Lauding Jobs's Least Loved Product: The Basic Apple Ear-Bud

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Editor's Note: This article was nearly complete when I read of Steve Jobs's death last night. I think the conclusions herein are telling of his passion for making "insanely great" products ... right down to the last detail. Rest in peace, Steve.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve Guttenberg wrote an article on his Audiophiliac blog entitled, "The Worst-Sounding Audio Product." In it he "aimed [his] sights on the worst sounding product regularly used by millions of people:" the stock Apple iPod ear-bud headphones. There may be some truth in that, but he also said, "Apple is an amazingly innovative company, but it's incapable of selling a decent set of headphones under its own name."

With this, I'm going to have to disagree ...

Ear-Buds ... Yuck!
The problems isn't that the iPod ear-buds suck, it's that pretty much all ear-buds suck.

Ear-buds don't form a seal or controlled acoustic chamber of any kind in the ear, so the bass response is universally abysmal. People's ears have a variety of shapes and sizes, so they rarely fit as designed. The volume of air between the driver and the ear is not only leaky, but also forms a completely unnatural set of resonances that our brain doesn't know how to process. And yes, for the most part, they're just plain cheap and under-engineered. The design philosophy for the most part is "slap a driver in a plastic housing about the right shape; paint a kitty on the outside; and ship it off to Wal-Mart."

Apple Ear-Buds
In the case of Apple however, I think the situation is substantially different. I had the pleasure of talking to one of the lead product engineers for the Apple ear-bud a couple of years ago. He had some questions about my measurement system, and our conversation included a goodly amount of dialog about their ear-bud. It was evident they had been doing quite a bit of work on making it better sounding, and had been making some substantial design changes over time to improve it. I came away quite impressed with their efforts improving what many would consider a throw-away product. This is evident in Guttenberg's statement, "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!" Yup, they have been working on it.

What's the Alternative?
So, if ear-buds suck, why does Apple use them at all? Steve points towards a couple of much better sounding inexpensive headphones (Koss Porta Pro ear pad headphones, and Yamaha EPH-30 in-ear phones), and wonders why Apple can't match their performance. Well, they're completely different kinds of headphone types that can fundamentally sound better than ear-buds.

I suspect there's a number of reasons Apple chooses ear-buds. You're buying an iPod, not the headphones, so it's on the gadget Apple needs to focus the money. If you're into audio at all you'll replace just about any headphone that comes with a player, so I think it's appropriate for them to include cheap headphones, as they'll often go unused. Many people don't like to stick in-ear headphones deep into their ear canal, so that's not a solution that will work universally. Inexpensive headphones with a headband might not be useful for women with fancy hair, so a headband is limiting. Seems to me, ear-buds are a good choice for the type of headphone to be included with a portable player.

Apple knows ear-buds suck, but they know they've got to put 'em in the box. So what they did was make one of the best ear-buds out there.

But how good are they?

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