Thoughts on Apple EarPods
Who would have thought that the one interesting piece of Apple tech to come out of 2012 would be a new set of "iBuds"? Certainly not me, but here they are, already on sale for $29 in all of their glossy white glory. Genuinely curious, I borrowed a pair of EarPods from a coworker for a few days, giving up one of my high-end headsets in trade.
Out with the old
I am one of those who doesn't consider the stock apple buds (of the latest-gen variety) to be terrible. Like most earbuds they have noticeable bass roll-off, don't sound very full-bodied, and don't have the best crispness or fine detailing but they are clean-sounding and airy. There's absolutely none of that boomy, closed-in feel I used to dread with cheap headphones of yesteryear. Simply put, they are not offensive. That said, I probably wouldn't listen to them willingly as the cold-ish tone and mid-centric sound don't really work for me, especially considering the number of great sub-$50 IEMs out there.
Left: Apple earbuds (from an iPhone 3G) Right: Apple EarPods
In with the new
According to Apple the new EarPods have been re-designed from the ground up for better comfort, durability, and sound quality. The durability part is apparent - the new strain reliefs on the housings grip the cables tightly and the mic/remote unit now has strain reliefs of its own. The pinhole mic is also gone, presumably for increased sweat resistance, and the remote button operation now feels weightier and more precise. The EarPods are also a touch heavier than the old buds, at 12g vs 10g. Isolation is still nonexistent and they do leak at high volumes.
The comfort improvements are supposed to be the result of the new housings, which are meant to both channel the sound into the ear canal and also grip the outer ear better. This is far from a novel idea - Yurbuds models and other sets such as the Philips SHQ1000 have utilized the same principle for a while. My ears, which have been spoiled by custom molds and soft silicone IEM tips, found the fit of the EarPods no more comfortable than that of my old Apple buds. Actually, the potential for better sound quality makes them less comfortable for me - I get the best sound out of the EarPods by pushing the 'nozzle' right into my ear canal, but long-term comfort drops precipitously as a result.
When it comes to the way they sound, though, there is no comparing the new to the old. The biggest improvement for me is the bass – the low end of the EarPods is quite good. Bass depth is much better and there’s quite a bit more impact and body to the sound. The mid-bass can sound boosted with a modicum of a seal between the EarPod and ear but I’ll take that over the gutless low end of the old Apple buds any day. In addition, I think the improved bass response could encourage some iPod users to listen at lower volumes – always a plus in my book. Perhaps Generation Z won’t be known as the ‘hearing loss generation’ after all.
The improved bass of the EarPods results in a warmer, more natural tone as compared to the old Apple buds. In fact, the sound is overall more natural, balanced, and refined. The upper midrange is less forward and shouty and the treble is less edgy – basically the EarPods sound less like a poorly sealed IEM than the old Earbuds do. Volume with the same input power is a little lower as a result, but hopefully that won't cause the average iPod listener to discard the EarPods. Clarity is improved, which is especially noticeable at higher volumes. The treble is still not very smooth but, when properly seated, the EarPods don’t sound particularly sibilant to me. Overall, the sound is less strident and a bit more laid-back. The soundstage, too, is wide, though depth could be better.
Now for the bad news – the EarPods have retained the slightly washed-out note presentation of the previous-gen Apple buds. They are clean and clear but seem almost too slow to resolve fine detail. At the same time, note thickness is still not great compared to some of the better sub-$10 earphones - the Philips SHE3580, for example. In this way and others, the EarPods remind me of the Monoprice 8320, a now-popular entry-level in-ear notorious for its finicky fit.
White vs chrome
Comparing the EarPods to the Monoprice 8320 yields interesting results – there really isn’t a night and day difference between the two, and while the 8320 does pull away in most instances, it wins on having less glaring weaknesses rather than more impressive strengths. For one, the 8320’s bass depth is better – the EarPods have very good extension for a conventional earbud but the 8320 has a home field advantage here. The EarPods, on the other hand, seem to elevate mid-bass a little more and sound a bit slower. Clarity is similar between the two and both lack the crispness of an armature-based product. The treble of the 8320 is smoother and less fatiguing over long listening sessions, with the EarPods’ peaks coming in lower and being more noticeable during casual listening. The soundstage battle, too, is won by the 8320, with slightly better depth and better layering. Comparisons aside, however, the fact that the EarPods can run side by side with one of the most competent entry-level in-ears out there is very telling.
It’s worth noting again that the EarPods are rather touchy when it comes to fit. Perhaps this is because the potential of actually getting them to sound great now seems oh-so-close at all times, or maybe that's just the nature of the design. The fact remains - whereas the old buds sounded average from any angle, the EarPods definitely earn their $29 price tag with the right fit. For many, sound and comfort will both fall into place with the EarPods - great news considering they sound better than many entry-level in-ears. My spoiled ears and I will be heading back to the land of IEMs.
Edited by ljokerl - 9/27/12 at 8:45am