The buds themselves are predominantly white, with a metal ring placed just below the nozzle, and a metal meshing over the sound elements. The sleeves are shaped a bit differently compared to most: the top juts out a bit further than the bottom. This shape allows the sleeve to conform to the uniquely-shaped bud.
From the buds to the neck split, the cord is a bit thin. After the split, the two cords join into one round wire. The neck split is adjustable.
On the end of the cord opposite the buds is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. The plastic piece after the jack is thin and doesn't have a bend in it. This attribute allows these headphones to pair with devices that keep their ports at the bottom of a well that's recessed into the plastic.
The iPod headphone box is sparsely inhabited. It comes with the headphones, three sets of sleeves (small, medium, and large) for different ear shapes, and a small square carrying case that holds everything together. This case also provides a cable wrap around the edge, which helps to keep the cable from getting tangled or twisted.
These are not very durable headphones, for reasons we'll mainly get into in the second paragraph. There are a few mediocre aspects to get out of the way before the debilitating ones, however. For starters, the cord is moderately thick and feels like it should survive some tugging and pulling. The neck split and neck slider are both made of a rubbery material, and will therefore stretch if you pull on their cords. Regardless of their malleability, they will both stretch if you pull the two bud-cords apart, but we didn't get the sense they would tear easily. Likewise, while the cord holds a bend slightly, there's no chance of it getting overly wrinkled and knotted. The sleeves stay on well, and seem to be durable.
Though the aforementioned characteristics aren't anything to necessarily worry about, the cord guards – specifically at the plug – are basically for show. At the ear buds this might not be a huge issue, but we remain confident the majority of these headphones will prematurely break because of issues with the plug. Picture your iPod or what-have-you pitching and rolling around in your pocket. Given that the headphones want to remain taut since they're attached to your head, the main point of stress is where the cable runs into the plug. Some plugs have a 90º bend or a robust cord guard for exactly this situation. The Apple In-ears, on the other hand, can bend incredibly sharply along the plug, causing internal wear-and-tear damage. Now, we don't expect a $30 pair of headphones to last forever, but several people in the office have had their Apple In-ears break either because of the internal wires fraying at the plug (wiggling the cord around at the plug would restore or remove functionality) or from the plug shearing clean off.
The iPod in-ear headphones suffer from Motorola Razr syndrome: they're omnipresent. When these first came out, they were nice-looking, matched the devices they were released for, and looked slightly different from other generic headphones. Since they've been given out like candy since then, they've saturated the market. Nothing can become so commonplace and not have its aesthetics suffer somewhat. We're sure many people prefer non-white headphones, just so they don't look like just another iPod user. iPod politics and market saturation aside, these are sleek and clean.
Also, like all in-ear headphones, there really isn't a lot visible to judge aesthetics on. If you don't mind the 'I'm on my iPod!' look, or want to assume/maintain it, these headphones will obviously do the trick. If you don't belong in this camp, you're probably actively avoiding white headphones.Given the iPod In-ear Headphones' target audience -- people with iPods on the move -- we were surprised the Apple In-ear Headphones fell out of place so easily when we walked around. They won't outright fall out of your ear, but even weak tugs will cause them to shift around. Their portability is enhanced by their compact size, however, and the case they come with is great for keeping your cord from getting wrinkled. In terms of audio quality, these headphones typically performed somewhere around average. They had some real problems with bass distortion, so those who like bass-heavy music should keep this in mind when shopping. Also, they were surprisingly mediocre in terms of isolation; in-ear headphones typically act like ear plugs, keeping out most external sound. They did control leakage really well, however, meaning those around you won't be able to hear your music, even if it's at a very high volume. This test measures how the headphones emphasize each frequency. Typically headphones will boost lower or higher frequencies to make them better for a certain genre of playback. Therefore, we don't necessarily look for a flat line. What we do look for are spikes or sudden dips, and the overall trend of the line. When two neighboring frequencies are emphasized differently, it can lead to your playback sounding unbalanced. Frequency response can also differ per channel so we measure the left and right separately. In the graph below, the green line represents the left channel's performance, and the red line is the right ear bud. Like bass? Don't get these headphones. Some in-ear headphones have trouble with bass due to their size: they don't have enough room to create the big, powerful movement of air that good bass requires. Given a good seal between the headphones and the ear, however, some in-ear headphones can get close to the booming bass better than larger headphones produce, since there's only a small amount of air that has to be moved. But the iPod in-ear headphones don't create a good seal and don't have the best hardware, so their bass response was weak. There's a similar problem at the higher end, where the response quickly drops off. This means that both low and high frequency sounds will be a little weak, with the mid-range sounds coming across as stronger.
Distortion refers to a difference between the initial sound wave that out test equipment outputs and what actually makes it into your ear. In the graph below, the frequencies (pitches) run from low to high, and the line represents the difference; the higher the line, the more distortion. Audio geeks refer to this test as Total Harmonic Distortion (THD).
Again, bass proves a problem. We were registering almost 3% distortion in the lower frequencies; a significant amount of distortion that could be easily heard. We often see some distortion in the extreme lower end, but seldom this much, and never extending into the middle range. There was little or no distortion in the higher frequencies, though.
Tracking deals with how well the two channels (right and left playback) are balanced. If headphones have good tracking, a note played at the same volume across both channels will sound equally loud in both ears. Perfect tracking is nearly impossible, however, so this test measures which channel is getting more attention at any given frequency. Above the zero line means the left channel is louder, below it and the right channel is louder. Ideally, the blue line would run along the zero line.
The iPod headphones didn't do so badly here. Again, there were issues with bass, and emphasis shifted erratically between channels -- your bass will appear to jump from left to right without warning. After the trouble with the bass, tracking levels out nicely, albeit slightly in favor of the left side. Towards the high end, the iPod headphones actually hold it together a lot better than most headphones. Overall, not bad, Apple; not bad.
We were able to squeeze 119.48 dBSPL out of these headphones before reaching 3% distortion, which is a noticeable amount. Given their distortion score, we're impressed that they did so well. To put this in perspective, anything above 120 dBSPL will hurt your hearing.
Isolation refers to how well a pair of headphones can block out external noise, either by physically obstructing your ear canal or by using futuristic technology to negate incoming sound waves.
Typically, in-ear headphones do well on this test, because they are fashioned after ear plugs. These, however, don't so much plug your ear canals as sit outside them and obscure them a bit. Thusly, they only received a slightly better than average isolation score. Bass sounds will only be slightly blocked as they march past these headphones and into your head. Higher frequencies will have a much harder time finding their way into your ears. Overall, the performance is decent, but don't expect them to block as much noise as a pair (such as the Etymotic ER6i or Shure SE-210s) that fit right into the ear canal.
Leakage refers to how much of your music escapes back into the outside world. In-ear headphones are usually a great bet for keeping your music to yourself, and the Apple iPod headphones are no exception. They will closely guard your music preference as long as they are properly fitted, and you keep them that way.
The iPod headphones are pretty comfortable, but this is mainly because they don't fit very far into the ear canal. If you're used to ear canal intrusions, these headphones will feel like they're always on the verge of falling out. In fact, if there's any kind of cord movement, the buds will start to pop out of your ears. These are not headphones for joggers or silent ravers.
If you don't plan on moving around much, however, you'll find these headphones are comfortable enough. They don't put too much pressure on the ear, and are very smooth.
For testing extended use, we simply perform the comfort test again, but leave them in for six hours instead of one. Like before, the discomfort didn't come from pressure, it came from the constant need to push them back in or readjust them. The longer you wear them, the more times you'll have to pop them back in, or readjust them. If, for you, the annoyance in such a situation doesn't increase exponentially, then they'll be fine for extended use.
The iPod headphones' cable is about 1.95mm thick from the neck split to the jack, and 1.33mm in diameter from the neck split to the buds. This means the cable is robust enough to avoid any serious tangles, and won't hold a shape easily -- you shouldn't have much of a problem balling these up and shoving them into a pocket.
The cord is a little more than 3.5 feet long, which is a bit short. The distance from the neck split to the jack is slightly less than 2.5 feet, which means you really don't have much of a tether. This length pretty much limits the iPod headphones to either a portable media player or a laptop. This portion of the score is where these headphones lose the most points.
The jack casing is very thin, meaning these headphones will be just fine with an iPhone or other device whose port is recessed a bit into the device. This is a good thing; it would be a bit embarrassing if Apple's own headphones didn't work with their own iPhone.
Unfortunately, fresh-out-of-the-box iPod headphones don't have many customization options. There are three different sizes of sleeves included: small, medium, and large. That's it for pack-ins. The only other customization option is the cord's adjustable neck-split slider. There aren't any different types of sleeves or cord extensions.
iPod headphones are built to be portable. First of all, they're small, in-ear buds, so there's no band or ear cups to take up space. Second, the cord is short and easy to manage. There is also an included case which can store all the buds and the headphones themselves. It's shaped like a rectangular fishing reel, so you can easily wrap the cord around it, then drop the top on to hold everything secure. The iPod headphones are just about as portable as cord-based headphones can be.
...in theory. When you think 'portable,' it typically means you'll be moving in some way. Unfortunately, the iPod headphones have a really bad habit of falling out of place at the slightest tug. Falling out of place is almost as annoying as falling out of your ear entirely. If your ears are somehow able to get a good grip on these, consider yourself lucky, or consider your ears very sticky.
The iPod headphones do not come with any cleaning tools, so you'll have to find your own sterilization instruments. The sleeves do come off, and are made of plastic, both of which make them an easy clean -- we just wish the set came with some duplicates for easy replacement. The only guard between a filthy ear and the sound element, however, is a tiny circle of metal mesh that you can't remove. This could easily get blocked if you have gunky ears, or if something gets past that, then it's just a part of the headphones for good. Really, there isn't much a user has access to in terms of cleaning.
These headphones aren't dependent on a battery or other external source of power. Batteries are a pain, so we award points whenever we don't have to deal with them.
Like all electronics, the price of headphones tends to increase exponentially with their quality. When you get into the super high-end range, you might end up paying $100 for a 1% upgrade. Towards the lower end, we'd expect our money to buy far more quality. In this case, the Apple iPod headphones really don't provide much more than a cheap throw-away pair of headphones. Yes, they do provide decent audio quality for their price. Their downside, however, is in actual usability. They fall out of place ridiculously easily, and break fairly quickly as well (at least in our experience). Compare these to the Shure SE210s. These cost a heck of a lot more than the Apple headphones, and offer similar audio quality overall, but they're far more rugged (except for their neck split adjuster). Chances are, over time, you'll have to replace your iPod headphones a few times, at which point the cost will even out.
Chances are, if you've read this review, you're in one of two camps: you're looking for replacement headphones and don't necessarily care about audio quality, or you were an audiophile curious to see how much these headphones sucked. If you were in the latter camp, you were probably a bit surprised they did as well as they did (well, maybe not in terms of distortion), but wouldn't consider buying these regardless.
To those in the former camp, free of prejudice, you really have to ask yourselves what you're looking for. In terms of a short-term investment to just get you by, the Apple iPod headphones aren't the best investment to make, but they're not a horrible one either. In an interesting twist of fate, the best thing these headphones have going for them at their price is their audio quality.
If audio quality this doesn't matter to you, then we'd recommend trying out other pairs of cheap in-ear headphones. As we said earlier, the iPod headphones tend to pull out of position very easily, and aren't the best at blocking out low-frequency noise. This is downright annoying, since iPod headphones were made for commuters who either walk or take public transportation, and therefore can't depend on their car's speakers. For the same price or cheaper, you can get a much better wear experience, and those headphones will probably block out the train/bus noises better.
If audio quality does matter to you, then you'll have to resign yourself to paying more than $30 for a pair of headphones.
Meet the tester
Mark Brezinski is a senior writer with seven years of experience reviewing consumer tech and home appliances.
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