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Sunday, December 14, 2008, 03:00 pm PT (06:00 pm ET)

New iPod In-Ear Headphones reviewed: Apple's best yet


Durability concerns?

The one misgiving we have for the new earbuds are their useful lifespan. Apple is a fan of small, subtle earbuds, but as a result has more fragile-feeling buds and thinner cables. They're well put together and convey a sense of quality, but they aren't as sturdy as Shure's usual cabling or those of other more audiophile-grade earpieces.

That could potentially lead to damage over time; while not a serious complaint, we can imagine some users having to seek replacements if the cords fray or the earbuds get crushed. Treat them with care and they should last as long as any other set, but be aware they aren't meant to handle a large amount of abuse.

The iPod In-Ear Headphones in review

We've heard that Apple is "cheating" with its new in-ear design, as it's not entirely the company's own baby: a third-party headphone maker is believed to have been heavily involved in creating the audio system and mostly relied on Apple for the cosmetics.

However true that might be, it's probably a wise strategy in hindsight and is what leads to a very strong recommendation from us: better to borrow from the best than to make a poor original. The new models are actually very pleasing to listen to, and that second driver has much to do with it. It's enough to seriously consider abandoning even other earbuds in the class if you're missing out on the microphone and remote functions, particularly if you live north of Apple's home state of California and have to risk freezing skin to change tracks.

And more importantly, the price is right. A quick comparison puts Apple's $79 offering about $20 lower than the Shure SE110s and a similar amount above Sony's MDR-EX85s, both of which have single drivers and are more prone to indistinct sounds as a result. Apple's claim of almost revolutionizing earbuds is something of a misnomer: the sound isn't so good that it would blow away a normally high-end dual driver setup. All the same, the In-Ears are sufficiently inexpensive that they can make far more economic sense than springing for many $100 or $120 sets.

Time will tell if there are any long-term problems that will surface with the earphones, whether it's the cord or cleaning the caps, but for now it's hard not to recommend them to iPhone and modern iPod users alike. They sound good, the in-line functionality works well, and of course they fit in with Apple's design aesthetic. If you're looking to upgrade from what Apple gave you in your iPod box, you finally have a real alternative from the electronics giant itself.

Rating 4.5 out of 5



Pros:
Well-balanaced yet sufficiently bass-rich sound
Inexpensive for the quality
Comfortable for long periods
Voice memos, VoIP now an option for newer iPods
iPhone support
Good (though not great) microphone input
Simple but effective remote

Cons:
Thin cables and small earpieces
No support for first-generation iPod classic or iPod touch models
Volume doesn't work (yet) on iPhones
Remote placed in a slightly unusual location