Early in October, I got my hands on a pair of Google Pixel Buds Pro for the first time. While the earbuds aren’t exactly new, they did get a handy feature bump alongside the Pixel 8 reveal. Moreover, the Pixel Bud Pro are arguably a major step up for me.
For the last couple of years, I’ve used Microsoft’s Surface Earbuds as my primary wireless earbuds. I’ve tried other earbuds throughout that time, but few were able to pull me away from the Surface Earbuds. It’s not that the Surface Earbuds sound particularly great (they’re fine) or have stand-out features (they don’t, unless you count the ability to control your PowerPoint presentations). The Surface Earbuds don’t even have active noise cancellation (ANC) and cost a whopping $259.99.
I don’t write this to disparage the Surface Earbuds. After all, I did use them for years, and they generally worked well throughout that time despite, for all intents and purposes, being very basic wireless earbuds. Looking back, there were two things the Surface Earbuds did exceedingly well.
First, they were extremely comfortable. Unlike most earbuds, which have a silicon tip that goes into your ear canal, the Surface Earbuds have a flat tip that sits just outside the ear canal. When you put them in, you need to twist the buds slightly so the ‘lock’ into your ear. It’s a bit tough to explain, but in practice, I found I could wear the Surface Earbuds for hours with minimal discomfort.
The other thing the Surface Earbuds did really well was offering a large surface for touch controls. It made it super easy to control my music or podcasts, which was well worth the tradeoff of looking like I had mini Starlink dishes jammed in my ears.
Why do I bring all this up? Well, after a couple of weeks of using the Pixel Buds Pro, I’ve found they still don’t compare on the comfort level with the Surface Earbuds.
Don’t misunderstand, there’s a lot to love about the Pixel Buds Pro and, so far, I really like them. ANC is a great feature, especially on the occasional days I commute into the office on the train, noise cancellation really helps cut out the noise. It makes for a much more peaceful commute.
But to make ANC work well, the Pixel Buds Pro need a decent seal, which means those awful silicon tips. With the Pixel Buds Pro, by the end of my roughly hour and 15-minute train ride, I need to take the buds out and give my ears a break. The Surface Buds didn’t help cut the train noise, but I could comfortably wear them while walking from the train station to the MobileSyrup office, and keep them in all day long if I wanted.
As much as I like ANC, I’ve also found I only like it in certain situations. The design of the Surface Earbuds tips means they don’t do much to muffle external sound, which is good and bad. But with the Pixel Buds, the silicon tips still muffle sound compared with ANC off. And the transparency mode that pipes external sound into my ears just isn’t pleasant to use.
While these are knocks against the Pixel Buds Pro, it’s worth noting they’re tradeoffs. Sure, my Surface Earbuds are more comfy, but they don’t do anything to isolate or reduce noise. Moreover, the Pixel Buds Pro have several more features that I make use of frequently.
For example, there’s multipoint, which allows me to connect the Pixel Buds Pro to multiple devices at the same time. That makes it fairly easy to jump between listening to music on my phone to a meeting on my laptop with minimal fuss. Admittedly, multipoint isn’t perfect and I’ve had some issues getting the buds to switch from one device to another, but I’m happy to have the feature regardless.
The Pixel Buds Pro can also read my notifications to me, which is quite handy, it has find my device capabilities if I misplace the buds, Clear Calling and the case has wireless charging. Plus, the recent firmware update added more helpful capabilities like Bluetooth Super Wideband support for clearer call audio and a hearing wellness tool.
Conversation mode is pretty good
There’s also the newly added conversation mode, which uses AI to detect speech and switch the Pixel Buds Pro from ANC to transparency mode so you can hear the conversation. It will also automatically pause playing media.
I had some doubts about how well conversation mode would work, but honestly, it’s been pretty good. That said, there are some notable limitations that definitely take the feature from ‘must-have’ to ‘it’s fine.’ First, the conversation mode only seems to activate when I speak. This makes sense — you wouldn’t want conversation mode coming on every time it heard talking — but it does mean the feature only works when I initiate a conversation, much to my wife’s perpetual annoyance (the ANC makes it hard for her to get my attention when I’m working).
I’ve found conversation mode is pretty good at only coming on when I talk, though I’ve had a handful of accidental activations triggered by my sneezing or coughing. Thankfully, you can turn off conversation mode with a quick tap on the Pixel Buds Pro.
The only other issue I’ve found with the conversation mode is that the time it stays active can be frustratingly short. For example, in one test I did while grabbing a slice of pizza for lunch, conversation mode came on and allowed me to chat with the cashier while placing my order. But conversation mode ended, and the music and ANC came back on while I waited for my slice, so I couldn’t hear when my name was called.
Ultimately, the feature set and access to ANC will keep the Pixel Buds Pro as a staple in my pocket for the foreseeable future. However, I plan to keep my Surface Earbuds handy too, for the times when I don’t want ANC and would benefit from a more comfortable listening experience.
Given the Pixel Buds Pro also cost $259.99 in Canada, I can’t recommend buying the Surface Earbuds at all. For the money, you get significantly more features and value out of the Pixel Buds Pro. That said, if you struggle with earbuds using silicon tips like the Buds Pro, and if you don’t care about ANC, it might be worth trying the Surface Earbuds just to see if they work better for your ears.