In Ear with Apple’s New EarPods: Pleasantly Surprised

| Quick Look Review

After leaving the Apple event yesterday I got a pair of the new EarPods to check out. I expected to hate them, and I did at first, but then came to find their sound works well for many environments.

Apple's New EarPods on Left, Old Earphones on Right

Apple's New EarPods on Left, Old Earphones on Right
(Click the image for a larger version)

The first place I tried them was on the flight home last night. I waited until we were past the requisite 10,000 feet, opened the box, plugged them into my iPhone, and pressed play on an "earphone test" playlist that I have (really just a mix of a lot of different types of music plus some 'seal test' MP3s thrown in for good measure). They sounded terrible.

That's no surprise, of course, because these aren't true "in-ear" phones. The EarPods aren't built to form a noise-isolating seal with your ear. On an airplane -- where you have lots of low-end and mid-range rumble from the plane's engines -- the EarPods don't stand a chance of creating enough sound to hear anything more than just high end, tinkly stuff. So I packed them away and went back to my custom-fitted, single-driver Future Sonics Ear Monitors.

This morning, in the more noise-free environment of my office, I tried the EarPods again. I was still expecting to be disappointed, but I was pleasantly surprised with the results.

The Fit

I typically only use earphones in an environment where I need a seal: on an airplane, and on a stage (I'm a drummer and use earphones to hear what's going on around me at a comfortable level). Because of that, most earphones that don't seal in my ear simply feel loose to me. I'm always worried that they're going to fall out.

The EarPods actually sit comfortably in my ear, and even with semi-violent head shaking I couldn't get them to fall loose. They sit lower in my ear than I'm used to with other earphones, but that helps to keep them comfortable for longer periods of time and, presumably, to allow things to breathe around them (which is good when you're sweaty at the gym). All in all, very comfortable to me. Well done.

The Sound

As I said, I was pleasantly surprised by the sound of the EarPods. In normal environments, there's plenty of low end, and the 50Hz sound on the aforementioned seal test came through just fine, at a relatively equal volume level to the 500Hz tone. That's an important balance to get right, and Apple's done it here.

The "signature" (or quality) of the sound is a little bright for my tastes. I'm hearing a bit more harshness in the high end (maybe around 6kHz) than I would normally prefer, but that's a very subjective thing to each listener. I got used to it pretty quickly, and was able to lose myself in the music—perhaps the most important metric!

As a Headset

These aren't just earphones, they also have a microphone and are built to work as a headset for phone calls. In some testing we did here, we found that the EarPod microphone sounded better to the listener (on the other end) than the built-in mic on my iPhone 4S.

Obviously this is going over a phone circuit where the quality is, at best, barely acceptable. We did some testing with Skype (which typically has about three times the bandwidth of a traditional phone call) and found something interesting: the gain on this microphone is too hot and makes things sound distorted to the listener on the other end. Comparing to the old generation of earbud/headset showed that this is a new problem. It will be interesting to see how Skype or Apple reacts to this over time.

No Seal

As I mentioned before, it's important to remember that Apple's new EarPods (like their predecessor) are not built to form a seal with your ear. That means there are certain environments where they simply won't work well (like airplanes or stages). But it also means that if you're somewhere (or doing something) where you need to hear what's going on around you, then they're well-suited to that.

In The End

For casual listening, talking on the phone, and certainly that day at the beach where you want to hear everyone around you while grooving to your tunes, Apple's EarPods are perfect. My guess is the EarPods work just fine for far more people than their predecessors did, and that's a good thing. It's nice to see Apple finally including a decent quality earphone in the box with the world's most popular music players. Nice work.

Product: EarPods

Company: Apple

List Price: US$29.99

Pros:

Richer bass, loose-fitting comfort that doesn't fall out, good general-purpose sound

Cons:

No seal makes them tough to use on airplanes or in noisy envrironments. Microphone over-modulates with some VOIP software, including Skype.

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9 Comments Leave Your Own

Lee Dronick

Thanks for the review Dave, I am going treat myself to a pair of these.

MaxHedrm

You can’t adjust the mic gain in the Skype iOS app? Lame.

zebrum

You wrote a review about testing headphone quality on a plane. On a PLANE!?!?! What were you thinking by opening with that?

David

Chill out zebrum. Most of the time I listen to my iPod in the back of a bus, on a subway train or walking down a busy street with the noise of vehicles going by and the wind whistling past my earphones. I was glad he included the airplane as a test environment.

I’m also happy that Apple finally did something to improve their earbuds even though my wife and I don’t use them because they won’t stay in our ears.

While I like the small size/weight of in-ear phones I’m tired of jamming them into my head trying to get a proper seal. My next headphones will be an over-the-ear model.

bsdjunkie

Nice review! It was very readable. I enjoyed reading it. I used to use the in-the-ear seal type of earbuds too. Shures to be exact. Loved the sound, but now I am using Bose QC15 over-the-ear headphones for the office and at home. I’m very happy with them!

calzone

Gain?
Wouldn’t gain be in the phone circuitry? How is the mic on these puppies going to have any more gain?  Maybe the older version had too much plastic obscuring the mic and therefore they required a little gain boost in the phone and the new ones are not like that and therefore seem louder when the same gain boost is applied?

jake

what is sound leakage like on these - are they as neighbour-unfriendly as the old ones?

Dave Hamilton

@calzone - gain may very well be set by the app in this case. It’s theoretically possible for an app to do it, though I’m not sure exactly what Skype is doing. They may simply have a fixed gain setting for “headphones” mode, and that’s a little on the hot side for the EarPods.

@jake - Sound leakage is what you’d expect for a non-sealing earphone. It may be a little better than the previous offering, simply because it does *aim* down the ear canal better, but there’s still going to be some. In those situation, true, sealing in-ears are the right tool for the job.

Andrew Conkling

Did you test the microphone with FaceTime? That would be a similar way to test the gain without Skype’s third-party app. I’d be curious to compare the results.

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