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Apple EarPods (with Remote and Mic) review: Apple EarPods (with Remote and Mic)

The iPhone 5 and new iPod Touches now come with new, improved in-ear headphones with a built-in mic. While they're a lot better, they do have some potential shortcomings.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
5 min read

As part of the launch of the iPhone 5 and new iPod Touch and iPod Nano, Apple introduced a set of completely redesigned earbud headphones, the EarPods. Apple says they were three years in the making.


Apple EarPods (with Remote and Mic)

The Good

The <b>Apple EarPods</b> offer mostly impressive sound, with good detail and better bass than Apple's previous headphones. They're also lightweight, with a comfortable fit, and have an integrated inline remote and microphone for making calls and controlling your music playback.

The Bad

Some people may find that the EarPods don't fit securely in their ears, and these earbuds also let in a lot of sound and leak a little sound, too.

The Bottom Line

Apple's EarPods offer much-improved sound over the previous standard-issue earbuds, but they won't fit all ears equally well -- and that fit will determine whether you think they're great or just so-so.

These in-ear headphones have a built-in microphone for making calls and an inline remote with volume and transport controls.

The EarPods are included with all of Apple's new iPhones and iPods and will also be offered as a separate accessory for $29.

The EarPods in their protective case (included). Sarah Tew/CNET

Big sound improvement
Earlier Apple headphones were the black sheep of the company's product family: unlike the world-class iconic designs of the iPod, iPhone, MacBook, and iMac, the original Apple headphones lagged behind nearly all other competitors. The first-generation models (the freebies that were included with all iPod models) were downright terrible. The 2004-era In-Ear model was OK, and the 2008 iPhone-friendly In-Ear headset was better still -- but still short of "insanely great," especially compared with the increasingly long list of cheap but great-sounding headphones we've been seeing.

Thankfully, the EarPods hit the reset button in the sonics department. Apple has really improved the sound; the EarPods offer much more bass and generally clean, pleasant sound. Their fit is significantly better, too (I could never use the previous model because it simply didn't fit my ear), but the design is not without its potential shortcomings. I found the EarPods quite comfortable to wear but the one ding against them is that they didn't fit all that securely. Of course, ears come in all shapes and sizes, and the EarPods may fit some ears more snugly than others, but I had a few editors try them and they agreed that they don't offer the most secure fit.

The EarPods have one main side-firing driver along with two smaller apertures that output sound. Sarah Tew/CNET

The other small downside is that they leak some sound. Apple has said it has worked to reduce sound leakage, and it's not as bad as I thought it would be, but there's still some spillage as you bring the volume up to higher levels.

The EarPods slightly resemble Bose's MIE2i in-ear headphones in the sense that they are both made of hard plastic, have side-firing drivers (the EarPods also have two smaller apertures on the bud that output sound), and don't feature a noise-isolating design (translation: you don't jam a set of silicone eartips into your ears). However, the Bose earphones, which at $129 cost $100 more, have added silicone covers, including a set of wings that keep the earphones securely in place. The EarPods do not have any extra silicone pieces; the hard, smooth, sculpted buds are all you get.

Close-up of the inline remote (with microphone). You hold the center of the button to call up Siri, and tap twice to advance a track. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The plug is very slim, which means it works with thicker iPhone cases. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.


Apple EarPods (with Remote and Mic)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Sound 7Value 6