Lauding Jobs's Least Loved Product: The Basic Apple Ear-Bud

Editor's Note: This article was nearly complete when I read of Steve Jobs's death last night. I think the conclusions herein are telling of his passion for making "insanely great" products ... right down to the last detail. Rest in peace, Steve.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve Guttenberg wrote an article on his Audiophiliac blog entitled, "The Worst-Sounding Audio Product." In it he "aimed [his] sights on the worst sounding product regularly used by millions of people:" the stock Apple iPod ear-bud headphones. There may be some truth in that, but he also said, "Apple is an amazingly innovative company, but it's incapable of selling a decent set of headphones under its own name."

With this, I'm going to have to disagree ...

Ear-Buds ... Yuck!
The problems isn't that the iPod ear-buds suck, it's that pretty much all ear-buds suck.

Ear-buds don't form a seal or controlled acoustic chamber of any kind in the ear, so the bass response is universally abysmal. People's ears have a variety of shapes and sizes, so they rarely fit as designed. The volume of air between the driver and the ear is not only leaky, but also forms a completely unnatural set of resonances that our brain doesn't know how to process. And yes, for the most part, they're just plain cheap and under-engineered. The design philosophy for the most part is "slap a driver in a plastic housing about the right shape; paint a kitty on the outside; and ship it off to Wal-Mart."

Apple Ear-Buds
In the case of Apple however, I think the situation is substantially different. I had the pleasure of talking to one of the lead product engineers for the Apple ear-bud a couple of years ago. He had some questions about my measurement system, and our conversation included a goodly amount of dialog about their ear-bud. It was evident they had been doing quite a bit of work on making it better sounding, and had been making some substantial design changes over time to improve it. I came away quite impressed with their efforts improving what many would consider a throw-away product. This is evident in Guttenberg's statement, "Those opinions about their sound quality are based on the 'buds that came with my one-year-old iPod Classic. I also have a pair of first-generation Apple 'buds in my stash, and they are a lot worse!" Yup, they have been working on it.

What's the Alternative?
So, if ear-buds suck, why does Apple use them at all? Steve points towards a couple of much better sounding inexpensive headphones (Koss Porta Pro ear pad headphones, and Yamaha EPH-30 in-ear phones), and wonders why Apple can't match their performance. Well, they're completely different kinds of headphone types that can fundamentally sound better than ear-buds.

I suspect there's a number of reasons Apple chooses ear-buds. You're buying an iPod, not the headphones, so it's on the gadget Apple needs to focus the money. If you're into audio at all you'll replace just about any headphone that comes with a player, so I think it's appropriate for them to include cheap headphones, as they'll often go unused. Many people don't like to stick in-ear headphones deep into their ear canal, so that's not a solution that will work universally. Inexpensive headphones with a headband might not be useful for women with fancy hair, so a headband is limiting. Seems to me, ear-buds are a good choice for the type of headphone to be included with a portable player.

Apple knows ear-buds suck, but they know they've got to put 'em in the box. So what they did was make one of the best ear-buds out there.

But how good are they?

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COMMENTS
mward's picture

Love this article and the one about airplane headphones. Given that we so often look at how good headphones measure so we can dissect the minutiae of how they fall short, it's fascinating to hear how bad (or "good for what they are") headphones measure.

Also very interesting that these may be the best earbuds you can get—I guess in retrospect, it's not too surprising that Apple would try to make these as good as possible, given that they make several orders of magnitude more earbuds than their competitors, so the R&D costs are probably still pretty low per-unit.

deckeda's picture

First, it's important to know there are fake Apple earbuds out there. If you see a price that's too good to be true, it probably is.

Many of us no longer carry a separate iPod and cell phone. I'd like you to take a look at some of the models that come with a mic, because our "iPods" now make phone calls ... you know, in your copious amounts of spare time!

Apple's is $79 and isn't earbuds, but in-ear headphones. I'd like to know what to compare them to, because my wife hates the ear-buds+mic that came with her iPhone. Don't block enough sound out.

Shure sells a $50 replacement cable that adds a mic to their models but it widely reviled online as being cheaply made for what you pay. I don't know if the various $10 no-name mic adapters are of much help, and some aren't compatible with current iPhones yada yada, otherwise my wife would be fine using my old PX100s with one. And so on.

mward's picture

There's a ton of good in-ears with remote/mic competitive with Apple's $79 model. Maximo iP-595 and Etymotic mc3 are two of my favorites. Jays a-Jays Four are good if you want something that matches Apple's design prowess. Tyll reviewed the Spider RealVoice here recently. You can also take a look at Thinksound ts02+mic, Nox Audio Scout, Denon AH-C560R. And that's just what's in the same price range.

robert1122's picture

I am definitely enjoying your website. You definitely have some great insight and great stories.
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Jamey Warren's picture

Tyll, the Apple in-ear headphones sound to me like they use the same or very similar driver as the rest of the in-ear headphone companies do. Would love to hear your take on those. They seem like a pretty good value.

John Grandberg's picture

The Apple dual driver in ear monitor (sometimes called ADDIEMs for short) do use balanced armature drivers from Knowledge Acoustics, which is the biggest supplier used by many IEM companies. Here is a thread with some pictures:

http://www.head-fi.org/t/545046/addiem-here-are-the-drivers-inside-pictu...

The Monkey's picture
A few have said it already, but the impact Jobs had on our hobby cannot be overstated.
Tyll Hertsens's picture
By letting you take it with. I have a 200 CD wallet (tome) that I used to take with me travelling. Not any more. Rip it and forget it.
LFF's picture

"The Monster Beats by Dr. Dre Solo at $199. Available friggen everywhere. In my mind a shameful sham foisted upon gullible consumers. People paying good money for high-fidelity and, in my opinion, getting worse sound than the Apple ear-bud."

I have actually said that to people in conversations and nobody has ever believed me. :-( Their opinion is that I am just a "hater".

Nice to FINALLY have someone on the same page.

Also, I thought the plastic version of the Comradz NW-STUDIO PRO earbuds sounded quite good when I tried them out. Did you get the metal version?

timmyw's picture

Hey Tyll,

Nice to hear a bit of perspective for once. I thought this was a great article. I actually got to hear the Beats once. They actually made me feel nauseous for no reason I could think of. Weird I know. Perhaps it was the price this kid had paid for them for the kind of sound he got (I live in Australia so I think he paid about 450 if I recall correctly). Psychological persuasion is a powerful thing. To be truly honest I hated them.
Now, I have been listening to my newly acquired Beyerdynamic T1 for a week now, so I thought it would be interesting to go back and get my old ipod out and crank the ear buds. They were terrible! but they weren't that terrible just muffled and drab sounding. Certainly listenable.
Anyways I commend you, sir, on a cool article and have been enjoying watching the videos you make and reading all the articles you write.
Cheers mate.

Brentagon's picture

As you mentioned, Tyll, a good fit can make or break the sound quality of any earbud. Fortunately, there's an inexpensive product out there that will help any earbud to fit better and (usually) sound better -- the Radio Shack foamy. They do a great job (at least with my ears) of helping to create a good seal and extending the bass response. Most earbuds are on the bright side; the foamies help tame that at the same time.

I've heard all the buds you've mentioned here except the Comradz, and I think your descriptions are right on the money, even if the measurements seem odd. The PK2 is one of my most disappointing purchases ever. The PK1 is much better, as stated in the article, but there's one out there for half the price that I like better -- the Sennheiser MX880. It can be a tricky fit, although the Radio Shack foamies help quite a bit. With a good fit, though, these are just gorgeous-sounding.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'll check them both out.
svyr's picture

=) my eyes have been soiled. (thd+n graphs :D )

Mkubota1's picture

... for writing this. It's nice to read an Apple-related article with perspective and without hyperbole, written by an audiophile journalist. I hope this doesn't earn you the label of 'fanboy' or cloth ears. ;)

schawo's picture

Yuin PK1 is a much more then twice as amazing earbud. You should really try it once, it isn't shy of sound quality of decent full sized headphones.

Apple doesn't really try hard enough, their earbuds are just waste of material.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I've tried them, and I have some comming to review. I think they're great sounding, but there's possible reliability issues. That's a problem.
omahapianist's picture

Sennheiser's MX-880's are fantastic for an earbud - detail and musicality. I also have their now-discontinued MX-660's which have a pretty wide soundstage but not quite the detail of its older brother. I also have the Yuin PK2's which sound pretty good despite the critique but admittedly, they don't have the best detail and sound a little "heavy" to my ears. When my Grado SR-325i's (not to be confused with the newer 325is's) are not warranted or when I don't feel like shoving my Ultimate Ears 700 into my canals, the MX-880's is a perfect compromise.

Analogue-Lunatic's picture

Tyll,

Technically, the Apple earphones are still available separately - but the current version now has a remote and a microphone built in. Apple's asking price is $30.

With that said, most earbuds sound pretty crappy. Some of them have more bass, but then the mids begin to sound incoherent.

Damage's picture

I wonder how many of us here actually tried the Sony open earbuds?

The crappy reputation was somewhat deserving due to the really crappy lowend buds of the past. But I'd wager good money that the upper end of the earbuds, say the E888s, would give other earbuds like the Yuins a run for their money.

Too bad they are no longer available in the states.

mikemercer's picture

Hey Mr. Hertsens!

U just heard about Jobs death? Wow - I'm not the crazed type who cried when he died, because I didn't know him personally - but his death had a profound impact on me, (as my Apple IIE did when I was in elementary school - I saw a future that just boggled my mind - and we're here - LOL). Anyway - KILLER article, and I'm a fan of Steve's, so I know what he was getting at (though he doesn't have the masterful technical insight here that you've honed after years of birthing the higher end headphone market) - You continue to educated while you have fun listening!! Keep it up - and I just got back into the Hifi fold full-time (had taken a little break) so we're gonna be in touch sir!!

As always - Splendid job.

Yours in Sound,

Michael Mercer

apple pc's picture

Apple Ear bud headphones have been around for awhile now but still represent a huge portion of the headphone market today. There is of course a good reason for this and that is because ear buds are simply the best compromise between function and fashion. Ear buds offer great sound, good price and simple comfort.
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Freddyq's picture

Appke ear bud heapphones sure have been around for a while but they are still aweosme. I use them every day and I'm very happy with them.

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apple pc's picture

In apple ear headphones are headphones that directly placed in the ears. They are designed so that they can be held at the opening of the ear canal, but not all versions of these headphones enter the ear canal. They lead to the opening of the canal, without actually enveloping the ears.
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peterroumian's picture

hi Tyll

check out there's a new apple earbud comming with the iphone5

as I can see from the pictures onlie this thing forms a controlled acoustic chamber without disturbing the ear canal

it's going to be interesting if you made a review

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Trying to get my hands on a pair, and have a good lead.  It'll happen.

greenboi's picture

what do you think about mx880?

speedyxvn's picture

I have the MX880 and actually wrote a pretty big review here: http://tweakers.net/productreview/80750/sennheiser-mx-880-(zwart).html . It's in English, although the site is in Dutch. Overall they are awesome but pretty unhealthy, probably this is the trade-off. Or my ears are too sensible, that may be also possible. 

Cheers!

williamsjack's picture

These ear buds also have the good sound and are very good to play music.

 

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