Review: Apple iPod In-Ear Headphones
Company: Apple Computer
Model: Apple In-Ear Headphones
Compatible: iPod 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, iPod mini, iPod photo, iPod shuffle
Note: Apple has posted a Knowledge Base document titled “iPod In-Ear Headphones: Tip - Getting Optimal Audio Quality.”
Pros: Finally a pair Apple-brand buds delivering better sound than the original iPod earphones. A perfect visual match for the iPod.
Cons: Other brands offer better sound and usability - even at the same price. And Apple doesn’t make these things feel good in your ears, amazingly.
They Sounded Like a Good Idea
People may be very similar to one another genetically, but where ears are concerned, there are important differences—from the shapes of those ears to the highs and lows they can perceive. So what works for one listener won’t necessarily work for another.
But no matter whose ears they were in, Apple’s original iPod earphones never delivered all of a recording’s original sound, as precious bits leaked away between the dangling phones and the user’s inner ears. That’s why - back in the iPod’s early days - we picked Sony’s MDR-EX70 in-ear ‘buds’ to be a superior alternative. We’ve subsequently reviewed other products, including more from Etymotics, Shure, and Sony E888. Now Apple has started to sell their own brand of in-ear buds with the twin goals of reducing outside sound and enhancing users’ in-ear comfort.
A Crowded Field
Apple’s “iBuds” have to match or beat the sound and value-for-money of Sony’s, Shure’s and Etymotics’ output; these are established benchmarks for in-ear phones. They also have to compare against the original ‘dangling’ Apple iPod phones, and over-the-head ‘cans’ and any other audible accessories.
Although Apple’s newest headphones beat the original Apple phones for sealing in the sound and cutting out distracting ambient noise, they unfortunately don’t quite match the state-of-grace of others. For some reason, the Apple buds seem to have been designed to slip out of your ears. Instead of nestling firmly in your ear canal, the matte-finish slippery silicone interchangeable earpiece-inserts slope so that they gradually slide out, contrasting sharply with Sony’s EX70s (properly rounded in-ear plugs), the Shures (optional foam rubber sponges which mould exactly to the shape inside your own ears), and the Etymotics (well-shaped plugs which really grip your inner ear). Pop in Apple’s buds and you’ll quickly start to feel them slip out, whether you use the Small, Medium or Large interchangeable earpieces.
In the Box
The earphones themselves - like other in-ear buds - consist of the tiny driver units, with little magnet-and-diaphragm transducers to convert the cable-carried signals into audio, and three sets of alternative slip-on pliable sound-blocking ‘plugs’ which were apparently designed to fix the phones into your ears, sealing out external noise and holding the phones in place. Users are supposed to choose the size which suits their own ears best, producing a good comfortable grip inside the ears, and creating the best audio ‘seal.’
We tried all three sets of plugs, but each one tended to slide out, not gripping properly at first. The plugs did improve a little after being inserted and pulled out of our ears several times, gradually losing their factory-fresh sheen, and… well, building up a thin clinging coat of our own earwax. Oddly, although the largest size Sony EX70 plug-in-your-ear rubber seals worked best for us, the smallest of the three Apple-supplied plugs were the best of the funky bunch, probably because they sit in a different spot within the ears, and actually cram in deeper, and narrower, than other brands.
The Apple buds sound crisp and sharp, but with only some bass enhancement derived from their in-ear position. This can be disappointing.
Compared with the EX-70s at roughly the same price, Apple’s give a ‘sharper’ but slightly ‘thinner’ sound. On music with a constant severe bass thud - take, for example, Madonna’s “Why’s It So Hard” - there’s a very noticeable improvement over the older Apple earphones, but with just transient bass in orchestral or ‘ambient’ music the new plugs don’t quite deliver the full whack of what they appear to promise.
Not surprisingly, the Shure in-ear phones produce better sound, but then they’re two-and-a-half times the price of the Apple buds, and heavier, too: Apple’s weigh only 12 grams, which is virtually unnoticeable in the ears, about the same as the Sony EX-70s and the more recent EX71s.
Apple’s new earbuds have one advantage: they complement the iPod perfectly, quite like their packed-in predecessors. They have a similar thin white jack plug to the original iPod phones, a robust 29-inch (74 cm) cable which divides into two 13” (33cm) fly-leads, one to each earpiece, and a plastic toggle that slides up and down the pair of fly-leads to keep them tight and snug.
There’s the usual Apple packaging perfection: a curved-corner white plastic box holds the earbuds and the two spare sets of slip-on earpieces. The buds come fitted with Medium seals, and the Large and Small options sit on their own little mounts in the box. The earbud cable wraps into a groove round the edge of the box, and a clear plastic cover clips over all items. It’s another A-grade packaging and presentation job. But like a bottle of perfume, the container is a much bigger deal than the contents.
Assuming that you can get them to fit in your ears, Apple’s new earbuds are a noticeable audio improvement on the Apple originals, and if you want to stick with Apple’s own products, grab these. If you shop around for other makes, though, you’ll find better value-for-money from Sony, and better performance - sad to say - from many other (though likely more expensive) brands.
Crazy as it might sound, if you’re determined to wear the Apple buds, you can always get a pair of Sonys and slip their spherical rubber earpieces onto the Apple earbuds in place of the Apple-supplied conical ones. This gives a great compromise: better sound and seal than Apple’s own slippery earpieces, but with the exterior look and styling of genuine Apple phones! (The rubber earpiece seals disappear from view inside your ears, so no-one knows that you’ve mixed and matched!) Just bear in mind that for the cost of two sets of earphones, you can get a better-sounding set of headphones from another company.