PLAYBACK: Apple In-Ear Headphones

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Earphones and in-ear monitors
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Apple In-Ear Headphones
PLAYBACK: Apple In-Ear Headphones

Over time, Playback has reviewed over twenty models of in-ear headphones and headsets and—judging by inbound emails and phone calls—it’s a product category that holds enduring interest for our readers. Every now and again, though, we get review requests for specific models of earphones that readers feel are worthy but that have not yet appeared in our pages. One such product that has been mentioned several reader emails is a model from a firm you might not necessarily think of when shopping for high-performance headphones: namely, Apple (as in “the guys who built your iPod”). Now I realize that there is a common misconception that Apple builds only those inexpensive and relatively low-performance earbuds that come as standard accessories with all iPods and iPhones. But a not-so-well-known fact is that Apple offers a much higher performance solution, called simply the Apple In-Ear Headphones, for those willing to invest $79 in superior sound quality.

Interestingly, Apple’s marketing tagline for the product reads, “Turns out you haven’t heard everything”—a tacit admission that stock iPod/iPhone earbuds leave much to be desired. Happily, Apple’s In-Ear Headphones are designed to cater to audiophile tastes, and so, somewhat surprisingly at this price point, the ‘phones use a sophisticated “balanced dual armature” design (meaning each earpiece provides separate, miniature woofer and tweeter drivers). Of course no Apple product would be complete without offering a few clever, functional twists, and Apple’s top-tier headphones are no exception. They incorporate a tiny, in-line remote/mic module that enables the ‘phones to function as a headset when used with 2G/3G iPhones and that provides limited remote control functions when used with newer generation iPods. Of course our top priorities (and probably yours, too) are sound quality and wearer comfort, and it’s on the basis of those two parameters that we’ll evaluate Apple’s top-shelf model to see how it compares to competing models in its price class.

OVERVIEW

Consider this headset if: you appreciate headphones that offer generally smooth and evenly balanced sound that offers a good measure of clarity and sonic subtlety. Apple’s in-ear headphones sound particular revealing through the broad middle of the midrange, where most music really happens. For owners of iPhones or newer generation iPods, these ‘phones offer a slick remote/mic module that adds lots of welcome functions.

Look elsewhere if: you favor headphones that offer powerful and deeply extended bass. Relative to competing models, Apple’s In-Ear Headphones offer superior balance and smoothness, but can sound somewhat subdued in the low end (or actually at both frequency extremes, if you listen carefully). Eartips may feel a little too “stiff” for long-term comfort.

Ratings (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones)

  • Tonal Balance: 9
  • Clarity: 9
  • Dynamics: 8
  • Comfort/Fit: 7
  • Sensitivity: 9
  • Value: 9

 

SONIC CHARACTER

The greatest strength of the Apple In-Ear Headphone is its generally smooth and even tonal balance, especially through the breadth of the midrange. In fact, compared to some other headphones in this price class, the Apples tend to sound just slightly midrange-forward, in part because their low bass and, to a lesser extent, extreme highs are slightly recessed.  While the Apple’s bass is well defined and offers good pitch definition, it doesn’t convey the sense of rich, powerful, foundational low-end response that some affordable headphones, such as the NuForce NE-7Ms or Skullcandy Titans, can provide.

If your sonic frame of reference is the stock earbuds that came with your iPod, then you may well find the superior resolution of Apple’s In-Ear Headphones revelatory. Suddenly, you’ll be able to access and enjoy low-level musical textures and details you may not have heard before. This is true partly because the Apple In-Ear Headphones offer very good measures of natural resolution and definition. However, their apparent clarity may also have to do with the fact that there is narrow band of midrange frequencies that the Apples tend to accentuate in an extremely subtle way. The result is a heightened sense of clarity, but one that sometimes comes at the expense of traces of that “midrange-forward” quality I mentioned above.

But let me put my comments in perspective. Many of the Apple’s like-priced competitors exhibit relatively pronounced colorations such as overly ripe bass or noticeably “hot” treble response, whereas the Apples for the most part sound smooth and unflappable because their sonic shortcomings are relatively minor and are mostly “sins of omission.”

A comparison between the Apple In-Ear Headphones and the almost identically priced NuForce NE-8 headphones I reviewed in Playback issue 19 may prove useful. Under ideal listening conditions, the NuForces offer even greater resolution than the Apple’s do and perhaps more performance upside in an absolute sense. But frankly, the NuForces are more difficult to fit properly and as a result have a tendency to sound bass-shy and/or overly bright. By comparison, the Apples are much easier to adjust for a proper fit and offer smoother overall tonal balance, meaning that—for day-to-day use—they typically give better (or at least more consistent) results. 

One small tip: because the Apple In-Ear Headphones come with comparatively “stiff” eartips, you may need to spend some extra time adjusting them to achieve the best in-ear seal and hence optimal bass performance. Try gently rotating or repositioning them in your ear canals if you don’t at first get an airtight fit.

 

MUSICAL EXAMPLE

In many, ways the Apple In-Ear Headphones shine brightest on well-recorded vocal material, such as the jazzy, blues-inflected track “Black Coffee” from Claire Martin’s Too Darn Hot! [Linn]. Martin’s expressive voice is always under perfect control, yet deeply soulful and richly inflected so that you really hear (and feel) her blues as she sings “I’m feeling mighty lonesome/’haven’t slept a wink/I walk the floor from 9 to 4/and in between I drink/black coffee…” The Apples do a masterful job of highlighting each syllable and turn of phrase, letting you enjoy the beginnings and endings of each word, and showing you how Martin varies her timing to set up the words “black coffee” for extra emphasis, just as a master storyteller might do. The headphones also give a clean, crisp rendering of the blues piano and, later on, the Hammond organ that provide accompaniment for Martin’s vocal lines.

But if “Black Coffee” shows the Apple’s strengths, it also exposes their weaknesses. I have played this track many times through various loudspeakers and headphones, and I have come to expect the deep, powerful, rolling electric bass line and the luminous ride cymbal accent notes that give the song its living, breathing pulse. But through the Apple headphones that bass line, though still quite listenable, loses some of its expected propulsive power, while the ride cymbal notes sound clear but are stripped of their signature treble shimmer and luminous glow. My point is that Apple’s In-Ear headphones are good enough to tantalize you with their performance, though they aren’t quite capable of taking you to the sonic mountaintop.

 

COMFORT FACTOR/ACCESSORIES

Apple’s in-ear headphones are very light and well shaped for purposes of making small physical adjustments to fine-tune fit and therefore sound quality. The ‘phones come with three sizes of silicone rubber ear-tips that are intended to help users achieve a comfortable and airtight fit.

One problem I noted, however, is that Apple’s eartips are noticeably thicker and stiffer than those supplied with many competing in-ear headphones. As a result, you may the sensation, as I did, that the Apple eartips are not quite compliant enough to achieve both a good airtight seal and all-day comfort at the same time (ideally, you would want the eartips to flex to fit your ear canals—not the other way around).

The Apple’s click-to-answer/mic module is very cleverly designed and works beautifully for taking or making calls when using the headphones with your iPhone. An added plus, though, is that the same module also doubles as a limited functionality remote control for use with iPod Nano (4th generation), iPod Touch (2nd generation), or iPod Classic (120GB model). The module essentially has three control surfaces: a raised pair of  “+” and “-“ buttons, plus a slightly indented “center” button. When used in conjunction with the iPods above, the controls operate as follows:

  • Press center button: Play or pause a song (or video)
  • Press center button twice quickly: Advance to the next song (or chapter)
  • Press center button three times quickly: Go to the previous song (or chapter)
  • Press the “+” button once: increase volume incrementally
  • Press and hold the “+” button: increase volume rapidly
  • Press the “-“ button once: decrease volume incrementally
  • Press and hold the “-“ button: decrease volume rapidly     

The Apple in-ear headphones come with a two-piece, clamshell-type carry case that doubles as a signal-cable winding spool. My one concern, though, is that the stylish case is made of injection molded plastic and therefore may not be rugged enough to stand up to daily use (my fear would be that the case could easily crack). Other accessories include a spare pair of mesh caps (which act as dirt guards for the earpieces), plus a small, and again very stylish case for carrying the two pairs of eartips not currently installed on the headphones.

BOTTOM LINE:

The Apple In-Ear Headphones offer good value for money and a nice blend of sonic virtues that center—as they should—on the headphone’s adroit handling of midrange frequencies. Listeners who are, pardon the pun, plugged-in to Apple’s design ethos will also appreciate the added control/communications functions made possible by the headphone’s cool remote/mic module. If there is any drawback here, it might be that the Apples are good enough to whet your appetite to step up to the next level, seeking those few extra elements of sonic power and refinement that ‘phones in the mid-$100 range have to offer.

 

SPECS & PRICING

Apple dual-armature high performance in-ear headset
Accessories:

  • Three pairs of round, single-flange rubber eartips (S, M, L)
  • Injection molded carry case
  • Eartip storage case
  • Spare pair of mesh caps

Weight: 10.2 grams
Sensitivity: 109dB
Price: $79

Apple
(408) 996-1010
(800) MY-APPLE
www.apple.com

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