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AirPods Pro vs. Echo Buds: Is $250 really worth it for Apple's wireless earbuds?

When it comes to true wireless earbuds, should you spend $250 on the AirPods Pro or much less on the Echo Buds? We'll help you decide.

Apple's AirPods Pro offer noise cancellation, water resistance and an adjustable fit. But at $249 (£249, AU$399), they cost a pretty penny -- especially when you consider Amazon's less expensive Echo Buds. At $130 (£120, not yet available in Australia), they're much cheaper than the AirPods Pro even though they have a lot of similar features. Let's see how these true wireless earbuds compare when it comes to design, sound quality, features, user experience and, of course, overall value.

Read more: Best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds of 2020   

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

The AirPods Pro sound much better than the original AirPods and they are the better pick of the two if you want the best sound out of the box. Noise cancellation does a superb job at blocking out more sound from the external world and it's a lot more immersive when you're listening to music, podcasts or making calls. The AirPods Pro also works seamlessly with iPhone and iOS devices, so if you're in the Apple ecosystem already, this is your top choice. Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Though default audio quality and noise cancellation isn't as good as the AirPods Pro, the Echo Buds still sound great. They also have an incredible value proposition, and with the holidays coming up I predict even more savings. (I'd consider it a steal if the Echo Buds are discounted to $99 or lower.) It also offers a lot more customization and control over features no matter what phone you use thanks to the Alexa app, so regardless of whether you have an iPhone or an Android, the Echo Buds are a great choice. Read our Amazon Echo Buds review.

How we tested

AirPods fit comfier and slimmer  

Both the AirPods and Echo Buds have swappable silicone ear tips to get the fit right for your ear for a small, medium or large ear canal. But the Echo Buds also come with three additional wingtips so they can fit even more securely in your ear. This is especially useful when you're doing physical activities like working out or running. If you're unsure what size you are, both earbuds have an ear tips test you can take to determine your size.

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The Amazon Echo Buds.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Though it ultimately depends on the individual to know which earbud is more comfortable for them, I found that the AirPods Pro were better for extended wear, such as anything more than two to five hours. Though the Echo Buds felt fine during the first two hours, anything beyond that and I had to give my ears a little break.

While using the earbuds, both stayed in place and felt fine while I worked out. It's a drag that both buds lack any sort of physical volume control, though you can skip and rewind songs (more on that later). They're both rated IPX4 for water resistance, so while you can't swim with them, you can sweat or run in the rain with them.

As for the cases, the AirPods case is slimmer than the Echo Buds and feature wireless charging in addition to the Lightning port. The Echo Buds, meanwhile, only charge with Micro-USB, which is pretty outdated considering many phones and accessories connect with USB Type-C. 

Winner: The AirPods Pro is better for long listens and the charging case is smaller and can charge wirelessly.

AirPods Pro excel at sound quality and active noise canceling

Overall, the AirPods Pro sounded more rounded and balanced for me without tweaking any sound settings in an equalizer. That's because the Echo Buds had slightly more bass on its default settings, and while that meant that the low end came off punchier, some of the mids and trebles got a little bit lost. Of course, you can change the sound profile of both of the buds by using the equalizer in the Alexa app or whatever app you're using to listen to music on the AirPods Pro. I was still very impressed with the sound from the Echo Buds though.

For noise cancellation, the AirPods Pro use Apple's proprietary technology, while the Echo Buds use active noise reduction from Bose. Testing both of these on an airplane flight, I found that while there wasn't a huge difference between the two, the AirPods Pro suppressed the engine noise slightly more than the Echo Buds so it had a more immersive, closed-off feel. I also heard more of a white noise hiss from the Echo Buds while I was using the noise reduction mode, which is something to take note of if you have sensitive hearing.

I also had a superior experience with the AirPods Pro during phone calls. We conducted a blind call test and when I called my phone partner with the AirPods Pro, I reportedly sounded clearer and my voice was more isolated. With the Echo Buds, on the other hand, the person on the other line picked up a little more external sound and said I sounded more tinny and echoey (no pun intended). On my end all the phone calls sounded fine, but I preferred the slight isolation from the AirPods Pro. 

Keep in mind that both earbuds do have a mode that lets external sound come through, which is handy if you want to remain aware of your outside surroundings. On Apple the feature is called Transparency, and on the Echo Buds it's called Passthrough.

Winner: Audio from music and calls sound better on the AirPods Pro without any tweaks from an EQ. It's also better at cancellation on flights, but both do a good job of blocking out noise from regular environments like an office.

AirPods Pro and Echo Buds have similar battery life

All in all, both devices had comparable battery times. Playing music continuously on loop at a moderate volume, the AirPods Pro lasted 4 hours, 56 minutes with noise cancellation on. The case holds a total charge time of 24 hours so you'll be able to recharge them around 4.5 times before needing to juice up the case itself. On similar settings, the Echo Buds lasted 5 hours, 17 minutes and its case holds a total of 20 hours of listening time.

Our other AirPods Pro listening test managed to get 5 hours, 9 minutes from the earbuds. 

Winner: With a playtime difference of just 21 minutes, this one is a tie.

Alexa beats Siri with more smart features

The Echo Buds does have a significant edge over the AirPods Pro when it comes to the voice assistant, specifically Alexa. More fully fledged and functioning than Siri on the AirPods Pro, you can activate Alexa Skills using your voice. (For instance, you can start a seven-minute workout skill by saying that out loud. The microphone on the Echo Buds will pick that up and you can begin a workout with prompts in your ear in no time.) In addition, while I personally didn't get the update at the time of this piece, some Echo Buds users are reporting extra fitness options within the Alexa app, such as the option to track distances and time elapsed in their ears. Echo Buds can also be used with Siri if you have an iPhone and Google Assistant if your phone runs Android.

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You can access Siri through the microphone on your AirPods Pro.

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

I did have some intermittent issues with Alexa maintaining a consistent connection with my phone, even though I was in relatively the same place (it actually cut my seven-minute workout down to a two-minute workout). Other times Alexa just straight up didn't hear me. There'd be times when I'd be standing alone by myself or in a crowd yelling out, "Alexa!" trying to get it to activate, which was quite awkward.

The AirPods Pro work with Android phones in a more limited capacity and you won't get access to Siri, or be able to customize controls on the stem. With Siri on the AirPods Pro connected to an iPhone, the buds you can do pretty much everything you would expect and they can announce messages when they come in. If you're a more private person, Alexa allows you to turn off the mic on your Echo Buds and you can disable Siri from being activated with a wake word.

Winner: With more smart features (and potentially more in the pipeline), Alexa on Echo Buds is handier than Siri on the AirPods Pro.

The Alexa app makes setting up the Echo Buds a breeze

But connectivity and the initial setup of the AirPods Pro on an iPhone is also more seamless because of the H1 chip; you just pop open the lid to the case near your phone and it instantaneously connects. The Echo Buds take a bit more time, just because you have to open the Alexa app, although the process isn't difficult at all. You also can control and customize tap controls on the buds with the Alexa app (there is no app for the AirPods Pro, although you can access customizations through the iOS Bluetooth menus). 

Like I mentioned before, the AirPods Pro have controls on the stem that you can pinch to trigger actions like skipping tracks or summoning Siri. Both earbuds pause music when you take them out of your ear and also work independently for calls.

Winner: With the Alexa app, I enjoy having much more control over features and settings.

Originally published Dec. 2019.