If the rumors are true, Google may give wireless earbuds the old college try once again.
The search giant and Android maker has slowly but surely found its footing as a hardware company in recent years thanks to a series of fantastic Pixel phones. But while Google can at least claim some parity with Apple in terms of phone quality, there’s no competition when it comes to earbuds. AirPods Pro and Beats Fit Pro are simply better than the Pixel Buds A, Google’s best product in that particular market.
But according to tech leaker Jon Prosser, Google is going to launch something called Pixel Buds Pro soon. We have no real info about what they’ll include, but knowing they exist is good enough for now. Whether they’re shown off at Google I/O 2022 or not, it’s time to pontificate about what Google could do to bring its wireless earbuds up to speed with Apple’s best, just like it did with its signature Pixel smartphone.
Active noise cancellation
Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 delivered quality ANC at a low price.
Credit: Molly Flores / Mashable
Not to brag, but sometimes my job is easy. It didn’t take long to figure out the first thing Google needs to do to make the Pixel Buds Pro worth buying.
Neither the Pixel Buds A or the older, more expensive OG Pixel Buds had active noise cancellation at all. They had rubber ear tips that sort of naturally kept noise out as best as they could, but you were still SOL on the subway platform. If Google is really going to slap the word “Pro” on the next set of Pixel Buds, ANC has to be the top priority.
It’s understandable if Google didn’t want to include ANC in the previous Pixel Buds as a cost-saving measure (Pixel Buds A launched at just $100), but that excuse doesn’t really hold water anymore. Both the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 ($150) and Amazon Echo Buds 2 ($120) from 2021 managed to include effective ANC at less than the cost of any pair of new AirPods. Do it, Google. It’s time.
Now just make this happen with tiny earbuds.
Credit: kutberk / Getty Images
This is another one that belongs in the “no-brainer” category. Last year, Apple launched support for spatial audio in Apple Music. Certain songs on that streaming service are marked with a Dolby Atmos logo, which means they’ve been mixed specifically for this feature that essentially makes it sound like the music is happening all around you in a 3D space, rather than just being pushed into your ears through tiny speakers. On top of that, head tracking features give you the ability to change how the song sounds by moving your head around, so it can feel especially like you’re in a studio with your favorite artist instead of just listening to a recording.
To be honest, Apple’s spatial audio implementation is a little hit-and-miss, with some songs sounding great and others sounding substantially worse than they would without spatial support. But having the feature at all is a nice selling point, and pre-release builds of Android 13 already have built-in support for spatial audio with head tracking. With that in mind, it’d be shocking if Pixel Buds Pro didn’t include this feature.
Beats Fit Pro are the gold standard for having an effective, but small, outer touch panel.
Credit: Molly Flores / Mashable
This one is simple and, to be honest, a little subjective on my part. The Pixel Buds A are already pretty comfortable in the ear thanks to silicone ear tips and small rubber ear stabilizer arcs that ensure a secure fit with little need to readjust or worry about them falling out. On that front, Google has already beaten Apple since AirPods still don’t have much holding them in place aside from hopes and dreams.
That said, the Pixel Buds’ Google-branded circular touch panel for basic playback controls is a little ugly. People look a little goofy running around with big circles jutting out from their ear canals. I’d like to see the touch panel downsized or even redesigned entirely so it’s more inconspicuous without losing functionality. Apple’s Beats Fit Pro pull this off pretty successfully, I think, and Google should follow suit.
Better iOS functionality
Amazon Echo Buds 2 play nice with both Android and iOS thanks to an app
One of the dumber things about the wireless earbud market right now is that a kind of quiet device exclusivity still reigns supreme. You can use AirPods on a Pixel phone or Pixel Buds on an iPhone just by virtue of the fact that they’re all Bluetooth-compatible, but to do so is to accept a lot of compromises. In both cases, you can do little beyond merely listen to music. There’s no easy way to download firmware updates or adjust settings because those features are locked behind the software of Apple’s and Google’s respective phones.
We know Apple isn’t going to relent on this approach anytime soon. After all, Android users are still subjected to horrendous green text bubbles in iMessage, a move that feels increasingly like it’s done out of spite as time goes on. But Google can be the bigger person here. There needs to be an iOS app that Pixel Buds Pro users can download to at least fiddle with settings and download updates.
Keep beating Apple on price
It doesn’t have to be all about the Benjamins.
Credit: IronHeart / Getty Images
Now, you might wonder why someone would opt for Pixel Buds at all if they own an iPhone. Well, AirPods are still more expensive than most of the competition. AirPods Pro launched in 2019 and still retail for $250 when they aren’t on sale. We’ve already established that you can save a whole Benjamin Franklin or more on solid ANC-worthy earbuds from other manufacturers, so Google needs to take the same approach.
Maybe that means Pixel Buds Pro won’t have elite sound quality or the hottest bass on the block. That’s fine. I’d love to see better battery life (Pixel Buds A give you about five hours of listening time), but if Google has to maintain that in order to keep the price down, I can live with that, too. It would just be really, really great if Google could pull off a solid pair of ANC wireless earbuds that cost $200 or less.
If Google takes even two or three of the above suggestions to heart, the third time really could be the charm for Pixel Buds and a warning shot for AirPods.