Hi, and welcome to this site, starting with a review of the Apple EarPods.
Yeah, I know. Starting an entirely new blog about audiophile matters with a post about a pair of headphones from Apple just seem wrong. And you’d probably label me as stark raving mad. You’re still free to do so, but I’m still going to make the EarPods the first product reviewed here. Also, I’m going to be ridiculously detailed, so prepare for a wall of text
Had you asked me about it a month ago, I would have said the same. Over the years, I’ve owned a few iPhones and an iPod Nano. The old Apple Earbuds always sat unused in the box the products came with. They really were that terrible. Lacking in bass, muddled mid-range, terrible sound leakage and distorted like nothing else.
In stark contrast, the new headphones are genuinely good – provided you understand what they are and aren’t. No, they’re not going to replace a good high-end IEM or headphone, but they are worth the $29 asking price, even as standalone product.
Out with the old, in with the new
However, it is important to understand a few things about the old headphones, and Apple’s thinking in bundling them (This is of course pure speculation, since I’ve never met Jonathan Ive or Steve Jobs):
Companies like Sony (Ericsson) and HTC have bundled reasonably high-quality In-ear monitors with their products. Apple’s headphones have always been of the open type, which doesn’t create an airtight seal.
Over the years, Apple have sold over 600 million iPhones and iPods, which easily make the Apple Earbuds the most iconic headphone ever, and I suspect the choice of an open earbud-type headphone has been intentional. There are a few upsides to Apple’s design choice:
- Open headphones allow you to remain aware of your surroundings. Provided you aren’t blasting away at uncomfortably loud levels, you’ll be able to hear traffic around you. Which means that you aren’t going to get run over by the bus, and when you pause the music, you can go to Starbucks and order a coffee without shouting at the clerk.
- Fit and comfort. Provided that the headphones stay in place, and they are a reasonable fit for your ear, an open headphone is often more comfortable than a sealing headphone type, for more extensive periods of time
- Sound quality. Yes, Apple sort of failed on that one with the old earbuds, but some of the world’s absolute best headphones, like the Sennheiser HD800 are open headphones with little or no isolation from the world around you. The main advantage to an open headphone is sort of implied by the name: They present a larger sound stage and provide less of the “in your head” experience that a closed headphone or IEM can often provide.
Now, on to the drawbacks:
- You remain aware of your surroundings. This is not always desirable – on public transport or in other situations with noise, you may want to block that out. There are two ways to do that: Provide better isolation – which is what an IEM does, or you can crank up the volume to drown out sounds around you. The latter is a bad option for a number of reasons: An open type headphone tends to not only let outside sounds in, but also leak sound around you, and the poor fellow stuck in the seat next to you might not appreciate your dubstep habits. The other reason is that turning the volume up tends to, long term, be extremely bad for your hearing. Repeated exposure to SPL levels of above 85 dB is considered harmful to your hearing.
- Fit and comfort: A well fitted open type earbud can be extremely comfortable, but ill-fitting earbuds, like many experienced with the old pair, feel like they are going to fall out, or they can cause discomfort and pain when wearing for prolonged periods of time.
- Sound quality. While I mentioned the sonic advantages of open type headphones in the paragraph above, closed headphones and IEM’s also have advantages, and mainly in the bass department – even cheap sealed headphones like the Sennheiser CX-300 II can provide excellent bass response provided the silicone tips provide an actual seal.
But, enough about the general description, and time to get specific
Apple’s product packaging is, as always, top notch: Very little extraneous material – a white cardboard box enclosed in clear plastic, containing a warranty leaflet, user manual, , and the EarPods themselves neatly packed away in their carrying case. Over the years, many manufacturers have created theft-proof packaging, often requiring that you use a box cutter to open the package. Thankfully, Apple haven’t fallen in to this trap: No tools required to open the package.
The carrying case itself is brilliant: It’s a hard plastic case about the size of half an iPhone, with a slot for each of the earbuds and one for the mic/volume control, and it fits neatly into a jeans pocket without it being too noticeable.
I’ve had a great number of In-Ear Monitors over the years, some much more expensive than the EarPods, and none of them have had a carrying case this elegant – the only product coming remotely close was a pair of Audio Technica earbuds that I bought sometime during the eighties.
If you want to prolong the life of your EarPods, I suggest you bring this case around with you, as it’s a much safer way to store your headphones, and it easily mitigates any tangling problems.
Build and build quality
It’s hard to evaluate the build quality of an entirely new product – only real-life use will tell if they last longer than the old earbuds or not. However, you can get a good impression of it, by reading iFixit’s teardown of them.
Some things to note, though (and a quick summary of the iFixit teardown):
- The earbud material is the same white plastic that the old earbuds were largely made of. It won’t survive an office chair rolling over it, but should withstand most types of daily use, but don’t give off the same high-quality impression you get from metal enclosures in higher end alternatives from the competition
- The strain relief on the earbud is much improved over the old earbuds.
- The microphone and iPod controls are much improved over the old headphones. The tactile feel of the buttons is good, and they are easy to press. This is in stark contrast to the old controls which, at best, were as wooly as the keyboard from the Sinclair ZX81.
- The new cable, while I haven’t had an actual chance to test this thoroughly, seem more tangle-proof than the old one, thanks to a slightly less rubbery feel to the cable. And, as noted above, I would suggest using the enclosed carrying case – it’s really quite compact, and protects the headphones from both impact, cable strain and tangling.
- The minijack connector is the same 3.5 mm TRRS connector as on the old earbud. I don’t like it much. I don’t much care for it – due to it being made of the same plastic as the earbud itself, it’s slippery, and thus hard to both connect and disconnect.
So far, I’ve spent over 1200 words on this review, and haven’t yet mentioned much about how they sound. That’s about to change. During my testing, I’ve tried them with, and compared directly to the following gear:
- iPhone 4
- Epiphany Acoustics EHP-O2D headphone amplifer/DAC
- Fiio E5 portable headphone amplifier
- Bowers and Wilkins C5 In-ear headphones. A review of these is coming up later – they serve as my day-to-day in-ear headphones and served as my benchmark for this review.
- Sennheiser HD 558 circumaural open headphones
- Nuforce NE-700X headphones (Note, the link is for the NE-700M, which is identical to the X, except it sports an iPhone-compatible microphone/remote
- Apple’s old stock earbuds
In addition to the above products, I have owned over dozen different pair of headphones over the year, but neither have been used in this review
As important as the gear used to evaluate the headphones, I’ve used a number of reference recordings – in my case, they are ripped from CD to Apple Lossless using an AccurateRip-compatible CD Ripper. The recordings in question are:
- Yello: Baby – in particular, I’ve used track number 9, Blender. The track has a notoriously difficult to reproduce kick drum starting some 53 seconds in to the track. [Youtube preview here] – though I really suggest you try the CD.
- Roger Waters: Amused to Death – If a top five list of the world’s best produced albums existed, this album should firmly be placed among it – played on a good speaker setup, it creates a three-dimensional sound stage where sounds come from far outside the speakers, and are placed both above and behind you, in addition to coming from the next room. It proves thoroughly that you don’t need five or seven speakers to do surround. [Amazon MP3 link here] – but again, there’s no competition for the CD. However, for this review, the reference track is track 12 – Three Wishes – from the CD, in which both a Genie and Roger Waters speaks, and it’s a very taxing test of bass reproduction, and distortion. Youtube preview
- Joss Stone: Mind, Body and Soul – the track Less is More has a sub bass sine/kick that easily reveals if a speaker or headphone is bloated in the bass department. Youtube Preview
- Katie Melua: Piece By Piece – in particular, the tracks “Halfway up the Hindu Kush” and “Spider’s Web” were used. The former track for the reproduction of an upright acoustic bass, and the latter to get a sense of spaciousness. Youtube Preview
- Kruder & Dorfmeister: The K&D Sessions – in particular, the track “Jazz Master” is among my reference tracks. It’s very sonically rich, and revealing of harshness in a recording, or bloated bass. Youtube preview
Before you can discuss the actual sound of the headphones, you need to consider the construction. In that respect, the EarPod is unique.
It’s not an earbud, and it’s not an IEM, and I’m not entirely sure it’s anything in between either.
Where the old earbuds had a metal mesh grill covering the diaphragm, the new ones have foregone this in favor of having vents placed at various places on the earbud:
- A “forward”-firing dual-port vent that mainly fires directly in to your ear canal, and a side-firing vent that fires in the same general direction the old earbuds fired.
- At the back of the earbud house, there is a small vent that mainly prevents the chamber to act as an acoustic suspension
- At the base of the stem, there is are two ports, mainly for enhancing the bass.
Each of the different stems are tuned to different frequencies, not unlike what you could find in a bass reflex enclosure.
I could go on about them, but instead, I’m going to point at Apple’s marketing, which seems fairly concise and honest on the matter.
In the very first discussion I read about these headphones, a conspiracy theorist made the claim that all of the external facing vents were there to leak sound to your surroundings, so more people would buy iPhones.
I’ll leave the forum poster anonymous, but just leave this message: Your mom should have taught you to be a little less paranoid, because all of the vents have different functions.
If you cover up the single rear-facing vent, bass and midrange becomes more pronounced and forward. Likewise, if you cover up the double vents on the stem, all the bass the EarPods otherwise play promptly vanishes.
Cover up the single side-firing vent, and the speakers instantly sound more muffled, and it’s the same story with the two main, forward-firing vents – you’re left with midrange and bass.
Incidentally, I also tried covering every vent, apart from the front-firing vents – to get an impression of what the driver actually sounds like. It’s about as pleasant as the waiting muzak when you’re placed on hold in a support call. A very forward midrange, and no appreciable treble, and absolutely no bass.
Which leaves me with what I said above: Each of the vents have a specific task, as you’ll learn below.
Let’s get this out of the way first. The old Apple earbuds were very much like watching a faxed copy of a beautiful picture, made with one of those old fax machines that scanned everything by dragging the paper through the machine, scanning line by line. You could possibly make out some of the larger lines, and there was a whole lot missing in all departments.
It would sometimes sound as if bass was there, but to a reasonably trained ear, it was easy to discover that the bass played was mostly induced second and third harmonic distortion (read: the overtones instead of the actual bass), and they generally sounded nothing like the actual music does.
Now, enter the new EarPods. I had originally intended to insert a few select expletives here, because that was my reaction.
I’ve waded through album after album. Miracluously, Apple have actually pulled this off.
The Earpod is the first (open type) earbud I’ve heard that actually reproduce something I’ll qualify as having real bass.
In terms of sound, it’s hard to describe. It’s not the kind of bass you get from a system with 4 subwoofers and a gigantic rack of amplifiers. It’s more like I would expect from a good pair of 2-way floor standing speakers with moderately sized drivers (6.5″), placed in an acoustically well-behaved room.
Further up in this review, I mentioned a few test tracks for evaluating bass using my ears instead of a microphone. Most of the tracks are songs I know from evaluating a bunch of system, ranging from about $100 to $300000.
The Roger Waters track, “Three wishes”. The EarPods get a clean bill of health. On bad speakers or with bad headphones, it’s pretty much impossible to separate Roger Water’s voice from that lovely reverse reverb bass sounds of the Genie. The same track, played on the old earbuds is a resounding fail. They give up, even before trying.
Also, my NuForce NE-700X’s fail on that track, as the bass is so bloated that the rumble of the Genie completely dominates and drowns out everything else. Yes, in this department, the $29 EarPods completely outperform and publicly shame a $65 of IEM’s that have received a good number of positive reviews.
It’s much the same story with all of the other test tracks. Blender is a demanding track, because it has a kick drum, that according to my spectrum analyzer is tuned to 41 Hz, which is definitely in the sub bass region. Speakers and headphones often fall in to one of two categories with this track: Either you can barely hear the bass drum, or it dominates completely. In the past, I’ve used that bass drum to directly affect purchasing choices. I’ve thrown out candidate amplifiers based on their ability to reproduce that kick drum accurately, because it is so telling of whether the gear can play the rest of the bass frequency range accurately. And again, the EarPods pass with flying colors. Which, again neither the Nuforce NE-700X’s or old earbuds do – the former is lifeless, and the latter drowns out everything with the kick drum and its overtones.
It’s the same story with the rest of the test tracks mentioned above. The EarPod passes all of my subjective tests, and performs noticeably better than the more expensive Nuforce alternative, and from my memory, it also completely outshines the Sennheiser CX-300 II in that department – it makes the acoustic bass on Katie Melua’s track sound like an actual acoustic instrument instead of a synthetic reproduction.
So, what happens when we compare to something more upscale? I mentioned the Sennheiser HD-558, and Bowers & Wilkins C5.
Well. In short, the EarPods lose, but in the bass department not by all that much. If I were to place each headphone on a bassiness scale, the EarPods would fall somewhere between the HD 558’s and C5’s, with the C5 being the bassiest of the three, and all three fall within a scale that can be considered “neutral”
However, accuracy is not merely an exercise in flat frequency response – you also need to consider distortion in various forms, and in this respect, the EarPods fall short of both of the rivals. Both leave you able to separate out each individual note, and other instruments in the same frequency range, where this is more difficult with the EarPods.
But overall, I’m going to give them a resounding pass in the bass department.
The rest of the frequency range
This is where my real criticism of the EarPods start. And ends, actually.
While a bit difficult to quantify, when comparing to more expensive headphones, you get the sense that something is missing. Where the B&W’s allow you to count the number of singers in a choir, and you can very nearly do the same with the Sennheisers, the EarPods are a resounding “Nope. Forget it” in this department.
Allow me to explain through a digression: Before we had the means to produce precision optics, many cameras suffered from what we now call soft focus – where the image still is completely recognizable, but sharp edges and details are lost.
Now, soft focus can be a desirable effect, and people will gladly pay for specialist soft focus lenses, or play with Gaussian blur in Photoshop, or they will even coat their lenses or filters in petroleum jelly (a.k.a Vaseline) in order to achieve this effect.
The EarPods are the sonic equivalent of the soft focus lens. When compared to higher-end alternatives, you can’t directly point out what’s wrong – because the overall tonal balance is still about right – even if they come out as a bit darker sounding than both the Sennheisers and B&W’s.
You just get this sense that something is being glossed over, or is missing.
The downside to this, if you have ever heard more expensive alternatives is that you’re left with that constant feeling that something is missing.
If your sole frame of reference is the old iPhone/iPod earbuds, you’re not going to be missing anything, because the EarPods are several of magnitude better in this department, and you’ll probably sit there, saying to yourself “Wow, I’d never heard that sound in that recording before”.
The upside to the EarPods approach with the slightly dark tonal balance, and soft-focus sound is that they tend to sound incredibly inoffensive. You can throw almost any recording at them, and the recording will be bearable. With a lot of high-end audio gear (and some studio gear), this is completely impossible.
Keep in mind, though, that I’m now pitting the EarPods against products six times the price. If I pit them against products in their own weight class, they really aren’t all that bad. I would rate them as better than the Sennheiser CX-300 II, and on par with the Nuforce’s, but with a more pleasant overall tonal balance than either.
If you like me are a loudspeaker person, rather than a headphones guy, you’ve probably always been left wanting when talking about “Sound stage”.
Ironically, the most concise definition I have heard about sound stage, was when Steve Jobs introduced one of Apple’s bigger flops, the iPod Hifi, a glorified iPod dock, which was, due to it’s drivers being only 13 inches apart simply couldn’t have one.
He defined the sound stage as the speaker’s ability to disappear in the room, and present a virtual stage where the performers are placed.
I am of the opinion that no headphone has ever gotten this right at all. Even with expensive headphones, sound sits firmly placed inside your head, rather than with sources of sound placed in the room around you.
Yes, there are a few novelty recordings like the virtual barber shop where a decent pair of headphones will provide you with some illusion that sounds are placed in a physical space around you, but this never works for actual music – binaural recordings tend to sound odd when played on regular speakers, so nobody does them for music,
Whenever I evaluate a product, I always apply a mix of casual listening where I don’t obsess over the detail, but rather try to get the big picture, and concentrated listening where I do obsess over details.
I usually start with the obsessive detail listening, to move to casual listening when I’m fatigued from listening to details. It’s during this latter, casual phase, where I usually pick up cues about the actual sound stage and imaging capabilities.
And it was during this casual phase, I got the shock of a lifetime. I’ve had a lot of headphones over the years, and had other, horribly expensive ones, like Stax, on extended loans.
The electrostatic Staxes are supposed to be good in the sound stage department (The exact model number escapes me at the moment, but during the mid-late 90’s, they retailed for $4-500), and they were better than any headphone I’ve since owned.
At best, I could close my eyes with the Staxes, and imagine that I was sitting in a club, having my back turned to the band.
Well. The Staxes just got solidly beat. By a $30 piece of plastic bundled with every new iPhone and iPod. During the casual listening phase,. I tend to listen to more quiet music, often including acoustic instruments. At some stage in this listening, I had to do a double take, because I was wondering if I’d accidentally turned my studio monitors on. Because, I could swear that there was flesh and blood musicians sitting behind my desk.
I don’t know how on earth Apple has pulled this off. Knowing Apple, they probably have multiple patents in the area. Dear Apple: Please license your patents to other manufacturers. Cheaply.
In my over 25 years of having audiophilia as a hobby, I’ve had a few moments I’ll just refer to as “Martin Logan moments”, which is when I have heard something that completely defies belief, and it stems from the first time I, as a 13 year old paperboy, walked in to the local high-end asylum who had a pair of Martin Logan CLS electrostatic speakers set up.
This EarPods are, in two senses, a Martin Logan moment. The sound stage I was presented with in the demo room (It was nice of the owner to indulge a eyeglass-wearing complete nerd’s curiosity) was that of flesh-and-blood musicians sitting in a room when clearly they weren’t. It made me understand that music could be reproduced in better ways than a mono speaker. The EarPods are the same. I now have hope that headphones will not remain a facsimile of real music reproduced live or on terrific speakers.
As an aside. The asylum owner ended up getting the newspaper for free every single day.
And he gave me a lifelong hobby in return for that.
I haven’t touched much on usability in this review, as I’ve primarily been focused on the sonic aspects of the EarPods, so let me sum it up in a few points here:
- Microphonics: If You’re used to having an extra bass drum being played by a deaf and drunk drummer, you’re an IEM guy with headphones suffering from microphonics (for the rest of you: Microphonics is when cable movement induces noise in your ear). The EarPod has none. I’ve tried to provoke the cable into inducing unpleasant noises in my ear. I’ve failed, and the EarPods have passed.
- Isolation: The EarPods has none. Turn the music off, and apart from a slightly muted treble, you can hear the world. This is good if you’re worried about being run down by the bus because you couldn’t hear it in time. It’s bad if you use public transportation every day, and use headphones to block out noise (I have often just put IEM’s in my ears, without playing any music, just for some silence on a bus or train)
- Amplification: They’re actually quite picky. When I tried them with my FiiO E5, I got absolutely no bass, to the point where I was wondering whether my E5 was faulty. With my iPhone 4, I get fairly audible distortion whenever the volume control passes 75%. With my reference amp – the Objective2 headphone amplifier, they are louder than I’m willing to listen to before distortion is audible – it’s made me wish for a phone with a headphone out near the quality of the O2.
- Comfort: This will obviously vary from ear to ear, but for me they are really comfortable for wearing long-time – they weigh next to nothing, and once you’ve overcome the initial “these are going to fall out” feeling, you won’t really feel you’re wearing them.
If you’ve gotten this far, I’m surprised. This review has now passed 4000 words, and I honestly don’t think a longer headphone review has ever been written.
Also, if you’ve gotten this far, the conclusion is pretty much given:
They’re absolutely, no questions asked, worth $29 as a stand alone purchase, for anyone. Any review that tells you otherwise is downright lying. Either because it’s popular to hate Apple, or to hate cheap gear, or because the reviewer is deaf.
If you are a fanatically obsessed with soundstage, and as a consequence don’t really like headphones, they’re also a no-questions-asked purchase. As I said, in this respect I prefer them over a $500 pair of vintage Staxes, and my current references (Sennheiser HD 558, B&W C5) isn’t even considered competition.
If detail retrieval is important to you, the best-in class at about twice the price will be better matches for you.
If isolation is your top priority. Look elsewhere – these were never made for that.
If you produce music: You have absolutely no choice. Since 2001, 600 million people have purchased a device with the old device. You’re going to need these to do a fact check on your mix, much like you need to test on an average mono speaker.
If you don’t really care about audio quality: I don’t know how you got this far in this review, but yes: Buy them. They’re worth $29.
- Edited title to correct pluralization, they are called EarPods, not EarPod as the review title initially indicated
- Some of you coming in via web search have come here looking for frequency response measurements. Unfortunately, I don’t have a recording/measurement dummy head, so you won’t find those graphs here. However, Rin Choi has measurements of both frequency response, impedance and distortion. In addition, PC Pro has additional measurements showing the difference in leakage between the old Apple earbuds and the new EarPods.