Written by Audio, Misc, Technology

The Spawn of Satan

Sorry. I’m going to return to an evil that I’ve talked about before.
What bedevilment do I mean?
Why – the standard “ear buds” that come with Apple’s products.
Look – I know I can sometimes moan about Apple. They have their closed systems, their sometimes bloated software (iTunes – I’m looking at you), and their prices. But nobody can doubt their flair in the design and implementation stakes.
Like it or not, they’ve built the portable music business. They banged record company boss heads together until they could launch the iTunes store. And they employ Jonathan Ive, who makes just about everything they manufacture look and feel gorgeous.
But there’s an Achilles Heel to many of their products. It’s the standard headphones they ship iPods, iPhones and, I daresay, iPads with.
Those white ear buds are awful. Worthless. Terrible. They don’t even sit in your ears nicely.
What’s worse – they leak sound to the extent that I can often sing along to the song their wearers are listening to on a noisy tube train, while I have my own headphones on! The reason those people are listening at such high volumes is because so much sound is leaking out, that listeners have to compensate by turning up the volume.
Frankly, if you want to carefully rip your CD collection, or buy music mastered in state-of-the-art multi-million pound studios, and then listen to it on inadequate and acoustically awful headphones, then that’s your choice. But if those phones are so awful, they cause me distress then it becomes a problem.
I genuinely believe that it’d be fair if I was allowed to carry a pair of scissors, or perhaps some secateurs. If I come across someone listening via those awful things, then a quick painless snip and I’d be improving both of our lives.
A general rule of thumb in the whole portable audio business, is that any bundled headphones from any device manufacturer are awful. The possible exception is Sony. They have a significant headphone business, and they know that if they sell terrible headphones bundled with their devices, then they’re not exactly encouraging consumers to upgrade to other offerings in their range.
So why does Apple make a fantastic device like the iPod, and then lumber it with such an awful, yet important accessory? They don’t do it with their other products. If you buy an Apple iMac, it’ll come with a terrific monitor, their “Mighty Mouse” (which everyone says is great), and an excellent keyboard. Those are all areas, where many PC companies save a bob or two when putting together packages.
Yes, Apple sells a superior pair of headphones, in-ear ones, currently retailing at £61 in the UK. But I don’t really think that’s their business plan. You can also buy headphones from many other manufacturers at Apple Stores and online.
Apple obviously builds its products to a price (not necessarily a UK price, it should be said). Decisions are made about what components can be included – cameras on iPhones, aluminium, plastic or ceramic finishes, hard or solid state disk drives and so on. Headphones are obviously not an important part of this process. They price up a $199 iPod Touch, and perhaps allow $1 for the headphones. The biggest part of the decision surrounding the included headphones is ensuring that they’re white and fit in with Apple’s iconic advertising. Sound quality doesn’t really figure.
Now there’s always been a certain part of Apple which says that it’s more about style than substance. And while its pro devices have always ensured that their evident style is also met with the requisite quality, I’m not always convinced that’s the case in consumer products. I think the headphones issue supports that assertion.
What’s more, Apple continued down this substandard headphone path with first their iPhone headphones with their built in microphone, and more depressingly with their most recent low-end iPod Shuffles. In the latter, they built the controls into the cable meaning consumers are basically forced to use the bundled headphones.
So what can you do if you’re still listening to your iPod or iPhone via the bundled headphones?
Frankly you could do a lot worse than head over to Amazon and buy yourself a pair of Sennheiser CX 300-II currently retailing for just £16.09 (They come in white too).
(I was going to say that I don’t have any monetary involvment in Sennheiser, but I will admit that I’ve put affiliate code in those links so that’s not entirely true. Buy them somewhere else if you’re not happy).
By the way, if you’re listening at home, let me heartily recommend Grado 60i headphones which are stunning. They, however, leak an awful lot and definitely aren’t for going out and about with. But if you’re after a relatively inexpensive pair of headphones for home, go for these. They might look a bit odd, and the cool kids in their WESC or Skull Candy gear might not look up to them, but the sound they produce is amazing.
Whatever you do, if you’re still listening with the default Apple ear buds, do yourself and your ears a favour, and buy something else.