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Hands on: Apple's new EarPods headphones

R. Matthew Ward | Sept. 17, 2012
It's become de rigueur to describe Apple's white earbuds as "ubiquitous" and "iconic". Beyond their ubiquity and iconic status, though, Apple's earbuds have frequently been derided as offering sub-par sound.

Speaking of the earpieces, that's where the action is. The new earpieces have an oblong, roughly teardrop-shaped silhouette rather than the circular silhouette of the previous earbuds. This shape is the result of Apple's new design process for the EarPods, which was based on taking ear impressions of a large number of individuals and creating an earpiece that would best fit a wide range of ears. The resulting earpieces look a little alien (perhaps appropriate, given the pop-culture association between "pod" and "alien") and feature two grilles: one on the front face and another over the opening that directs sound into the listener's ear. The back side of the earpiece (away from your ear canal), and, cleverly, the stem that leads to the cable both feature bass ports that help tune bass and midrange response.

Sound quality aside, one of the most common complaints about Apple's previous earbuds was that they didn't stay in listeners' ears well. That flaw was annoying for the wearer, but it also meant that the earbuds were often positioned in a way that produced poor sound quality. The new design, at least in my ears, offers a much more secure and comfortable fit. The EarPods didn't fall out due to pesky things like gravity during normal use (although a sharp pull on the cable will dislodge an earpiece). However, the EarPods' fit is still far from perfect, as I discovered when I used them during a workout. Within a minute or two, the right earpiece would work its way out of my ear. Everyone's ears are different, and your mileage may be better or worse than mine, but within about five minutes, I switched back to my trusty Koss KSC-75 (4.0-mouse rating) for the rest of the workout. Still, I found the fit of the EarPods was worlds better than that of the old Apple earbuds, and I think that will be the case for most listeners.

Because the EarPods fit deeper in the ear than the previous Apple earbuds, they also offer a bit more isolation from outside noise, and they leak less sound. However, they still pale in comparison to true canalphones and canalbuds, which form an acoustic seal in your ear.

The proof of the pudding

Beyond the better fit, Apple says the EarPods's clever new shape is designed to "make a headphone that was the very best it could be." In my initial tests, I was quickly impressed with the EarPods. Bass was always a weak spot of the previous Apple earbuds: It was either nonexistent if you had a poor fit, or overbearing, muddy, and indistinct with a good fit. With the EarPods, bass is much cleaner, with distinct tones, though it still lacks detail-solid performance for an earbud, but not up to the level of, say, an inexpensive canalbud or canalphone. Midrange frequencies sound decent enough and benefit greatly from the better-controlled bass. High frequencies are particularly good, with a clear, natural sound that avoids the harsh, tinny quality of the previous model's treble.

 

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