“Sound is so important to the way you experience an Apple product,” says Jony Ive in Apple’s official video promoting their redesigned pack-in headphones, the 2001-ish sounding EarPods. “So we wanted to make a headphone that was absolutely the very best it could be.”
This statement should be news to anyone who has crammed Apple’s absolutely unbearable pack-in headphones into their ears at any point over the last ten years. If Apple cared about how headphones sounded, they certainly never showed it: their default earbuds were atrociously designed shards of aural and physical pain, with terrible, tinny sound, absolutely no bass response and an ergonomic design worthy of its own condemning press release from Amnesty International.
I was absolutely positive I would detest the EarPods. I actually think they’re pretty okay.
The EarPods are far, far better. I’m tempted to follow that with a zinger, like “… but then again, jagged shards of glass connected to spark-spurting, uninsultated copper wire would be better.” But I have to be honest: I was absolutely positive I would detest the EarPods. I actually think they’re pretty okay. If you heard the venom I’d spit at them before I tried them, you’d know that this is high praise.
Let’s not get sucked in by Apple’s hyperbole, and look at this from a more balanced perspective. With the EarPods, Apple needed to solve a few problems. Their pack-in headphones were widely loathed pieces of junk. They sounded terrible and they were incredibly uncomfortable for most users. Apple could fix those problems in a number of ways, most notably by embracing a more traditional in-canal earbud design, but not while maintaining the profit margins Apple has come to expect, nor maintaining the previous earbud’s design simplicity.
Apple’s EarPods are the solution. Like the previous in-ear pack-in headphones, they are made of a single blob of plastic. They are easy and cheap to mass-produce, and while Apple’s shipping them free with every iPod and iPhone sold, they want thirty bucks for them at retail. Unlike last time, however, they have been designed to take in-ear comfort into account.
“The human ear is so unique. No two are alike. Making one headphone to fit everyone’s ears would be like making one pair of shoes to fit every body’s feet. I mean it’s impossible. But that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do with the new EarPods,” says Jony Ive in the same video linked above (the emphasis is mine).
Personally, I think the EarPods pass the comfort test in a way that wholly elluded their dreadful predecessors. While I couldn’t stand to have the old earbuds in my ears for longer than a single song, I was comfortably able to keep the EarPods in my ears for a couple of hours at a time. This is no mean feat. While I think the sound quality of some of the premium ear buds in my collection is massively better than that of the EarPods, those are all in-canal headphones, which I’ve always found slightly uncomforable. The EarPods, on the other hand, loosely fit into your outer ear using the cartilage for support. For me, the feeling of the EarPods is almost like not wearing headphones at all. I have slight complaints about that — it always felt like the EarPods were simply going to fall out of my ears at any given moment — but there’s no denying that it’s a preferable experience to having ear-fatigue after a few minutes. It should be noted, though, that despite Ive’s boasting, EarPods won’t fit everyone well: they did just fall out of my girlfriend’s ears when she tried to wear them.
The sound quality of Apple’s EarPods is less interesting. There’s no denying that the EarPods sound much better than their predecessors. Bass was a big weak point of Apple’s previous headphones, which always sounded muddy and indistinct at best, non-existent at worst. The new EarPods are designed with this weakness in mind. Usually, earbuds don’t have good bass unless they can form a tight seal with your ear: namely, in-canal headphones. With the EarPods, though, Apple has poked tiny holes into the stem and outer casing to allow air to continuously cycle through the headphones while they sit in your ear. These holes enable the speaker diaphragms inside tthe EarPods to move back and forth without an inner vacuum stunting the bass response. If you’ve ever bass reflex speakers, the theory there is similar.
So bass is pretty good. For a lot of people, that will be enough. The rise of Beats is testament to the fact that for most people, sound quality in a pair of headphones is determined by having as much bass as possible, end of story. For me, this is a bizarre perspective: the equivalent of thinking the only taste that matters in a meal is sweet, when there’s also sour, bitter, salty, and umami. That said, there’s no denying that the new EarPods have pretty good bass response, although you’re still going to be able to get better bass from a well-fitting pair of in-canal earbuds.
In other regards, though, I found the EarPods to not sound so great. In particular, I noticed some distortion and a general tinniness in the mid-range, especially at louder volumes. For free pack-in headphones, that’s acceptable: most people would never notice it.
There’s some distortion, but most people will never notice the EarPods’ faults.
So what’s the verdict on the EarPods? Unlike any of Apple’s previous pack-in headphones, the EarPods are pretty good. They’ve got pretty good bass response and are extremely comfortable to wear. But Apple’s previous headphones were all marked by a terrible plug and cord design that guaranteed that they had a lifespan of months, and Apple’s done nothing to change that this generation. That means that you’ll probably be replacing your EarPods in the next few months if you use them with any degree of regularity, in which case, we’d recommend you not buy the EarPods again: there are much better sounding alternatives in the same price range, and even a $10 pair of in-ear buds sound better overall. You’re not a sucker for spending $30 for the EarPods, but you can do much better.