Which pair of smart headphones is for you?
Thus far, true hearables have been the playground of smaller companies like Bragi and NuHeara. In the last year though, the big fish have started to wade into the water.
Pixel Buds and AirPods mark Google and Apple’s respective hearable debuts, and it’s no surprise that both of them have taken out the headphone jack from their phones to help make their purchases a little more appealing.
But which of these gets the bragging rights? Could Google’s translation-enabled Pixel Buds be the perfect answer here, or is Apple’s best-selling AirPods be the best buds for your ears?
The Pixel Buds and AirPods couldn’t be more different from a design perspective. The Pixel Buds are two little earbuds that are connected with a behind-the-neck cord. This cord can actually be used to adjusted to create a loop that folds into your ears, but we’ve found this to be awkward in practice.
Once you do get that right though, the Pixel Buds will fit nicely in your ear. Better than the AirPods, which can slip out if your ears get all sweaty during a run (or if it’s raining). The cloth cord is much more awkward when you’re trying to put the Pixel Buds back in their charging case.
First you’ve got to make sure you align the Pixel Buds in the case, then you’ve got to wrap the cord around the case in a loop before you close them. It’s all a bit frustrating, and definitely not as simple as the AirPods. With Apple’s earbuds, all you have to do is drop each AirPod into the case. It uses magnets to help suck them down so that they start charging instantly.
Both the AirPods and Pixel Buds sit just over your ear canal, so you’re not actually getting any kind of seal that’ll minimize the sounds of the outside. The AirPods are definitely easier to wear than the Pixel Buds though. They’re so light we’ve sometimes forgotten they’re even in our ears.
As for looks, both of these devices are sure to divide opinion. AirPods are becoming a more common sight nowadays, but they still look like half a toothbrush stuck in your ear. Meanwhile, the Pixel Buds just look kind of plain, but less likely to draw attention. One drawback is that cord, which keeps them from being truly wireless in the way the AirPods are.
The best product design is easy to use, and it’s in this way the AirPods win. They’re not perfect, but they’re extremely easy to use. You pop the case, you put them in your ears and you go. Granted though, you’ll need to be an iPhone user to appreciate the full seamlessness here. The Pixel Buds have a few small annoyances that add up to something that can be downright frustrating to wear at times.
The AirPods and Pixel Buds are both designed to pair quickly and easily – pop open the respective cases to pair to your phone. In our experience, however, the AirPods pulled this off much more often than Pixel Buds, which would fail to do it 50% of the time.
In fact, the AirPods and Pixel Buds are both designed to be a part of a larger ecosystem, and using them outside of that ecosystem means you get less features (darn you, ecosystem lock-in!). For example, you won’t get translation with the Pixel Buds if you’re using any phone other than a Google Pixel. AirPods won’t see the fast pairing on an Android phone.
Both pair of headphones have features in different areas. The Pixel Buds are packed with a little more technology. For instance, the right Pixel Bud is touch sensitive, which will let you tap to play and pause music and swipe to adjust volume. Meanwhile, the AirPods just rely on accelerometers to identify when you’re tapping them. There are no touch controls here, which limits what you can do with them. Each AirPod can be assigned an action when you double tap. You can skip to the next track, go back to the previous track, activate Siri or pause the music.
It usually works, but double tapping the AirPods also makes it feel like they can fall out. It’s much easier to activate Google Assistant on the Pixel Buds, as you do it with a simple tap.
Speaking of, Google Assistant on Pixel Buds will plug you into the vast reaches of Google’s AI. It’ll also let you translate things in real-time via Google Translate on your Pixel phone. That experience isn’t too different from translation on something like the Bragi Dash Pro.
One trick up the AirPods sleeve is that each AirPod always knows what the other is doing. They use infrared to make sure they’re in your ears, and if you take one out your music will automatically stop playing. It’s a small, tiny thing, but it’s wonderfully convenient when your favorite song is interrupted by conversation and you want to quickly tune into what your friend is saying instead.
Overall, while the AirPods are technically less impressive, they do offer some smaller, nicer conveniences that the Pixel Buds do not. The pairing works more of the time and pulling out an AirPod an having your music stop is nice. They don’t do as much as the Pixel Buds do, functionally, as you can’t adjust the volume, and getting to Siri is a longer process.
The vast majority of the time you’ll be using the Pixel Buds and AirPods you’ll be listening to music. For the most part, these two pairs of headphones are in the same ballpark. You’re not going to get tremendously better sound compared to the other.
However, there are some differences about the music experience that you should take note of. First of all, the AirPods are a little better at isolating outside noise so that you can listen to your music. This is something that the Pixel Buds struggle with due to their “semi-occluded” design; they let in too much outside noise, which sometimes means it’s competing with the music.
That said, the Pixel Buds do have a slightly better sound quality, which is noticeable when listening in places where you don’t have a lot of outside noise leaking in.
As for running, the Pixel Buds are our pick of the two. We’ve found that sweaty ears can cause the AirPods to slip out of your ear a little too easily as they’re only held in place with slick plastic. The Pixel Buds, with the cloth cord that folds into your ear, are much more likely to stick around during a run.
So on sound quality, it’s a bit of a tie. The champion will come down to whatever is more important to you.
Hearables may be the best place for voice assistants, and Google and Apple’s first foray into smart earbuds both come packing their respective assistants. The experiences aren’t quite the same though.
Google Assistant is a little more well rounded than Siri, who can give you most information fine but doesn’t have the contextual powers that Google Assistant does. This helps make Assistant feel like an intelligent being, rather than a mostly rudimentary AI that isn’t up to snuff yet, which Siri can sometimes feel like.
Getting to these two assistants on Pixel Buds and AirPods also differ. On the Pixel Buds, Google Assistant has never been faster. It’s a simple button press and that’s it, you can go right ahead and ask Google whatever you need, whether it’s to translate something, or you just want to know the capital of Peru.
In fact, Google Assistant on Pixel Buds is so fast that it’s made us want to use Google Assistant more than we ever have before, whether that’s on a phone or at home on Google Home. We don’t even mind asking Google things in public anymore. On the other hand, Siri is still Siri on the AirPods. You can ask her to raise and lower the volume and what your battery life is, plus all the regular things Siri does.
On top of that, accessing Siri just isn’t as smooth, and sometimes our taps don’t register. Google Assistant on Pixel Buds is so good you want to use it more, even if you don’t really need to use it. Siri on AirPods is about what you expect from the Siri experience, which isn’t totally bad, but isn’t going to change your Siri usage dramatically.
Battery life and price
The Pixel Buds and AirPods will both give you about five hours of battery life on a single charge, and subsequent charges in their respective charging cases will give you an extra 24 hours of playback.
The charging experience for both devices is a bit different, however. As mentioned before, the AirPods are a little simpler to charge, with the Pixel Buds having you to wrap the cable around in a loop in the case. While the Pixel Buds case is larger than the AirPods case, they’re also made of cloth that makes it slide in your pants or purse. Further, we find the AirPods case finish to be a little better than the Pixel Buds case, though both aren’t the greatest – the AirPods case picks up dust very easily.
Price on these two pairs of headphones is also the same, coming in at $159. The only large different here is that the AirPods are simpler to charge compared to the Pixel Buds.
At first blush, the Pixel Buds are a more appealing product than AirPods. They give you the ability to translate languages… with the use of your phone. They give you great, instant access to Google Assistant. But they’re also not the best pairing experience, music experience or, at times, wearing experience.
The Pixel Buds feel like a product a generation away from true greatness, but right now they’re not the best option for anyone other than Pixel owners. Meanwhile, the AirPods – while not the most advanced hearables and are barely smart – work much more consistently with some nice small conveniences.
At the end of the day, this decision comes down to ecosystem. If you’ve got an iPhone, the AirPods are the slam dunk choice. If you’ve got a Pixel, the Pixel Buds are for you. Though both will still pair as basic Bluetooth headphones on rival smartphone devices. The Pixel Buds are a nice taste of the hearable future, but for us the AirPods have it.