With any speaker, headphones, or listening/playback device, the question you always want to ask is--what are you missing? Poor quality sports earbuds that cost $20 will not reproduce a Radiohead song adequately. If you watch The Avengers movie, the surround-sound will seem like a swirl of noise and mayhem. You pay more to hear more.
That's why, when I tested out the new Apple AirPods this past week, I wanted to make sure they produce audio that is distinct enough to warrant the extra purchase. For $159, you're paying for some technical wizardry (for example, they sync to your iPhone or iPad in about one second using low power Bluetooth 4.0 and you can talk to Siri with a double-tap), but you're mostly listening to music all day. For that price, I'd want decent music, movie, and podcast playback that competes with other earbuds I've tested.
Curiously, my main discovery is that Apple designed the earbuds to fit comfortably, securely, and firmly in the ear. That helps tremendously. Most of my favorite bands, everything from Wilco to Bastille, sounded just about right. You can hear an upper registry guitar that was not as obvious on other earbuds, discern notes on the bass (instead of an obnoxious thump), and hear every cymbal tap. My sense is that the AirPods are worth the money, even if a few more costly competitors reveal some minor issues.
For comparison, I used the standard earbuds included with the iPhone 7, the Phiaton BT 220 NC noise-canceling earbuds ($142 on Amazon, which is a good deal) that also connect over Bluetooth, the Audiofly AF180 Universal In-Ear Monitor wired earbuds ($500), and the Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature Headphones ($900). What can I say? I wanted a wide range of quality and price points, and I really like music.
One of my test songs is called "Dragged Out" by Chelsea Wolfe. There's a harp-like sound in the intro, then a grungy guitar. I've tested this song in a Mercedes-Benz S550 with 13 speakers blasting and it transports you to another realm. Importantly, the AirPods handled this orchestral pummeling quite nicely. A bell rings off in the distance, you look up and wonder if the hell-hounds are coming. Nice. On the very next song, things are slightly different. "Maw" is more subtle. The distortion is slightly less convincing on the AirPods. On the Bowers & Wilkins P9, there's an acoustic chamber effect, mostly thanks to the full-size headphones. It feels like someone pulled a Marshall amp up next to you and hit a power chord. The Phiaton set also provided better bass.
The song "Free" by Broods is a great one for testing moody, pulsing synth. The glass in your house shakes a little when you use floorstanding speakers and a sub. The AirPods handled this song perfectly because you hear the synth, not the hum of a guttural subwoofer or the bass resonating in your head. You feel like you can hear the finger presses against a Roland in the left and right channels, evenly distributed.
For movies, I tested one indie and one Hollywood blockbuster. "Captain Fantastic" has subtle audio cues, like a deer chewing on leaves in an opening scene followed by a bloody knife scene. You hear the leaves rustling, water splashing, voices talking. It's fantastic. During one chaotic scene in the movie Suicide Squad involving rapid gunfire, the AirPods faltered a bit. You don't feel like there's a sense of place or position (which is obviously one goal of the movie). On the Phiaton earbuds, it's a little easier to place the audio channels. On the Bowers & Wilkins headphones, the audio is also much easier to identify. You hear shots from the lower left, the middle, and over on the far right. It's more convincing and not so shrill.
I also tested the Audible app listening to the book "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi. There was a pleasing resonance to the narration on the AirPods, something I'd listen to on a plane for sure. On a podcast about the Vikings, the audio sounded good without any distortion..
Most of my test media sounded distinct, so that's the main takeaway. You won't notice as much subwoofer, and the Phiaton earbuds with noise cancelling helped drown out background noise. Only the Bowers & Wilkins proved highly capable of making every instrument on songs by the band How to Dress Well sound like they were placed around the room.
Interference could be a slight issue with the AirPods (as with any wireless device). In a crowded coffee shop with a lot of competing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the wireless signal stuttered a little at times. At home, this never happened, mostly because there aren't that many other signals (I keep most gadgets turned off).
The AirPods provide several other features, of course. I used Siri a few times--you tap twice on either earbuds to activate the voice assistant. Phone calls sounded about the same as they do when you use the iPhone normally, which means no one I called during my test even noticed a difference. The battery life is about five hours per charge, and you can use the case to charge up four more times (for 24 hours of battery total). The case is so small and white, with no strap, that it could be easy to lose. The earbuds snap down into place easily for charging. There's a button that might be easy to miss for syncing Bluetooth to other devices besides the iPhone. (To sync to an Apple phone or tablet, a window pops up and you can tap to sync automatically.)
During my test, I noticed how quickly the AirPods connected to my iPhone. It's instant. You hear a soft chime and you're set. When you take them off, they stop playing music. The chip inside the AirPods is smart enough to the extend battery life, similar to the Beats Powerbeats 3 sports earbuds. It means a lot less charging.
My sense is that the "extras" (battery life, Siri with a double tap) are not as important to people who care more about the back-catalog of The Boxer Rebellion and making sales calls. I'd definitely purchase the AIrPods because of the distinct audio quality. That was my biggest surprise, and one that will probably surprise many other music fans.