In A-to-B tests against the Denons and a set of Philips SHE9800s, the last two sets did a better job of heavy rock and bass-heavy electronica, but if your tastes run to pop, jazz or classical, then the Apples can sound every bit as good. There’s a real warmth and snap to Maroon 5’s Makes Me Wonder, while the breathy vocals and weird, folky textures of Goldfrapp’s Clowns are beautifully rendered. It also must be said that the Apples also boast a nice, well-defined soundstage, suiting relaxed acoustic sounds and small-group jazz particularly well.
For me, the real concern is clarity and definition. In complex tracks with a lot going on in the mid-range, the Apple In-Ear Headphones have a tendency to go a bit woolly, and despite Apple’s claims about detail these aren’t the most transparent or revealing ‘phones I’ve come across. While I’m griping, I’ve heard comparably priced ‘phones – and even some cheaper models – with more attack, more punch and more presence. I’m not suggesting for a minute that Apple’s latest and greatest in-ear models fall down in this regard – merely that you could do better.
And when it comes to it, that’s the crux of this review. For £54 you get a thoroughly decent, well-designed set of earphones in a decent kit and with the advantage – for users of the right iPods or iPhones – of the microphone and in-line remote. That might be enough to swing things Apple’s way for anyone with, say, a current revision iPod touch or nano. However, look around at what else you can get for around the same money. You could have the Sennheiser CX95s, for example, or even buy our bargain basement darlings, the Shure SE102s, and save yourself £15. The Apples undoubtedly sound good, but are they neck-and-neck with the best in terms of audio quality or value? I’m not so sure.
Still, Apple’s headphones are no longer a laughing matter, and if you have an iPod and you want a better sound, you can wear a pair of these and feel quite proud. In fact, if you eat, drink and sleep Apple and bow to a totem of Steve Jobs before sleeping, they come positively recommended.
For those with a new iPod Shuffle, they’re a particularly wise investment – provided you can’t wait for third-party alternatives to emerge. If, however, you’re a more discerning or value-conscious audiophile, then the Apple In-Ear Headphones probably aren’t for you. They’re good, but the competition is stronger.
It’s not saying much that these are the best headphones Apple has ever produced, but they are the first to give the likes of Sennheiser or Shure a run for their money. Good sound, good design, and a good bundle, but for pure audio quality they’re still a little way behind the best.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 7