[Editor’s note: Last week, we posted our initial hands-on impressions of Apple’s new EarPods. Now that we’ve had the EarPods for a week, we’ve expanded on those initial impressions for this formal review.]
It’s become de rigueur to describe Apple’s white earbuds as “ubiquitous” and “iconic”—and justifiably so. Not only are they almost inextricably linked to the company’s iPods and iPhones, but Apple revealed at its recent press event that it had shipped 600 million sets of the headphones, a number that almost certainly makes them the most-used piece of gear in the history of audio reproduction.
Beyond their ubiquity and iconic status, though, Apple’s earbuds have frequently been derided as offering sub-par sound. They’ve also occasionally been praised—despite their mediocre sound quality compared to higher-end headphones, it’s amazing that they sound as good as they do considering that designing good earbuds is inherently difficult. (Not to mention that Apple produces them at incredible scale and includes them with many products at no additional cost.)
Apple has clearly invested significant engineering effort in its earbuds over the years. The product’s history includes several minor revisions, including the addition of a rubberized ring to help the earphones stay in place, and an inline remote/microphone module introduced to complement the iPhone. The company has also made—with mixed results—two attempts at premium, after-market headphones: the long-discontinued $39 Apple In-Ear Headphones ( ), and the still-available, $79 dual-driver Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic ( ).
All of that is to say that it didn’t come as a shock when Apple introduced, alongside the iPhone 5, a completely redesigned version of its classic earbuds, the $29 Apple EarPods. (The name is a cute portmanteau of earbuds and iPod, though it’s one that’s been used before by the earPod headphone case.) Still, though Apple is known for its willingness to introduce both evolutionary updates and complete redesigns of its existing products, it’s big news in the audio world when the most pervasive earbuds of all time get replaced with something that’s purportedly much better—Apple says the EarPods have been in the works for three years and boasts that the “audio quality is so superior, they rival high-end headphones that cost hundreds of dollars more.”
(In addition to being available as a $29 retail product, the EarPods are also included with the iPhone 5, fifth-generation iPod touch, and seventh-generation iPod nano, but not the iPod shuffle, which continues to include the previous Apple earbuds.)
The retail version of the EarPods comes in typically minimalist, white packaging that shows off the product in an included white-and-clear-plastic case. The case also acts as a spool for the EarPods’ cord, which is slightly thinner than that of the previous Apple earbuds. The EarPods’ inline remote/microphone module, located on the right-hand earpiece cable, is slightly larger than that of the previous earbuds, with additional strain relief, bigger buttons that are easier to press, and no visible microphone hole. The three sections of the remote are easy to distinguish, and the buttons have firm, decisive action—this is probably the best in-line remote I’ve used.
The microphone, too, is improved compared to the one on previous Apple earbuds. In my testing, the EarPods’ microphone sounded smoother and more natural without sacrificing clarity; the mic on Apple’s older earbuds sounded a little harsh in comparison. The EarPods’ microphone is even competitive with the iPhone 4’s excellent internal microphone, making it one of the top inline microphones I’ve tested.
The left side of the split cable has a cable slider, which, just like that of the previous Apple earbud headset and of the Apple In-Ear Headphones, can attach to the right-hand cable to adjust fit or to keep the split cord together during storage. The connections between the cables and the earpieces have gained enhanced strain relief.
Speaking of the earpieces, that’s where most of the new action is. The EarPods’ earpieces have an oblong, roughly teardrop-shaped silhouette rather than the circular profile of the previous earbuds. This shape is the result of Apple’s new design process for the EarPods, which was based on taking ear impressions of a large number of individuals and creating an earpiece that would best fit a wide range of ears. The result looks a little alien (perhaps appropriate, given the pop-culture association between “pod” and “alien”) and feature two grilles: one on the front face and another over the opening that directs sound into the listener’s ear. The back side of the earpiece (away from your ear canal), and, cleverly, the stem that leads to the cable both feature bass ports that help tune bass and midrange response.
Sound quality aside, one of the most common complaints about Apple’s previous earbuds was that they didn’t stay in listeners’ ears well. That flaw was annoying for the wearer, but it also meant that the earbuds were often positioned in a way that produced poor sound quality. The new design, at least in my ears, offers a much more secure and comfortable fit. The EarPods didn’t fall out due to pesky things like gravity during normal use (although a sharp pull on the cable will dislodge an earpiece).
That said, the EarPods’ fit is still far from perfect, as I discovered when I used them during a workout. Within a minute or two, the right earpiece would work its way out of my ear. Everyone’s ears are different, and your mileage may be better or worse than mine, but I soon switched back to my trusty Koss KSC–75 ( ) for the rest of the workout. Still, I found the fit of the EarPods was worlds better than that of the old Apple earbuds, and I think that will be the case for most listeners.
Because the EarPods fit deeper in the ear than the previous Apple earbuds, and are designed to guide sound more directly into the listener’s ear canals, they also offer a bit more isolation from outside noise and they leak less sound. However, when it comes to isolation and sound leakage, they still pale in comparison to true canalphones and canalbuds, which form an acoustic seal in your ear.