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Apple's EarPods Are Fantastic if You're in a Nice Quiet Spot

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Oct 8, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Apple's EarPods Are Fantastic if You're in a Nice Quiet Spot

All the new iPhone 5 owners now have Apple's new iconic white EarPods -- the earbud headphones that ship with the new iPhone 5 and iPod touch. There are millions of previous iPhone and iPod owners, however, who might be ready to trade in their old beat-up set of earphones or upgrade. The question is, should the new EarPods be your next iOS device headphones? Tough question, it turns out. Despite Apple's hubris on the EarPods -- Apple claims "they rival high-end headphones that cost hundreds of dollars more" -- they're just not as fantastic as the fancy marketing materials and special design video implies.

Are they better than the old white earbud Earphones from Apple? Definitely, both in sound and fit and quite possibly in build quality. Every new iPhone 5 owner ought to be pleased to see them. I have two sets now -- the pair I bought before the iPhone 5 launch and the pair that shipped with my iPhone. I have zero buyer's remorse.

Better at Doing Everything

To really nail down the value of the new EarPods, the question isn't so much about audio quality or even fit as it is about the sum of all the parts of the EarPod: The new EarPods are really good at doing everything I expect out of EarPods. In other words, the EarPods are good all-around, everyday use speakers. Good enough to survive the day, cheap enough that you won't freak out if they go through the wash, and durable enough to withstand abuse.

I just wouldn't select these if I were stranded on a deserted island with a fully loaded iPod and a solar battery charger.

Three things will matter to new buyers: fit, audio quality, and call quality.

EarPod Fit

For me, I must have ears like the 1,200 or so ears that Apple used to test its 124 prototypes. The fit is fantastic. I can pop the EarPods in and they feel amazing -- barely there, perfectly positioned. When I take jackets on and off and the cord gets snagged, they stay in. Even then, with the cord tugging, the pressure feels fine, as if it's transferred across a large surface area of the EarPod.

When I run, they stay in. When I start sweating, they mostly stay in.

I seriously appreciate how these EarPods fit my ears.

Of course, if you're not one of the masses, not one of the people who share a similar ear size and shape, you might be sorely disappointed. The way the EarPods sort of slip into your ear canal and direct the sound -- without sealing off the canal -- should either work for you or be an utter failure. There's no way to adjust the size, no special tips to change out for a better fit. They are what they are.

EarPod Audio Quality

As near as I can tell, even when specialized equipment comes into play, there still remains a lot of subjectivity when it comes to sound. Some of it is personal preference, but I believe there's also differences in each person's hearing capabilities that muddy the results, too. As for myself, after running chainsaws, lawn mowers, and shooting firearms over the course of years, I'm sure that my ability to hear certain frequencies has been diminished.

Still, I appreciate a decent set of speakers, and while I love borrowing high-quality headphones and listening to nice speaker systems, my lifestyle doesn't support the expense when its coupled with an on-the-go activity level where risk of breakage, water damage or outright loss is high. So I tend to settle for good enough.

The EarPods are good enough, but simply aren't amazing. Way better than the old ones, but competitive with in-ear buds? I'm not convinced. I just lost a set of US$60 in-ear buds that I had for about three years, and the overall sound seemed richer to me. I beat the heck out of those in-ear buds and I can't even remember what brand or model they were to see if I can find a newer model.

Apple Earpods
Apple's redesigned Earpods, shown with an iPhone 5

So why was the sound richer? I think the issue is mostly about ambient noise. The EarPods don't seal my ears, so they let outside sounds in, which obviously competes with the music. I don't know about you, but every single time I listened to any headphones while in bed in the dark and quiet of night, the quality of sound seemed much much better than in the light of day. And even much richer at lower volume levels.

The efficacy of the EarPods are affected by life, of sharing the planet with billions of other noisy people. Apple may have engineered a marvel of audio quality under perfect conditions, but my conditions are usually far from perfect.

But yes, the bass is stronger than in previous iterations without being annoying like the earbuds that are created to impress teenagers. And the mids and highs? They seem better, too. Dialogue in movies and TV shows sounds better, too, crisper and lifelike, but this could be due to a better fit over the old-style earphones.

Call Quality

The remote and inline mic seems more responsive, with a better tactile feel. It's bigger than previous generations, too. As for call quality, let's put it this way: Not once did any caller on the other end ask me if I was on speakerphone, ask me if something was wrong with the call, or say that I sounded weird or hard to hear. With previous generations of Apple earphones, this sometimes happened. With other inline mics that I've used, it happened, too. I believe that Apple has improved this experience, either with how the iPhone processes sound or with the mic itself in the EarPods. I'm not sure, but I am pleased.

At the same time, I like the fact that the EarPods don't seal off my ear canal, so when I talk to someone, my voice sounds more natural. I want a regular, day-to-day experience on my calls. The EarPods seem to be delivering better than ever.

The downside to EarPods is that they don't seal off your ear canal. That means that my experience with them in airports and on the plane wasn't so good. There's so much terminal noise at airports that to hear Damien Lewis and Claire Danes in Homeland, I have to crank the volume pretty high, which I know isn't good for my ears. And on the plane? If you're seated behind the engines, forget about it. In order to create enough volume to override ambient noise and hear any quality of sound, the volume has to go loud to be effective. In these situations, I realize I'll have to replace my lost in-ear earbuds with some new set or shell out for a noise-canceling set.

All-in-all, if you're looking for a solid, general-purpose set of earphones that will work great with calls, the EarPods will get the job done. If you want superior audio quality in unpredictable environments, keep looking. Oh, one last thing: If you're listening to music while you drift off to sleep in a hotel room late at night -- nice. These puppies are quite nice.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.

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