery life, but the carry case also has a built-in battery holding enough juice for several recharges to get you through a long day.
These Bluetooth earbuds will connect to almost any device if you simply want to listen to music and make hands-free calls, but to make the most of them you'll want a high-end Android smartphone which runs the talkative Google Assistant (alternatively they'll invoke Siri on an iPhone, but not Google Assistant).
Now you can tap the bud in your right ear to talk to Google Assistant running on your phone, without the need to preface every request with "Okay Google". This is quite useful when you're out and about, letting you listen to notifications, dictate messages, choose your music and get walking directions without reaching for the phone in your pocket.
It's also very handy around the house. You can perform all the same tasks as when talking to a Google Home speaker – from playing music via Chromecast speakers to controlling smart home devices – and it soons becomes more natural than arguing with a Google speaker.
The Pixel Buds offer rich, well-balanced sound – delivering plenty of bass without overpowering everything else. They stack up well against your average Bluetooth earbuds, although they naturally fall short of the high-end headsets favoured by audiophiles.
The earbuds are tricky to fit, thanks to an unusual design which allows them to stay firmly in place without plunging deep into your ear canal. They basically wedge themselves sideways in your outer ear, with an adjustable loop on the back helping hold them in place.
The upside of this is that it's easier to hear the outside world and interact with people than when wearing earbuds which completely seal off your ear canal. That's important later when you're chatting to people in another language.
Unfortunately the earbuds are rather uncomfortable to wear for extended periods – pushing against the sides of your ear – especially if you need a firm fit while exercising. With practice you can find a slightly more comfortable fit and almost forget you're wearing them once you're engrossed in what you're listening to, but they'll still start to aggravate after a while and you wouldn't want to wear them all day.
Speak your mind
Google's Pixel Buds aren't the only Bluetooth earbuds that let you listen to music and tap into Google Assistant but, at least for now, they're the only ones that can make the most of Google Translate – but only if you own Google's flagship Pixel or Pixel 2 smartphone.
Hold out your phone and it will listen to someone speaking a foreign language and then offer a translation in your ear, but it's not in "real-time". As usual, the Google Translate app handles one phrase at a time rather than delivering continuous translation – so they're no good for watching foreign movies on SBS.
When it's time for you to reply, the phone listens to your voice via the Pixel Buds' microphone and then delivers the translation aloud through the handset for everyone to hear. There's support for 40 languages.
Google says the reason why you can't use any other Bluetooth earbuds for this task is that it's tricky to split the audio so incoming translations play via the earbuds while outgoing translations play via the phone's speaker.
It's really disappointing that the Pixel Buds don't offer any major improvement on the standard Google Translate user experience, other than talking in your ear. It would be a different story if you could leave your phone in your pocket and let the Pixel Buds' microphone listen to both sides of the conversation. Or if the Pixel Buds could dictate translations in your ear so you could try your best to speak a foreign tongue.
Of course if you're prepared to forgo the earbuds then you can run Google Translate on practically any iOS or Android device. Used this way Google Translate can automatically detect the languages around you, whereas when you're wearing the Pixel Buds each person needs to press a language button on the phone before they speak.
Not that Google Translate's two-way automatic language detection is perfect, as it regularly mistook my high school Italian for English, along with my son's high school Japanese, even though it had no problem understanding us when we specified the language. In auto-detection mode "Doko ni sunde imasu ka", or "where do you live?" in Japanese, becomes "Doc Neeson Davis Cup" – coming as a surprise to both sports fans and music lovers.
So what's the verdict?
Considering that you need a Google Pixel handset to make the most of the Pixel Buds, and even then it's not much of an improvement on the standard Google Translate experience, it's hard to get excited about these Bluetooth earbuds unless you're a Google diehard. The fact they're uncomfortable to wear for extended periods doesn't help.
If you don't need a Babel fish in your ear then you're free to consider a wide range of Android-friendly Bluetooth earbuds, so don't rush into the Pixel Buds until you've weighed up the competition.