Excellent Remote and Mic; more secure and comfortable; affordable
[Editor’s note: Last week, we posted our initial hands-on impressions of Apple’s new EarPods. Now that we’ve had the EarPods for a week, we’ve expanded on those initial impressions for this formal review.]
It’s become de rigueur to describe Apple’s white earbuds as “ubiquitous” and “iconic”—and justifiably so. Not only are they almost inextricably linked to the company’s iPods and iPhones, but Apple revealed at its recent press event that it had shipped 600 million sets of the headphones, a number that almost certainly makes them the most-used piece of gear in the history of audio reproduction.
Beyond their ubiquity and iconic status, though, Apple’s earbuds have frequently been derided as offering sub-par sound. They’ve also occasionally been praised—despite their mediocre sound quality compared to higher-end headphones, it’s amazing that they sound as good as they do considering that designing good earbuds is inherently difficult, not to mention that Apple produces them at incredible scale and includes them with many products at no additional cost.
Apple has clearly invested significant engineering effort in its earbuds over the years. The product’s history includes several minor revisions, including the addition of a rubberised ring to help the earphones stay in place, and an inline remote/microphone module introduced to complement the iPhone. The company has also made two attempts at premium, after-market headphones, including the long-discontinued Apple In-Ear Headphones (below), and the still-available, $99 dual-driver Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic—with mixed results.
All of that is to say that it didn’t come as a shock when Apple introduced, alongside the iPhone 5, a completely redesigned version of its classic earbuds, the $35 Apple EarPods. (The name is a cute portmanteau of earbuds and iPod, though it’s one that’s been used before by the earPod headphone case.) Still, though Apple is known for its willingness to introduce both evolutionary updates and complete redesigns of its existing products, it’s big news in the audio world when the most pervasive earbuds of all time get replaced with something that’s purportedly much better—Apple says the EarPods have been in the works for three years and boasts that the “audio quality is so superior, they rival high-end headphones that cost hundreds of dollars more.”
(In addition to the $35 retail version, the EarPods are also included with the iPhone 5, fifth generation iPod touch, and seventh generation iPod nano, but not the iPod shuffle, which continues to include the previous Apple earbuds.)
The retail version of the EarPods comes in typically minimalist, white packaging that shows off the product in an included white-and-clear-plastic case, which also acts as a spool for the EarPods’ cord. (That cord is slightly thinner than that of the previous earbuds.) The EarPods’ inline remote/microphone module, located on the right-hand earpiece cable, is slightly larger than that of the previous earbuds, with additional strain relief, bigger buttons that are easier to press, and no visible microphone hole. The three sections of the remote are easy to distinguish, and the buttons have firm, decisive action—this is probably the best in-line remote I’ve used.
The microphone, too, is improved compared to the one on previous Apple earbuds. In my testing, the EarPods’ microphone sounded smoother and more natural without sacrificing clarity; the mic on Apple’s older earbuds sounded a little harsh in comparison. The EarPods’ microphone is even competitive with the iPhone 4’s excellent internal microphone, making it one of the top inline microphones I’ve tested.
The left side of the split cable has a cable slider, which, just like that of the previous Apple earbud headset and of the Apple In-Ear Headphones, can attach to the right-hand cable to adjust fit or to keep the split cord together during storage. The connections between the cables and the earpieces have gained enhanced strain relief.
Speaking of the earpieces, that’s where the action is. The new earpieces have an oblong, roughly teardrop-shaped silhouette rather than the circular silhouette of the previous earbuds. This shape is the result of Apple’s new design process for the EarPods, which was based on taking ear impressions of a large number of individuals and creating an earpiece that would best fit a wide range of ears. The resulting earpieces look a little alien (perhaps appropriate, given the pop-culture association between “pod” and “alien”) and feature two grilles: one on the front face and another over the opening that directs sound into the listener’s ear. The back side of the earpiece (away from your ear canal), and, cleverly, the stem that leads to the cable both feature bass ports that help tune bass and midrange response.
Sound quality aside, one of the most common complaints about Apple’s previous earbuds was that they didn’t stay in listeners’ ears well. That flaw was annoying for the wearer, but it also meant that the earbuds were often positioned in a way that produced poor sound quality. The new design, at least in my ears, offers a much more secure and comfortable fit. The EarPods didn’t fall out due to pesky things like gravity during normal use (although a sharp pull on the cable will dislodge an earpiece).
That said, the EarPods’ fit is still far from perfect, as I discovered when I used them during a workout. Within a minute or two, the right earpiece would work its way out of my ear. Everyone’s ears are different, and your mileage may be better or worse than mine, but within about five minutes, I switched back to my trusty Koss KSC–75 for the rest of the workout. Still, I found the fit of the EarPods was worlds better than that of the old Apple earbuds, and I think that will be the case for most listeners.
Because the EarPods fit deeper in the ear than the previous Apple earbuds, they also offer a bit more isolation from outside noise, and they leak less sound. However, they still pale in comparison to true canalphones and canalbuds, which form an acoustic seal in your ear.
The proof of the pudding
Beyond the better fit, Apple says the EarPods’ clever new shape is designed to “make a headphone that was the very best it could be.” In my initial tests, I was quickly impressed with the EarPods’ audio performance. Bass was always a weak spot of the previous Apple earbuds: It was either nonexistent if you had a poor fit, or overbearing, muddy, and indistinct with a good fit. With the EarPods, bass is much cleaner, with distinct tones, though it’s still muddy and lacks detail—the EarPods seem to attempt to compensate for a lack of bass quality with an abundance of bass quantity. Overall, this is solid bass performance for an earbud, but not up to the level of, say, an inexpensive canalbud or canalphone.
Midrange frequencies sound decent enough and benefit greatly from the improved bass control, although the clarity of the midrange does suffer a bit from the presence of the EarPods’ not-controlled-enough bass. Some instruments also seem to lack body, and thanks to limited midrange detail compared to better headphones, the EarPods aren’t as involving as those products. High frequencies are the standout here, with a clear, natural sound that avoids the harsh, tinny quality of the previous earbuds’ treble, along with enough volume to help them stand out against the EarPods’ bass.
That all may sound like faint praise, but getting good performance out of earbuds is extremely difficult. For this style of headphones, at this price, Apple’s EarPods are impressive, and represent a fantastic upgrade over the previous model. In my experience reviewing headphones, I’ve found that good headphones enhance the listening experience, while bad ones get in the way of it. The previous Apple earbuds got in the way; the EarPods instead fit right in the center of that range—not enhancing the listening experience, but not detracting from it, either.
To better put the EarPods’ performance in perspective, I directly compared them against several other earbud (not in-ear-canal) models. First, I returned to the previous version of Apple’s earbuds, which confirmed my initial impressions of substantial improvement. Bass performance is clearly the older model’s undoing, as it’s too loud and too muddy, and it sabotages midrange and high-frequency performance. Good riddance.
I also tried out two more-expensive earbud models I had on hand for future review. The first was the US$60 Urbanears Medis Plus, which features large drivers and a clever appendage that braces the earpieces against each ear’s antihelix, giving them a firm fit. I immediately noticed that the Medis offered a more distinct sonic picture, with much more sonic “space” between various instruments. Midrange frequencies were much more detailed and full-bodied. The contest between the Medis and the EarPods did not result in a decisive win for the Medis, however: Although the Medis’s bass volume is admirably restrained compared to that of the EarPods, because the Medis’ driver is not as closely coupled to the ear canal, low- and mid-bass frequencies are much quieter than upper bass, so the Medis’s sound lacks body, especially compared to the warm sound of the EarPods. The EarPods also offer high-frequency performance that’s comparable to, or perhaps even better than, that of the Medis. Before the EarPods, I most frequently recommended the Medis as an alternative to Apple’s earbuds, but there’s now a compelling argument that the EarPods offer the better value here—although they can’t match the Medis’s secure fit.
Second, I compared the EarPods to the most-expensive earbuds I’ve used, the US$199 Bang and Olufsen EarSet 3i. The EarSet offers impressive performance for earbuds—as it should at such a high price. High frequencies are crisp and detailed, and the midrange offers excellent clarity and detail. The EarSet also offers a more-secure fit thanks to its impressively engineered ear hooks, which are adjustable at three points to keep each earpiece in place. However, once again, the EarPods have an advantage in low- and mid-bass reproduction due to their closer coupling to the ear canal. Although the EarPods overdo bass, the B&O model sounds thin due to a lack of these bass frequencies. While the EarSet is impressive as a demonstration of what’s possible with earbuds when price is (almost) no object, it also helps underscore the value of the EarPods.
Most people who end up with a pair of EarPods will have received them bundled with another Apple product. While some of them will opt for better sound through third-party headphones, many (most?) people will happily listen to the EarPods, never realising they’re getting a much-improved listening experience compared to Apple’s previous toss-ins.
If you don’t have a set of EarPods, are they worth spending $35 for? In the world of headphones, $35 is fairly inexpensive, and if you’re simply looking to upgrade from existing Apple earbuds, or to replace a lost or broken set, I can recommend the EarPods—they’re easily worth their retail price, especially considering that they include an excellent inline remote/microphone module. Similarly, if you’re committed to using earbuds—because of their convenient size and lack of sonic isolation, for example—the EarPods are a worthy contender: Although there are earbuds available that are better overall, those models come at a significantly higher price, and they usually involve sacrificing a substantial portion of bass frequencies. To improve upon the EarPods’ audio quality without spending a lot more money, you’ll have to look beyond earbud-style models to other types of headphones such as full-size ’phones, canalbuds, and canalphones.