The proof of the pudding
Beyond the better fit, Apple says the EarPods’ clever new shape is designed to “make a headphone that was the very best it could be.” In my initial tests, I was quickly impressed with the EarPods’ audio performance. Bass was always a weak spot of the previous Apple earbuds: It was either nonexistent if you had a poor fit, or overbearing, muddy, and indistinct with a good fit. With the EarPods, bass is much cleaner, with distinct tones, though it’s still muddy and lacks detail—the EarPods seem to attempt to compensate for a lack of bass quality with an abundance of bass quantity. Overall, this is solid bass performance for an earbud, but not up to the level of, say, an inexpensive canalbud or canalphone.
Midrange frequencies sound decent enough and benefit greatly from the improved bass control, although the clarity of the midrange does suffer a bit from the presence of the EarPods’ not-controlled-enough bass. Some instruments also seem to lack body, and thanks to limited midrange detail compared to better headphones, the EarPods aren’t as involving as those products. High frequencies are the standout here, with a clear, natural sound that avoids the harsh, tinny quality of the previous earbuds’ treble, along with enough volume to help them stand out against the EarPods’ bass.
That all may sound like faint praise, but getting good performance out of earbuds is extremely difficult. For this style of headphones, at this price, Apple’s EarPods are impressive, and represent a fantastic upgrade over the previous model. In my experience reviewing headphones, I’ve found that good headphones enhance the listening experience, while bad ones get in the way of it. The previous Apple earbuds got in the way; the EarPods instead fit right in the center of that range—not enhancing the listening experience, but not detracting from it, either.
To better put the EarPods’ performance in perspective, I directly compared them against several other earbud (not in-ear-canal) models. First, I returned to the previous version of Apple’s earbuds, which confirmed my initial impressions of substantial improvement. Bass performance is clearly the older model’s undoing, as it’s too loud and too muddy, and it sabotages midrange and high-frequency performance. Good riddance.
I also tried out two more-expensive earbud models I had on hand for future review. The first was the $60 Urbanears Medis Plus, which features large drivers and a clever appendage that braces the earpieces against each ear’s antihelix, giving them a firm fit. I immediately noticed that the Medis offered a more distinct sonic picture, with much more sonic “space” between various instruments. Midrange frequencies were much more detailed and full-bodied. The contest between the Medis and the EarPods did not result in a decisive win for the Medis, however: Although the Medis’s bass volume is admirably restrained compared to that of the EarPods, because the Medis’ driver is not as closely coupled to the ear canal, low- and mid-bass frequencies are much quieter than upper bass, so the Medis’s sound lacks body, especially compared to the warm sound of the EarPods. The EarPods also offer high-frequency performance that’s comparable to, or perhaps even better than, that of the Medis. Before the EarPods, I most frequently recommended the Medis as an alternative to Apple’s earbuds, but there’s now a compelling argument that the EarPods offer the better value here—although they can’t match the Medis’s secure fit.
Second, I compared the EarPods to the most-expensive earbuds I’ve used, the $199 Bang and Olufsen EarSet 3i. The EarSet offers impressive performance for earbuds—as it should at such a high price. High frequencies are crisp and detailed, and the midrange offers excellent clarity and detail. The EarSet also offers a more-secure fit thanks to its impressively engineered ear hooks, which are adjustable at three points to keep each earpiece in place. However, once again, the EarPods have an advantage in low- and mid-bass reproduction due to their closer coupling to the ear canal. Although the EarPods overdo bass, the B&O model sounds thin due to a lack of these bass frequencies. While the EarSet is impressive as a demonstration of what’s possible with earbuds when price is (almost) no object, it also helps underscore the value of the EarPods.
Most people who end up with a pair of EarPods will have received them bundled with another Apple product. While some of them will opt for better sound through third-party headphones (and Macworld will continue to recommend the purchase of third-party headphones for a substantial upgrade in sound quality), many (most?) people will happily listen to the EarPods, never realizing they’re getting a much-improved listening experience compared to Apple’s previous toss-ins.
If you don’t have a set of EarPods, are they worth spending $29 for? In the world of headphones, $29 is fairly inexpensive, and if you’re simply looking to upgrade from existing Apple earbuds, or to replace a lost or broken set, I can recommend the EarPods—they’re easily worth their retail price, especially considering that they include an excellent inline remote/microphone module. Similarly, if you’re committed to using earbuds—because of their convenient size and lack of sonic isolation, for example—the EarPods are a worthy contender: Although there are earbuds available that are better overall, those models come at a significantly higher price, and they usually involve sacrificing a substantial portion of bass frequencies. To improve upon the EarPods’ audio quality without spending a lot more money, you’ll have to look beyond earbud-style models to other types of headphones such as full-size ’phones, canalbuds, and canalphones.