When in the market for true wireless earbuds, people are often directed to choose between Apple or Google. While active noise cancelling (ANC) increasingly finds its way into every tier of the headphones market, we’re going to look at two exceptions worth considering. The Google Pixel Buds A-Series and Apple AirPods (3rd generation) lack ANC and serve two different customers. Let’s inspect what they have in common and where they diverge.
Editor’s note: this versus article was updated to replace the AirPods (2nd generation) with the AirPods (3rd generation) to compare it to the Pixel Buds A-Series.
Is the Pixel Buds A-Series a better design than the Apple AirPods?
Pretty much the only design elements the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Google Pixel Buds A-Series have in common is that they are both true wireless earbuds, and they both have portable charging cases that will easily fit in your pocket.
Related: What makes a good set of in-ears?
The AirPods has a stemmed design that helps secure the buds in your ears, though it does not come with silicone ear tips or support the ability to install them. This makes the AirPods one-size-fits-most, but not all ears are the same so you’ll likely experience instability or discomfort when wearing the buds. For the latest AirPods (3rd generation) Apple took some cues from its user base and finally gave the buds an IPX4 rating against sweat. This means you can technically exercise with the AirPods, but the unstable fit doesn’t make it a perfect choice.
Unlike the AirPods, the Google Pixel Buds A-Series doesn’t have stems, opting for the more traditional true wireless earbuds look. However, its wing attachments are not removable. The Pixel Buds A-Series could create issues similar to the AirPods, due to its assumption that one size will fit most ears. Still, the wing tips have some flex making it more universal in fit. The Pixel Buds A-Series comes with a selection of differently sized silicone ear tips so you can customize the fit to some degree here. The Google earbuds are IPX4 certified as well, so this is the better option for working out due to the more stable fit.
Does Apple or Google offer more connectivity options?
The AirPods (3rd generation) and Google Pixel Buds A-Series use Bluetooth 5.0 and support the same Bluetooth codecs, SBC and AAC. All smartphones support SBC as the default codec. While both Android and iOS devices support AAC, only iOS can efficiently encode and decode the codec, whereas performance varies on Anrdoid depending on the connected hardware. If you want to enjoy consistent, high-quality audio from either the AirPods or Pixel Buds A-Series, your best bet is to pair it with an iPhone.
Is it easy to connect the AirPods to an iPhone? What about to an Android phone?
Connecting the AirPods (3rd generation) to an iPhone is an entirely different experience than connecting it to an Android phone. With an iPhone, you’ll simply open the AirPods case and a card will pop up on your phone prompting you to pair the device. Once you’ve paired your AirPods with one device, it will automatically pair to every device connected to your iCloud account. This is thanks to the Apple H1 chip embedded in the AirPods. The connection strength is pretty reliable when hooked up to an iPhone, and it’s unlikely that you’ll experience any stutters when listening to music.
To connect your AirPods to an Android phone, open the charging case and hold down the button on the back. This will put the AirPods into pairing mode and you’ll then be able to select it from your Android’s Bluetooth menu. Because the H1 Chip does not improve performance with Android devices, AirPods basically functions like any other set of true wireless buds using AAC or SBC. This means you can end up with more latency than AirPods connected to an iOS device.
How can you connect the Pixel Buds A-Series to a phone?
The Google Pixel Buds A-Series is less exclusive when it comes time to connect it to a smartphone. Regardless of the operating system, you’ll connect the buds by opening the case and pressing the button on the back. The Pixel Buds A-Series maintains a stable connection but unfortunately doesn’t support Bluetooth multipoint or anything like the AirPods’ automatic iCloud pairing.
What software features does each pair of earbuds offer?
Like most aspects of the AirPods (3rd generation), the experience of controlling it varies from iPhone to Android phone. With either handset, you can pause, play, skip tracks, and answer calls with the touch controls, but only the iPhone supports auto pause/play. Also, only with iOS can you access your smart assistant Siri with a simple “Hey Siri,” though on Android you can double-tap the side of your AirPods earpiece to access Google Assistant. You can’t control the volume directly from the AirPods (3rd generation). If you have an iPhone, you can ask Siri to turn it down, but otherwise, you need to reach for your phone.
As for additional software features, the Apple AirPods offers Audio Sharing, which lets you stream the same audio to two separate pairs of Apple headsets. It also is compatible with Apple’s Spatial Audio feature, which mimics surround sound. A key difference between the latest generation of AirPods and previous generations is the inclusion of a Spatialize Stereo feature. The main difference is that Spatial Audio is mixed by professionals, and Spatialize Stereo applies algorithms to simulate a mix. The AirPods (3rd generation) includes a head tracking function that pans audio in accordance with your head position. All of these software bells and whistles are only available on iOS.
The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) is best used with an iPhone and the Google Pixel Buds A-Series is best used with an Android phone.
The touch controls on the Google Pixel Buds A-Series let you play, pause, skip forward a track, skip back a track, and access your smart assistant of choice. You unfortunately cannot adjust the volume via the earbuds. When you pair the Pixel Buds A-Series to an Android device, you’ll be instructed to download the Google Pixel Buds app in order to access software features. Through the app, you can track your Pixel Buds A-Series’ location, switch between the default sound profile and the Bass Boost one, and activate in-ear detection. On Android, you’ll also be able to use the Google Pixel Buds A-Series to translate languages, though this mandates a few requirements.
One of the most notable features of the Google Pixel Buds A-Series, Adaptive Sound is available only on Android through the Pixel Buds app. Adaptive Sound senses the level of environmental sound around you and automatically adjusts the volume to mask the background noise. It’s debatable whether or not this feature is actually useful because it can be annoying to have your volume level constantly changing. Furthermore, it’s not healthy for your eardrums to blast music so loud it drowns out ambient noise. The feature is most helpful for phone calls, and you can disable it anytime in the app.
Does the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or Google Pixel Buds A-Series have better battery life?
The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) charges via Lightning USB, MagSafe, and standard wireless charging. It lasts 6 hours, 21 minutes on a single charge. The case provides up to four additional charges, totaling approximately 30 hours of listening. The AirPods also supports quick charging, providing 60 minutes of listening time after 5 minutes in the case. In order to preserve the battery, the buds can use an optimized charging mode that only charges up to 80% of the battery capacity once it learns your habits.
The Google Pixel Buds A-Series charges via USB-C and does not support wireless charging. It lasts 4 hours, 44 minutes on a single charge when continuously outputting 75dB(SPL) audio. To quick charge the Pixel Buds A-Series, pop the buds in the case for 15 minutes for 180 minutes of listening or 90 minutes of talking. The charging case also holds additional juice giving you a total of 24 hours of listening time or 12 hours of talking time.
Does the Google Pixel Buds A-Series block out more noise than the AirPods (3rd generation)?
Neither the Apple AirPods nor Google Pixel Buds A-Series has active noise cancelling, and neither headset has very effective passive isolation either.
Because the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) doesn’t have any mechanism to create a seal to your ears, others will hear your music and you’ll hear others speak. While some could consider this a safety feature because it ensures you’re aware of your surroundings, many people find it annoying because it messes with the quality of the headset’s audio. However, if you hate the clogged-ear feeling of conventional earbuds, the absence of silicone ear tips may be just what you’re looking for.
The Google Pixel Buds A-Series’ isolation is not quite as bad as the AirPods’, but it still isn’t good. Low-frequency sounds will be almost fully audible, but this tends to be the case with many non-ANC buds. Higher-frequency ambient sounds will be muted a bit more but these earbuds are definitely designed to keep you more aware of your surroundings than not.
Which pair of earbuds has better sound quality?
The AirPods (3rd generation) places a decent amount of emphasis on the bass frequencies, but without proper isolation, these tones can get drowned out through auditory masking. With an unsealed fit, your mileage may vary with bass, as it tends to be the first frequency region lost to auditory masking. Through the mids the AirPods follows our house curve fairly closely, meaning it’ll sound good. The highs are more boosted, though they taper off quickly above 10kHz.
The Google Pixel Buds A-Series offers two frequency responses: the default setting and a Bass Boost setting, selectable within the Google Pixel Buds app. The default frequency response is unusual and under-emphasizes bass frequencies while boosting high frequencies. While this frequency response is not ideal for most modern genres of music, it provides good clarity for speech and phone calls—bass notes are simply not necessary for speech intelligibility. The Pixel Buds A-Series’ Bass Boost frequency response is more suitable for listening to music and more closely follows the SoundGuys‘ house curve.
Learn more: What is frequency response?
It’s also worth noting that the Pixel Buds A-Series originally had volume issues when paired with certain Android smartphones and Windows computers. On these devices without Pixel Buds A-Series firmware version 233, the Google buds’ maximum output volume is roughly one-fifth quieter than your average pair of true wireless earbuds. The issue is fixable if you go into your Android’s developer settings and with the firmware version 233 and above, but it would be much nicer if the issue didn’t exist at all.
Is the Google Pixel Bud A-Series or Apple AirPods (3rd generation) better for phone calls?
The AirPods (3rd generation) microphone is pretty decent for true wireless earbuds and will get you through both casual phone calls and the occasional conference call. Noise suppression ranks as one of the better options out there. It’s certainly not a voiceover quality mic, however, and can sometimes mistake an office sound for your voice and cancel it out.
The Google Pixel Buds A-Series houses two microphones in each earbud to help with speech clarity. The Pixel Buds A-Series’s mic array also rejects background noise pretty well, though it sometimes mutes vocals along with the background noise. You can determine for yourself which headset’s microphone sounds better:
Apple AirPods (3rd generation) microphone sample (Office):
Google Pixel Buds A-Series microphone sample:
Should you buy the Apple AirPods (3rd generation) or Google Pixel Buds A-Series?
The Apple AirPods (3rd generation) and Google Pixel Buds A-Series are pretty on par as pairs of true wireless earbuds. They come at a similar price, and while neither of them isolates sound very well, some people look specifically for that feature. If you’re partial to a certain earbud design—stemmed or non-stemmed, or with wings—you may see a clear winner of this versus. Otherwise, some notable differences between the two are that the Pixel Buds A-Series has various sized ear tips for a better fit. The AirPods (3rd generation) battery life is better than the Pixel Buds A-Series’, and the AirPods support MagSafe charging and the A-Series case doesn’t.
If you have an iPhone, it’s probably a better idea to get the AirPods than the Pixel Buds A-Series. You’ll get access to multipoint connectivity, a stronger Bluetooth connection, more efficient battery life, and Spatialize feature. If you have an Android device, you’ll probably want to go with the Google Pixel Buds A-Series, especially if you want access to features like Adaptive Sound, hands-free voice assistant access, or real-time translation.