The new Google Pixel Buds (2020) may not be an AirPods facsimile, but they outperform the AirPods in just about every way. Although the Pixel Buds (2020) seem like the clear winner, the AirPods make a compelling case for iPhone users and are, surprisingly, cheaper. Let’s see which smart headset is best for you.
Editor’s note: this post was updated on February 17, 2021, to address the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro as an alternative.
The Pixel Buds and AirPods have different designs
While both companies take a simple approach to their true wireless earphones, the end products are very different. The AirPods are quintessentially Apple: no buttons, no logo, and brilliantly simple to use. Its nozzle-free, stemmed earphones set the design language for popular true wireless earbuds, and the charging case—well, fellow SoundGuys Editor Adam Molina will be the first to tell you that it’s one of the many reasons for the first-generation AirPods’ wild success.
Google’s aesthetic is more whimsical than Apple’s, which is made apparent by the housings’ distinct circular shape and matte finish. Dedicated nozzles further distinguish the new Pixel Buds from the AirPods; these, in tandem with the permanent concha wing tips, keep the new Google Pixel Buds much more stable than the AirPods. Another differentiating feature: water-resistance. Unlike the AirPods which lack a water-resistant rating altogether, these are IPX4-certified and can withstand any workout, save for swimming.
Handsome but different charging cases
Apple’s charging case is a softened rectangle that perfectly fits the first or second-generation AirPods. This is about as plain as it gets; the case is adorned with a single button for manual pairing and a Lightning input. Upgrading to the wireless charging case costs an additional $30, and the only external difference between the two cases is a centered LED on the wireless model. A magnetic locking mechanism provides tactile feedback when opened and closed, similar to the Pixel Buds’ (2020) case.
The Google Pixel Buds’ experience on Android rivals that of using AirPods with an iPhone.
The egg-shaped case is uniquely satisfying to use: opening and closing it provides even more tactile feedback than the AirPods’ case. Two LEDs indicate battery levels; the external one communicates the case’s remaining capacity while the internal LED indicates the earbuds’ remaining battery life. It’s easy to understand at a glance, and is by far the best case we’ve used. It houses a USB-C input and supports wireless charging from the jump.
Onboard controls, virtual assistance, and live translation
Just like the AirPods, Google’s onboard controls are touch-only. You can control volume, playback, and answer or decline calls from either headset. Both support hands-free virtual assistant access, but functionality is limited to their proprietary technologies. The Apple AirPods have the company’s H1 chip which facilitates direct voice access to Siri, while the Google Pixel Buds (2020) supports hands-free access to Google Assistant. No surprises here, but both headsets support broad virtual assistant access by a simple tap-and-hold gesture on either earbud. This means you can manually access Siri from the Pixel Buds and vice versa.
Integrated Google Translate is cool, but not reason enough to get the Google Pixel Buds over the AirPods.
The Pixel Buds have a unique trick up its sleeve: live translation capabilities. For now, though, integrated Google Translate is exactly that, a trick. You can read about it in the full review, but the long in the short of it is that the process is cumbersome and no better than directly using a smartphone for the same result. While the AirPods and wireless case bundle is more affordable, we feel that the revamped Google Pixel Buds (2020) are worth the extra $10 when it comes to design and fit alone.
In an update released in August 2020, the Pixel Buds gained a new feature: Attention Alerts. When your buds detect a sound that may require your attention, such as dog barks, baby cries, or an emergency siren, your earbuds will automatically lower the volume of your content—indicated by a chime sound. This is especially useful if you’ve got a pretty hectic household to keep track of, though the feature can be disabled if desired.
Winner: Google Pixel Buds (2020)
Need the best mic? Go with Google
The AirPods (2019) has excellent microphone quality, and sounds better than most of the competition. This clear vocal transmission is attributed to the plethora of sensors and accelerometers crammed into each ‘bud. Google uses very similar technology, and its microphone system also plays well with nearly all voices. No matter which headset you’re using, the person on the other line is bound to recognize you’re speaking from a pair of headphones, rather than directly through your smartphone, but speech intelligibility is great on with both the Pixel Buds and AirPods. Take a quick listen for yourself.
Apple AirPods (2019) microphone demo:
New Google Pixel Buds (2020) microphone demo:
Since the Google Pixel Buds do a slightly better job of transmitting voices while attenuating background noise, we’re giving this round to Google. That said, software updates have been known to improve microphone quality, so this is subject to change throughout both earbuds’ lifecycles.
Winner: You can decide by voting!
Both offer reliable connection strength
Let’s wander into the world of Bluetooth codec alphabet soup. The Google Pixel Buds (2020) and Apple AirPods (2019) are both Bluetooth 5.0 headsets that support the same codecs, AAC and SBC. This is a little disappointing, since the new Pixel Buds are intended for Android users, and AAC doesn’t always play nice with Android phones. While this is a bummer, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker as SBC has come a long way in just a few years.
No matter what headset you get, connection strength is excellent. Google uses long-range wireless technology to remain connected through three rooms when inside, though room size definitely makes a difference here, and they can stay connected up to the length of an American football field when outdoors. While this isn’t the most practical feature, it does have a niche use: outdoor athletes who use their community tracks can leave their phones at one end of the field, while doing circuit training on the other end.
Apple’s earphones don’t have this same long-range technology but do, however, have a trick up their sleeves: audio sharing. Technically, this is a feature of iOS whereby a single iPhone can simultaneously share audio to two Apple headsets. This means you and, say a friend using the Beats Powerbeats Pro, can listen to the same audio, something Android can’t do. The AirPods also stay well connected and can easily hop back and forth between iOS devices, thanks to the H1 chip.
With iOS 14, the AirPods now feature automatic device switching, allowing you to seamlessly move from one Apple device to another, without having to go through any cumbersome pairing process—so long as you’re signed in with the same Apple ID across all your devices. Unfortunately, the Pixel Buds don’t support for Bluetooth multipoint or automatic device switching, forcing you to disconnect from your primary device in order to connect with another.
No matter; the pairing processes are very simple with either headset and their respective platforms (e.g. pairing Apple AirPods with an iPhone or Google Pixel Buds with a Google Pixel smartphone). This experience is dependent on the operating system you use, so we’re calling this a draw.
The Google Pixel Buds (2020) have better battery life
This is the most straightforward category to breakdown. We subject every relevant audio product to the same battery test. In this case, the Google Pixel Buds (2020) outlasted the Apple AirPods (2019) by 2 hours; the Pixel Buds (2020) supply 6 hours, 8 minutes of playtime on a single charge while the AirPods supply just 4 hours, 7 minutes before depletion. Both support quick charging, though: 10 minutes of charge to Google’s earbuds yields two hours of playtime, while 15 minutes of charging the AirPods yields three hours of listening time. All this is to say, fast charging is equally efficient.
At WWDC 2020, Apple announced a slew of updates to the AirPods line, including Optimized Battery Charging. This feature will allow the AirPods to observe a user’s charging routing, so the earbuds don’t top up to 100% every time they’re placed in the case. Instead, the case will only charge the buds to 80% capacity, thereby extending the lifespan of the headset. We won’t know, however, how effective this is until iOS 14 is released.
Both charging cases supply an additional 24 hours of listening on a single charge, so you’re unlikely to run into a situation where there’s zero playtime left. The Apple AirPods (2019) are holding dearly to the company’s proprietary Lightning input, while the Google Pixel Buds use the more universal USB-C input. That in tandem with better standalone playtime, and default wireless charging support makes this an easy win for Google.
Winner: Google Pixel Buds (2020)
The Pixel Buds are better for blocking out background noise
The new Google Pixel Buds (2020) block out more noise than the AirPods, just another positive aspect of the distinguished nozzles. Google didn’t have to overcompensate for a lack of seal by egregiously amplifying bass notes. Instead, the earbuds rely on the interchangeable ear tips to do work and passively blocking out background noise, but more on that in the sound quality section.
For a secure fit, get the Google Pixel Buds and don’t look back.
A nozzle-free build does have its benefits, as it applies to environmental awareness. The AirPods keep you keenly aware of swerving cars, speeding cyclists, and more. Google’s new Pixel Buds take note of these benefits by adding a spatial vent to the underbelly of each housing to let background noise pass through. The benefit to Google’s design is that it’s the best of both worlds and provides improved sound quality while keeping listeners vigilant.
Winner: Google Pixel Buds (2020)
Google’s Pixel Buds (2020) sound better than the AirPods
While both headsets boast cutting-edge hardware and software, they’re ultimately earbuds. Since you’ll be spending $140 or more, they can’t just look good; they need to sound good too.
Objectively speaking, the Pixel Buds (2020) take the cake, which comes back to the seal created by the ear tips. Even before we post charts, we should point out that the sound you’ll hear with AirPods won’t reflect what we found in our tests because they don’t seal to your ear canal—firing sound off the folds and creases of your ear, and making it very difficult to get a good result. In our experience, you will very rarely achieve peak performance (if ever). Remember this when you look at the AirPods’ performance plot.
Because these earphones don’t seal to your ear, the Google Pixel Buds’ sound is much better than that of the AirPods, because it reproduces audio—particularly the low and midrange notes—with greater accuracy. There’s also less opportunity for auditory masking to occur, which is when noise masks some of your music. Ever notice that a subway or airplane engine makes your music harder to hear? That’s what’s happening there. The better your earphones isolate (or cancel), the better chance they have at sounding good.
While neither set of earphones are “perfect,” both models target different philosophies of consumer-friendly sound. Both are far from accurate—the AirPods treble response is truer to existing standards than the Pixel Buds—but both fall in line with what general consumers prefer.
The AirPods greatly emphasize bass notes, which yields inaccurate audio reproduction. Plus, the AirPods frequency response chart doesn’t tell the whole tale because it was measured in a controlled environment, and don’t do much of anything to seal your ear canal. The second you step onto a subway platform, or even into a crowded corner store, the bass notes will become masked by louder, external noises. This will also affect midrange and treble clarity, and sully sound quality altogether. You will rarely have a consistent audio performance with the AirPods.
Winner: Google Pixel Buds (2020)
Suffice to say, Google won most battles and thus, the war when it comes to our Apple AirPods vs. Google Pixel Buds (2020) showdown. While it’s true that the new Pixel Buds prove the better option for most consumers, the fact remains that the AirPods are still a fine option for iPhone owners. Operation is as fluid as it gets when using the AirPods with iOS devices, and microphone quality is stellar.
That said, if you’re drawn to the fit of the Pixel Buds but want to keep within the Apple family, look into the Apple AirPods Pro. These are among our favorite noise cancelling true wireless earbuds, and they make huge improvements over the design of the first and second-generation AirPods. The drawback is that the Apple AirPods Pro run quite a bit more than either headset in question today, costing $250.
Android users looking for true wireless earbuds with ANC should turn their attention to Sony for the WF-1000XM3, is available for around $230. If you want to save a little cash, the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro is another alternative to consider. It features good isolation, active noise cancellation, decent sound quality, and support for AAC and the Samsung Scalable Codec—all for under $200.
Frequently Asked Questions
Although the Google Pixel Buds (2020) sport an IPX4 water-resistance rating, they aren't the most durable buds on the market. For serious gym rats, check our list of the best true wireless workout earbuds!
First, make sure your AirPods are in its charging case. With the lid open, tap the white button at the back of the case to enter pairing mode. Hold the AirPods near your Android device and inside your Bluetooth settings, your AirPods should appear in the list of available devices. Tap on the AirPods to connect and after a few seconds, you should be good to go! For more information, check out our ultimate guide on how to use AirPods!
IP rating, or Ingress Protection, is a standardized rating system that manufacturers use to guarantee a product's ability to withstand water, sweat, and dust. Because Apple's AirPods aren't designed with any guarantee to resist sweat, we don't recommend working out with them, at the risk of you losing your investment.
Unfortunately, neither company offers software EQ features. Your best bet would be to use the EQ built into your music streaming service of choice, such as Spotify.