• | 7:30 am

Google’s Pixel earphones are a solid answer to Apple’s AirPods Pro

Google adds active noise cancellation and surprisingly good sound quality to its latest earbuds product.

[Source photo: Google Store]

With its new Pixel Buds Pro earbuds, Google now has a solid competitor to Apple’s popular AirPods Pro.

The Pixel Buds Pro are Google’s fourth earbuds product since entering the category in 2017, and they’re the first to offer active noise cancellation, as the AirPods Pro already do. Google will sell the new buds for $199 retail (AirPods Pro retail for $249).

The AirPods Pro have been my go-to earbuds since they came out in 2019, so they’re my basis for comparison, and I expect that millions of earbud buyers will make a choice between the two products.

The Pixel Buds have a very different look from the AirPods. Some reviewers have said their round design look like Mentos (especially unflattering given that they’re lodged in your ears). Not so with the charcoal-colored ones that Google loaned me, which I found to be nice and understated. The Buds also come in coral, lemongrass, and fog colors, all of which have a low-key, earthy look.

Since I’m used to the AirPods Pro, placing the Pixel Buds in my ears took a little practice. But it’s actually pretty simple: You just point the foam tip toward your ear canal, then rotate the outside until the tip forms a comfortable seal at the opening of the canal.

The Pixel Buds are a bit larger and more bulbous than the AirPods Pro, but they seem to conform to the space in my outer ear nicely. They also have a balanced feel, which makes it easy to forget about them when you’re running or otherwise moving around.

Both the AirPods Pro and the Pixel Buds use a design that fully “occludes” (or “seals up”) the opening to the ear canal. This is important for a couple of reasons–it affects audio quality and plays a role in noise cancellation.

The AirPods Pro have never fit my ears perfectly. Their rubbery tips never formed a snug seal in my ear canal, even with the various ear tip size options provided by Apple. (That’s probably because of my unique ear shape; others have had better luck.) I had better results with the Pixel Buds Pro. Google wisely anticipated that there are people like me whose ears seem to resist tight fits. They use a tip material (which they brand “Silent Seal”) that seems to mold to the ear canal, helping me get a good snug fit.

That seal was a big part of the reason Pixel Buds sounded so good. The sound of the little speakers in the Buds went right into my ear canals, with very little leaking out. This lead to a very satisfying bass response. I heard a robust, but measured, reproduction of the low frequencies in the rock, hip hop, and classical music it tried. (I’ve heard way too many consumer audio products that exaggerate the bass so that it dominates and diminishes the rest of the mix.) The upper-mids and higher frequencies were also well-managed. High synths, bells, and cymbals sounded crisp but not shrill. If I have any quibble it’s that on some of the rock music recordings I tested the midrange sounds (such as guitars) could have been a touch more pronounced.

A good seal in the ear canal also has a direct effect on the Pixel Buds Pros’ marquee feature, noise cancellation. A snug seal can block ambient noise from getting to the eardrum. That’s called “passive” noise cancellation. And the more noise that’s physically blocked, the lesser the burden on the  “active” noise cancellation processing tech in the earphones to block the rest of the ambient noise.

Not that the Pixel Buds noise cancellation is perfect. Far from it. You can turn the noise cancellation on and off with a long touch on the outside of the Buds, and while you can hear a difference between the “noise cancellation” and “transparency” modes, it’s not huge. There’s definitely some active noise cancellation going on, but plenty of outside noise is still getting in. I wouldn’t want to rely on the Buds’ noise cancellation on a noisy plane flight. I’ll use my Bose over-ears for that.

I also had good luck getting the Pixel Buds Pro to play nice with my line-up of Apple stuff. They paired as easily with my iPhone, iPad, and Mac as the AirPods Pro do, and they held the connection. Even when I took the Buds out running, paired with my Apple Watch, I noticed no breakups in the connection.

The Pixel Buds, in fact, seemed a bit smarter about their environment than the AirPods Pro. The Pixel Buds can sense whether they’re in your ear or not, so your phone knows not to send music or telephone calls to them if they’re just laying on the table. I can’t say the same for the AirPods Pro, unfortunately. I suspect that the next version of the AirPods Pro will correct this problem.

Google says that the Pixel Buds will play music with the noise cancellation on for “up to 7 hours.” Based on my limited tests, I don’t doubt this. The Buds’ carrying case can provide power to the Buds for an additional 20 hours on a single charge, Google says.

The Buds also have a IPX4 water resistance rating, meaning you can sweat on them or go out in the rain without worrying about it.

Overall I’m impressed with Google’s new Pixel Buds Pro. You get a nice design and a lot of technology for two-hundred bucks. I suspect that many Android users will buy them, and probably a good number of iOS users (like me) too. I still like my AirPods Pro, but I hope that with the new Pixel Buds Pro will put pressure on Apple to continue to improve its earbuds game with a bit more rapidity.


Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others. More

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