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
(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.
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.
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.
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.