Google Assistant can be found in a growing range of devices, but only two wireless headphones — the Bose QuietComfort 35 II and Google Pixel Buds — are made especially for hands-free interaction with Google’s AI assistant to do things like create reminders, get calendar updates, and perform a multitude of other tasks.
Each pair of headphones are beset with advantages and drawbacks.
The Bose QuietComfort 35 II were released in September and retail for $329. The Google Pixel Buds sell for $159 and debuted last month at the Made by Google event alongside Home Mini and Home Max smart speakers, among other devices.
Google Assistant interaction
The key difference compared to other wireless headphones with an Android device is that Pixel Buds and Bose QuietComfort 35 II (QC 35 II) can receive a variety of notifications from Google Assistant.
Notifications range from a reminder that “An event starts in 30 minutes” to quick ping alerts for app activity on your phone. The headphones can also send and reply to text messages or make calls with voice commands. Google Assistant also chimes in to deliver things like Facebook Messenger updates and tells you about Twitter activity from accounts you follow. Sounds from the assistant can change based on how often you check your notifications. For example, ignore an app for a while and you may just get a ping noise.
Google Assistant with these headphones can also deliver spoken updates when your flight is delayed, a calendar event is rescheduled, or when traffic or detours impact your trip while driving.
These notifications can be helpful, but if you have an app that sends a lot of push notifications, those sounds — even the single ping sound — can get in the way of music or a podcast.
Companies like Sony and Amazon join Google in exploration of the unexplored terrain that is proactive auditory push notifications through an AI assistant. As I’ve said before, the experience may be amplified if people are given control over the kinds of notifications you receive in the premium and personal real estate that is the inside of your ears.
Among other unique features for these headphones, both these headphones can translate 40 languages on the spot when paired with a Pixel smartphone, a feature that made its debut last month at a Google event, drawing comparisons between Pixel Buds and the Babel Fish, a translating fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
You can also use the headphones to access Google Assistant voice apps. Like Alexa skills, these voice apps extend the range of things you can accomplish with the AI assistant, whether you want to get DIY instructions on how to survive an ostrich attack from WikiHow, hear daily Bible scripture, or order your favorite meal from Panera. Google’s third-party voice app ecosystem is perhaps second only to Amazon, but it has a lot of ground to make up on Alexa, as there are hundreds of Google Assistant voice apps today and tens of thousands of Alexa skills.
Sadly, antithetical to the get-stuff-done ethos of AI assistants, these headphones are unable to create calendar events. These headphones are also unable to carry out Google Express purchases native to the Google Assistant experience in its line of Home smart speakers to have things delivered from Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and other top retailers.
To access the Google Assistant with Pixel Buds, you hail Google with a tap and hold of the right earbud, while QC 35 II gets Google Assistant with a tap and hold of a dedicated button on the left side of the headphones.
This is where Pixel Buds are at a bit of an advantage. Since the earbuds are small, fit inside your ears, and have no buttons, they’re far more inconspicuous than large, over-the-ear headphones, and when the goal of these headphones is to make your assistant available all the time, from the office to the car to the gym, the less-obtrusive Pixel Buds achieve this goal.
In my experience wearing both of these headphones for weeks, be prepared for people to speak with you while you’re wearing Pixel Buds, even if you’re listening to music or in the middle of asking Google Assistant a question. One light tap to the right earbud touch pad stops music without the need to remove your headphones. In or out of the ear, for whatever reason, more people attempt to speak to you when wearing Pixel Buds, presumably because Pixel Buds are small and don’t cover your ears. Plus, for better or worse, Pixel Buds allow in a fair deal of ambient sound, so even if you are listening to music, chances are you can still hear someone attempting to address you, and with that single tap, slipping in and out of a song is very quick and easy.
For what it’s worth, noise cancellation shut off and stop music buttons are also on the side of the QC-35 II, and using them makes it easier to interact with people, but the physical appearance of over-the-ear headphones can be a fairly serious deterrent for a person who approaches you to ask a question or have a conversation.
One downside to the Pixel Buds control option: That right earbud touch pad is mighty sensitive. At times, if it’s hanging out of your ear, in your hands or handled for any reason, including when you put the buds back in their case or in your ear, they accidentally turn on rather often.
Both Pixel Buds and QC 35 II can receive simpler auditory ping notifications and speak with Siri when used with an iOS device like an iPhone.
Hardware, sound, and design
While the QC II fit snuggly over your ears, Pixel Buds are inserted into your ear and kept in place with a loop of rope.
Fussing with these rope loops can take some getting used to, but once in place they’re pretty snug, the ability to ask questions, make calendar events, set reminders, and check on your next flight with the tap and hold of the right earbud is fun and can feel pretty liberating.
The hardware for the sound you hear from these two devices is where the QC 35 II starts to show off a bevy of features
Sound quality between Pixel Buds and QC 35 II is incomparable. Unlike the QC 35 II, Pixel Buds come with no noise-cancellation option, while QC 35 II delivers Bose quality sound that’s smooth, clear, crisp, and loud.
QC 35 II also has a clear advantage when it comes to battery life. Pixel Buds can carry five hours of audio, with an additional charges in the carrying case, for a total of 24 hours of battery life. Pixel Buds receive an hour of play for every 10 minutes they spend in their carrying case, a Google spokesperson told VentureBeat in an email. The QC 35 II gives you 20 hours on a single charge, which takes a little over two hours. The fast charge feature for QC 35 II obliterates Pixel Buds, producing 2.5 hours of play time from just 15 minutes of charging time.
Another clear upside: QC 35 II can still plug in with a wire again if need be for longer battery life. This may come in handy if you need to use headphones in a more consistent than a Bluetooth connection for, say, professional reasons. The Bose website says QC 35 II battery lasts 20 hours with wireless and 40 hours when using a wire.
Yet another QC 35 II bonus: Should you ever lose your exorbitantly pricey headphones or have them stolen, the Bose Connect app comes with a Find My Buds feature. How the hell Google allowed Pixel Buds, headphones that are priced the same as Apple’s AirPods, to launch without this feature is beyond me.
The QC 35 II delivers higher quality audio and a much longer range of battery life, but Pixel Buds deliver the kind of inconspicuous experience you want from headphones meant to speak regularly with Google Assistant.
If all you do is wear your headphones occasionally at home or in transit, or you have no desire to speak with other people. you may find that QC 35 II is the best fit.
Overall, Pixel Buds haven’t received glowing reviews, but if you’re on the move and want your headphones for an active lifestyle (or you absolutely cannot reconcile paying $329 for headphones), Pixel Buds may be more your speed. Whichever you like best, the experience of having an AI assistant available at all times in a hands-free capacity is sort of the main selling point behind the growing fleet of wireless headphones and AI assistants, and it’s going to be exciting to see how Google evolves this.