Review: Apple EarPods with Remote and Mic
Like virtually everything else it creates, Apple's earphones have historically inspired polarized reactions. Over the past decade, Apple has sold a jaw-dropping 600 million earphones, primarily the iconic white earbuds it packs in with iPods and iPhones -- "freebies" that have been praised as great starter earphones, and better than ones bundled with rival devices. Yet despite the earphones' ubiquity, some people have disliked them for years, denouncing everything from their looks and sound quality to their fit and durability. We've found ourselves somewhere in the middle of these extremes, respecting the earphones for their basic functionality and performance while acknowledging their tendency to fall out of some ears -- and related sonic issues. As we've noted before, the biggest problem with past Apple earbuds wasn't that they sounded bad in every user's ears, but rather that they didn't fit or channel sound ideally into some users' ears. It didn't help that they were easy to damage, particularly during athletic activities -- a problem that forced Apple to recall and replace one model back in 2010.
Today, four years after introducing the Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic, Apple officially released a sequel called EarPods with Remote and Mic ($29, aka EarPods). As the product of three years of development, EarPods are Apple’s direct response to the biggest concerns about its earlier offerings, claiming to offer superior sound quality, comfort, and durability. Although the EarPods name is cringe-inducing, it’s obvious that Apple put a lot of thought and time into the new design, which will certainly satisfy more users than ever before.
EarPods aren’t a huge deviation from the prior two generations of Apple pack-ins—in fact, there’s obvious continuity in their design DNA. Now roughly 16mm tall by 17mm wide—up from the last model’s 15mm diameter—the bulbs of the hard, glossy white plastic earphone housings still feature finely-perforated speaker grilles, attach to light gray cabling, and end in a thin, hard plastic-jacketed 3.5mm silver headphone plug. Apart from the conspicuously new shape of the earphone housings, the differences are small: cabling on the version of EarPods sold separately in stores is around an inch and half longer than before, measuring around 46.5” from end to end, but still dangles a three-button remote and microphone capsule from the right earphone wire, and a tiny cable manager from the left. This time, Apple includes a clear and white plastic carrying case, the first time such a piece has been included in a $29 Apple earphone package. Notably, Apple has indicated that the version of EarPods shown above will be bundled with the iPhone 5; the fifth-generation iPod touch and seventh-generation iPod nano will also include EarPods, but may ship without the remote, mic, and carrying case.
In pictures, EarPods look a little like the long-since-discontinued iPod In-Ear Headphones, but in person, they’re far more obviously similar to Apple’s last-generation pack-ins, coming even closer to resembling upside-down musical notes. Unlike any of Apple’s In-Ear Headphones, EarPods are not designed to seal your ear canals, and don’t include silicone rubber tips. Instead, they use a distinctive hard plastic molding to achieve most of the same functionality: the little speaker in each earbud is covered by a plastic waveguide that channels sound directly into your ears, using three slit-shaped ports at their outer tops and bottoms to let the speakers breathe. Apple says that the shape came from measuring the geometry of hundreds of ears, finding a happy medium that will be comfortable, stable, and sonically impressive across more users. It also allows you, for better or worse, to hear more ambient sound around you while listening to audio or making phone calls.
When we first saw images of EarPods, we were concerned by the fact that Apple eliminated the soft gray rubber accents of the prior model—in fact, apart from the dark gray speaker grilles and little “L” and “R” markings on their inner surfaces, the earphones are completely glossy white until they hit the cables, possessing hard plastic stems that lead directly into rubber-clad cabling. Testing hundreds of earphones has taught us that geometrically attractive hard speaker coverings and long stems can be tough on soft ears; far too many developers have unintentionally made them seriously unpleasant for even short-term use. But Apple’s design team actually found a way to do more with less: we found the plastic to be surprisingly comfortable, and discovered that the long stem design legitimately contributed to added stability. Tugs that would have displaced the prior earphones barely move the EarPods, but they’re not difficult to remove when you want them out. From a physical standpoint, the new design is seriously impressive.
Sonically, EarPods take a nice step up from their predecessors, and if you subscribe to the maxim that bassier sound is better sound, you’re going to love EarPods. When the prior-generation Apple Earphones fit properly in a user’s ears, they had no shortage of bass, but if they were a little off-center relative to your ear canals, the bass would be mis-directed, leading some users to perceive their sound as hollow or flat. They also weren’t fantastic in the midrange. By comparison, EarPods have a more balanced sound signature, leading with bass that’s only a little shy of “heavy.” While the treble and midrange frequencies are dominated enough that low beats and notes will be the primary things you’ll focus on in songs, you’ll actually be able to hear most of the highs and mids in your tracks, which isn’t always the case with sub-$50 earphones. We definitely preferred EarPods’ audio balance to the prior version, which could more easily suffer from sonic flatness in any position; the waveguides in EarPods enable Apple to have a little more control over the presentation of audio, and layers of songs sound more distinct from one another. Audiophiles won’t be blown away by the aggregate level of detail or staging, but by $29 (or free pack-in) standards, Apple’s certainly upping the ante.
Apple’s new three-button remote control and microphone unit has been redesigned, but it’s not dramatically different from the prior version. Now 1.3” in length—roughly 7mm taller than before—the new capsule does away with the prior flattened tube shape, instead using a soft-cornered white pill with + and - markings for its larger volume buttons, and a bigger concave surface for its multi-purpose play/pause/track change/call button, which can also be held down to activate Siri or its predecessor Voice Control. A microphone icon is found on the capsule’s back, and Apple has removed the circular metal mic grille from the prior version without making any discernible dent in the microphone’s sonic signature or quality. It remains an intelligible mic for calling, and a solid part of a very competent if not quite best-in-class three-button remote system, limited mostly by its still-inconvenient location under one ear rather than at neck level.
The only other thing some users will notice about EarPods relative to their predecessors are a series of little tweaks Apple has made to improve durability. Thicker rubber caps are found at all of the points where the cables connect to hard plastic, while the microphone capsule and earphone housings have fewer or smaller seams for moisture to penetrate. That aside, the rest of the cabling is extremely similar to what came before in thickness and appearance, tangling just as easily; flat cables would have been less problematic, but larger. Apple’s included carrying case will be the best way to reduce tangling, assuming that the version of EarPods you get includes the case.
Despite the silly name, Apple’s new EarPods with Remote and Mic offer a number of welcome improvements, nearly across the board—sound quality, comfort, and stability have all jumped up, and even the three-button remote and mic capsule has seen small improvements in usability, if not audio performance. While durability will remain a question mark until the EarPods have been subjected to long-term use and abuse, even that dimension of Apple’s latest earphones has obviously received the sort of attention that’s truly rare in inexpensive earphones; the carrying case is a welcome addition at this price point. If you get a set of EarPods with your next iPod or iPhone purchase, consider yourself lucky; you may not need to replace them for a while unless you’re looking for something radically different in sound, look, or fit. And if you’re looking for a budget-priced headset, the $29 price tag is extremely reasonable for the obvious levels of sound and design quality you’ll get from EarPods with Remote and Mic. Apple’s latest earphones are therefore worthy of our rare high recommendation, with only small caveats.