Apple's new EarPods were announced with the iPhone 5 to replace the now-aging and oft-criticized earbuds. With an all-new design, paper cones and air channels specifically designed to boost bass performance, and at $30 (or free with iPod Tocuh or iPhone), it seems like a great bargain.
As for sound quality, well that's what this review is for!
Just a small caveat for further reading: I do not own super-high-end gear as some of you may have, nor a Stax or other "perfect" headphones to compare these to. I make do with what I have, and I believe it's good enough for a good review.
Scarlett 2i2 Audio Interface (neutral-sounding DAC, 24/96 USB, asynchronous)
Yamaha RH5Ma (relatively flat with great rolloff, reference-quality)
(Budget-friendly but also as accurate as my budget will allow)
My initial reaction to the EarPods were two white hair dryers. And for good reason; they are literally like hair dryers in the fact that they send air down the ear canal. The slits by the stem and the top of the buds are meant to be resonance chambers to boost bass.
Unlike the previous earbuds, the EarPods have an actual strain relief like those seen at the connector end of the cable. The remote is slightly larger and glossier, but certainly more durable (they also have strain reliefs on both ends).
One annoying thing about the EarPods is that the buds are glossy. If you have waxy or oily ears, then these will look absolutely disgusting.
Another thing is, these are molded for the majority of ear shapes. If these don't fit, then you will hate these. If they do, they'll feel wonderful. Also a proper seal is necessary for proper performance so if you're the "minority" for whom the EarPods won't fit, you won't get the sound quality that these are actually capable of.
Apple has switched to a single (?) paper cone driver for each ear, with carefully designed channels. The ear canal hole has two channels with a metal grate. This gives a place for earwax to accumulate, unfortunately. Make sure these are clean, or they can get quite dirty. A concern with the new design is that it's a paper cone, with numerous slits on the outer shell of the buds, which means an increased risk of water damage.
The channels also provide a way for external sound to get in, so expect little isolation.
As you can see, it has two distinct peaks at 1.5kHz and 6.7kHz, where the sound resonates within the channels. A slight resonance at 100Hz is also observed. Of concern is the inner ear's resonance frequency. As noted here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/413900/how-to-equalize-your-headphones-a-tutorial the average ear's resonance frequency is right at the peak of the EarPods. This could mean extremely emphasized highs for some people.
There was no appreciable change in sound with burn-in, which lasted 20 hours.
As for the rolloff, the bass and mid rolloffs are absolutely TERRIBLE. I've set a metronome with each tick lasting 1ms. On the RH5Ma, they're short and precise. On the EarPods, they last at least 20ms. Expect muddy sound from these buds.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 by Herbert von Karajan
There is little instrumental separation; you can't tell a cello apart from a viola, or a trombone from a French horn. The sound signature is neutral, but the EarPods emphasize the highs a little too much. The bass is certainly improved from the previous earbuds, but again they're too muddy. The mids are well-controlled at times and muddy at others.
Spain by Chick Corea
This is a little bit better-faring. The piano doesn't sound as responsive, but once it gets to the fast-paced jazz, the muddiness transforms into more of a smoothness. Each note blends into the other, which sometimes makes the piece sound wonderful (e.g. the flute solo, where the glissando down sounds like buttery) and horrible in others (piano's percussiveness and the bass pluck is muddied). Better, but still not up to par.
Faxing Berlin by deadmau5
This is more a bass-heavy song, and a test of how much the EarPods have improved the bass. Indeed it has better reach and more thump, but the bass is again too muddy and in fact too thumpy. The resonance chambers do their job in improving the bass performance a little too well. The rest of the song sounds relatively good, at least for the price. As this isn't as percussive as the other two pieces the muddiness does not show at all.
For $30, these are okay. For mobile use these are good especially for the price and convenience. There are better options out there, and at this price point the Brainwavz M2 comes to mind, but most people will be getting these for free with their iDevice and nothing can beat free :) But for home use, these have such low value. The RH5Ma which I used as the reference is a mere $45, and already it's so much better.
All in all, these are too muddy for any good listening and I'd recommend getting a new pair of earbuds or IEMs instead.