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.
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.
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: