As of next week, when Apple starts shipping the iPhone 5, the standard earbuds supplied with its portable devices will be superseded by the new EarPods. From the outside, these look a lot like the iconic white buds they replace. But yank them out of your ear and you’ll see that the design is quite unlike any earbuds you’ve ever seen.
The product blurb tells us that they’re resistant to sweat, and that they sound as good as headphones many times the price. It also says that they tenaciously hold on to your earholes, even when doing sports, and that they do this while remaining comfortable. So how do these claims hold up?
You get an absurd bass response, better in some ways to custom-molded earbuds
I picked up a pair earlier today, and have taken them for a spin. A few spins, actually — a bike ride (away from car-accessible roads), a walk through the city and some regular stop-start shopping. I also listened to music in the comfort of my own easy chair.
The EarPods have a new, longer inline remote, with easier to press buttons. You can control volume and play/pause, along with triggering Siri, and answering/hanging up calls.
The cable is a nice, floppy, rubbery plastic, and there’s a new clip to hold the two top sections of cable together. Unlike the old one, which slid up to secure the loose ends, this one is fixed to one side, and slides up and down, but is open on the other side to let you push the other cable home.
Thus you can cinch the cable for a comfy fit, and still quickly break the two sides apart.
But the main change is of course the pods at then end of these wires. They’re similar in shape to a normal earbud, but the sound comes out of the side instead of the back. This shoves the sound waves directly down your canal, and secondary holes let the air inside pass to the outside. This is roughly equivalent to an open baffle speaker design. Whatever. The result is that the EarPods sound amazing.
Hang these buds in your ears and switch on the sound. With music, you get an absurd bass response, better in some ways to the custom-molded earbuds I usually use when training/traveling. Sounds are well separated and full without being tiring. And this is on day one: most speakers and headphones get better after a short running-in period.
The other advantage of having the sound go straight into your ear is that you can set the volume lower, and still hear the music over the surrounding noise. It’s a bit weird to hear the voices of a podcast loud and clear whilst still being able to hear the ambient street noise. The mix is pleasant, though, making you safer, and less isolated from the world.
I didn’t try the mic on a phone call as a) I hate phone calls and b) I don’t have many friends. But I did chat to Siri, and he (I use the British English Siri, who’s a guy) understood me better than he does when I talk straight into my iPad’s mic.
One fun trick: If you cover the hole on the shaft of the buds, the bass disappears and the headphones sound awful. The difference is startling, and shows just how effective the open bass-chamber design is.
Despite being tested on over 600 people, the EarPods don’t fit my ears. They don’t fall out, but they’re far from a tight fit. Testing them on the bike I felt that they would drop out, but they never did. When I got a little sweatier, they stuck better, but that’s not ideal.
Time will tell if this is good or bad, I guess — the non-tight fit means that they are supremely comfortable — but I have a feeling that they’re meant to be tighter than this: the sound volume and quality drops off fast when they slip out of optimum position.
Wind noise is also a problem. I don’t usually wear any headphones while riding, but there’s a 5km bike path down by the river which is part of my daily ride. On the way up the path, with the wind at my back, the sound was as fantastic as it is at home. On the way back, riding straight into the wind, I could hardly hear a thing for the wind roar.
My custom-fitted buds are way better here.
In the Barcelona Apple Store, these headphones cost €1 less than the regular old earbuds: €29 instead of €30. And yet they manage to beat them in almost every way, except for staying in the ears. The sound is fantastically good for the size and price, and although they don’t really reach Apple’s own stated goal for the sound (“a person sitting in a room listening to high-quality speakers”), they do have a very similar feel, with a real impression of the sound being outside you in 3-D space.
But the real verdict is that it doesn’t matter. You’re going to get a pair of these with your next iDevice whether you like them or not. And my guess is that you will like them.