Apple EarPods review A $29 revolution in earbuds or another set for the recycling bin

Whether you think they're infamous or merely a signature piece of Apple design, there's no doubt most of us have been exposed the company's iconic white earbuds. Along with the latest batch of iPods and the iPhone 5, Apple announced the replacement for those dreaded earphones, a pair of 'buds called the EarPods. Given that these are bundled with new iDevices (also sold as a standalone for $29), it's hard not to think that the folks at Cupertino are drinking some sort of spiked Kool-Aid, claiming these rival headphones that cost hundreds more. While reviewing the likes of the iPhone 5, we also gave the EarPods a listen to find out whether or not they're just an over-engineered set of 'buds. You'll find our detailed verdict after the break.

Gallery | 15 Photos

Apple EarPods review

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Apple

Apple EarPods

Pros

  • Comfortable fit
  • Best-in-class sound quality
  • Improved inline remote

Cons

  • Not ideal for loud environments
  • White cord, earbuds will get dirty fast
Summary

Apple's EarPods are a clear improvement over the company's old earbuds, but that's not saying much.

Hardware

Apple EarPods review A $29 revolution in earbuds or another set for the recycling bin

Let's get his out of the way before we dive into the headphones. As you may have noticed, the EarPods come with a travel case unlike the older iBuds. It's about the size of an 11-inch MacBook Air charger, and it's super useful for wrapping up the EarPods when you're on the go.

Taking a close peek from the back and sides, it's clear that the pods are built upon the foundation of a standard set of buds. In actuality, the design is largely similar to the original iBuds, down to the ceramic-like plastic. The key difference is that the driver ports are now located toward the edge, channeling all of the audio directly into your ear canals. This is a stark contrast from the standard buds, which throw the sound forward and force you to fiddle with them and shove them in your ears to hear better -- a nuisance, to say the least.

Apple EarPods review A $29 revolution in earbuds or another set for the recycling bin

The cabling is virtually identical to the older model (and just as tangle-prone), with the same smooth grey rubber and white 3.5mm plug. What has changed is the inline-remote and mic, which is now roughly 25 percent larger with curvier edges. The new remote has a more tactile feel, too, with a longer range of throw on the buttons (volume up and down, and a multifunction button). Keen eyes will notice a Siri emblem on the back of the middle button, but it doesn't spell any new features for the remote. You'll also notice that the connections at the stems have been refined with less rubber, but it remains to be seen if that has any bearing on durability.

The cabling is virtually identical to the older model (and just as tangle-prone).

In case you're wondering about the various vents, we'll also detail those, too. The two ports on the bottom of each stem are said to serve as bass ports, while the slit on the back of each Pod apparently helps the mid-range sound breathe. Beyond that, Apple's staying mum on what the port inside of the Pod is for -- not to mention, any concrete specs on the driver planted inside of each Pod. What we do know is that those drivers are now made from "rigid and flexible materials." According to iFixit, they've notably got a paper speaker cone like many normal speakers, unlike the totally plastic build of the older generation. The ports are definitely not for show either, as blocking the top ones will have a negative effect on the mid-range tonality (read: it makes for some trapped, stuffy sound). The same goes for the bottom ports with regard to bass.

Fit

By and large, Mr. Ive and his team have succeeded in making a set of 'buds that will comfortably fit a wide variety of ears. A few Engadget staffers have used the Pods (don't worry, we had our own pairs and didn't need to share earwax) and we've generally come to the conclusion that these are the most comfortable 'buds we've used in recent memory. Keep in mind that by "earbuds," we're not referring to in-ear headphones like the Klipsch Image range. We make this distinction because the EarPods aren't intended to create a seal and isolate external noise -- take note city dwellers -- but rather, rest comfortably against the tragus and surrounding cartilage, letting most the ambient noise around you mix in. The oval-shaped surface on each bud really does a great of job of keeping the Pods in place. While most 'buds, (including Apple's older set) rely on rubber or cloth-wrapped edges to stay in place, these don't need anything of the sort. All told, despite being totally hard plastic, we failed to notice any discomfort after hours of use. Heck, sometimes we even forgot we had them in.

All of that said, the fit isn't tight. For those who prefer a secure-feeling fit and seal, the care-free feel here might be a tad annoying. While rushing through NYC on day one with 'em, we consistently felt the need to try and re-secure the Pods, only to realize they weren't anywhere close to falling out -- chalk it up to a force of habit. After a while, you start to trust that they'll stay anchored -- and they do. They're certainly adequate for a trip to the gym, but you might want to consider something a little more sweat-resistant if you're going to be exercising on the regular. Notably, no matter how hard we shook our heads, the EarPods never fell out, and rarely -- if ever -- did we need to adjust them.

Sound

Apple EarPods review A $29 revolution in earbuds or another set for the recycling bin

We've gotta say, the EarPods sound surprisingly good for $29 'buds. Do they beat out headphones that cost "hundreds more," as Apple claims? We wouldn't go that far, but we can positively say that these are a vast improvement over Apple's original 'buds, whose sound is thin, tinny and harsh. We've given the EarPods a listen using the likes of laptops, various generations of the iPhone, an iPad 2 and even a Galaxy Nexus, all of which were able to drive them easily. The earphones have a smoother, fuller and more balanced sound, with improved emphasis on the bass and low mids. The most notable difference, however, is how much lower you'll need to set the volume on your device. We found that we needed to raise the volume many clicks higher on the old 'buds than on the EarPods to get equal sound output -- and at that point the older buds start to noticeably distort. So the new design definitely ports the audio into your ears better, but it's not to say the effect of a louder output at lower settings is the only improvement. Cranking the volume on our various devices, we genuinely noticed the EarPods maintained a much clearer signal in comparison to the older generation. It was usually only until we started boosting our EQs that distortion and clipping became noticeable.

The EarPods sound surprisingly good for $29 'buds.

As improved as the audio quality is, they still sound like earbuds. There is a certain level of life-likeness that you'll find on more expensive headphones that isn't here. Especially in louder environments, the fuller sound is harder to discern. All that said, the treble doesn't become overly abrasive or distorted as you raise the volume to compensate for noisier surroundings. We especially found that cymbal hits lack the crispy bite that better headphones can produce. Outside of an extremely quiet room it becomes hard to appreciate how much better the sound is with this set. What we're left with are headphones that largely sound better than the last-gen 'buds (and even the bloated-sounding in-ears that come with Samsung devices). Still, they fall short of in-ears like the $100 S4i and $180 B&W C5, despite Apple's claims to the contrary. Apple's made huge strides with the EarPods, which inch closer toward more premium offerings, and we hope certain aspects of the design might someday make their way into Apple's $79 in-ears -- that could be something really special.

Gallery | 4 Photos

Apple EarPods vs. Apple earbuds... Fight!

Of course, that leaves the onboard microphone. We're pleased to say the microphone quality is on par with the older 'buds, which we've never had much of an issue with for voice calls. Don't take our word for it, however, check out the direct recording of each in the sound bite below to hear for yourself.

Apple EarPods mic vs. Apple earbuds mic by Engadget

Wrap-up

Apple EarPods review A $29 revolution in earbuds or another set for the recycling bin

It's safe to say Apple just raised the bar on bundled / inexpensive earbuds, but we wouldn't go so far as to recommend you rush out and purchase them as a standalone set. The key thing about Apple's EarPods is that they're tolerable to use -- a major improvement over the uncomfortable fit and abysmal audio quality of its predecessor and many others, for that matter. That said, many of the audio improvements become tricky to appreciate outside of quiet listening environments. If you're buying a new iDevice, we'd still recommend picking up better in-ears, especially if you plan on using them outdoors and on the go. Don't be quick to toss them, however, as they're likely to come in handy as a secondary set. The EarPods are possibly the best-sounding set of $29 earbuds you'll be able to find, but at the end of the day, that's not saying much.

Engadget HD Podcast 316 - 09.18.2012