Usually when I dig into headphones, I’m looking at something from Sony, Sennheiser, Grado, or some other known quantities in the personal audio world. But right now, we’re in a transitional period where phones are dropping headphone jacks left and right, forcing people to either go wireless or find a way to get noise from the phone’s USB Type-C port up into their ears. USB Type-C dongles are unreliable at best, as PCWorld‘s Gordon Mah Ung demonstrated with an in-depth look at USB Type-C dongle compatibility. It’s not surprising, then, that the earbuds included with Google’s latest flagship phone, the Pixel 3, might seem like they’re worth a look.
So let’s treat them like any other pair of headphones and dive in.
The Pixel USB-C buds’ style is about classic as you can get. Regardless of whether you pick up the black, white, or “not pink” model of Pixel, you’ll get a stark white set of earbuds. One pretty ingenious feature built into these has the buds using the cord itself as a mechanism for getting a more reliable fit that could conceivably last through a run. The cord loops up over the bud before moving down to the Y-connector below. With a quick tug, it was easy to resize these to fit my ears, and the cord grips enough that I don’t feel worried about them re-sizing accidentally.
The fit this method offers feels like a compromise. It’s ingenious, but in as much as it’s clearly a cost-cutting measure, not something that makes the headphones better. It doesn’t feel like it’s going to fall out of my ear, but it’s not comfortable, and it’s not firm. It’s definitely not conducive to good sound.
One weird feature missing from the Pixel buds, is a simple cable cinch. Most corded earbuds have a cinch of some sort to reduce the amount of loose cable trailing around, and it’s something I’d expect to see. If I was going to wear these longterm, I’d need to scare up one of those tiny transparent rubber bands that mostly only come as part of the packaging for small items as a substitute. It seems like a rather obvious oversight or an egregious cost-cutting measure.
Further down the cord, on the right bud is the remote that lets you interface with Google Assistant and manipulate volume.
The killer feature here is the inclusion of USB Type-C at a relatively reasonable price of $30. USB Type-C ports are exploding in popularity, but USB Type-C headphones are still a relative rarity. While many are cutting the cable and moving to Bluetooth headphones, that’s not always reasonable. Bluetooth is costly, and if you go wireless you’ll be contending with things like battery life and extra bulk for batteries. The Pixel USB-C buds’ best feature is that they’re compact and inexpensive. If I wanted to use these on the daily, I could jam them into my pocket, let them hang around my neck in a knot, or risk leaving them out where my cats could get at them and while I don’t want to spend another $30 for no good reason, it’s not the end of the world like it would be with some more expensive buds.
Along with the killer feature of being cheap, the Pixel USB-C buds are a fully functional hands-free set that can answer calls, adjust volume, and interact with the Google assistant with the press of the black button on the in-line remote. This works as expected, so I don’t think this is worth diving too deep into.
As pack-in earbuds, the Pixel USB-C buds actually aren’t terrible. As headphones, though, they’re about as disappointing as I expected.
First and foremost, they offer absolutely no isolation either for the listener or for those around them. Sitting in a cafe full of study groups, I have to crank the headphones up to maximum volume to get any sort of peace from the hubbub around me, and that only applies to loud songs. Songs with any degree of quietness lose all nuance. Miles Davis is staying home, so is John Cage. Songs with a lot of highs are overly bright, too, and I found myself wincing listening to the horns in big-band jazz and artists like Chuck Ragan who have more grating voices.
Weirdly, the bass on these is surprisingly good despite the poor seal. I wouldn’t call it good so much as good for what these are, but that’s still something.
If you’ve picked up a Pixel 3 yourself, you’ll find two options in the box. These USB-C earbuds and a USB Type-C to 3.5-mm adapter. If you have to stay wired, I’m going to recommend the dongle every time. It’s so small that it doesn’t add any meaningful bulk to a wired pair of headphones or earbuds, and it offers total freedom in choice of listening device. You can plug in a pair of $900 Shure buds, a $150 pair of Etymotics, or that cheap set of Skullcandy headphones you picked up at Target. I’m not judging.
If it’s the Google assistant access you’re looking for, these aren’t a bad option, but saving up for something more expensive is going to make for a much better experience. And if you’re thinking about buying these separately? Please skip them.
Disclaimer: We paid for the Pixel USB-C Earbuds with personal funds and used them for four hours before starting this review.