If you've outgrown the fashion appeal of Apple's stock earbuds and you're ready to step up to a proper pair of headphones, Apple's $109 In-Ear headphones are a killer upgrade. They're not going to make everyone happy, however, as some of the features included with the headphones will not work with the iPhone or older iPod models.
Out of the box, the Apple In-Ear headphones include a plastic carrying case with a cable wrap, three pairs of silicone ear tips (small, medium, and large) and a set of replacement mesh caps that come in handy when earwax inevitably builds up. The earpieces are very light, comfortable, and stylish, and the cable runs around 1.3 metres long.
Unlike Apple's standard-issue earbuds, which rest just outside the ear, the Apple In-Ear headphones are intended to fit literally in your ears, similar to wearing a pair of earplugs. The three pairs of interchangeable silicone ear tips included with the headphones ensure that the earpieces completely seal your ear canal, isolating you from ambient noise and delivering better sound quality at a lower volume. While the earplug-like sound isolation provides a quiet backdrop for music listening, we don't advise wearing them for a morning jog, or any activity requiring some awareness of your surroundings.
Because the ear tips are made from a white silicone, they will discolour more quickly than the black and grey ear tips we're used to seeing from brands like Shure and Etymotic. In fact, if you've ever used a pair of Apple earbuds, you know that the all-white cable and earpiece design also tends to show dirt sooner than later.
An in-line clicker remote and microphone are included on these headphones, located on the cable about 10 centimetres down from the right earpiece. The remote includes plus and minus buttons for volume control and a central button for playing, pausing, and skipping songs. If you're using the In-Ear headphones with an iPhone, the centre button also works for answering or ending incoming calls; however, the volume control buttons are not compatible with the first- or second-generation models of the iPhone.
On the flipside of the in-line remote is a pinhole microphone, which can be used with the iPhone or the following models of iPods: iPod Nano (fourth generation); iPod Touch (second generation); and iPod Classic (second generation). The aforementioned iPod models can take advantage of the headphone's in-line microphone for making voice memos.
If you own an older iPod model not mentioned in the preceding paragraph you won't be able to use the microphone or remote control features of the Apple In-Ear headphones; however, you can still use the headphones to listen to music.
Despite the complicated compatibility issues of the In-Ear headphone's clicker and microphone, the headphones themselves are still a good value. Each earpiece includes two balanced armature drivers acting as a woofer and tweeter, which is a rare feature in a pair of headphones at this price point. Provided that you've spent some time achieving a good fit with the right size ear tips, the Apple In-Ear headphones offer a rich, full sound that doesn't strain for audiophile flatness.
Sonically, these headphones juice a little on the highs and lows, with a pleasantly transparent midrange. Compared with V-Moda's Vibe II, the Apple In-Ear headphones offer a more restrained low end and better articulation in the higher frequencies (we also found them lighter and more comfortable to wear). When heard side-by-side with Etymotic's HF2 headphones we had the opposite reaction, noticing the HF2's improved clarity and overall transparent sonic character but occasionally preferring the way Apple's In-Ear headphones emphasized lower frequencies.
For kicks, we played these alongside Apple's stock earbuds and the difference was night and day. Whether that difference is worth $61 is a completely subjective decision.
Apple includes a one-year warranty against defects for each pair of headphones, which isn't quite as generous as the two-year warranty offered by manufacturers such as Shure, but fairly standard for products in this price range.