I’ve really been enjoying my new iPhone 5. I was a bit slower on the bandwagon than most of my fellow MacTalk writers, but almost a month to the day since the 5 was announced I finally wandered into a relatively quiet Telstra store to get my hands on a shiny new device. Tip for young players: pick a Telstra store that’s in a demographic area containing mainly old people, and bingo! … no iPhone waiting lists or crowds of people looking for the latest gadgets. The specials bins out the front of Terry White Chemists on the other hand …
So anyway, as I was saying the iPhone has impressed me much, much more than I thought it would. Better size screen, clearer screen, faster, lighter … it feels better, looks better … I really, really like it so far which is a surprise as I was very content with my 4 (contrast this to when the 4 came out to replace the 3G … I would have run over little old ladies and blonde girls with idiotic dogs in their handbags to get to the store to buy one). I liked it so much that it was at least a couple of hours into playing and setting up the phone that I remembered that there was another new addition to my collection of Apple babies still sitting in the bottom of the silky white iPhone box … a set of Apple’s new Earpods.
I’d heard about the Earpods from a few different websites but had never actually seen or heard them first hand. And I have to admit, my expectations of them were pretty low from the outset for one simple reason. Advertising bullshit. I’d read on Apple’s own website how they’d designed and ‘re-imagined’ the earbud headphone, and to be honest most of it sounded feasible and sensible … until … the very last line. Typical Apple just had to have a good hard tug on the end of the chain that triggers off the wank alarm, by adding: ‘The overall audio quality of Apple EarPods is so impressive, they rival high-end headphones that cost hundreds of dollars more.’ Why!? Why would you ruin your credibility and everything that sounded like it could be justified and true by including one sentence made up by some douche in marketing that EVERYONE knows cannot be true.
So as you can imagine I was basically expecting a set of earbuds that were a funky shape to make them easier to market, that would probably sound marginally better than the crappolla tinny rubbish-buds they were replacing.
The first thing to hit me was the design of the case they came in. At first I thought it was just a temporary housing that you would then throw in the bin, but closer inspection revealed a higher quality of plastic and the presence of a debossed Apple logo on the reverse side confirming that this was a case to keep. And it’s quite a clever design considering how simple it is and with no moving parts or hinges. Just inspecting the surface where the Earpods sit make me wonder what sort of software created the infinitely complex surface shapes that are moulded into the plastic.
Then there’s the Earpods themselves. They’re just plain cool. Different to the sort of cool that my Sony in-ear buds have, which is more of a ‘we are high-tech and mean business, so if you’re a pussy you won’t be able to handle the powerful sound we produce’. These are high-tech, futuristic looking even, but there’s something inviting, welcoming and something intrinsically human about them. You just want to put them in your ears because they just look and feel nice. I’ve been through a few earbud headphones because the thing that always gets me in the end is the geometric shapes and the nasty rubber rims and edges that are designed to keep the buds in your ears. All of these elements combine to discomfort and reduced listening time before I have to give my poor ears a break. These on the other hand are smooth, light and ergonomic. From what I’ve gathered over time I’ve got fairly average size ears, so I’m probably what Apple has evened out their sizing survey to for fitment. Whether that’s true or not, these earbuds almost feel like they were custom made to fit my ears … which to be honest kind of freaked me out a bit. How could they fit this well? Maybe I’m just lucky and there’s a swag of small and big-eared fellows wandering the earth thinking these are the worst designed headphones ever … I just don’t know.
The other thing I like about these is that they don’t seal. I’ve read some criticisms about this, but for me this is actually an advantage. I’ve got in-ear monitor headphones with silicone sealers, and they’re awesome for recording music and for playing the V-Drums or sampled grand pianos. They’re not awesome when I’m at work or walking down the street. At work I have to pull them in and out all day as I get up from the computer, sit down again, get up again, then someone wants to talk to me and I can’t hear them as the silicone seals out external noise, so I pull them out again. And the friction of the silicon/rubber makes for sore ears after a few hours of this. The Earpods slip straight in and out without any effort or friction, and if someone wants to ask me something I simply hit pause on the inbuilt remote and I can chat to them without pulling the Earpods out of my ears. Perfect. And as a matter of safety for commuters who use earphones, I can’t stress enough how dangerous it is to be around cars, traffic, buses, trains when you can’t hear warnings, announcements, sirens or if a car or bus is about to run over you! So having some ambient noise isn’t always a bad thing when you’re out and about from home.
So they look cool, they feel nice on, and they are practical to use at work and while commuting. But the elephant in the room just knocked over that ugly vase someone gave you for an engagement present and just defecated on your Rugs A Million rug you bought at their closing down sale fourteen years ago: how do they sound? Are they better than the old earbuds? And do they rival high-end headphones worth hundreds of dollars more?
Well in short, they are pretty good, and far exceeded my expectations of what headphones included with a mobile phone would ever sound like. They have also exceeded my expectations of what a set of earphones that don’t make a decent in-ear seal would ever sound like—especially in terms of bass response and fullness of sound. Do they rival high-end headphones worth hundr—look, I’m not even going to finish that sentence: of course they don’t. If they did they’d sell them for hundreds of dollars, not $35, and they wouldn’t include them ‘for free’ as part of an iDevice package. They are very good though, so maybe if Apple said ‘rival mid-range headphones costing anywhere from $50 to $150’, that would be more where it’s at (obviously that lacks some of the oomph of their version).
They are quite ingenious in their design, and for me that’s what makes them so interesting. The bass response and level of bass these produce are the best I’ve heard from non-sealing in-ear headphones. They get close to the Sony monitors I’ve got, but still trail behind the pair of Audio Technica closed cans I’ve also got (which produce amazingly clear and deep sub-woofer type frequencies). On the website Apple claim their in-ear headphones produce a frequency range between 5Hz and 21kHz (which is pretty moronic considering human hearing range is 20Hz to 20kHz, but anyway …), however no specifications are provided for these new ones. There is no lack of high end response, not as crisp or sharp as the Sony’s, but you don’t really notice this unless you listen to them back-to-back. Overall the sound is quite balanced, maybe a little weak through the mid-range. In some ways though the slight lack of punch in the mid-range actually makes these less tiring to listen too all day, so once again more suited to general purpose enjoyment rather than high-end ultimate sound reproduction.
And finally, the bass. This is the thing that sets these buds apart from the pack. Starting with the design itself it’s obvious that part of their magic is the shape of the bud. The audio output port gets very close to the eardrum, much closer than with more traditional styles of earbud headphones. This proximity trick can be easily demonstrated by simply pulling the Earpods out of your ears even just a fraction, and you’ll hear most of the bass frequencies fade away (more like the original Apple headphones). The other trick with the bass is that they’ve somehow worked out how to make the entire headphone into a mini subwoofer cabinet, complete with a woofer port at the bottom of each headphone stem. Yeah, those tiny little holes at the bottom of the stems. I thought the same, what could those tiny little slits possibly do to assist the sound? Probably another marketing gimmick. They reminded me of this Mitsubishi Outlander I see sometimes on my way to work, all clad up with front and rear spoilers, side skirts with tiny fake air dams … the owner probably thinks it looks like a new McLaren P1 now. No, they don’t make your four cylinder buzz-box go any faster, and no they won’t help you to find a girlfriend. I was surprised to find however that these tiny little holes are absolutely necessary and Apple have done a marvellous job to work out how to achieve this result. Again, to see my point, all you have to do is play a bass heavy song through the Earpods, and then place your fingers around the base of each Earpod stem to block the little ports, and the bass almost completely evaporates. I didn’t believe it the first time, but after the fourth or fifth time I was truly stunned at the difference in sound.
Now for a more scientific test of bass response. I conducted a series of tests with various headphones I have here at home to see how they all respond and reproduce different frequencies of bass … choosing to do the bass test as this is the most difficult type of sound for headphones to produce effectively. The test consisted of a bass frequency that starts at 100Hz and steps down in 10Hz increments until it reaches 20Hz, or the limit of human hearing (apologies to any marine life reading this article that were hoping to listen to sub-sonic whale sexy songs on Apple Earpods). I tested the Earpods, Apple’s original iPhone earbuds, a set of Sony monitor in-ear headphones, a pair of Audio Technica ATH-ANC7b over ear headphones, and lastly our THX Certified surround sound home theatre system.
The results were a little surprising, with all devices registering sound right down to 30Hz, with only the Sony’s and the Audio Technica’s registering some sound at 20Hz, though this was more vibration noise that actual sound noise. Even the Apple earbuds registered sound right down to 30Hz, though from 50Hz down it was more you could hear the tone playing, but it wasn’t creating bass like the other four units. The Earpods performed very strongly in this test, but just couldn’t quite get the powerful bass tone of the Sony’s or Audio Technica’s between the 40Hz and 30Hz range—at these frequency levels with the higher-end headphones they actually trick your body into thinking you are feeling the bass, not just hearing it, even though it’s only in your ears. Freaky stuff.
So I know this is a bit of long article on what could be simply dismissed as another set of thirty-buck headphones you get chucked in for free, but from the minute I started using and interacting with the new Earpods, I knew there was more to them than meets the eye. To sum up, they are not worth hundreds of dollars (but you knew that), however they do far exceed their $35 asking price (if you’re planning on buying some outright) and they are an awesome bonus with your new iToy when you crack open the box. They’re comfortable, easy to use, the cable is just the right length, and they are the best sounding non-sealing headphones I’ve ever heard, which makes them a great piece of product design from the engineers at Apple. And lastly there’s an inbuilt remote with microphone and iPod controls so you don’t have to wake your phone up to skip or pause songs. There’s even a little icon printed on the back (for those of you with 20/20 vision) that indicates you can bitch-slap Siri into action by holding down the centre button.
Nice work Apple, just next time maybe give the over-excited, over-exaggerating arse-clowns in your marketing department a few valium-laced lattés before they bash out your next product release.