Are the earbuds included with your smartphone really worth your time?
Short answer: Not really. If you fly often or sit at a desk all day, you want earbuds that make your day more enjoyable, fit in your ears comfortably to block out background noise, and make your favorite songs sound even better.
Upgrading to a high-end model that costs over $100 from a company like Shure, Denon, or Sennheiser makes sense if you care about audio quality. (Most low-end earbuds cost around $40.) I tested six different models, playing the same songs from artists like Broods and Iceage to make sure they are worth the expense.
1. Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earbuds ($999)
I wanted to make sure I tested an ultra high-end set, comparing them to a few other models. The Shure SE846 wired earbuds sound superior in every way, albeit for a much higher price. If you're like me, you want to know how they are worth $999. The short answer is--you hear more. In my tests, every song sprang to life a bit more, from the pianos to the bass. At the same time, the other earbuds in my round-up are still top of the line models worth considering if you can't justify the high price of the Shure set.
Testing results: On What's Up by How to Dress Well, the pounding piano sound is clear enough that it seems like it is coming from the next room. My best test, though, was the song Dragged Out by Chelsea Wolfe. The intro was much more distinct with the Shure SE846 earbuds than other model. Free by Broods was amazingly full. Cymbal taps on the intro do Can't Stop by Dave Matthews? Near perfect. Every song came alive.
2. Denon AH-C820 ($200)
Another wired set, the Denon AH-C820 use a dual-driver technology that makes the bass sound more realistic and spacious. In my tests, the full organic sound made synth bands like Broods sound much better. That said, the Denon AH-C820 didn't sound as clear as the Shure SE846 set (which cost a lot more) or quite as rich for bass.
Testing results: The bass thump of the song Free by Broods was the highlight of my testing--synths sounded (and felt) organic and warm. Can't Stop by Dave Matthews starts with a classic rock drum pattern emanating around in stereo. But, the song Dragged Out by Chelsea Wolfe didn't have quite the same distinct quality on the intro audio clip. Ecstasy by Iceage wasn't clear enough for me. It was no contest on the song What's Up by How to Dress Well, the Denon AH-C820 had a more organic feel than the Sennheiser HD 1 set.
3. RHA Audio T20i ($200)
For a price that's far less than the top end earbuds I tested from Shure, the wired RH Audio T20i sound clear and fit in your ear nicely. They use a heavier stainless steel in the earbud piece, and that makes the highs from a song sound more pure to my ears. That said, the bass is not as welcoming or warm as the other models, and a few songs didn't quite sound as pristine. And, this earbud set is a little heavy for wearing all day.
Testing results: Good sound quality for the price, and many songs including the one by Chelsea Wolfe, Iceage, and How to Dress Well passed my test for picking up subtle audio sounds missed by many earbuds. The only issue here is the song Free by Broods, which sounded a bit muffled and not full or vibrant, more like hearing the song from a distance.
4. Google PixelBuds ($129)
I've mentioned before that the wireless Google PixelBuds sound amazingly clear with a warm, deep bass. For only $129, this set compares nicely with the other earbuds in this round-up, and they last about five hours on a charge. The only big downside is that a small cord extends in the earpiece and adjusts so you can make them fit in your ear, but they tend to slip out after a while. You can access the Google Assistant bot with a tap, and make phone calls.
Testing results: On the song What's Up by How to Dress Well, the scratching sound mid-song is so realistic you feel like it is coming from a garden shears outside your window. Broods and Chelsea Wolfe both sounded full and organic. It was only on the song Ecstasy that I felt the PixelBuds sounded a bit muddy and washed out--not terrible, not distinct.
5. Apple AirPods ($159)
Sadly, the wireless Apple AirPods ranked at the bottom of the list for audio quality. The set offers a few perks, though. They work with Siri just fine, and the way they sync to your iPhone (you open the case and the iPhone finds them automatically) is super slick.
Testing results: I wasn't impressed by the sound quality on most tracks, even though this set fits firmly in your ear. When I tested the song Ecstasy by Iceage, I knew immediately that the quality is subpar compared to the other models and didn't hear any better results with my other test songs. In truth, they don't sound much better than the included set.
6. Sennheiser HD 1 ($199)
My favorite low-cost set, the wireless Sennheiser HD1 (available for around $170 at some retailers) sound pristine and use noise-canceling to help on a flight. They also use a technology called APT-x that improves Bluetooth sound quality. The battery lasts about six hours per charge. The cord for your neck is longer than most earbuds like the Google PixelBuds, and it can get in the way at times. I really liked how snugly they fit in my ears.
Testing results: In the song Ecstasy by Iceage, there's a little simple cymbal tap you can hear perfectly. Dragged Out, a goth metal song by Chelsea Wolfe, starts with a piercing whine, but good earbuds will pick up on the almost imperceptible clip at the end. The HD 1 earbuds don't provide quite the sonic boom for this song that I expected, though. What the Moon Does by Ben Howard has an atmospheric background clip that was mesmerizing and clear. Free by Broods almost made me select these earbuds with top honors, but didn't sound as full as the Shure SE846 set. Of course, there's an $800 difference in price.