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Google’s Pixel earphones pose a solid threat to AirPods Pro

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

The AirPods Pro have been my favorite earbuds since they came out in 2019, so they’re my base for comparison, and I expect millions of earbud buyers will choose between the two products.

The Pixel Buds have a very different look than the AirPods. Some reviewers have said that their round design resembles Mentos (especially unflattering because they sit in your ears). Not so with the charcoal colored one that Google lent me, which I found beautiful and understated. The Buds are also available in coral, lemongrass and mist colors, all of which have a calm, earthy feel.

Because I’m used to the AirPods Pro, it took some practice to put the Pixel Buds in my ears. But it’s actually pretty simple: you just point the end of foam toward your ear canal, then twist the outside until the end forms a comfortable seal at the opening of the canal.

The Pixel Buds are slightly larger and more rounded than the AirPods Pro, but they seem to adapt well to the space in my outer ear. They also feel balanced, making them easy to forget when you run or otherwise move.

Both the AirPods Pro and Pixel Buds use a design that completely “closes” (or “seals”) the opening to the ear canal. This is important for a number of reasons: it affects sound quality and plays a role in noise reduction.

The AirPods Pro have never fit my ears perfectly. Their rubbery tips never formed a good seal in my ear canal, even with the various ear plug options offered 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 call “Silent Seal”) that seems to mold to the ear canal, giving me a snug fit.

That seal was a big part of the reason for Pixel Buds sounded awesome. The sound from the small speakers in the Buds went straight into my ear canals, with very little leakage. This leads 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 far too many consumer audio products 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-pitched synths, bells and cymbals sounded clear but not shrill. If I have one complaint, it’s that on some of the rock music recordings I’ve tested, the midrange sounds (like guitars) could have been a bit more pronounced.

A good seal in the ear canal also has a direct effect on the selection of the Pixel Buds Pros, noise reduction. A tight-fitting seal can prevent ambient noise from reaching the eardrum. That’s called “passive” noise cancellation. And the more noise that is physically blocked, the less the burden of the “active” noise-cancelling technology in the earbuds to block out the rest of the ambient noise.

Not that the Pixel Buds noise cancellation is perfect. Far from. You can toggle 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 there’s still a lot of outside noise coming in. I wouldn’t want to rely on the Buds’ noise cancellation on a noisy plane flight. I use my Bose over-ears for that.

I was also very lucky to have the Pixel Buds Pro play nicely with my range of Apple stuff. They paired with my iPhone, iPad, and Mac just as easily as the AirPods Pro, and they kept the connection. Even when I ran the Buds with my Apple Watch, I didn’t notice any disconnections.

The Pixel Buds even 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 them music or phone calls if they’re just laying on the table. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the AirPods Pro. I suspect the next version of the AirPods Pro will fix this problem.

Google says the Pixel Buds will play music for “up to 7 hours” with the noise cancellation on. Based on my limited testing, I have no doubts about this. The Buds carrying case can power the Buds for an additional 20 hours on a single charge, Google says.

The Buds also have an 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 dollars. I suspect many Android users will buy them, and probably quite a few iOS users (like me). I still love my AirPods Pro, but I hope that with the new Pixel Buds Pro, Apple will push to keep improving its earbud game with a little more speed.

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