Apple in-ear headphones with remote and mic

I’ve always liked in-ear headphones, they sound better than over-ear headphones, they are more comfortable, and they are almost always more successful at blocking outside noise. I’ve had various brands and styles over the years, and before today my favorite was a pair of Sony MDR EX51LP, which seem to be very common among portable audio device users, especially iPod owners.

The audio quality on the Sony pair was very good, and the noise isolation was near perfect, but there were problems:

(1) The soft rubber tips on each earpiece were not held on very well, and fell off frequently.

(2) The “port cover” which keeps the driver in each earpiece clean, was made of some kind of cloth or fiber. Eventually that cover turned into a solid wall thanks to dirt and ear wax, and sound was not able to get through it.

(3) The cord was offset to keep it from hanging straight down in front of the user, and I never liked that. I tried to superglue the cable together to form a proper Y, and that was the beginning of the end for that pair of headphones; some plastics don’t react well to superglue, and the cord turned rock solid and cracked, breaking the wire, after a month.

Seeing a $40 pair of headphones become unusable made me reluctant to spend more than $10-20 for another pair. About 2 months ago, I did buy a cheap pair of Phillips SHE9500s for $6, and hated them from the start. The sound quality was acceptable, but they never sealed in my ear, they were awkwardly large, and the cable was only 1.5 feet long requiring the use of an included extension cable, which disconnected right in the middle just about every day.

In dealing with all of these frustrations, both with my Sony pair and the hated Phillips that replaced them, I was frequently reminded of the new in-ear headphones Apple had released in September of 2008. It was never really a question in my mind to purchase them at the time; I thought they were absurdly expensive, and Apples headphones have always been universally hated, even the previous in-ear model. But, I took note of the features Apple promoted and slowly warmed to the idea that maybe this time Apple got it right, and a few days ago I decided to give them a chance.

Whether or not you can actually keep headphones like this in your ears without getting an earache depends entirely on how comfortable the rubber covers are, and Apple included 3 sizes in the box to ensure a good seal for sound quality, and to ensure your ears are not irritated; too small and they won’t seal (or stay in your ears), too big and you will get tired of wearing them very quickly. The included covers are very comfortable, seal perfectly, and don’t slip off the headphones easily so they will not fall off. Score one for Apple.

Here is the case included for the covers, and a view of one side of the case open. The rubber covers sit on a small plastic pin which keeps them in place effectively.

As Apple promotes on their online store, and as you can see in the picture above, the port covers on the new in-ear model are steel mesh, and they are replaceable. An extra pair of steel covers are included in the box should you ever lose one, but i suspect they can be easily cleaned. Score another one for Apple.

Here you can see where the port cover unscrews, they are quite small but you can clearly make out the tiny grip ridges. This is also a great shot of the nozzle of the earpiece, which is made entirely of steel. The back is made of the same white plastic Apple loves, but the build quality is good and the different materials fit together seamlessly.

In contrast to Apple’s earlier headphone efforts, the new in-ear model has very good sound quality. I’m obviously not an audiophile but I do use my headphones for 1-2 hours every day, and these sound noticeably better than any other pair I have owned, both on spoken audio content like podcasts, and on all styles of music. Sound is clear and precise across the entire sonic range.

Initially, I was concerned about the lack of bass response in these headphones compared to my old Sony’s, which were overpowering. My concerns are apparently shared by others posting on Apples online forum, these headphones simply don’t have that overpowering BOOM sound to them, and no amount of break-in period, equalizer settings or proper placement in the ear will change that fact. However, the lack of ‘boom’ is a characteristic of the type of sound driver used in these headphones and not a sign of poor manufacturing or design.

There are 2 types of sound driver used in small headphones, dynamic “moving coil”, and “balanced armature”.

Dynamic drivers are much like a typical speaker cone, a coil moves a membrane and air gets pushed around creating sound waves. These tend to be low sound quality, but they can produce booming bass response because they move a lot of air, and they are cheap. They’re also very large, so in-ear headphones using this type of driver tend to be shaped a bit like a round ball with an earpiece on one side.

The other type, balanced armature, is a much smaller, much higher quality driver, but also much more expensive. You can usually tell when a pair of in-ear headphones use this type of driver because they will look like a long, round tube with an earpiece on the end. More info available here: http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f103/fyi-basic-guide-ear-canalphones-310723/

Obviously if you want booming bass, these headphones will not give it to you, even if you use an equalizer to enhance the low end of the spectrum, in fact this may just cause distortion. But, they will accurately reproduce sound, even bass, and already I can hear subtle parts of music I had never heard before, including some tracks which were mastered poorly by the record label or compressed poorly by iTunes.

Part of the reason for picking these headphones over others in the price range was the included inline remote control and microphone, intended to be used on the 2nd generation iPod Touch (which I have), the iPhone, and the newest iPod Nano. Above you can see how small the control is, and yes the microphone is inside it. The control is barely bigger than the wire but works perfectly, and it stays out of the way unless you need it. The control itself is located a few inches below the right earpiece, exactly where you would reach if you were to lift your right hand up to your neck.

The 2 ends of the control housing function as a volume up and down rocker, and a multi-function middle button controls playback, one squeeze is play/pause, 2 for next track, 3 for previous track. The middle button also functions as a call answer/hangup button on the iPhone.

Here is the best view of the microphone port I could get. The port is a metal mesh cover with a very fine series of holes for sound to pass through, which does not show up in the shot. The entire mic port is about the size of the head of a pencil. It works better than expected, even when not held in front of your face, the microphone picks up speech well enough to be understood on a recording, such as the iPod voice recorder, or on a phone call.

Here you can see the carrying case the headphones come in. Some work is required to get the top snapped down even when the cord is wrapped properly since it never quite stays inside the edge. The case is an absolute necessity though. While the cord may be stronger than it seems, it feels very thin and vulnerable to tearing. I would not want to take a chance shoving these headphones into a pocket or laptop case.

Overall I’m quite happy I paid a bit more for what i hope will be my last pair of headphones for at least a few years. They sound great, they isolate noise effectively, and of course the remote and mic are nice additions that have already proven useful on a daily basis. Again if you like booming bass, these are not the headphones for you, but if you want sound clarity and noise isolation, they are a great value.