Great, as a freebie
Let me be clear about one thing. I think anybody who gets these as part of an iPhone or iPod package will be happy with them. Most earbuds and headsets that come with mobile devices these days range from mediocre to poor. In comparison with what you usually get, the EarPods are excellent. On top of the bigger, richer bass, they simply sound more open and less canned or recessed. You do lose a little low-end sound by not having a tight seal, but the bass is surprisingly full, and while the midrange is a bit aggressive, I think Apple has a done a good job of creating a sound profile that's well suited for a broad range of musical genres. It's not going to please everyone, but it's going to please a majority of folks.
However, grading the EarPods as standalone $29 headphones, it's a tougher call. Their sound holds up well against competitors in their price class, though I wouldn't describe their sound or build quality as truly exceptional (Apple does say that the EarPods are more sweat-resistant than its previous 'buds). While they may sound as good as or better than many $30 earphones, and some pricier models, they look and feel like they should cost less than $30.
But all those performance observations come with a caveat. With all these types of non-noise-isolating 'buds, noisier environments can present a problem for them because they simply let in too much sound.
When I was sitting at my desk listening to the EarPods, I was impressed with them. They sat in my ears well enough, they felt comfortable, nice and light, and they sounded quite good. But later on, when I left the office and took them out onto the streets of New York and made my way home on the subway, they really didn't cut it. For starters, as I was walking, they always felt like they were about to slip out of my ears. (For the most part they managed to stay in, sometimes barely, but the feeling that they were about to slip out was irritating.) And then when I was on the subway itself, my music was largely drowned out by the sound of the subway. I found myself longing for the noise-isolating 'buds I typically use.
Is my experience with the EarPods an aberration or closer to the norm? That I can't tell you. However, I think it safe to say that the EarPods will fit some ears better and much more securely than others. To say that these offer a universally secure fit would not be true.
As a throw-in with a new iPhone or iPod, the EarPods with Remote and Mic are clearly a cut above the freebie headphones that typically are included with mobile devices. They fit and sound significantly better than the last generation of standard-issue Apple earbuds and they work well as a headset, too, with one-touch access to Siri. But they won't fit all ears equally snugly and for some folks (like me), using them on the go may prove troublesome.
Could Apple have included some sort of silicone cover that would make them fit more securely? Sure. But it didn't, so I suspect third-party manufacturers will fill the void with special covers that give the EarPods more grip.
Of course, many folks will be fine with them the way they are, will have nothing but praise for them, and will think I'm crazy for not awarding them 4 stars. But then again, others will think they're only so-so for $29 and will think anything above 3 stars is a reach.
Because how you'll end up feeling about the EarPods is so dependent on the shape of your ears, it's hard to nail down an exact rating for these guys. The good news is that with so many people buying new iPhones and iPods, there will be plenty of these around for you to try before you buy. And I suggest you do.
Editor's note (5/29): The rating on the EarPods was originally 3.5 stars, but after evaluating the product for several months and experiencing continued issues with the fit of the EarPods, the score was lowered to 3 stars.