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Google Pixel Buds Pro vs. Apple AirPods Pro — so much Pro in one place

The long wait is over. Google, with the Pixel Buds Pro, now has a real competitor for Apple’s AirPods Pro. Both are earbuds. Both are “Pro.” And if you’ve read our Pixel Buds Pro review, you by now know that they’re an excellent option for anyone who wants some serious audio piped into their ears.

But that brings us to the obvious question: How do you choose between the AirPods Pro versus the Pixel Buds Pro? There’s a lot here that’s the same. There’s a little bit that’s different. And the answer might not surprise you in the slightest. Or maybe it will.

Only one way to find out — let’s put these things side by side and see.

AirPods Pro and Pixel Buds Pro.
Apple’s AirPods Pro, left, and Google’s Pixel Buds Pro. Phil Nickinson/Digital Trends

AirPods Pro case vs. Pixel Buds Pro case

Put the cases for the AirPods Pro and the Pixel Buds Pro next to each other and there’s very little doubt which belongs to which. Apple has done white and glossy 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 time is pretty negligible.

The bigger differentiator here is on paper. Google says you’ll get 11 hours of listening time before you need to charge with ANC turned off, and seven hours if you have it turned on. There’s less of a delta in Apple’s numbers — it says you get 4.5 hours on a single charge, or up to 5 if you have ANC and transparency turned off.

Popping the buds back in the charging case will get you a total of 31 hours of listening time for the Pixel Buds Pro, with ANC turned off, and 20 hours if you have ANC turned on. Apple says to expect “more than 24 hours” of listening time for the AirPods Pro if you recharge via the case.

AirPods Pro case, left, and Pixel Buds Pro case.
Two shapes, same purpose. The cases protect and charge the AirPods Pro and Pixel Buds Pro. Phil Nickinson/Digital Trends

Those are all just numbers on paper, though. It’s almost certainly not how most people are using them. (Seriously, don’t use earbuds for an entire day at a time. That’s bad.)

Both Pixel Buds Pro and AirPods Pro say they get you an hour of listening time with just five minutes in the case. And having scrambled to charge things up on my 20-minute drive to the gym, I’ve found that to be plenty for a 90-minute session.

I’ve found it to be ever so slightly easier to get the AirPods Pro out of their case, compared to the Pixel Buds Pro. That’s very much me picking nits, though. And if that’s the sort of thing that sways you in one direction or the other, more power to ya.

The winner: It’s a push. Both cases are fine. Both are prone to collecting dust and lint and earwax. I use Nomad leather cases on my cases for some added class. And it’s not like you have any alternatives anyway.

AirPods Pro fit and feel vs. Pixel Buds Pro fit and feel

For me, this has been the biggest difference between the AirPods Pro and Pixel Buds Pro. They have different designs and feel very different in my ears. With the default 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 in there better. That’s not to say they don’t wiggle loose, however. Whatever my face does mid-set at the gym (I’m not going to find out what that looks like, and neither will you) occasionally changes the pressure and loosens things up. And there are times when a half-hour on the elliptical is an extra-sweaty affair and I’m constantly pushing a bud back in.

Muscle memory is a hard thing to break, and in the few days I’ve been using the Pixel Buds Pro at the gym I’ve found myself reaching up to push one back in — only to find that it was seated just fine in the first place. They haven’t been prone to migration.

The Pixel Buds Pro very much felt lighter on my ears than the AirPods Pro. Maybe it’s because of that difference I noted in the earhole itself. Maybe it’s all in my head. But Google actually says that the Pixel Buds Pro weigh more than AirPods Pro — 0.22 ounces to 0.19 ounces. I plopped each onto the scale I use to measure ingredients to make pancakes on the weekend (pro tip: definitely measure by weight and not volume) and they both came out at 0.20 ounces. Close enough for my purposes, I suppose.

This is the place where what works for me might not work the same for you. I don’t have a problem with the way either of these earbuds fits and feels. Both are plenty comfortable. Both do what they’re supposed to do (stay in my ear) pretty well. I have a lot more time with the AirPods Pro than the Pixel Buds Pro, and the law of averages suggests that at some point I’ll have to push a Pixel Bud back into my Phil Ear at some point. But so far, so good.

The winner: I’m going to give a very slight edge to the AirPods Pro here. They seem to have a slightly better seal in my ear than the Pixel Buds Pro. But then again, I also tend to reseat them a few times while I’m wearing them. I’m plenty happy with both.

All Pixels all the time

AirPods Pro audio vs. Pixel Buds Pro audio

This is where the rubber meets the road, right? If the audio is off, nothing else matters. And having used the AirPods Pro for months and months, and the Pixel Buds Pro for days and days, I can confidently say that there’s a pretty good chance you’d be perfectly happy with either one.

That’s not very exciting, I know. There are a few differences in the details, perhaps. But all things being equal, both of these systems sound very good. There’s a surprising amount of bass. I still think the Pixel Buds get a little muddied at the high end at higher volumes. But, again, I’m picking nits. In normal, casual listening, the Pixel Buds Pro sound great. The AirPods Pro still sound great.

Pixel Buds Pro in Phil Nickinson's ear. Pixel Buds Pro in Phil Nickinson's ear.

The “Pro” part is where things diverge a little. And by “Pro,” I mean noise cancellation. With ANC turned on, both do a really good job of blocking out the ambient noise. I’ve had airplanes take off a couple of hundred yards away and I could barely tell. I’ve had recycling trucks do their thing, with only the faintest of clacking. I’ve had a commercial-grade lawnmower mow a lawn in a commercial-grade way, with only a mechanical clack (that’s a technical term for trucks and mowers) making its way through.

I’ve found there’s a bigger difference when it comes to the transparency feature, which lets in some background noise while filtering out others. The idea is so that you can still hear someone (or something) trying to get your attention. Pixel Buds Pro seem to block more of the background for me when transparency is turned on, whereas the AirPods Pro let through a bit more. I prefer the latter, if only because it means there’s a bigger difference between having ANC turned on than not.

The winner: I’m calling this a push. It’s a bit subjective, and the differences are very, very close. If forced, I’ll say that Apple has a slight edge here. But it’s not really enough of a difference unless you’re actively comparing the two systems at the same time for the sake of writing about them for a major publication like Digital Trends.

AirPods Pro in Phil Nickinson's ear. AirPods Pro in Phil Nickinson's ear.

The spatial audio elephant in the room

OK. This is one where Apple wins out, hands-down. For now. “Spatial audio” is the fancy term for emulating surround sound within earbuds, which is a pretty cool feat when you think about it. Apple’s using Dolby Atmos for its conversion, and select songs and albums will have the different instruments and vocals seemingly come into your head from all different directions. And the really cool part is the head tracking, which adjusts things depending on which way your melon is pointing in relation to your phone. It’s complicated. It’s at times disorienting. It’s also very cool if you’re into that sort of thing.

And right now the AirPods Pro have it, and the Pixel Buds Pro do not. But spatial audio is coming to the Pixel Buds Pro at some point. We don’t know when. And we don’t know how well it will work, or whether there will be any limitations as to which services it’s compatible with. (When in doubt, consider the worst-case scenario.)

We review products for what they can do today, not what they might be able to do in the future. T’was ever thus.

The winner: AirPods Pro. They’ve got spatial audio, and the Pixel Buds Pro do not. Apple also has weird head-tracking feature, for what that’s worth.

Pixel Buds Pro and AirPods Pro.
You can’t go wrong with either the Pixel Buds Pro or AirPods Pro. The bigger question is what ecosystem you’re in. Phil Nickison/Digital Trends

The bottom line: It’s the ecosystem, stupid

There’s no secret here. This isn’t the sort of versus post where we’ll turn things on their head at the end. There should be no surprises. Both the Pixel Buds Pro and AirPods Pro are very, very good. And they’re both even better when used with their native platforms. I’ve used AirPods Pro with Android. I’ve used the Pixel Buds Pro with iOS. They sound great even when playing with the other team.

But you miss out on the special sauce that comes from the home kitchen. Apple bakes that into the operating system itself, while Google has a separate Pixel Buds app that ties things together. You’ll need to use the earbuds on their home platform if you want to update the firmware. You’ll miss out on other settings that aren’t available when you’re crossing the streams. And both platforms have their own way of making it super easy to use the earbuds on multiple devices at one time. (Apple, by the way, wins out on making its earbuds and headphones even easier to use with its TV products.)

There is a decent difference in the retail price. Apple technically still lists the AirPods Pro at $250, though it’s not uncommon to find them on sale while we await their next incarnation. (That could happen at any time, really, though it wouldn’t surprise us to get to 2023 before we see an update.) The Pixel Buds Pro retail at $200, which already is a perfectly fine price for what you’ll get, and even better when you consider that they’ll almost certainly go on sale at some point.

So this is one of those annoying times in which 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 folks buying the former almost certainly already are familiar with the Apple Tax. Both work great as Bluetooth earbuds on any platform, but they work better on their native platforms. If you’re an Apple user, get the AirPods Pro. If you’re a Google/Android user, go for the Pixel Buds Pro and take your significant other out for dinner with the savings. You’ll come away plenty happy (and possibly well-fed) either way.

The winner: You. You’re the winner.

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