The only most interesting thing announced at the Apple special announcement last week was the new Apple EarPods. Apple has redesigned the earbud headsets that have come standard with every iPod and iPhone since they were released in 2001. I picked up a pair and unboxed them for your viewing pleasure below.
The EarPods look strange, alien and futuristic when you look at them in the package, but after you try them in your ears, the design makes perfect sense. They are substantially more comfortable than the classic Apple earbuds. They don’t fit into my ears perfectly, but after all, these aren’t custom molded to my ears like a pair of Logitech Ultimate Ears. These also aren’t $170 to $1999 either! However, these were designed to comfortably fit as many people as possible, and you can tell when you put them in your ear. Instead of being a big, round globes that you have to wedge into your ears, they are an angular orbs that gently fit into the natural shape of your ear. The EarPods also have multiple sound ports instead of one large metal mesh screen. The multiple sound ports allow the airflow in your ear to occur more naturally and allow for a resonating chamber for the lower range of notes.
The ear pieces are made of hard plastic, which seems at first glance like a bad choice for something that is going to be against your skin for long periods of time. However, the plastic has a glossy smooth finish, and it rests comfortably in the ear without creating the vacuum suction that silicon in-ear headsets cause. It’s nice having something that fits snugly in my ear, but doesn’t feel like it’s going to suck my brains out. This is also helped by the airflow ports that I talked about above. I have managed to use them for around 2 hours straight before my left ear started getting a little achy. My left ear, which I suspect is smaller than my right ear, usually starts feeling achy around 20-30 minutes with most earbuds.
The sound quality of the Apple EarPods is substantially better than the traditional earbuds. If you’re a true audiophile, you’re still not going to be satisfied, so don’t throw away your Bose or your Beats headsets. For the price, however, the sound these put out is pretty incredible. I tested them on Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, DMX’s …And Then There Was X, Owl City’s Ocean Eyes, Zac Brown Band’s You Get What You Give, Yo-Yo Ma’s The Goat Rodeo Sessions, and Lady Antebellum’s Own The Night. The bass was much more solid than before, and the trebles aren’t quite as tinny and annoying. As always, the mid-range is where these headsets really shine, but it was more balanced than the older earbuds. On the older earbuds it felt like all you could get out of them was a solid mid-range, painful highs and shallow lows, but this was a well balanced, comfortable blend. If you turn the volume on them beyond the 14th preset volume level, or about 90%, the sound does still get a bit distorted, but not nearly as bad as most other earbuds on the market at the same price point. Also, no one should really be listening to their music that loud since that is far beyond the safe listening volume. I also listened to Tech News Today, The 404, and Deemable Tech to see how podcasts sounded. They also sounded crisp, clear and warm.
The microphone/remote has been enlarged to make it easier to use. It feels much more substantial in your fingers than before. The older version felt like two thin pieces of plastic that could snap if you clicked too hard. The new version feels like a real usable piece of equipment. It is also easier to use the controls without looking at them. Even though it is larger, it doesn’t feel any heavier, although I expect it might have added a fraction of a gram to the weight of the EarPods.
My favorite feature of the EarPods is the case. I have long desired a decent solution for carrying a pair of earbuds in my pocket since I lost my first pair of earbuds that I purchased back in 1998. They were Sony earbuds that came with a winding, hard plastic case. I always knew where my earbuds where, and they were never tangled. Sadly, Sony discontinued the higher quality version that came with the winding case, and the cheap ones were terrible. I’ve tried everything to manage my earbuds so that they don’t end up a mangled mess when I actually want to listen to a podcast or music. The case that comes with the Apple EarPods is the best compromise that I have found in the last ten years since I lost them.
The case is hard plastic, but smooth and polished with a nice, rounded rectangular shape. No surprise, it has an engraved Apple logo on the back. The cover of the case is clear plastic and the bottom is white. The cable wraps around the inside of the case and both earpieces and the microphone/remote have special places to insert them to hold them in place. Everything fits nice and securely, except when you put them in your pocket. Then they jiggle around and make a sound like you have maracas in your pocket. Another irritating thing about the EarPods is that the case is perfectly smooth along the edge that separates the case from the lid. This makes it annoyingly difficult to open. I find myself popping the case like a plastic Easter egg to get it open. I expect this will not be good for the long-term use of the case.
Final score, I’d give it a 4.5 out of 5. If you get a pair with a new iPhone or iPod, you probably won’t want to buy a third-party headset unless you are a true audiophile. If you have a pair of old ear buds and you weren’t fully satisfied with them, but didn’t want to drop a bunch of money on an expensive headset this would be a great buy. However, the case, although I love the concept, isn’t quite perfect. The noise it makes in my pocket is irritating, and it is frustrating to open. It is a really good, first-generation design. I expect it will be refined and re-released down the road. For the price of $29.00, the Apple EarPods can’t be beat. They are available now in Apple Stores, and will be included with the iPhone 5 and the new iPod touch.