apple-in-ear-headphonesTurns out a lot of people seem to be pretty interested in Apple’s new in-ear headphones — myself included. It’s not too hard to understand why, either; despite the fact that Apple arguably has more of its headphones in more ears than anyone else these days, none of them are very good. I’ve never met a pair of Apple headphones I liked, let alone a pair that properly fit my ears. Apple headphones have been, largely, an engineering afterthought.

About four years ago they tried their hand at a pair of alien-looking in-ear buds that never really took off, but this time they’re back with a dual-driver design at an intriguingly low price-point. The brief run-down on these new $80 phones:

  • Well, for starters, they’re the first pair of Apple headphones that have ever fit and stayed in my ears. So that’s a great start.
  • Besides fitting well, I found them to be surprisingly comfortable; Apple headphones do not like my ears
  • Despite not officially supporting the iPhone, the inline remote supports all functions (mic, call end, track play/pause/skip, etc.), except volume.
  • My hearing is fairly degraded, but in my testing, they sounded really good — way out of their price range. Having two drivers makes a big difference.
  • The two piece plastic case they come in is pretty bad and not very user friendly. I can’t imagine many people will make use of it.

Comparison and FAQ after the break. (A few pictures also posted to my Flickr stream.)

Okay, let’s get to the comparison. Dual driver headphones make a big difference, and that’s what I tested Apple’s in-ear phones against. Some brief notes:

  • Stock iPhone / iPod headphones: muddled, low definition, felt like a lot of detail missing.
  • Ultimate Ears super.fi 3 Studio: decent bass, seems to weight towards mid-to-high range; but not super impressive. Kind of uncomfortable.
  • Shure E4c: well-balanced and very crisp. Great reproduction. Best sound isolation of the group.
  • Apple in-ear headphones: punchy bass, warm mids, also all around well-balanced.

The silicone caps Apple’s new phones are better than most, but they lack the serious sound isolation that comes with foam caps, like you can get with the Shures. In fact, the new Apples gave the Shures such a run for their money, it was difficult to tell whether they might have pulled ahead with better sound isolation.

Now, a few questions, some pulled off of Twitter:

Are they annoyingly rubbery/springy like stock iPhone ones? [adamschwabe]
Yeah, they have the same texture as Apple’s other headphoens now; a little bit of rubber seems to make them harder to tangle and a little softer to touch. I kind of like it, but it isn’t any deciding factor.

Is there much audio bleed? What are the noise canceling capabilities relative to other buds? [Solacetech, 007bond4321]
There’s a fair bit of noise isolation, as they are in-ear headphones; noise-cancelation is only something you get with larger, cup-type devices that actively filter — not just block — noise. I tested these headphones in a loud cafe with music playing on the PA, and was able to cancel out most of it. I still think they’re in desperate need of some proper foam sound isolation tips, though.

Will a firmware update will fix the lack of volume control support for the iPhone? [JohnCullen]
It seems feasible, but Apple did not get back to me on this matter.

How well do they fit (stay in ears) compared to bundled Apple buds? [rickhuizinga]
Everyone’s ears are different, but unlike every other pair of Apple headphones I’ve ever played with, these ones comfortably stay in. I have pretty small ear canals, if that’s of any help.

Do they come with different sized silicon buds? [lgladdy]
Yes, three sets: small, medium, and large.

Is the microphone is better than the stock ones? [GermanThoughts]
Not that I could tell, but it’s not like you want to record your demo tape with it anyway. The mic aperture is about an inch higher up on the wire, though.

Does the remote work with Apple laptops?
Yep. I tested on a new MacBook Pro, and the mic works, as well as the remote for volume, play/pause/skip, etc.

How long is the cable?
About three inches shorter than the iPhone cable, roughly 42-inches.

I think Apple’s got something good on their hands here. These headphones sound out of their league for headphones under $100, especially considering most dual-driver headphones start at a couple hundred dollars and go up from there. They fit well, are reasonably comfortable, and the inline remote functions on more devices than they let on. It’s been about seven years since Apple got in this game, but this is the first time I think I’ll be using some of their headphones.