Review: Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic | iLounge

Review

Review: Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic

B
Recommended


Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: Apple In-Ear Headphones

Price: $79

Compatible: iPod classic 120GB, iPod nano 4G, iPod touch 2G, Other iPods*, iPhones*

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Jeremy Horwitz

Pros: Apple’s first pair of iPod-ready earphones with an integrated in-line remote control and microphone. Impressive new body design looks and fits ears better than prior remote-less model, providing more secure fit and sound isolation. Two included carrying cases separately manage cabling and eartips; spare filters are included. Delivers more consistent, somewhat cleaner sound than company’s lower-end earphones. Microphone has been updated from prior iPhone version to offer superior intelligibility; remote offers volume, track, and play/pause controls in three total buttons. Works fully with fourth-generation iPod nano, iPod classic 120GB, and second-generation iPod touch, partially with other iPods and iPhones.

Cons: Flat, less than inspired sound is best understood as clinical, minus the sharper definition or liveliness of leading competitive earphones; at normal volumes, critically lacks the warm bass found in earphones sold for equal or lower prices. More treble-heavy microphone can pick up high-pitched background noises as well as your voice. Remote’s location may be less than ideal for some users.

Despite the unquestioned success of the iPod and iPhone, Apple’s listening accessories have never enjoyed universal acclaim. Its low-end iPod Earphones and Lanyard Headphones have been chastised—sometimes wrongly, sometimes rightly—for sound and build quality issues, while its $39 In-Ear Headphones were widely criticized for lousy fit. Most infamously, the company’s iPod Hi-Fi was viewed by many, including us, as a seriously overpriced, overly bassy all-in-one speaker. What Apple was missing was a reasonably priced “step up” from other audio options, rather than something really cheap, or something really expensive.

Thus, we have Apple’s new In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic ($79), a pair of in-canal earphones designed to give iPod and MacBook owners a step up from the company’s ubiquitous earbuds in sound, as well as in functionality. These aren’t just the old $39 In-Ear Headphones with $40 worth of remote and microphone functionality; Apple has actually completely redesigned the earlier product’s sonics, cosmetics, and pack-ins, such that they really only share a name and general characteristics. Our comprehensive review looks at their similarities, differences, and comparative audio performance relative to other alternatives; this is a long one, so skip straight to the conclusions or specific sections that interest you.

The Basics

Apple’s original In-Ear Headphones were, more than anything else, eye-catching. Shaped like the pod-shaped spacecrafts from 2001: A Space Odyssey, they shipped with three gray eartips and a two-piece carrying case designed to manage those tips, the earphones, and their gray cord. It’s obvious that Apple liked its original concepts enough to preserve most of them for this sequel, but as always, it has made changes to slim the parts.

The In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic are still packaged with three sets of silicone eartips, but now they’re frosted clear instead of gray. You also get two carrying cases: a triangular one for the earphones, which we liked, plus a pill-shaped one to hold spare eartips, which tends to roll around everywhere and isn’t the most practical such container we’ve seen.

For the first time in Apple’s history, these earphones include a set of two spare screw-in metal filters that can replace the ones that come pre-installed, as well as a couple of Apple logo stickers and instructions. Surprisingly, the box uses a folio and compartment design similar to the packages of iPhones and iPod classics, save for its clear plastic exterior, all designed to convey a sense that these earphones are worth something. If this seems like a lot of frills for a pair of $79 earphones, bear in mind that $50 competitors often include cases and extra tips, too; the filters, stickers, and packaging are the only surprises here.

Understanding the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic requires consideration of its three essential features: the headphones, the remote, and the microphone. We’ve tested each of these features, discussing each and including microphone audio samples below. A section on minutia notes a few other details that may be of interest to some readers.

The Headphones

There was no doubt that the original In-Ear Headphones were futuristic and cool, but they were obviously designed for looks rather than fit; many users found that the big gray rubber tips just didn’t stay put in their ears. So Apple has redesigned the In-Ears with a somewhat more conventional shape and decidedly more deluxe appearence, mimicking Xtrememac’s FS1s, but with even classier and smaller bodies.

The new In-Ears are mostly white plastic with semi-obscured chrome halves, topped with newly reshaped silicone eartips that are completely soft on the sides, but locked in place with firmer white plastic in their centers. Fully assembled, the In-Ears look to have slim rings of metal poking out, a contrast with the original In-Ears’ fully obscured metallic bases. Each earphone has a rear vent like the prior In-Ears, but their labeling—L for left, R for right—is, like the latest iPod and iPhone pack-ins, in slim letters on the new In-Ears interior stem surfaces.

These changes aren’t just cosmetic, though: the new design has a better chance of remaining in your ears. We found that the medium and small eartips fit two of our editors’ ears just as well as we’d have expected from competing earphones we’ve tested; users with super-small ear canals may wish that there were extra-smalls, but the large included size is fine for big ear canals. Once inside, they do in fact stay in place better than their predecessors, In-Ear and pack-in alike, though you’re unlikely to find them as stable during workouts as earhook-assisted earphones such as V-Moda’s Vibe II.

Sonically, the new In-Ears are a mixed bag. Though they make a good enough impression when they’re not being directly compared to anything else—the mild words “good enough” are key here—they are decidedly clinical, rather than fun to listen to. Perhaps the best things that can be said about them is that their sound will be more consistent from user to user than the iPod and iPhone’s pack-ins, and their external noise isolation considerably better: users unfamiliar with rubber isolating eartips may be impressed by that difference alone. Of course, the same tips are found in $20-30 headphones made by companies such as Sony and Sennheiser, too, and users who got Apple’s packed-in earphones to fit properly will find the In-Ears to be considerably less bassy and lively.

Apple has touted these earphones as special inside. Virtually every pair of earphones sold for $150 or less is a “single-driver” design, which is to say that there’s a single miniature speaker in each plastic earpiece, and that speaker is responsible for replicating highs, mids, and lows. Single speakers generally don’t do a great job of handling the whole audio spectrum, so earphone makers optimize them to do one or two things well, typically strong bass or midrange with some highs. More ambitious companies have come up with two-, three-, and even four-driver earphones, many of which we’ve reviewed, and most of which sell for $150 or more.

The In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic are Apple’s first earphones to use two miniature speakers per ear—a “double-driver” design—with one speaker for the lows and mids, and the other for highs. This combination differs from many of the multi-driver earphones we’ve tested, which use one speaker just for the lows and one or two others for the mids and highs. These two drivers are hidden behind the screw-off metal filter, and apparently, behind a second filter inside the housing.

Though it may seem obvious, it needs to be said that the new In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic do not sound the same as Apple’s earlier iPod In-Ear Headphones; in direct comparisons, it’s obvious that Apple hasn’t just repackaged the earlier audio drivers in a new casing. In fact, the new In-Ear Headphones’ sonic signature considerably changes the respective weights of highs, mids, and lows, making improvements largely in the middle of the audio spectrum rather than at its extremes. When properly fit, the old In-Ear Headphones offered comparatively strong, if somewhat uncontrolled bass, accentuated by just enough high- and midrange detail to make you feel like you were hearing most of whatever was in your song. Similarly, if they fit your ears, Apple’s current pack-ins are similarly disposed, with bass that was heavy enough to compensate both for the potential of poor fit, and those who had complained that earlier earbuds were bass-deficient.

Apple’s decision to let one of the drivers share mids and bass comes at the cost of strong low-end performance, such that if you listen to the same song through three different Apple earphones, you’ll notice that while bass notes can mostly be heard in the In-Ears, they no longer dominate, instead competing with midrange detail in a presentation that can only be called flatter and more neutral. This won’t come as a complete shock to those familiar with multi-driver designs, which are traditionally meant to let you hear more detail in your music, but as a practical matter, you’ll hear much less bass than before, which may well leave you feeling like you’re missing as much as you’re gaining elsewhere. The new model is thus not an earphone for bassheads; you will unquestionably hear a greater quantity, though perhaps not quality of bass with less expensive single-driver designs.

Absent the heavier bass, you will hear more midrange detail than the prior model, as well as in similar single-driver earphones. The wail of a police car’s siren in the background of Beck’s Que Onda Guero, barely audible in the old In-Ears, is obvious in the new model. Oft-sampled orchestral swells that compete with Marlena Shaw’s voice in California Soul when heard through the old model now stand more clearly behind her. However, your experience may vary depending upon the volume level you pick. For some reason, the new In-Ears seem to have optimized their low end output for a volume level somewhat greater than the 50% mark on an iPod’s volume slider—a level that we generally won’t listen at because of ear damage risks. In other words, you’ll hear more bass if you turn the volume up, but that’s a bad idea; other headphones deliver more bass at safer volume levels.

In an effort to figure out where the new In-Ears excelled versus obvious competitors, we tested the new In-Ears against Apple’s predecessors, Shure’s SE210s, JAYS’ q-JAYS, a leading, aggressively-priced pair of double-driver canalphones, and Etymotic’s hf5, a detail-focused headset. Without boring you to tears, our findings can be neatly summarized as follows: at a $79 price tag, the new In-Ears are a good but not great option. The double-driver q-JAYS are better tuned, offering a more exciting, sonically interesting presentation with richer bass and more dynamic-sounding highs. They also sell for $100 more. Similarly, the SE210s produce bigger, more compelling staging and deeper bass, but they’re less comfortable, sell for at least $40 more than the In-Ears, and aren’t fantastic in sound, either. Despite the In-Ears’ dedicated treble driver, Etymotic’s hf5 surprisingly delivered more high-end detail and crisper overall sound. And finally, the In-Ears are more balanced and detailed in the midrange than Apple’s past in-ears and pack-ins, and considerably better at isolation, but they’re comparatively weak in bass.

All of this adds up to a simple conclusion on the new In-Ears as headphones: if you’re upgrading from Apple’s pack-ins, don’t expect these to be a complete improvement over what you’re already listening to, or other available options. These are strong on isolation, solid on fit, and may well enable you to hear details that you’ve previously missed, but they also reduce the presence of bass, and don’t deliver as much sonic improvement as their double-driver design might suggest. Their rating is therefore based primarily on aggregate value for the dollar rather than raw audio appeal.

The Remote

The original iPhone and iPhone 3G both include new iPhone Stereo Headphones, pairing the current iPod Earphones with a highly unique in-line microphone and single-button remote control. This button originally worked only to pause or resume song playback or start/stop calls when pressed once, while a quick double-click let you skip a track ahead. Apple recently changed this for iPhones and iPhone 3Gs, letting a triple-click reverse tracks, as well. One button mightn’t be as convenient as having three separate pause, reverse, and forward buttons, but in typical Apple fashion, it’s cleaner.

The In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic’s new remote control has three buttons. One in the center handles the same click, double-click, and triple-click features found on the iPhone remote; the other two are for volume up and down. Notably, though the center button works on late 2008 iPods and all iPhone models, the new volume buttons work only on the late 2008 iPods, specifically the 120GB classic, fourth-generation nano, and second-generation touch, as well as Apple’s late 2008 aluminum MacBooks and MacBook Pros; they are ignored by earlier iPods or iPhones. Similarly, though the headphones let you hear audio when connected to older iPod models, all of the remote and microphone features are useless: they don’t do anything on iPods released before late 2008.

Apart from the compatibility issues, we really liked almost everything about this remote. Because of differences in surface elevation, the three buttons are very obviously distinct by touch, enabling you to quickly boost or decrease the volume merely by seeking the raised upper or lower portions of the remote with your fingers. However, due to Apple’s desire to integrate the remote with the microphone, both components are found high up on the right earphone cable in a position optimized for microphone performance rather than remote use. Unless you have usually great vision, you’ll find that you can’t see the remote’s + or - markings when you’re using the controls; touch will be your only way of discerning what to do. Some users won’t like reaching up so high for remote functionality; we see it as a clean, if not universally appealing design decision.

The Microphone

Back when Apple released the iPhone Stereo Headset, it was unclear whether the microphone would turn out to be okay, good, or great. A year and a half later, it’s obvious that Apple chose a relatively excellent microphone, as competitors have since struggled to offer ones that sound much better, even for higher prices.

For that reason, the new In-Ear Headphones’ microphone—which is designed to be used for voice applications on iPods and MacBook computers—was a surprise. In previous tests of Apple’s iPhone Stereo Headset versus competing options, we’ve noted that Apple’s microphone offered a neutral, natural-sounding rendition of our voices to callers, highly similar to the mics found in iPhones themselves. The new mic is different: it has a more treble-accented sound that has been changed in the name of intelligibility, but also makes high-pitched background details stand out, competing against voices. You can hear Apple-to-Apple comparative mic samples here. Some listeners will prefer the new mic’s sound, others may not; our impression is that it’s better for indoor and quiet environment use, but may not do as well outdoors.

We’ve also included two samples of the In-Ear’s performance relative to V-Moda’s previously released Vibe II with Microphone, recorded on a fourth-generation iPod nano. One sample was recorded in a relatively quiet indoor setting with the subtle sound of a baby in the background, while the other was recorded in a stationary position poolside 10 or 20 feet away from some fountains. We had expected these microphones to sound substantially the same—hear our prior Vibe II review’s audio samples for reference—but as you can hear in the samples, they don’t. In our outdoor sample, the V-Moda mic screens out the fountain noise, but the Apple mic picks them up and renders them as a static sound against the voice. While Apple’s mic appears to be more sensitive, it actually works to the disadvantage of the audio here. Indoors, the Apple mic sounds comparatively more treble-heavy, which aids with intelligibility but mildly compromises the natural sound of the voice.

Minutia

A few other small details may be of interest to some readers. Unsurprisingly, the In-Ear Headphones use the same highly-compatible, thin-bodied headphone plug design found in past Apple iPod Earphones, as well as the rubbery cable design subtly introduced in the earphones packed with 2008 iPods. In an odd change, the company’s past cable manager now attaches permanently to the left earbud, while detaching from the right earbud. This appears to have been done to let you use the microphone, remote, and one earbud while the other dangles down, but in practice, we found that the earbuds disconnected from the manager as often as they stayed connected while in active use, making the new part less than ideal.

It’s also worth noting that there’s a new Apple chip inside the headphones, which developers expect will add $10-20 to the retail cost of future remote-equipped accessories, once other necessary components are included. This chip, and the redesigned iPod headphone-slash-microphone port that pairs with it, is Apple’s remedy for the disasterous removal of the useful top accessory port that had been found on iPods up until 2005, the omission of which forced remote control makers to create awkward bottom-mounted remotes and attempt to attenuate the iPods’ line-level output. Now, iPod remotes can work in-line with headphones, without blocking access to the Dock Connector port, or forcing developers to struggle to change iPod volume output levels.

Conclusions

Ultimately, the In-Ear Headphones With Remote and Mic are a good but not great new audio accessory from Apple. Their positives are a mix of obvious and surprising design changes from earlier Apple releases: a more intelligible microphone, a more useful remote, and earphones that fit, isolate, and look better than any the company has released before. At the same time, their sound balance is uninspired, lacking particularly in bass performance, and their apparent detail is consequently not incredibly impressive. From an audio standpoint, they’re saved more by their $79 price tag than anything else.

Cynics might suggest that the In-Ear Headphones With Remote and Mic are little more than an Apple effort to turn the prior $39 model into something that could be sold at a higher $79 price, and that the aggregate performance of this headset isn’t worthy of that premium. We would disagree. The new In-Ear Headphones are as worthy of their higher price as the prior ones were worthy of their lower one, though as both products’ flat B ratings indicate, Apple has again delivered earphones that won’t satisfy all listeners. This time, however, it has a strong microphone and clean remote control on its side, which may be enough to satisfy some users; it will be very interesting to see how future competing options compare in features for the price.

Update February 20, 2013: In mid-February 2013, Apple modestly updated the In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, slightly enlarging the included plastic case to provide a central place for the redesigned in-line remote and microphone capsule. This capsule is now identical to the version found on Apple’s 2013 EarPods with Remote and Mic.

Apple has also added around three inches of cable length to the bottom of the prior cable, and incorporated its latest, thinnest 3.5mm headphone plug, while keeping the earphone design exactly the same as before. The price remains unchanged at $79.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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