Sunday, December 14, 2008, 03:00 pm PT (06:00 pm ET)
New iPod In-Ear Headphones reviewed: Apple's best yet
By far the most heavily trumpeted aspect of the new iPod In-Ear Headphones is their dual-driver output. While sounding slightly exotic, the effect of this switch really amounts to the same as having separate tweeters and woofers in speakers. It separates the high- and low-range frequencies into more distinct output and prevents sound from seeming muddled by mixing too many frequencies into one single driver.
That's largely how it pans out in practice. Compared to the single-driver E2Cs, which are known to be slightly bass-heavy, Apple's buds have more clearly evident treble and slightly more detailed as well. In DJ Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World," for example, the hisses and pops from the sample records are easier to detect and are more likely to be heard even as the beats first take full effect. Classical music and other treble-rich audio sounds good as well, though spoken dialogue may sound slightly brittle.
Those who listen to electronic and urban music should be happy, and not necessarily in the way they think: the earphones still have satisfying bass response, but they're tangibly more neutral than the Shures and certainly more so than punchy earbuds like V-MODA's Vibe line. The notion that absolute neutrality is necessary is something of a myth — many earbuds need extra bass to make up for weaker portable amps — but Apple appears to get reasonably close to the sweet spot between too much and not enough bass, especially for the price.
Noise isolation is inherent to in-ear buds like these and certainly muted most sound, though not quite as absolutely as full-fledged in-canal models; loud footsteps and other more moderate noises occasionally creep in. This could be a good thing for urbanites keen to listen for oncoming cars, or a bad thing for audio purists.
One caveat exists for those unused to in-ear buds: a certain amount of cleaning is necessary, as the tips and grilles will gradually accumulate wax. It's not difficult, but it's necessary. Apple thankfully has an improvement here too. Instead of throwaway stick-on caps to protect the drivers, the company uses metal caps. These are both more durable and can also be washed to be used again. The one worry is if users exhaust both pairs of caps included in the box; there's no publicized replacements, so owners may have to shell out another $79 if both sets are lost.
The mic, remote and iPhone compatibility
Apple's 2008 In-Ears mark the company's first-ever microphone accessory for iPods, and this by itself may be the single most important addition to the iPod line in recent memory. It's finally possible to record voice memos on the fourth-generation iPod nano and the second-generation iPod classic. second-generation iPod touch owners now also have support for voice-aware software like Google Mobile App or even voice-over-Internet calling suites like Truphone. It's a game changer, and that Apple hasn't chosen to restrict the functionality to individual app types is a boon for iPod touch owners who want some semblance of the iPhone experience.
Unfortunately, support hasn't extended back to earlier iPods. The first-runs of the iPod classic and iPod touch both won't recognize the mic at all, and older iPods with entirely different firmware won't support it either. Apple has never publicly explained why this is the case, though we suspect Occam's Razor is in effect. The firm wants to push owners to upgrade their devices, and the time spent retrofitting the earlier hardware would only delay some purchases. The possibility also exists that the earlier iPods may lack some necessary circuitry, but nothing appears to have been confirmed on this front.
As for sound quality, there were few complaints. It's not meant for recording podcasts, and quality is relatively basic. But with such a small footprint, it's hard to complain and it's in fact fairly free of distortion or excessive sensitivity. Only louder background noises like nearby cars registered during testing outdoors.
The remote function also embodies this ultra-minimal design. It's obviously lifted almost directly from the iPhone and works just as well: you click once to play, pause, answer or end calls, twice to skip forward, and three times to skip back. About the only additions are volume controls that respond a similar way. It's strange but also very intuitive, and an absolute lifesaver for cold weather, subways, or other areas where temperature and security could actually make it dangerous to pull out an iPod to change tracks.
Officially, Apple only supports iPods, but here's where the company delivers a pleasant surprise: all iPhones support the mic and most of the remote functions out of the box. We tested this ourselves, and it delivered good call quality. The only functionality broken is the volume control, and this is less of an issue given the dedicated buttons for this on the iPhone itself. You don't really lose functionality over Apple's default earbuds, and so the new In-Ear Headphones could well be a step-up over the bundled headset for those who want higher quality.
About the only quirk for the mic/remote combo is its placement. Rather than putting it on the main cord, Apple places the remote on the cord for the right earbud. It's understandable from a voice perspective, since it brings the mic closer to your mouth, but it's not intuitive in the way a remote sitting on your chest might be.
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