An 800ppi iPhone Display (or, why AirPods Max look lovely, but aren’t for me)

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

The original iPhone had a 3.5” display at 480x320px resolution, or 163 points per inch (ppi). The iPhone 12 as a 6.1” display at 2,532x1,170px resolution, or 460ppi. Pretty much everyone with good eyesight would agree that the iPhone 12 display looks much sharper than the original iPhone.


What if Apple released the iPhone 13 next year with an 800ppi screen? Assuming all other things about the display were equal (including power draw), it would be unquestionable that this new display was better, right? We could do the basic math and see there were more pixels, we could hold it up to our eyes and make out more detail in small things on the screen, and we could put it under a microscope to really appreciate the difference from the iPhone 12’s paltry 460ppi.

I would also contend that none of that would matter because most people would not be able to tell the difference. We can’t “see the pixels” right now, so making pixels even smaller doesn’t really move the needle.

I’m only speaking for myself here, but I suspect many are like me, but the rough equivalents for me in headphone audio is:

  • Standard AirPods are like the original iPhone’s 163ppi screen; acceptable, but not ideal
  • AirPods Pro are like the iPhone 4’s Retina screen; much better, but I can occasionally see the limits
  • Sony WH-1000XM3s are like the iPhone 12’s 460ppi screen; it’s right around the top of what I can distinguish

I’ve listened to higher end headphones before, which it seems the AirPods Max are comparable to, and hand to my heart, just like the theoretical 800ppi iPhone screen of the future, I could not tell the difference. There was a little bit of placebo effect going on as I knew I was supposed to think the more expensive ones were better, but honestly it mostly sounded a bit different, but not particularly better.

But that’s not to say I think AirPods Max are bad or unnecessary. The fact that I can’t tell the difference between $300 and $1,000 headphones doesn’t mean I don’t think anyone can. I do think there is a good deal of snake oil salesmanship in high end audio, but I don’t think AirPods Max fall into that category. If you got AirPods Max and enjoy them, congrats, I hope you love them! I personally would rather put that money towards something I can much more clearly see the advantage it brings to my life.