Another review? Not exactly.
I’m not calling this a review because there are plenty of those available to you as it is, what I intend here is to document some of the things that reviews tend to miss in their rush to publication. So this is more of an (attempted) unbiased look at why you may or may not want Apple’s dual driver IEM’s, from the perspective of an average user.
In the three or so months from announcement in September 2008 to street date of December I spent a fair amount of time researching mid to high end earphones with the intention of replacing my old Sony Fontopia MDR-EX70LP In Ear Monitors which were phenomenally good for the price at the time. Knowing that Apple were also including an ipod Touch (second generation) compatible in-line remote was certainly a plus towards their product but quality of audio was going to be the deciding factor and I wanted to try to stay sub €100 in whatever choice I made. Obviously I settled on the Apple in-ear’s after all the reading.
Roughly seven months have since passed and there are several things I wish I had known before I had decided to buy them. Technical specifications are great for comparing some products but when it comes to audio the numbers do not matter so much past a point of established quality and from there it is all down to how the individual perceives the sound. Reviews should be vital information in that case by providing opinion based on use but not one of the reviews I read before purchase mentioned any of the problems I will detail, problems that if I had known beforehand would have prevented me from buying them.
What you may have heard
Going back now and reading comments from other people really could lead to confusion for the prospective buyer, there are many opposing claims made on topics like lack of low end frequency (bass) and static shocks. And the thing is in many cases both sides of any given argument can actually be correct, although not always for the reasons claimed. Perceived quality of audio is massively subjective to personal preference, understanding of the equipment and past experience. I am not a master of audio tech nor have I extensive background in earphones, but I do try to be informed and accurate and so have done my research on this topic.
In ear-canal headphones are still fairly new to many consumers and as such many people seem to be prone to wearing them incorrectly. Given the size and look of the ear pieces some people are mistaking them for the more ubiquitous ear-bud type of headphone which are designed to rest just inside the ear and are attempting to do so with these. This is wrong, you need to insert the tip of the bud down inside your ear canal. To achieve this you need to experiment with the various sized silicon tips to establish which create the best seal with your ear canal, the optimal situation being that they fit without being loose (tip too small to make a seal, no bass) or too tight (tip too big causing silicon sleeve to fold and not create an airtight seal) and each ear may require a different size.
There have been claims of static shocks to the inside of the ear which has been proven to be true, but is less scary than it sounds (more on that later). Also there has been the claim that excessive moisture, say from sweat, causes the contacts inside the remote capsule to mis-behave making the headphones bad for exercise. Though I tend to sweat a lot when cycling in the summer this has been something I can not replicate and would have to put down to liquid physically entering the unit, which is just bad for any electrical object. So perhaps the location of the remote is not ideal for all users.
How do they sound?
Coming from my previous set of earphones that had superb sound I am very pleased with the audio quality output by Apple’s product. I have not used any dual driver IEM’s before now but the level of fine detail now clearly audible tells me that there is certainly something to be said for dual balanced-armature drivers over a single dynamic driver in terms of clarity. Which leads me to the aforementioned claims of ‘missing bass’ in these headphones. Certainly some of the people saying this also understand the importance of having that air tight seal with their ear canal and are not making that mistake, but then there are also those who say the bass sounds just fine. Me being one of those people.
I like bass a lot and have in the past mistaken ‘a lot of bass’ for ‘enjoying this song’ so I know what it sounds like and where it should be in my music; Single driver earphones must be balanced toward a particular sound by the manufacturer which is why different models and brands of earphone sound different to each-other when used on the same device with the same music and many people enjoy a heavy deep end to their music so a lot of the balance trends toward deepening the bass at the expense of mid and high end detail. This may go unnoticed by some but typically the audio in regular earphones is missing some of the fine detail you would hear on a decent Hi-Fi with separate drivers for low, mid and high frequencies.
Many people, in my opinion, are overly used to artificially enhanced bass and this perhaps sullies their view of more accurately reproduced music.
Apple’s Dual Driver set-up has less need for this balancing because of the splitting of the sound into two separate drivers per ear. Typically in other brands one driver deals with low end while the second takes mid and high, for reasons unexplained Apple chose to have one driver for high and the second for mid and low. This is not something appears to have a huge impact on the sound but it does mean that there is going to be slightly more clarity in the high end than the low. Because of the lack of tuning towards a warmer sound some users are calling it flat or clinical, personally I am in favour of reproducing the sound as close to the source input as possible.
When listening to tracks with ample use of deep bass (and well encoded, this is important) such as Sunn O))), The Prodigy, Scorn, Adam Freeland and Clark the bass was not lacking, it was simply not prominent.
Even at low volume levels in a quiet environment I felt the warm rumble of Thunder by The Prodigy or the harsh drum clap in Clark’s New Year Storm; Not only was the bass there but it was clear and detailed while leaving the high end sharp, something my older Sony earphones could not achieve.
Having fairly good ears and a decent understanding of audio compression I had until recently kept the majority of my music library in 128 kbps (variable bit rate) MPEG-4 Advanced Audio Coding encoded files, sometimes 160 if the music demanded it. I was not entirely happy with the choice but for the most part it was the best quality to file size ratio for my use. Where previously only on my larger speakers was the lossy compression particularly obvious these earphones have pushed me to re-import many of my CD’s to 256 kbps (vbr) AAC because I was hearing so much more of the compression artifacting than before, for my iPod that is rather limiting the space for my album selection but for the headphones I would say this is a good indication of their sonic capabilities.
Ah, but then…
Mixed bag of design
Apple are well known for their superb industrial design and I am now getting the impression they should also be known for not moving around much. Why? Microphonics, a word I came to know while writing this article and in this usage means that every knock or scrape made to the cable between your ear and the device is transferred directly to your ear drum. And although most IEM’s suffer from this effect to some degree these are by far the worst I have ever heard. So bad in fact, I can hardly stand to use them despite the good things I said above.
Other manufacturers try to isolate this incredibly distracting noise by simple design choices like looping the cable behind your ear or having one of the cables pass behind your neck to produce slack. Not Apple, who have gone with the traditional Y split cable which produces tension along the cable that only worsens the situation.
This alone would be pretty bad but to make matters even worse that horrible rubbery white cable Apple is so fond of is prone to transferring any small noise along the cable like a guitar string due to being incredibly springy. If you try to wind the cable into a pocket it will often sneak back out and if you try to pin the cable to some clothing you risk yanking the buds out of your ears, leaving any slack to avoid that only causes the loose parts to whip around like angry vipers.
If you plan to walk, cycle or simply move a little bit then you will find that without turning the volume up to unpleasant levels you may be massively distracted by the dull thumping and scraping obliterating a lot of the fine detail they are capable of producing.
During the first month of use I went out for a 20 kilometre walk into town and back to listen to some music, by the time I was home the excess noise had hurt my ears so badly I have never used them on such a trip again, and never will.
It feels like no one bothered to test these out in the real world doing the things an actual user would. Because the abominable cable noise is not the only design element that fails when put to active use.
Metal tips with removable mesh filters look great and may be a good idea maintenance wise but metal is conductive. If you are in a remotely dry environment, say outside during the summer then there is a high possibility of a static charge building around your iPod (or similar device) if it is in a pocket, this is usually harmless to user and device alike but because you have this nicely machined metal tip right inside your ear canal it allows built up static to discharge inside your head. It’s not painful, it’s not dangerous but it is very annoying. On a typical walk to the tram stop near my house I counted nine shocks in six minutes. This is far too many to be acceptable yet Apple’s advice is along the lines of try to wear different clothing.
Silicon tips perhaps not so well made? The outer shell that contacts your ear canal is soft semi-translucent white rubber with a more ridged inner part which grips the metal stem of the headphone. This is a fairly typical arrangement with such IEM’s although I feel in this case perhaps there is not enough grip. The mesh filter caps can be unscrewed to allow cleaning which is a great idea but they are nearly flush with the rest of the sound tube so there is not a lot for the harder rubber part to grip onto.
On several occasions I have pulled the headphone out of my ear and one of them has come off in the process. One occasion left it inside my ear which was quite hard to remove, another time saw it fall to the floor of a public toilet and yet another saw one hit the street to be trodden on by an old lady. The last two examples meant I could not use them for the rest of the day until home to properly clean them.
Although I am entirely willing to believe this is a defect in the rubber at manufacturing of perhaps only the tips in my box I have seen at least one report of a person gluing his onto the headphone to prevent similar situations where a few others have recommended third party tips. I have not had this problem with my previous my Sony’s. Either way I am looking into buying third party replacements now.
Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, a very unfortunate product for me because I feel that small headphones are primarily for use while out and moving around, and these are flat out awful for that unless you wish to listen to music at a horribly loud volume.
The quality for the price is, to me, unquestionably good though because when undisturbed they sound great so if you will be mostly motionless during use, say on a train or while waiting around some place then you may find these to be ideal for you.
If you are a into heavy bass then be sure to have well encoded music which actually has a real use of sub-bass, not just music that gets heavy when the EQ is set to Loudness, they may not be as heavy as devices balanced for bass but they will not lack either when used properly.
As silly as it may sound the following came to mind one night while listening to some music with these headphones, and I still feel like it sort of sums it all up:
“Like a descending choir of flatulent angels the singing may sound fantastic but chances are all you are going to notice is the farting.”