Google’s latest earbuds, the Pixel Buds Pro, are well positioned to be a strong competitor to Apple’s AirPods Pro, especially for Android owners. But which set will take the crown as the better noise canceling earbuds? Let’s break it down.
With both sets retailing at or over $199, you would expect the Pixel Buds Pro and AirPods Pro to offer exceptional audio quality. And honestly, Google and Apple each deliver on that expectation, albeit in their own ways.
Before we dive in, it should be noted that for this comparison I left both pairs of earbuds in their default settings. That said, either one can be easily refined to better suit your tastes with the help of an equalizer app.
As you would expect, the earbuds from Apple and Google both feature a fairly small soundstage, making your music sound as though it’s happening inches away from your head. There’s not too much that can be done to improve this, as they’re both designed to keep you isolated from the outside world.
For the Pixel Buds Pro, Google has crafted a sound profile that is warm and inviting, lending itself well to casually listening to music. I’ve been able to throw on some of my favorite jazz albums and game soundtracks and really sink into my work.
When stepping into rock and electronic music, the Pixel Buds Pro manage to keep up the pace, offering a welcome bit of rumble from bass guitars and some thump from the kick drum. While certainly a step up from the 2020 edition of the Pixel Buds, it’s also not particularly impressive for the price range.
My least favorite aspect of the Pixel Buds Pro sound is the lack of crispness to the cymbals. They’re still audible, but it’s muffled and disappointing. Meanwhile, the AirPods Pro deliver a pleasant sizzle on punk rock tracks.
Overall, Apple’s AirPods Pro feature a more analytical sound profile, which brings up the higher end of the spectrum and makes finer details of a recording more noticeable. I can’t help but have my attention drawn to the music, which rings out crisply without leaving the bass behind. I especially appreciate being able to hear each individual attack/strum on a guitar.
Another aspect worth mentioning is that of the microphone. Hands down, no contest, the AirPods Pro have significantly better microphones than the Pixel Buds Pro. Apple’s microphone captures more depth to the voice, while the Pixel Buds Pro sound tinny and a bit blown out. Here’s a side-by-side comparison, captured with Google’s own Recorder app.
In terms of overall sound quality, choosing between the Pixel Buds Pro and AirPods Pro is still somewhat tough. If I wanted to be intentional about sitting down, actively listening to an album, and not doing much else, I’d easily choose the AirPods Pro. But if I’m wanting to use music to help me concentrate, the relaxed nature of the Pixel Buds Pro sound profile makes them great to wear for hours on end.
The primary reason many people would be considering the Pixel Buds Pro and the AirPods Pro, besides their popularity and portability, is the inclusion of active noise cancellation. In addition to the basic isolation offered by having something inserted in your ear, active noise cancellation uses microphones to listen to the ambient noise and cancel it out with inverted sound waves.
Noise cancellation on the Pixel Buds Pro can be described as decent at best, especially compared to other sets in the price range. It can fully block out the sounds of air conditioning and a running sink, as you’d hope.
However, the Pixel Buds Pro don’t do much to mask nearby conversations or the clickety clack of a mechanical keyboard. Some sounds, like road noise from a busy highway or the chattering of insects at night, are quieted but still audible over softer music.
Worse, I’ve found that in some situations, such as a very windy day, the Pixel Buds Pro may overcompensate in its efforts to block out sound, to the severe detriment of your music. While I only experienced this issue once, it made the Pixel Buds Pro sound hollow and disappointing at that moment.
Apple takes the prize for noise cancellation, as the AirPods Pro have managed to significantly filter out just about every noise I’ve thrown at it with the exception of my comically loud keyboard — that is, so long as there is music playing. There’s still room for improvement, but out of these two sets, the AirPods Pro easily have better noise cancellation than the Pixel Buds Pro.
On the flip side, both Google and Apple have included a “transparency” mode which plays audio heard by the mic, to keep you aware of your surroundings. You can easily toggle between noise canceling and transparency with a tap-and-hold, which is perfect for those moments when you may want to hold a quick conversation without taking your earbuds out. Transparency mode works surprisingly well on both the AirPods Pro and Pixel Buds Pro.
Gestures & controls
Each individual bud of the Pixel Buds Pro features a rounded outer surface that does more than serve as colorful flair. It also works to create a surprisingly intuitive set of touch gestures.
You can play/pause, skip, go back, toggle noise cancellation and answer phone calls with ease, through a few taps or a tap-and-hold. Better yet, you can adjust the volume up or down by swiping your finger forward or backward along the surface.
It’s also hard to get these gestures wrong, as the touch area is fairly large. The only time I’ve struggled with gestures on the Pixel Buds has been when I’ve tried to pause music with wet hands.
By comparison, the AirPods Pro can do most of the same simple things thanks to a pressure-sensing button on the stem. That is, everything except control the volume. To do that on an iPhone, Apple recommends using a voice command to Siri or adjusting with your phone’s volume controls.
In my experience, the AirPods Pro requires a more precise two-finger pinch instead of the single-finger tap of the Pixel Buds series. Worse, depending on the angle at which the AirPods Pro fit into your ear, the stem can be quite awkward to reach without dislodging them. These issues are mostly nitpicking though, and they can probably be overcome with practice.
With all of that in mind, it’s easy to argue that Google has created what may be the best gesture control system available on headphones today. The AirPods Pro certainly hold their own, but taken side-by-side with the Pixel Buds Pro, there’s a clear winner.
Comfort & fit
Before we dive into the fit, feel, and comfort of the Pixel Buds Pro and AirPods Pro, bear in mind that this is one of the most subjective aspects of earbuds. Everyone’s ears are shaped differently, meaning there’s no design that would be perfect for all people.
The biggest problem that I face while wearing Apple’s AirPods Pro is a sensation some describe as a “plugged” feeling. In my experience, unless both buds have the correct size eartips and are situated just so, I feel this terrible throbbing after a few minutes. I’ve fairly consistently gotten a headache every day that I’ve listened to music on the AirPods for an hour or more.
But again, that’s just my experience, and the vast majority of people will likely never have any issues with it.
Setting that aside, the AirPods Pro are relatively easy to insert into each ear and stay securely in place, and the same can be said for Google’s Pixel Buds Pro. In fact, both sets have stayed securely in my ears, and any attempts to shake them loose through walking, jogging, or headbanging haven’t succeeded.
The biggest difference between the two is how Google and Apple have chosen for their earbuds to fit. The AirPods Pro are only mostly in your ear, with each bud featuring a stem that sticks out. In contrast, Google’s Pixel Buds Pro are inserted directly into your ear, held in place by the ear tips and the curvature of your ear itself.
Where the Pixel Buds Pro truly set themselves apart from most other competing earbuds, and particularly the AirPods Pro, is in battery life. With noise cancellation enabled, the AirPods Pro last around four hours before needing to be put back into the case. In our experience, the Pixel Buds Pro get closer to seven hours, and they can push over 10 hours if you don’t use noise cancellation.
Given my personal qualms about the comfort of the AirPods Pro, I can’t see myself wearing them for even four hours at a time. Meanwhile, I could imagine keeping the Pixel Buds Pro in for an entire workday, and the battery is absolutely ready for that.
Another slight detractor from the AirPods Pro, owing to it being part of Apple’s ecosystem, is that it uses a Lightning connector to charge. A USB-C to Lightning cable is included in the box, but a proper USB-C port would have allowed them to charge with the same cable as your Chromebook, Macbook, Android phone, or iPad Pro.
Thankfully, both the Pixel Buds Pro and the AirPods Pro are capable of Qi wireless charging, making it all too easy to keep the battery case charged by plopping it onto a charging pad. Speaking of the battery case, Apple and Google have both packed their battery cases with enough power for an additional 20 hours of listening time (without noise canceling).
Caveat: Smart features
The Pixel Buds Pro and AirPods Pro both offer some greatly useful features including having your notifications spoken aloud and access to your voice assistant (Google Assistant or Siri, respectively). Both sets of earbuds can also be updated to potentially bring new features, better sound tuning, and other tweaks.
Apple was one of the first companies to have headphones seamlessly switch between your (Apple-branded) phone, tablet, watch, and computer, and the AirPods Pro have carried on that capability. Google’s ecosystem is only just now catching up, with the Pixel Buds Pro serving as the debut for “Multipoint” which can contextually swap the earbuds connection between your Android devices or even your Chromebook.
Unfortunately, both Google and Apple have made all of these capabilities available solely on their respective platforms. If having access to your phone’s voice assistant is a must-have for you, it’s better not to mix-and-match AirPods Pro with an Android phone or Pixel Buds Pro with an iPhone.
Speaking from my own experience, though, smart features like spoken notifications can, at times, work against the idea of staying focused. And the potential for convenience and time savings by using a voice assistant can pretty quickly turn to frustration when a particular voice command is misinterpreted or goes unheard.
In my time with the Pixel Buds Pro, I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of the time my instinct is still to open my phone and pick an album to play, rather than roll the dice with a command like “Hey Google, play Phobia.”
Additionally, the iPhone exclusivity of features can be particularly critical for the AirPods Pro, which have gotten multiple meaningful firmware updates over the years. Even if you intend to only use the AirPods Pro with an Android device, it’s highly recommended that you connect them to an iPhone or iPad to get them up to date, though this unfortunately can’t be triggered manually. Without these updates, you may not have the best audio quality or connection strength.
Pixel Buds Pro or AirPods Pro?
It’s truly difficult to declare a winner between the Pixel Buds Pro and the AirPods Pro. As you’d expect, both buds have areas they particularly excel in, and which one you should buy is really a matter of where your priorities lie.
If you want to hear every finer detail of your favorite tracks, while keeping out the most outside noise, the AirPods Pro are very easy to recommend. Or, if you’re looking for a more relaxed audio experience, paired with supreme comfort and effortless controls, you can’t go wrong with Google’s Pixel Buds Pro.
Meanwhile, as previously mentioned, if you’re looking for your earbuds to have smart features and integrate with your phone’s voice assistant, there’s only one way to go. Pixel Buds Pro are your best bet for Android users, and AirPods Pro will well suit Apple fans.
For my money, I truly value how comfortable the Pixel Buds Pro manage to be, in all senses of the word. Besides fitting snugly into my ears, Google’s buds offer a sound profile that invites me to sit back and relax. Even the gestures for controlling the music and volume manage to feel effortless. For as excellently as the AirPods Pro handle audio, I simply can’t wear them long enough to enjoy it.
Author: Kyle Bradshaw