New iPod In-Ear Headphone reviewed: Apple's best yet

Posted:
in iPod + iTunes + AppleTV edited January 2014
After a false start two years ago, Apple has released a new set of in-ear buds that are finally worth trading up to from the company's own pack-in models and which may well compete against third-party earbuds that are significantly above its price class. We explain why.



The first attempt: the original In-Ear Headphones



Of all the iPod accessory markets Apple has dipped into since launch over seven years ago, the company has ironically been the most conservative around personal audio. It wasn't until 2005 that Apple offered anything more than a replacement set for the (necessarily) cheap earbuds that have always come with the company's portable music players.



These buds, the first iPod In-Ear Headphones, have commonly been regarded as outright flops. They only cost $39, but it was painfully obvious that this was Apple's first attempt and that it was built to a price. The flush, almost conical shape was very difficult to keep in one's ear even in ideal conditions, and most of the improvement in audio quality simply came from moving the sound deeper into your ear opening.



As such, there was almost no incentive to buy Apple's own take on higher-end earbuds; unless you just had to have the lanyard set for the early iPod nano, you were better-off buying something in a similar price range or slightly higher that fit better and had more than just a passive audio enhancement. And of course, in the era of iPhone and iPod touch, the absence of either a microphone or a remote was virtually a deal breaker.



Comfort and fit options



The new earbuds are, in a sense, an admission by Apple that the original design didn't work: the new design has a right-angled shape that fits much more directly.



To say it's an improvement in stability would be an understatement. The new buds can be inserted deeply enough into the ear passage that there's little if any room for them to slip out, although they do require a degree of "massaging" (really, wiggling) to get a perfect fit. Running with the In-Ear set didn't jostle it out of place or create any real doubts.











The silicone ear tips have also changed somewhat, though not by much: they're now a set of clear, very thin covers instead of the earlier solid gray models. They look nicer, but they're importantly very soft and comfortable on the ears. We've used a set of Shure E2Cs in the past that were certainly comfortable most of the time but were bulky enough to potentially cause discomfort over a long stretch of listening. We wore Apple's earbuds for hours and not once felt any pain or signs they'd been in place for too long.



It's also noteworthy that listeners aren't forced to wear the earphones a particular way: they remained snug both inserted directly and hooked over the ears, although the cords were more likely to come loose than on earbuds intended to be worn this way, as with the Shures.



Like most earphone makers, Apple includes both small and large eartips in the box, and given the comfort of the mediums should easily accommodate unusual ear sizes. For some reason, however, Apple has chosen to package them in a "pill" that opens at either end rather than simply stuffing them in a bag. It's a nice touch, but it's utterly excessive: most iPhone and iPod owners don't share their earbuds with others that also happen to have different ear sizes and don't really need an elaborate container as a result.





Sound quality



By far the most heavily trumpeted aspect of the new iPod In-Ear Headphones is their dual-driver output. While sounding slightly exotic, the effect of this switch really amounts to the same as having separate tweeters and woofers in speakers. It separates the high- and low-range frequencies into more distinct output and prevents sound from seeming muddled by mixing too many frequencies into one single driver.



That's largely how it pans out in practice. Compared to the single-driver E2Cs, which are known to be slightly bass-heavy, Apple's buds have more clearly evident treble and slightly more detailed as well. In DJ Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World," for example, the hisses and pops from the sample records are easier to detect and are more likely to be heard even as the beats first take full effect. Classical music and other treble-rich audio sounds good as well, though spoken dialogue may sound slightly brittle.



Those who listen to electronic and urban music should be happy, and not necessarily in the way they think: the earphones still have satisfying bass response, but they're tangibly more neutral than the Shures and certainly more so than punchy earbuds like V-MODA's Vibe line. The notion that absolute neutrality is necessary is something of a myth -- many earbuds need extra bass to make up for weaker portable amps -- but Apple appears to get reasonably close to the sweet spot between too much and not enough bass, especially for the price.



Noise isolation is inherent to in-ear buds like these and certainly muted most sound, though not quite as absolutely as full-fledged in-canal models; loud footsteps and other more moderate noises occasionally creep in. This could be a good thing for urbanites keen to listen for oncoming cars, or a bad thing for audio purists.



One caveat exists for those unused to in-ear buds: a certain amount of cleaning is necessary, as the tips and grilles will gradually accumulate wax. It's not difficult, but it's necessary. Apple thankfully has an improvement here too. Instead of throwaway stick-on caps to protect the drivers, the company uses metal caps. These are both more durable and can also be washed to be used again. The one worry is if users exhaust both pairs of caps included in the box; there's no publicized replacements, so owners may have to shell out another $79 if both sets are lost.



The mic, remote and iPhone compatibility



Apple's 2008 In-Ears mark the company's first-ever microphone accessory for iPods, and this by itself may be the single most important addition to the iPod line in recent memory. It's finally possible to record voice memos on the fourth-generation iPod nano and the second-generation iPod classic. second-generation iPod touch owners now also have support for voice-aware software like Google Mobile App or even voice-over-Internet calling suites like Truphone. It's a game changer, and that Apple hasn't chosen to restrict the functionality to individual app types is a boon for iPod touch owners who want some semblance of the iPhone experience.



Unfortunately, support hasn't extended back to earlier iPods. The first-runs of the iPod classic and iPod touch both won't recognize the mic at all, and older iPods with entirely different firmware won't support it either. Apple has never publicly explained why this is the case, though we suspect Occam's Razor is in effect. The firm wants to push owners to upgrade their devices, and the time spent retrofitting the earlier hardware would only delay some purchases. The possibility also exists that the earlier iPods may lack some necessary circuitry, but nothing appears to have been confirmed on this front.







As for sound quality, there were few complaints. It's not meant for recording podcasts, and quality is relatively basic. But with such a small footprint, it's hard to complain and it's in fact fairly free of distortion or excessive sensitivity. Only louder background noises like nearby cars registered during testing outdoors.



The remote function also embodies this ultra-minimal design. It's obviously lifted almost directly from the iPhone and works just as well: you click once to play, pause, answer or end calls, twice to skip forward, and three times to skip back. About the only additions are volume controls that respond a similar way. It's strange but also very intuitive, and an absolute lifesaver for cold weather, subways, or other areas where temperature and security could actually make it dangerous to pull out an iPod to change tracks.



Officially, Apple only supports iPods, but here's where the company delivers a pleasant surprise: all iPhones support the mic and most of the remote functions out of the box. We tested this ourselves, and it delivered good call quality. The only functionality broken is the volume control, and this is less of an issue given the dedicated buttons for this on the iPhone itself. You don't really lose functionality over Apple's default earbuds, and so the new In-Ear Headphones could well be a step-up over the bundled headset for those who want higher quality.



About the only quirk for the mic/remote combo is its placement. Rather than putting it on the main cord, Apple places the remote on the cord for the right earbud. It's understandable from a voice perspective, since it brings the mic closer to your mouth, but it's not intuitive in the way a remote sitting on your chest might be.





Durability concerns?



The one misgiving we have for the new earbuds are their useful lifespan. Apple is a fan of small, subtle earbuds, but as a result has more fragile-feeling buds and thinner cables. They're well put together and convey a sense of quality, but they aren't as sturdy as Shure's usual cabling or those of other more audiophile-grade earpieces.



That could potentially lead to damage over time; while not a serious complaint, we can imagine some users having to seek replacements if the cords fray or the earbuds get crushed. Treat them with care and they should last as long as any other set, but be aware they aren't meant to handle a large amount of abuse.



The iPod In-Ear Headphones in review



We've heard that Apple is "cheating" with its new in-ear design, as it's not entirely the company's own baby: a third-party headphone maker is believed to have been heavily involved in creating the audio system and mostly relied on Apple for the cosmetics.



However true that might be, it's probably a wise strategy in hindsight and is what leads to a very strong recommendation from us: better to borrow from the best than to make a poor original. The new models are actually very pleasing to listen to, and that second driver has much to do with it. It's enough to seriously consider abandoning even other earbuds in the class if you're missing out on the microphone and remote functions, particularly if you live north of Apple's home state of California and have to risk freezing skin to change tracks.



And more importantly, the price is right. A quick comparison puts Apple's $79 offering about $20 lower than the Shure SE110s and a similar amount above Sony's MDR-EX85s, both of which have single drivers and are more prone to indistinct sounds as a result. Apple's claim of almost revolutionizing earbuds is something of a misnomer: the sound isn't so good that it would blow away a normally high-end dual driver setup. All the same, the In-Ears are sufficiently inexpensive that they can make far more economic sense than springing for many $100 or $120 sets.



Time will tell if there are any long-term problems that will surface with the earphones, whether it's the cord or cleaning the caps, but for now it's hard not to recommend them to iPhone and modern iPod users alike. They sound good, the in-line functionality works well, and of course they fit in with Apple's design aesthetic. If you're looking to upgrade from what Apple gave you in your iPod box, you finally have a real alternative from the electronics giant itself.



Rating 4.5 out of 5







Pros:

Well-balanaced yet sufficiently bass-rich sound

Inexpensive for the quality

Comfortable for long periods

Voice memos, VoIP now an option for newer iPods

iPhone support

Good (though not great) microphone input

Simple but effective remote



Cons:

Thin cables and small earpieces

No support for first-generation iPod classic or iPod touch models

Volume doesn't work (yet) on iPhones

Remote placed in a slightly unusual location
«13

Comments

  • dragon513dragon513 Posts: 5member
    Ok so when are they going to be in store? I've been visiting my local (Toronto) Apple Store everyday for the past a week or so and they are not in store yet!!!
  • irelandireland Posts: 15,574member
    Still taken aback that didn't make them "FULLY" compatible with the iPhone 3G at least. YES, I know they are partially compatible. This is such an Apple thing to do. One of the best companies in the world manage to do things like this that are so dumb it's shocking.



    Steve, you get a bag of coal for X-MAS



    Anyone makes any excuses for them, or tires to defend Apple in any way shape or form on this one get an internet-slap! ZIP IT!
  • irelandireland Posts: 15,574member
    Quote:

    iPhone support



    So this it a "Pro", yet....



    Quote:

    Volume doesn't work (yet) on iPhones



    YET? What are the waiting for, the parting of the seas at Macworld? Come on. If the volume controls don't work on the iPhone it's not supported - end of story. In fact if you go to the online Apple store you'll see there's no iPhones in the supported models images at the bottom, cause they are not supported. Imagine if this was a Zune, you would have slated them to piece over this. I'm sorry but I find it embarrassing to hear you say it's supported.



    Quote:

    (yet)?



    Cars are "flying around the world" on "a lot liter of water", it's just that the engines aren't supported yet.
  • ipilyaipilya Posts: 149member
    iPhone: From my understanding, the volume aspect requires that receiving input socket have all 4 segments/connectors. The iPhone only has 3. (forgive the layman wording). So it will take a complete change-out of the input socket to begin solving the issue. I bet the next iPhone edition that comes out will have it.





    The bigger question I have... from my understanding... the new MacBook (Pros) can use these as complete mic/headphone set. Has anyone tried this out? doe the controls work as well??? This would a good thing to know and could tip the scales for some.





    Thanks for the article btw.
  • palegolaspalegolas Posts: 1,133member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    The one misgiving we have for the new earbuds are their useful lifespan.





    The trouble with my last iPhone earbuds was that the connection between the microphone/remote and the earbuds didn't tidn't withstand much, and I soon had to buy a new pair. It looks like it's as fragile here..
  • jeffdmjeffdm Posts: 12,933member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post


    Still taken aback that didn't make them "FULLY" compatible with the iPhone 3G at least. YES, I know they are partially compatible. This is such an Apple thing to do. One of the best companies in the world manage to do things like this that are so dumb it's shocking.



    Steve, you get a bag of coal for X-MAS



    Anyone makes any excuses for them, or tires to defend Apple in any way shape or form on this one get an internet-slap! ZIP IT!



    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post


    So this it a "Pro", yet....



    YET? What are the waiting for, the parting of the seas at Macworld? Come on. If the volume controls don't work on the iPhone it's not supported - end of story. In fact if you go to the online Apple store you'll see there's no iPhones in the supported models images at the bottom, cause they are not supported. Imagine if this was a Zune, you would have slated them to piece over this. I'm sorry but I find it embarrassing to hear you say it's supported.



    But Apple doesn't even claim to support iPhone, it is AI that is saying that. I understand the lack of volume control is a bummer, but all the other functions do work, really, three out of four features that do work. If you can deal with the durability concerns and lack of volume control, maybe the improved sound quality can make it worthwhile. There doesn't appear to be a lot of competing options that even have a button and mic on the cord.



    Given the additional regulatory hurdles because of the updated radios and such, as well as the earlier release I would expect that the iPhone 3G hardware design had to be completed maybe as much as half a year before the Touch had to be done.



    I really don't care for this product as is, but I do hope it gets supported by third parties, particularly ones that make more conventional headphones with a hoop. I just can't use ear buds.
  • indiekidukindiekiduk Posts: 125member
    I'd love to see an article on how crap the new MacBook Pro speakers are compared to the old one. They really sound terrible and buzz the case like an old TV.
  • elconchoelconcho Posts: 1member
    I don't know what all the hubub is about that apple came out with these earphones. because the plastic is white?



    if you're serious about in-ear phones, check out the line from Etymotic Research. I have had a set of the the ER6's for over a year. They're reference neutral, totally isolating, and the same price as the apple's on ebay.



    http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/er6.aspx



    Check them out
  • mikeskemikeske Posts: 32member
    I have a issue with my left ear that I cannot use a in-ear headphone, I had a tube implanted in my ear similar to the tubes that implanted in children. For this reason anything blocking the airflow into and out of the ear is out of the question for me.



    I have been stuck using the old fashion headphones and battery life on the iPod really falls down using these as they have to power a larger speaker.



    I wish that Apple would go the other way for us that have to have tubes in our eardrums.



    If your kids have tubes in their eardrums they also should not be using the ear buds also for the same reason I can not.



    It is nice to see Apple develop these new ear buds but I wish they would develop better old style head phones for us that can not use ear buds for whatever reason, I can not see why I have to break down and buy a good quality headset that is close to the same price as a iPod 16 GB.
  • ivladivlad Posts: 730member
    Ya. It'll be cool if they were in any Apple store. I don't understand why Apple drags such products. I mean I do know, because of the hype. But its headphones, not new computer or iPhone.
  • nagrommenagromme Posts: 2,834member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post


    Still taken aback that didn't make them "FULLY" compatible with the iPhone 3G at least. YES, I know they are partially compatible. This is such an Apple thing to do. One of the best companies in the world manage to do things like this that are so dumb it's shocking.



    ...



    Anyone makes any excuses for them, or tires to defend Apple in any way shape or form on this one get an internet-slap! ZIP IT!



    The iPod Touch 2nd-gen is a newer product, and this is not the only capability/spec Apple improved after the iPhone 3G came out. Newer products are often better than older ones (from any company--it's not just an Apple habit).
  • jeffdmjeffdm Posts: 12,933member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by elconcho View Post


    I don't know what all the hubub is about that apple came out with these earphones. because the plastic is white?



    if you're serious about in-ear phones, check out the line from Etymotic Research. I have had a set of the the ER6's for over a year. They're reference neutral, totally isolating, and the same price as the apple's on ebay.



    http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/er6.aspx



    Check them out



    But with disposible, non cleanable "filters" at $10/set? WTF?



    I don't think it makes any sense to compare the eBay prices with retail prices.



    Quote:
    Originally Posted by iVlad View Post


    Ya. It'll be cool if they were in any Apple store. I don't understand why Apple drags such products. I mean I do know, because of the hype. But its headphones, not new computer or iPhone.



    You mean delays? It may have been that way so they can announce all their products at one event. I imagine that Apple would make more money if they had them available right away when they're fresh on everyone's mind. Heck, releasing so close to Christmas is not so good for gift purchases, where as iPhones and computers seem to be a less likely gift, if money was a consideration.
  • jeff k-cjeff k-c Posts: 28member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by mikeske View Post


    I have a issue with my left ear that I cannot use a in-ear headphone, I had a tube implanted in my ear similar to the tubes that implanted in children. ... I wish they would develop better old style head phones for us that can not use ear buds for whatever reason, I can not see why I have to break down and buy a good quality headset that is close to the same price as a iPod 16 GB.



    Not to try to one-up you, but I was born without a left ear. No ear, no ear canal opening, nada. I actually spent about 30 minutes on the phone with an Apple Cust. Service Rep. about a year ago addressing this issue from my own perspective. What I would LOVE to see is a mono/stereo setting option.



    I dovetailed my argument in favor of this option in what I thought was a very convincing manner. If you are driving, waiting to hear a flight call at the airport or sharing your earbuds with a potential romantic interest on the beach, it would be nice to have the option to hear all of the music from each earbud. As it is, if you need to, or are only able to listen to one earbud, some music is so heavily split stereophonically that what you end up listening to is nothing close to the full sound of the song. You end up listening to the bass, rhythm guitar and harmonies, or you can choose the rest of the band minus the fore mentioned. I don't know if that would satisfy your needs as well or not, but that is a moot point at this juncture.



    The Rep. was very courteous and seemed quite interested... but that has yet to yield any change, to the best of my knowledge.



    Jeff
  • shadowt77shadowt77 Posts: 9member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    Apple's 2008 In-Ears mark the company's first-ever microphone accessory for iPods, and this by itself may be the single most important addition to the iPod line in recent memory. It's finally possible to record voice memos on the fourth-generation iPod nano and the second-generation iPod classic. second-generation iPod touch owners now also have support for voice-aware software like Google Mobile App or even voice-over-Internet calling suites like Truphone.



    actually, the iPhone earphones work great with the 2gen iPod Touch, mic and everything, so this was actually possible as soon as the apps were made. the volume control is definitely welcome though!
  • cameronjcameronj Posts: 2,357member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by palegolas View Post


    The trouble with my last iPhone earbuds was that the connection between the microphone/remote and the earbuds didn't tidn't withstand much, and I soon had to buy a new pair. It looks like it's as fragile here..



    I go through a pair every few months because of this issue. Bought a pair of V-Modas and didn't have any better experience, so I'm back to cheap and crappy, rather than expensive and crappy.
  • wobegonwobegon Posts: 764member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by iPilya View Post


    iPhone: From my understanding, the volume aspect requires that receiving input socket have all 4 segments/connectors. The iPhone only has 3. (forgive the layman wording). So it will take a complete change-out of the input socket to begin solving the issue. I bet the next iPhone edition that comes out will have it.



    Actually, according to an earlier AppleInsider article by Prince McLean, the iPhone has 4 conductors as well but:



    "The new headphones are not listed as compatible with the iPhone, because it was not designed to adjust volume with the mic switch; the mic should still work and the headphones will work with any iPod or other standard headphone jack device."

    http://www.appleinsider.com/articles...008_ipods.html



    I thought the same thing as you - not enough conductors. So it seems to be a hardware deficiency, which I have no doubt will be resolved in the next iPhone.



    If it were on the software side, they would have (probably) added support through a software update in advance because they have no real incentive to keep this functionality locked away since...the next iPhone won't be out for a while yet and they would likely sell even more of these things if those volume controls worked with the iPhone (which would also allow Apple to market them as iPhone compatible).
  • wheelhotwheelhot Posts: 465member
    Lets hope if they were to update the design, they will make the cable a lil bit thicker for durability. My old apple earphones broke because of the cable, Just got my self a senn yesterday. Wished it were Apple in-ears though but I dont own an iPod Touch or the iPhone so it would be a waste to get the new Apple in-ears
  • ahmlcoahmlco Posts: 432member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Jeff K-C View Post


    What I would LOVE to see is a mono/stereo setting option.



    Well, you can actually cut off the left earpiece. Snip the left wire right at the "Y" and you'll have a "mono" headset. It should be obvious, but if you have set of iPhone buds, cut off the left side and NOT the right side with the mic and switch. Be sure NOT to nick the right wire when you make the cut.



    I have a couple of pair that I've modified this way and use them as a mono phone headset and to listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and TV shows on my iPhone. (None of which demands stereo.)



    On the rare occasion I want to listen to music I just dig out the unmodified set.
  • cameronjcameronj Posts: 2,357member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by ahmlco View Post


    Well, you can actually cut off the left earpiece.



    I think you missed the point..
  • bichenoubibichenoubi Posts: 3member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by cameronj View Post


    I go through a pair every few months because of this issue. Bought a pair of V-Modas and didn't have any better experience, so I'm back to cheap and crappy, rather than expensive and crappy.



    I don't own it, but when I will change my earbuds (I buy new ones every year because cable breaks inside) I will buy this: Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3 Studio. Expensive, yes, but I know I will not waste my money and will be able to just buy a new cable.
Sign In or Register to comment.