Apple EarPods with Lightning Connector Review

Apple put out some new EarPods recently. They’re “new” in the sense that they came out last week, but old in nearly every other way. The cord ends in a lightning connector instead of a headphone plug. I’d wager the old model is not long for this world, but fortunately the new model holds the same price of $29 bucks.

Here’s a picture of them in my hand.

Look! EarPods! But with a Lightning Connector!

My old EarPods have seen some serious action, and so I thought, “Why not get the new ones? They’re cheap and my Apple store has some in-stock.” I bet you wish your Saturdays were as exciting as mine.

The EarPods with Lightning Connector don’t come in the solid plastic case the old model used. Instead, they come in a recyclable paperboard box. The box has a few too many little flaps inside for my liking, but it’s got that classic Apple design.

I plugged the EarPods into the lightning port of my iPhone 6 Plus…and was promptly asked to update to iOS 10. My other lightning headphones, the Sony MDR-1A DAC, work just fine on older versions of iOS, but the Lightning EarPods require iOS 10. For some reason.

That reason is to make you upgrade.

In the bygone days of a few weeks ago, when the iPhone had a headphone jack, audio was delivered through a multi-step chain. Your digital file would first hit a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) chip inside the phone, where it was converted from ones and zeroes to analog audio waves. Apple always used high quality DAC components, but limited the playback rate to 48khz, preventing high-res audio compatibility.

Next the audio passed into an analog signal amplifier, which would push the audio through the headphone jack and also power your plugged-in headphones. Apple’s amps were never studio grade or anything, but they were quite capable of powering most portable headphones and in-ear monitors.

Many people wrote articles about the removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, but the DAC and amp were removed too. The iPhone 7 cannot deliver analog audio at all. It can deliver digital sound data through Bluetooth or the Lightning port, but you still need a DAC and amp to actually play that audio on headphones. Now, those pieces have to live either in your headphones, or inside a dongle.

On these new EarPods with Lightning Connector(tm), I’m reasonably certain that the DAC and amp are housed inside the plastic attached to the Lightning plug. It’s a thicker and longer hunk of plastic than on the standard Lightning connector, and a little heavier too. I’m not going to rip open the plug to find out, but putting the components in there is a really smart call. Most Bluetooth/Lightning headphones to this point have placed the DAC and Amp either inside the ear cups, or inside the control button unit on the cable.

Both of those options add extra weight to your head, so adding the weight to the plug in your pocket is quite clever. I’d wager a guess that the new lightning-to-headphone jack dongle is using this same thicker Lightning plug to hide the audio hardware.

That was a big preamble Alex. These are headphones and you haven’t talked about how they make the audio go.

Well I’ll tell you: They’re 99 percent identical to EarPods.

Yay?

The Pods themselves are fully identical in design and basic function to the old ones. They fit my ears very well, but they don’t fit everyone’s ears. The myriad vent ports are still in the same places. The sound is still strongly mid-treble-leaning, and although they’re not totally without bass…they’re much more prone to sibilance than to thumpiness. They sound best for podcasts, acoustic music, and female vocals, but they’ll work for anything in a pinch. They have a wider soundstage than the average ear bud.

The sound and fit are both acquired tastes, which I happen to enjoy. Apple spent no time updating either.

The cord is a little nicer than the old one. The volume is handled differently, with a slightly louder output than the old EarPods. This could be due to the new DAC/amp or it could be due to a sensitivity tweak. In a side-by-side comparison, it’s essentially impossible to tell a sound difference. The DAC/amp used seem to be of high quality, just like in the older phones.

The wasted opportunities here are endless, however. Keeping sound in the digital domain on the phone allows for all sorts of things that Apple just isn’t doing yet. They could apply cool DSP (Digital Signal Processing) effects to add virtual surround sound for movies, simualted room characteristics for music listening, and other fun optional effects for audio that go beyond simple EQ tweaks. Are they doing any of that? Not yet! And they may never.

Apple could unlock the sampling rate limitations in iOS, allowing for higher-res audio playback and support for a wider variety of sound formats. Are they doing this right now? Nope!

The Sony MDR-1A DAC includes Sony’s S-Master HX digital amplifier, where volume amplification is done primarily on the DAC hardware instead of the analog amp, and subtle DSP effects are applied to smooth out and “up-res” audio to 192khz. Granted, these are much more expensive headphones, but there’s nothing preventing Apple from doing stuff like this on the Lightning EarPods.

For $29 bucks, the Apple EarPods with Lightning Connector (god what a crazy, long name) are an effective replacement for the old EarPods. They carry over all the characteristics of the old model, but with a different plug. They don’t add any extra weight to your ears when you wear them. They function well, but require iOS 10. Would I recommend buying them to non-iPhone 7 owners? If you’re happy with your current EarPods, probably not. But, if your current ones are old and ratty like mine, then you’ve got nothing to lose by getting these.

You just don’t really gain much either.

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