The worst-sounding audio product

Most audio products sound "good enough," but then there are the real stinkers. See what The Audiophile thinks is the worst-sounding product regularly used by millions of people.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read
Apple ear buds Steve Guttenberg

I've heard a lot of really bad-sounding audio products over the years, but most of them were so awful they suffered a natural and well-deserved "death." Take for example the $499 Gateway KAS-103 home theater in a box system that debuted in 2003. I had the "pleasure" of reviewing this attractive system, but it sounded so bad I was duty bound to try another sample, which was equally dreadful. There was absolutely no blend between the sound of the subwoofer and the tiny satellite speakers, the high levels of background static were impossible to ignore, the cooling fan's noise was always audible, and the sub buzzed and rattled. The other Gateway systems that followed the KAS-103 were only a little better. Gateway made a swift exit from the home theater in a box market. Of course, I could go on about the crappy sound of a lot of TVs, but they're not audio products.

The KAS-103 was a real stinker, but for this blog I didn't want to just focus on an obscure product almost no one ever heard. So I aimed my sights on the worst sounding product regularly used by millions of people. Before you can say "Steve Jobs" the white plastic ear buds that come packed with iPods and iPhones came to mind. I see them worn by thousands of folks on the streets and subways of New York City, but the Apple 'buds are brittle, sterile-sounding things. Bass is nonexistent, and the treble grates on my ears.

I suppose it's a good thing that Apple includes any headphones at all, but for such a quality-oriented company, why have they, year after year, included those awful headphones? Of course the upside is that Apple created a booming headphone market for other manufacturers, and the selection of great-sounding headphones is better than ever. Apple's ear buds' comfort isn't great, and they easily fall out of my ears, or maybe my ears are pushing them out! 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!

The best part of owning Apple ear buds is that you can be sure that whatever you buy to replace them will sound a good deal better. A few years ago I checked out Apple's In Ear headphones, which sell for around $50 and they were a little better, but still not all that special.

Apple is an amazingly innovative company, but it's incapable of selling a decent set of headphones under its own name. Decent-sounding ones can be bought for starting around $40, so if you're still using Apple 'buds check out Yamaha's EPH-30 Inner Ear or Koss PortaPro Headphones.