Review: Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic
Pros: An entry-level pair of earphones with solid sound quality for their price, particularly strong in the lows and highs. Now includes a three-button in-line remote control designed to allow recent iPod purchasers to control volume and track playback, and iPhone users to control tracks. Both iPhone and recent iPod users can also use the new integrated microphone for voice recordings and potentially other applications. Together, the earphones, remote, and microphone constitute a strong value for the low asking price.
Cons: Microphone is treble-pushed for voice intelligibility at cost of some fidelity. Remote’s mouth-level location may not be ideal for some users. Earphones remain the same in fit and comfort as prior models, which will be great for some users’ ears, but may not fit well or perform well in bass in others. No carrying case leads to higher risk of user damage.
Apple’s iPod Earphones and iPhone Stereo Headset get a bad rap. Between the audiophiles who are willing to invest a lot in replacements and those few critics who are just looking to find one thing to criticize harshly in Apple’s otherwise impressive iPod and iPhone boxes, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these have been great earphones by free pack-in standards, and are hard to beat even as $29 replacements. Based solely on the staggering sales of iPods and iPhones, say nothing of units sold or warranty-replaced, it’s quite possible that there are more of these white and gray earbuds in use than any other earphones in the world.
Yet Apple hasn’t sat still with these earphones; instead, it updates them every two or so years with a new design or new feature to make them a little better than before. Complaints over comfort and bass led to the 2006 update that produced the current smaller, note-shaped earbuds, and the 2007 release of the iPhone saw Apple add a legitimately great in-line microphone and single remote control button. Now, as 2008 draws to a close, Apple has released the latest iteration: the Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic ($29). Whether they’re destined to completely replace both of the preceding iPod- and iPhone-specific models is presently unclear, but we’d wager that’s highly likely in 2009.
The reason: the Earphones with Remote and Mic offer the same fit, sound, and comfort of both of the predecessor models, while expanding upon the iPhone Stereo Headset’s functionality, and drawing upon two new features found in the latest 2008 iPod models, as well. To be clear, the new Earphones continue to produce very good sound given competitors at the $29 price point, with good highs and relatively strong bass as characteristics—assuming they’re at the right distance from your ear canals. If they don’t fit your ears, or aren’t in the right place outside your canals, you may not hear the bass and should consider other options, particularly in-canal earphones with silicone tips. Many, including Sony models, are sold for less than the $79 Apple is asking for its recently-released In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic.
However, as their name suggests, the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic and these Earphones with Remote and Mic include features missing from most of the earphones currently out there. There’s now an in-line three-button remote control that can control both volume and track playback, and a metal-shielded microphone that lets the late 2008 iPods serve as voice recorders, while iPhones gain wired but handsfree telephone calling. Recent iPod touch and iPhone apps expand both devices’ microphone capabilities—the touch can also do VoIP calling; the iPhone can do voice recording, amongst other things. Additionally, the remote and mic both work on 2008 MacBook computers made by Apple. But two of the remote’s three buttons are, for now at least, iPod- and MacBook-only.
Those two buttons handle volume adjustment, one marked with a + for up, the other marked - for down. On the fourth-generation iPod nano, 120GB iPod classic, second-generation iPod touch, and latest MacBooks, these buttons work just as expected; on past iPod models, the iPhone, and the iPhone 3G, they do nothing. A recessed central button, unmarked, serves as a multi-function play, pause, track forward, and track reverse controller. Tap once to play or pause, twice quickly to go forward, and three times to go back. On the iPhone and iPhone 3G, this button works the same, and also starts or ends incoming calls; on pre-2008 iPod models, it does nothing.
We’ve discussed most of the details of the new remote and microphone in our review of the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, but in summary, the remote works very well, though its location on the right earbud at mouth level is less than ideal for control purposes, but great for voice recording and telephone calling. The only issue from a microphone perspective is the new Apple mic sound signature, which has been treble-boosted to enhance the intelligibility of speech, compromising the more natural, rich-bodied sound of the previous iPhone Stereo Headset microphone.
The microphone in the Earphones with Remote and Mic sounded almost identical in our testing to the one in the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic. You can hear a direct comparison between the microphones, as well as their iPhone Stereo Headset predecessor, here. One caller reported that the Earphones with Remote and Mic sounded a little more “hollow” than the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, but the differences we heard were relatively small. For our preferences, neither of the newer headsets’ mics beats the iPhone Stereo Headset’s, as they tend to pick up higher-pitched background noises and generate slight sibilance, but they do help you to create highly audible voice recordings if that’s what you’re looking for.
Notably, the Earphones with Remote and Mic are sold in relatively no-frills packaging. They’re sealed in a plastic pouch inside a plain black box with instructions and warranty information; none of the foam covers found in pre-2006 iPod Earphones, nor the stickers and carrying case frills found in the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic box, are included here. Other than what the new Earphones contain in their rubbery wiring and plastic body parts, there’s nothing to hold them or adjust their size; the aforementioned competing models, often sold at a higher price, include both carrying cases and tips to resize the earphones to fit different ears. Apple’s lack of a carrying case for most of its earphones goes part of the way towards explaining why so many of them get damaged over time; it’s up to users not to drop them, crush them, or keep them wrapped perpetually around their iPods and iPhones, straining the wires.
Overall, the Earphones with Remote and Mic are a very good entry-level pair of earbuds, possessing the same fit, sound quality, and comfort as Apple’s prior stock iPod and iPhone earbuds, while adding expanded remote control capabilities and a new microphone to the mix. While users may disagree as to the value of the more intelligible but less full-bodied microphone, and others may scoff or fake-scoff at the quality of the earbuds, the overall value you get for the $29 asking price is quite good—assuming that you don’t abuse your earphones or expect audiophile-quality sound. Users with a need for more resilient earbuds should look to competing sports earphones instead, and those needing higher sound quality should be prepared to spend more money to get it; in any case, the presence of Apple’s new remote and mic functionality at a relatively low price will continue to make the Earphones with Remote and Mic a strong and popular option regardless of competition.