Pixel Buds Pro review: Google’s AirPods Pro

Very good phones are good, but it is not enough to create a real place for yourself in the mobile terminal market, you also need the accessories that come with it. Google has understood this and has been designing its own headphones for a few years. The latest are the Pixel Buds Pro, models sold for €219 including active noise reduction. Is Google sticking with these new headphones rivals for AirPods Pro? The answer in our test.

An acceptable design

Unlike AirPods, Pixel Buds Pro don’t have a stem, they’re big beans that fit differently in the ears. When you’re used to Apple headphones, the shape is surprising at first, I even found myself looking for the stem with my fingers a few times, but you get used to it quickly. The Buds Pro, which come with three different sizes of plastic tips, are comfortable, almost disappear when you wear them, and fit snugly in your ears – at least in mine. They are also quite discreet because they do not protrude excessively from the auricle.

An advantage over the inevitably white AirPods, the Pixel Buds Pro come in four different colors: coral, fog, charcoal and lime green.

Operation is done by pressing the headphones. I much prefer pinching the stem of the AirPods Pro, it avoids putting pressure on the hollow ear. It’s even possible to swipe sideways with your finger to adjust the volume, but I find this gesture awkward because it moves the earphone in the ear.

The completely matte plastic construction does not call for any particular criticism, that is correct. The design, on the other hand, forces you to take out the hammer: like the AirPods, the Pixel Buds Pro are disposable headphones. When their battery dies in a few years, there will be no need to hope to be able to open them to put a new battery in. Everything needs to be done in this area.

Google’s charging case looks like a large rock or a flattened egg. It has the same dimensions as AirPods Pro, but is designed vertically. Another blow to take compared to AirPods, the Pixel Buds Pro fit differently in their case: you have to turn the headphones 180° in relation to their orientation in the ears (in the case, the tips therefore point outwards). It’s not a huge annoyance, but the more intuitive AirPods storage.

Small refinement that is missing in the case of AirPods Pro: the LED indicating the charging state is invisible when it is not on. It’s not much, but it’s the kind of detail we’re more used to seeing from Apple than from the competition. On the other hand, the Google case does not correspond to the AirPods Pro 2 in terms of functionality: neither passes for a lanyard or speaker to be placed nearby, nor engraving for personalization, nor corresponds to MagSafe magnetization.

A pretty neat integration into the Android ecosystem

What makes AirPods so convenient is of course their wireless aspect, which is nothing new anymore, but also their seamless integration into Apple’s ecosystem. Google is committed to recreating this close relationship between its headphones and its smartphones.

On a Pixel smartphone, the Pixel Buds Pro settings are integrated into the Android settings (screenshot on the right)

On a Pixel smartphone (tested with a Pixel 6), simply open the case for the Buds Pro to see a panel asking you to pair the headphones. Headset settings are built into Android settings under Connected devices. Buds Pro also appears in the battery widget on the home screen, in notifications about new connections, and in the Find My Device app. In short, the integration of Pixel earphones with Pixel smartphones is good. But what about other phones?

With a OnePlus Nord, a mid-range smartphone released in 2020 that now runs Android 12, the Pixel Buds Pro cover opens the same pairing panel as on the Pixel 6. A difference then emerges: taking advantage of the headphones’ full functionality requires downloading the Google Pixel The Buds app. The options of the headphones are therefore not integrated in the settings of Android, nevertheless, the installation of this application is easier. Too bad Google doesn’t continue this effort by offering a home screen widget through its app.

On an Android smartphone other than a Pixel (here a OnePlus Nord), use the Google Pixel Buds app to have full headphone capabilities

And on the iPhone? Like all Bluetooth headphones, the Pixel Buds Pro are compatible with Apple smartphones, but without an application you cannot control their options (customizing touch buttons, equalizer, updates, etc.). The lack of an app is a deal breaker if you want to use them on iPhone and don’t have an Android smartphone lying around to set them up. Other brands (Sony, Bose, Nothing, etc.) go to the trouble of offering a companion application on the iPhone, although admittedly this is not the case for most manufacturers who rely more on smartphones than on audio accessories. Like Apple, Google prefers to reserve its headphones for its ecosystem.

Speaking of ecosystem, the strong point of AirPods is also being able to switch from one Apple device to another seamlessly. At the beginning of the year, Google had given itself the mission to make the Android universe as coherent as Apple’s by facilitating the exchange between devices of different brands. Part of this goal was realized with the appearance of the Audio Switch feature.

Automatic audio switching between OnePlus and Pixel

Tested with a Pixel 6 and a OnePlus Nord connected to the same Google account, this novelty works quite well. If I start playing a song on the Pixel while watching a YouTube video on the OnePlus, the Buds Pro automatically switches to the Pixel and the video stops on the OnePlus. On the other hand, no automatic switching with Apple devices.

It is still possible to have a use that is not too restrictive between an Apple device and an Android terminal thanks to multipoint Bluetooth (the headphones are then connected to both devices at the same time): you must stop reading the content on the first device then starts playback on the second, allowing the Buds Pro to switch from one to the other. It’s not as obvious as with AirPods in a 100% Apple environment, but AirPods don’t fare better in a heterogeneous environment where PCs, Android devices, and Apple devices are mixed.

Compared to the iPhone + AirPods pair, the Pixel + Pixel Buds pair still lacks spatial sound. Google has been working on the topic for a while and will offer an update that brings “3D” audio next year. Note that Pixel Buds Pro are compatible with Google Assistant: you can dictate various actions (music control, add task, send messages, etc.) and the assistant can read the contents of received messages, among other things.

Good sound quality and good active noise reduction

The default sound reproduction is quite different from AirPods Pro. The mids and highs are slightly laid back, while the bass is largely present. The result is a warmer sound than AirPods Pro, but less faithful. Instruments and vocals are well separated. Supported audio codecs are limited to SBC and AAC, the two “basic” formats.

Since an update released in the fall, it is possible to change the sound reproduction with six presets: standard, heavy bass, light bass (sic), balanced, vocal boost and clarity. You can also adjust the reproduction to your liking using the sliders for treble, midrange, etc. This ultimately allows you to (re)find the sound style you prefer. The Buds Pro is thus positioned at roughly the same level as the 1st generation AirPods Pro, but they stand behind the AirPods Pro 2 and other newer high-end headphones.

Options to customize the sound reproduction

Same thing for active noise cancellation: effective, it is similar to AirPods Pro 1, but AirPods Pro 2 has since shown that it is possible to do even better. Whether you’re walking down the street or vacuuming, the active isolation of the Buds Pro noticeably reduces ambient noise. In an office, Google’s headphones dampen mechanical keyboard eavesdropping more significantly than the AirPods Pro 1, which is welcome.

AirPods Pro 2 test: silence, it pulses!

AirPods Pro 2 test: silence, it pulses!

The Buds Pro’s Transparency mode doesn’t let ambient sound “into” the ears as much as the AirPods Pro’s, which is disadvantageous for hearing outside sounds, but beneficial for music. As for the microphones, they are comparable to those of the AirPods Pro 1, which is not a quality for once. In noisy environments, such as a street full of traffic, the words are muffled and therefore become unintelligible.

Google advertises a battery life of 7 hours with active noise cancellation, a figure confirmed by our tests, and even exceeded by half an hour on average. That puts the Buds Pro ahead of the AirPods Pro, which last around six hours. Without active isolation, Google promises 11 hours of battery life. The case brings about two additional full charges. It recharges itself via USB-C (Google doesn’t supply a cable, unlike Apple) or induction.

To conclude

The Pixel Buds Pro are Google’s AirPods Pro 1: they’re great headphones with active noise cancellation that fit well into their manufacturer’s ecosystem. There is still room for improvement both in terms of sound quality and extras, but Google offers headphones that are quite satisfactory for its customers.

Pixel Buds Pro aren’t just for Pixel owners, they’re a great companion for other Android devices. On the other hand, in the absence of an iOS application, it is impossible to recommend them to an iPhone owner. However, they can find a place among those who mix Android smartphone and Mac or iPad.

With the Pixel Buds Pro, Google is catching up with Apple a bit in building a harmonious ecosystem, but Tim Cook has set the bar very high. If Google now has a compelling pair of smartphone + headphones, it still needs to offer a watch on par with the Apple Watch and further improve the interaction between its products and those of other brands.

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