updated 08:25 am EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Apple EarPods provide a great listening experience at small cost
The ink hasn't even dried on Apple's acquisition of Beats and Dr Dre (Andre Young) and Jimmy Iovine, both newly anointed executives at Apple have already made a public gaffe a piece. Firstly, we saw Dr Dre quaffing Heineken beer and bragging about the deal before it was made official. Then just late yesterday, in an interview with Walt Mossberg at the Code Conference, Jimmy Iovine publicly criticized Apple's pre-packaged headphones (its EarPods) as being for little more than "to see if the sound [on the device] works." While it might have been a casual off-handed quip, it wouldn't have amused the team responsible for developing Apple's EarPods. Nor is it something you would ever expect hear coming from an Apple executive, indicating that this union may take a little while to become fully settled.
Apple's white earphones shipped for many years with its iPod line and iPhone models through to the iPhone 4S. In fact, they are still sold with the iPod classic and the iPhone 4S, so are yet to be completely superseded by Apple's newer EarPods that first shipped with the iPhone 5. Thanks to the widespread popularity of the iPod, coupled with Apple's early iTunes marketing that that heavily featured the white earphones, its earphones have become iconic and synonymous with the brand. Unfortunately, as many people know, the white earphones did not sound good at all. In fact, I often used to quietly cringe when I would see people using them, as I knew that even a relatively modest outlay would provide listeners with a superior listening experience.
Apple SVP Eddy Cue, who appeared live with Jimmy Iovine at the Re/code conference, defended the EarPods that ship with Apple's newer products as being the best pre-packed earphones that are on the market. At the risk of incurring the wrath of audiophiles out there, I totally agree with Cue, and I think it is long past time that the myth of Apple's included earphones producing poor sound is put to rest. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I would sooner listen to Apple's EarPods, than say Beats own Solo HD headphones, which we have previously reviewed. While one cannot argue with the massive success that Iovine and Dr Dre have achieved with Beats headphones, the audio reproduction of the headphones is not what purists would describe as being particularly well-balanced. They are, however, well-designed, well-made, beautifully packaged and exceptionally well-marketed.
Before writing this story, I compared Apple's EarPods with a set of $80 Sony XBA-1 balanced armature earphones, as well as the Harman Kardon $130 AE-S earphones included with the HTC One (M8) Harman Kardon Edition. They held up remarkably well, much more so than they might have any right to. In my view, dollar-for-dollar, Apple's EarPods (which retail for $29 when purchased separately) are the best earphones that you can buy bar none. While the Sony XBA-1s and the Harman Kardon AE-Ss produced more bass (partly due to their in-ear design), the tone and overall balance of the Apple EarPods is superior. The Harman Kardon earphones produce 'big' sound, with extended bass response, but strictly speaking, they are not especially well-balanced. Compared to the Sony XBA-1s, the Apple EarPods produce a larger, more pleasing sound stage.
Apple's EarPods are certainly much more than a way to test if your iPhone or iPod works, and to write them off as such is simply wrong. They produce a very decent listening experience and the sooner people understand that, the better off they will be. So much so, that for some people, justifying the outlay on an expensive set of Beats headphones (or any other set of premium headphones) may not stack up from a value-for-money perspective.
As for Apple's acquisition of Beats, as I have previously outlined, it has become quite clear that Apple was particularly interested in the Beats Music streaming service. It is also fascinating to learn that Apple intends to keep both the Android and Windows Phone versions of the app alive, while HP will also continue to ship products co-branded for the next 18 months or so, until its license expires. Apple will also keep the Beats headphone brand alive and said it will eventually have both the Beats and Apple audio engineers collaborating on headphones in the future - these could well be the first Beats headphones I might seriously consider buying, particularly if Jony Ive his design team has a hand in future designs.
In the meantime, let's hope that the somewhat shaky starts made by both Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine will quickly be consigned to the past. They both have a lot to offer Apple in the vital music space, and the deal may yet work out to be a masterstroke if Beats and its people are able to quickly acclimate to the Apple way.
By Sanjiv Sathiah