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.
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)
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.