Review: Apple EarPods

by on September 24, 2012

While one may automatically assume that the earbuds included with Apple’s iPods and iPhones are uncomfortable, poor sounding, and fragile, September 12’s introduction of EarPods hopes to change that. After more than three years of work, the cheesily-named $29 earbuds are Apple’s attempt to provide a product that will suit most users’ tastes.

Apple Earpods (Closeup) Apple Earpods Apple Earpods
Apple Earpods (with iPhone 4 earbuds and third-generation iPod earbuds) Apple Earpods (with iPhone 4 earbuds and third-generation iPod earbuds)

Included with the iPhone 5, fifth-generation iPod touch, and seventh-generation iPod nano, EarPods are Apple’s update to its iconic earbuds. Just as Apple phased the prior generation in around the time of the fifth-generation iPod back in 2005, these will eventually become the standard product for every new Apple device over the next few years. Apple is betting so much on these, that they received their own introduction video much like other high-profile product launches. Although we have yet to see the pack-ins for the to-be-released-in-October iPod touch or iPod nano, we’re assuming that they’ll be similar, but may not include the remote or microphone, just like the different versions of their predecessors.

Our set was the standard retail variation, available now at your local Apple Store and most Targets, and soon to be at most other iDevice retailers. Replacing the simple cardboard packaging of the prior earbuds is a plastic sleeve and a cardboard tray. In the tray, you’ll find a plastic case with the EarPods wound around the outside. While this isn’t as fancy as the included cases for more expensive earbuds, it is nice if you’re throwing the EarPods in a bag or take a few seconds to wind them up before putting them in your pocket. There’s even a notch for the remote/microphone, which should work across a good chunk of Apple’s lineup past and present (although Apple’s wording is confusing):

The remote and mic are supported by all models of iPod, iPhone, and iPad (not all models support volume up/down functions). Audio is supported by all iPod models.

Requires software version 1.0.3 for iPod nano (4th generation), 2.0.1 for iPod classic (120GB), and 2.2 or later for iPod touch (2nd generation).

The remote/microphone features did not work with our third- or fifth-generation iPods, although this seems to coincide with the requirement for at least an iPod classic (aka the sixth-generation iPod with the latest software).

Looking at the EarPods themselves, there are some similarities with their predecessors, although they certainly look more modern, almost with a hint of JBL Creature DNA. Like prior models, the remote/microphone module is located along the right wire just around the neck, and there is a clip for cable management. The biggest changes between your device and the earbuds themselves is that the reinforcements where the cables meet plastic and the remote/microphone module. The cable is also about an inch and a half longer. The former are sturdier and larger, while the latter is a bit longer, flatter, and made of glossy plastic.

At first glance, the earbuds themselves have done away with the strips of silicone, foam pads, or any other semblance of comfort. Part of this is Apple’s one-size-fits-all-for-real-this-time engineering, while the other is that these aren’t designed to create a seal with your ear canal. Instead, they sit in place and fire audio into your ear canal, but allow you to hear some ambient noise. In our tests, they’re surprisingly comfortable. They were tested by one person who didn’t mind the old earbuds and one who has never been a fan of Apple’s ‘buds. If our unscientific tests are the norm, this may be good for Apple, and bad for those who are banking on people moving away from the included earbuds.

Although they may feel and look better, the ultimate question is if they sound better. While Apple’s marketing argues that they sound as good as headphones that are hundreds of dollars more, this is bit of a stretch. My go-to headphones are a pair of Sennheiser HD-280 Pros that I’ve had for about ten years now (a few family members also swear by these), and they still are much better the the EarPods (although this isn’t a really fair comparison, since one covers your ear and the other goes in your ear; one also would look a tad ridiculous in public, while the other would blend in with most other standard Apple earbuds). Still, comparing the EarPods to their predecessor, it seems Apple’s claims of better bass, clearer midrange, and just overall better sound are true. Audiophiles will probably opt for something a bit more specialized, but for average users that are fine with what comes in the box, these seem much improved.

The only possible negatives are the long-term durability, the still-easy-to-tangle cables, and the chance that your ears fall outside of the “norms” set by Apple.

Other than that, Apple’s EarPods are a pretty good product—they’re only a tad more expensive than even the basic remote- and microphone-equipped earbuds, but fit well (without the need for easily-lost rubber cushions), and are even better if they come free with a new iPod or iPhone. If you get a new device, give them a try before replacing them, and if you have an older device and are in the market for new earbuds, they’re worth checking out.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

If you’re looking for a set of inexpensive replacement earbuds, especially with a microphone and remote, you can put Apple back on your list.

Pros: More comfortable, better initial build quality, better sound, relatively inexpensive when purchased separately

Cons: Long-term durability unknown, still may not fit 100% of people

Rating: 8/10

The Facts

Product: EarPods
Company: Apple
Platform: All iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Macs
Price: $29 (included with iPhone 5, fifth-generation iPod touch, seventh-generation iPod nano)

This post has been filed in iPad, iPhone, Mobile Devices, Reviews, Speakers/Audio