The long wait is over. Google, with the Pixel Buds Pro, now has a real competitor for Apple’s AirPods Pro. Both are headphones. Both are “Pro”. And if you’ve read our Pixel Buds Pro review, you now know they’re a great option for anyone who wants serious sound in their ears.
But that brings us to the obvious question: how do you choose between the AirPods Pro and the Pixel Buds Pro? There’s many here that’s the same. There is a little difference. And the answer may not surprise you at all. Or maybe it will.
Only one way to find out – put these things side by side and see.
Cases for cases
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Put the AirPods Pro and Pixel Buds Pro cases next to each other and there’s very little doubt who belongs to whom. Apple has been white and bright from the start. Google has gone with an off-white matte job since the early days.
Both cases use USB for wired charging and both support wireless charging. I use both. And given that neither has a huge battery in terms of capacity, any difference in charging times is pretty negligible.
The biggest differentiator here is on paper. Google says you’ll get 11 hours of listening time before needing to recharge with ANC off, and seven hours if you have it on. There’s less delta in Apple’s numbers – it says you get 4.5 hours on a single charge, or up to 5 if you’ve turned off ANC and Transparency.
Placing the buds back in the charging case will give you a total of 31 hours of listening time for the Pixel Buds Pro, with ANC off, and 20 hours with ANC on. Apple says it expects “over 24 hours” of listening time for the AirPods Pro if you charge through the case.
These are just numbers on paper, however. That’s definitely not how most people use them. (Seriously, don’t use headphones for an entire day at a time. That’s bad.)
Pixel Buds Pro and AirPods Pro say they give you an hour of listening time with just five minutes in the case. And after struggling to top up my 20 minute drive to the gym, I found that was enough for a 90 minute session.
I found the AirPods Pro to be a little easier to take out of their case, compared to the Pixel Buds Pro. It’s really me picking nits, though. And if that’s the kind of thing that tips you one way or the other, more power to you.
The winner: It’s a push. Both cases are good. Both tend to accumulate dust, lint, and earwax. I use Nomad leather cases on my cases for an extra class. And it’s not like you have any alternatives anyway.
Fit and feel
For me, that was the biggest difference between AirPods Pro and Pixel Buds Pro. They have different designs and feel very different in my ears. With the default ear tips, the AirPods Pro feel like they sit a little lower in my ear canal, with a tighter seal. They just feel like they’re better off there. That’s not to say they don’t come off, though. Whatever my face does halfway through the gym (I’m not going to find out what that looks like, and neither are you) sometimes it changes the pressure and loosens things up. And there are times when half an hour on the elliptical is all about extra sweat and I’m constantly pushing out a pimple.
Muscle memory is a hard thing to break, and in the few days I used the Pixel Buds Pro at the gym, I found myself reaching out to push one away – only to find that it was fine. seated in the first place. They have not been subject to migration.
The Pixel Buds Pro were much lighter on my ears than the AirPods Pro. It may be because of this difference that I noticed in the ear hole itself. Maybe it’s all in my head. But Google actually says the Pixel Buds Pro weigh more than the AirPods Pro — 0.22 ounces to 0.19 ounces. I placed each on the scale I use to measure ingredients for making weekend pancakes (pro tip: definitely measure by weight, not volume) and they both came out at 0.20 ounces . Close enough for my needs, I guess.
This is where what works for me might not work the same for you. I have no problem with how either of these headphones fit and feel. Both are very comfortable. Both do what they’re supposed to do (stay in my ear) pretty well. I have a lot more time with AirPods Pro than I do with Pixel Buds Pro, and the law of averages suggests that at some point I’ll have to put a Pixel Bud back in my Phil Ear at some point. But so far so good.
The winner: I’m going to give the AirPods Pro a very slight edge here. They seem to have a better seal to my ear than the Pixel Buds Pro. But then again, I also tend to put them back on multiple times while wearing them. I’m very happy with both.
Pro-Audio vs. Pro-Audio
This is where the rubber meets the road, isn’t it? If the sound is muted, nothing else matters. And after using the AirPods Pro for months and months, and the Pixel Buds Pro for days and days, I can confidently say that chances are you’ll be perfectly happy with either one. ‘other.
It’s not very exciting, I know. There maybe some differences in details. But all things being equal, both of these systems sound great. There’s a surprising amount of bass. I still think the Pixel Buds get a bit muddy in the high end at higher volumes. But, again, I take nits. In normal and casual listening, the Pixel Buds Pro sound great. The AirPods Pro still sound great.
The “Pro” part is where things diverge a bit. And by “Pro” I mean noise cancellation. With ANC on, both do a pretty good job of blocking out ambient noise. I’ve had planes take off a few hundred yards away and I could barely tell. I’ve had recycling trucks that did their job, with only the slightest bang. I’ve had a commercial-grade lawnmower that mows a commercial-grade lawn, with only a mechanical clack (that’s a technical term for trucks and mowers) slamming its way through.
I found there was a bigger difference when it came to the transparency feature, which lets some background noise through while filtering out others. The idea is that you can always hear someone (or something) trying to get your attention. The Pixel Buds Pro seem to block out the background more for me when transparency is on, while the AirPods Pro let a little more through. I prefer the latter, if only because it means there’s a bigger difference between having ANC on than not.
The winner: I call it a push. It’s a bit subjective, and the differences are very, very close. If forced, I’ll say Apple has a slight edge here. But that’s not really enough of a difference unless you’re actively comparing the two systems at the same time for the purpose of writing about them for a major publication like Digital Trends.
The space audio elephant in the room
OKAY. This is where Apple wins, hands down. For the moment. “Spatial Audio” is the fancy term for emulating surround sound in headphones, which is a pretty cool feat when you think about it. Apple uses Dolby Atmos for its conversion, and some songs and albums will have the various instruments and voices seemingly in your head from all directions. And the really cool part is the head tracking, which adjusts things based on the direction of your melon in relation to your phone. It is complicated. It is sometimes disorienting. It’s also really cool if you like that kind of stuff.
And right now the AirPods Pro have it, and the Pixel Buds Pro don’t. But spatial audio is coming to Pixel Buds Pro at some point. We don’t know when. And we don’t know how well it will work or if there will be any limitations on the services it is compatible with. (If in doubt, consider the worst-case scenario.)
We review products for what they can do today, not what they might do in the future. It was always like that.
The winner: AirPods Pro. They have spatial sound, unlike the Pixel Buds Pro. Apple also has a weird head-tracking feature, for what it’s worth.
The main thing: it’s the ecosystem, silly
There are no secrets here. This isn’t the kind of post versus where we’ll flip things around at the end. There should be no surprises. The Pixel Buds Pro and AirPods Pro are very, very good. And they’re both even better when used with their native platforms. I used AirPods Pro with Android. I used the Pixel Buds Pro with iOS. They sound great even when playing with the other team.
But you miss the special sauce that comes from home cooking. Apple builds this into the operating system itself, while Google has a separate Pixel Buds app that ties things together. You will need to use the headphones on their original platform if you want to update the firmware. You will miss other parameters that are not available when traversing the streams. And both platforms have their own way of making it really easy to use the headphones on multiple devices at once. (Apple, by the way, benefits from making its headphones and earbuds even easier to use with its TV products.)
There is a decent difference in the retail price. Technically, Apple still lists the AirPods Pro at $250, though it’s not uncommon to find them on sale while waiting for their next incarnation. (It could happen anytime, really, though it wouldn’t surprise us to get to 2023 before we see an update.) The Pixel Buds Pro retail for $200, which is already a perfectly decent price for what you’ll get, and even better considering they’ll almost certainly go on sale at some point.
So it’s one of those boring times where we’ll say the following: you can’t go wrong with AirPods Pro. You can’t go wrong with Pixel Buds Pro. You’ll save a little money with the latter, but people who buy the former are almost certainly already familiar with the Apple tax. Both work great as Bluetooth headphones on any platform, but they work best on their native platforms. If you are an Apple user, get the AirPods Pro. If you’re a Google/Android user, go for the Pixel Buds Pro and take your partner out to dinner with the savings. You’ll walk away very happy (and possibly well-fed) anyway.
The winner: You. You are the winner.