Apple Earpods with Dirac music player - full review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Nov 14, 2012.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Youtube video review: http://youtu.be/qwJ12AHShGE

    Review summary: The Dirac music player for Apple i-devices that use 'apps' will make Apple Earpods sound about as good as any headphone I've heard, in terms of frequency response at least, if not other parameters too. In ~35 hours of listening with critical comparisons to the Shure 1840, Sennheiser Momentum, B&W P5, and ATH ESW9a, I don't hear anything to suggest that there is a greater level of distortion or other problems with the Earpods as compared to these premium headphones. The limitations are: It works only with devices that support the Dirac music player, maximum volume is reduced compared to using Earpods with the Apple player (but the Earpods are more efficient than most premium headphones), and the Dirac sound treatment applies only to its music player - not to videos, Web sounds, or any other audio facility of the device. I describe the Apple 'earbuds' treatment in the next paragraph below, but the subsequent paragraphs concern the Earpods only.

    Dirac uses (among other things) what is probably very high quality parametric equalization to smooth out the sound of the Apple Earpods, when using Dirac's music player app. I installed the app on my iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, and it does the same things as the built-in music player, using the same music track lists. Although the Dirac app references an i-device setting under 'Dirac' for Apple earbuds as well as Earpods, and does an amazing job of making the earbuds sound very nearly as good as the Earpods, the amount of DSP required for earbuds is greater than Earpods, and so the maximum volume of the device is less using earbuds with this app. Greater amounts of DSP and higher volumes may produce higher distortion, so the earbuds may not sound as clean as the Earpods under some conditions. The only other significant downside to using earbuds with Dirac is less bass impact. In spite of the earbuds' limitations, I found the sound quite good for most listening.

    The Dirac app works with the i-device headphone jack obviously, but also works with the LOD (Line Out Dock) to an analog headphone amp. Both the 30-pin and Lightning connectors work (Lightning if you have an adapter), and while the difference in sound with an amp compared to the i-device alone is dramatic, this app is tuned for the headphone jack, and using an amp from the LOD will degrade the sound. Some of the music tracks I've played are 320k CBR MP3's I converted from high-resolution downloads, from Chesky, HDTracks, Blue Coast, etc. One such track, David Chesky/Wonjung Kim - Girl From Guatemala, sounds as good as I've ever heard it - full dynamics, no distortion - as smooth as water on a plate. The default bass of the Earpods is strong but uneven, and the Dirac app deepens it and smooths it out. The treble gets balanced almost perfectly by the app, and the tuning of the treble sounds more accurate and "right" to me than all of my other headphones. This statement requires some explanation.

    The Shure 1840 headphone has my favorite treble, but most of the others I have are treble-shy. The Sennheiser Momentum and ATH ESW9a have a recess of about 5 db in the main brightness or "presence" area, the B&W P5 is recessed about 3 db, and the v-moda M80 about 6 db. The Earpods/Dirac treble is much closer in sound to the Shure 1840 than to the next most accurate headphone, the ATH ESW9a. The Dirac app not only gets the amount of bass and treble right, but smooth enough that I'm not experiencing irritations with sibilants or low-quality music tracks. EQ-related tweaks generally have negative connotations for audiophiles, since they typically introduce large, narrow peaks and dips to the left and right of the center frequencies of the sliders used by the equalizer. Parametric equalizers are better at this, but the DSP that Dirac uses goes beyond EQ and addresses many if not most of the problems that relate to resonances and other driver/earcup issues.

    The Dirac player has a button to toggle the DSP on and off instantly, so you can compare the untreated sound to the sound with DSP. There's a certain roughness to the sound with the DSP off due to the Earpods' basic sound which is uneven, but with the DSP on, not only does the signature of the Earpods become much more like a high quality headphone, but those rough areas get cleaned up as well. Any new distortions introduced with the DSP could affect long-term listening enjoyment, but my ears tell me that the DSP is essentially flawless. Note that the sonic correction I'm describing applies only to this version of the Dirac app, the current version Earpods and earbuds, and plugging those Earpods and earbuds directly into current Apple i-device headphone jacks. My tests with headphone amps demonstrated to me that altering any of these parameters will degrade the sound in unpredictable ways. The free app has the full sound treatment, but lacks certain playback options.

    In the first Earpods review that I wrote, I included the following music examples with comments about how the Earpods sound with each track. The list of music tracks below is the same as in the first review, but this time I used the Dirac player, so you can compare this list to the original and see whether there was much improvement in the sound due to the Dirac DSP. Note that there may be some variance between different sets of Earpods, and there is a definite difference in sound between the Earpods that sell for $29 separately and those that are included free with iPods and iPhones.
     
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2012
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled extremely well by the Earpods.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note for the Earpods are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts won't overwhelm you since they're soft and well in the background, but you can feel quite a bit of the weight they carry.

    Blues Project - Caress Me Baby (1966): Rarely mentioned, but one of the greatest white blues recordings ever. The loud piercing guitar sound at 0:41 into the track is a good test for distortion or other problems. Handled well by the Earpods.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled well by the Earpods.

    Buffalo Springfield - Kind Woman (~1968): A Richie Furay song entirely, rarely mentioned, but one of the best sounding rock ballads ever. This will sound good on most headphones, but it's a special treat with the Earpods.

    Cat Stevens - Morning Has Broken (early 70's): A near-perfect test for overall sound - this track will separate the best sounding headphones from the lesser quality types. Nothing specific, except that almost any deviation from perfect reproduction will stand out with this track. Sounds very good on the Earpods.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the Earpods render the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Def Leppard - Bringin' On The Heartbreak (1981): MTV goth/pop/metal at its best - good ambience and high energy - the better headphones will separate the details and make for a good experience. Lesser quality and the details tend to mush together. The Earpods play this perfectly.

    J.S. Bach - E. Power Biggs Plays Bach in the Thomaskirche (~1970): Recorded on a tracker organ in East Germany, the tracks on this recording have the authentic baroque sound that Bach composed for, albeit the bellows are operated by motor today. The Earpods play the tones seamlessly through the upper limits of the organ, which cover nearly the full range of human hearing. Of special note are the pedal notes - tracker organs have low-pressure pipes and don't typically produce the kind of impact around 20-35 hz that modern organs do. A headphone that's lacking even a little in the low bass will sound especially bass-shy with this type of organ, but the Earpods deliver the full experience of this music.

    Jamming With Edward - It Hurts Me Too (1969): Intended originally as a test to fill studio down time and set recording levels etc., this was released a few years later for hardcore Rolling Stones fans. Although not as good technically in every aspect as the Chess studio recordings of 1964, and in spite of the non-serious vocals by Mick Jagger, this rates very high on my list of white blues recordings, and sounds absolutely delicious with the Earpods.

    Jennifer Warnes - Rock You Gently (1992?): The strong deep bass percussion at the beginning of this track has been cited as a test for weakness or distortion in some very expensive headphones. The Earpods play those notes with good impact and control. Having played this track many times now, I'm highly impressed with the Earpods' bass reproduction and detail throughout the track.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has some loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical on some headphones. The Earpods provide excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in, for maximum detail effect. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrumental separation and detail, and the Earpods play them perfectly.

    Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch (~2009): Featured in The September Issue, this song has heavy overdub and will sound a bit muddy on some headphones. Sounds very good with the Earpods.

    Milt Jackson/Wes Montgomery - Delilah (Take 3) (1962): The vibraphone is heavily dependent on harmonics to sound right, and the Earpods play it very well.

    Pink Floyd/Dark Side of the Moon - Speak To Me (1973): Strong deep bass impacts will be heard and felt here.

    Rolling Stones - Stray Cat Blues (1968): Dirty, gritty blues that very few white artists could match. On some headphones the vocals and guitar lack the edge and fall more-or-less flat, but the Earpods make this music come alive. If you're a really good person, playing this song will probably make you feel nervous and uneasy.

    Tony Bennett - I Left My Heart In San Francisco (1962): Frank Sinatra's favorite singer. Highest recommendation. With some of the best headphones, the sibilants on this recording are very strong, but not with the Earpods.
     
  3. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    I forgot to mention - searches in the App Store at this point do not return any such item - I got the link through KenRockwell dot com - latest news.

    Edit: Jays has signed with Dirac for sound correction tech for their earphones.

    Edit_2: It turns out that Dirac is doing time as well as frequency correction, and while Web searches for Dirac turn up the usual stuff about impulse measuring, supposedly impulse response is just a Fourier transform away from frequency response. So I don't know if this Dirac is really doing something unique, or just diddling the frequency response in a more clever way than the typical equalizer. The sound is fabulous, though.
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2012
  4. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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  5. marcusd

    marcusd Member

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    You dont happen to have a few pics of it Dale?
     
  6. RobinHiFi

    RobinHiFi Super Moderator

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    Bought this yesterday and have still not found a pair of earbuds even though there must be about 10 pairs of the little white fellas in my house. The iPod earbud fairy has obviously collected them all. I will let you know when I have found a pair or get my hands on some Earpods.:)
     
  7. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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  8. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Here's the (potentially) bad news for Earpods. The sound with Dirac is still different in the same way for free Earpods (brighter, less bass) than the $30 Earpods. The free Earpods could be more sonically accurate this way, but I prefer the warmer, softer sound and I think most other people would too. The difference is dramatic, not subtle.

    Edit: The correction with the earbuds (not the Earpods) may be a lot better than what I originally thought. Although the earbuds' fit may never be satisfactory for me due to the following, it does make this much more interesting. Wearing the earbuds normally, with the wires going to each bud at the bottom of my ears, the sound is somewhat thin. Rotating each earbud so the wires are pointing forward, 90 degrees from the "normal" position, the sound becomes much more like the Earpods, i.e. spectacular. This might not seem terribly important, but it does provide more clues about the ultimate capabilities of the Dirac DSP.
     
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2012
  9. RobinHiFi

    RobinHiFi Super Moderator

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    I was really shocked by this. Got to try it today as someone who popped in had some iShockers (the old Apple earbuds). The Dirac app takes them from being completely unacceptable to better than average. Can't wait to hear the actual earpods with this. The one thing I would say is that if Dirac pulled the same trick with a better headphone - EQing iPhone to get a perfect output for Xheadphone - or a whole series of headphones they might really have a hit on their hands with this app. Thanks Dale , very cool:)
     
  10. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which end you're coming from) DSP, at least in this case, is way beyond EQ. It looks for problems like resonances and other stuff and corrects those, so you don't get just a smoother more even sound, but better everything.

    To do that it has to be specific to the entire chain from music track to the end destination - the earphone. So if we were looking for a set of DSP's for headphone and amp combinations, those could run into the tens of thousands. And since this DSP isn't just EQ, we likely won't get an ear-tunable DSP.
     
  11. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    I rewrote the review (first post), and will redo the video later as well. Much learning about the benefits and limitations here. If DSP is going to do more than EQ, it looks like ear-tuning won't be a future option.
     
  12. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    More research: The earbuds with Apple controls sound much better than those without, in the same proportion as the Earpods with and without controls. So far from everything I've tested, my earbuds without controls have been bagged (both literally and figuratively) and I'm using the earbuds with controls, which sound very similar to the Earpods albeit with less bass. If anything, these little earbuds are producing a sound much like the Rogers LS3/5a speakers of yore, i.e. deep bass missing but near-perfect sound above that.

    After a few days with this I was thinking that it hasn't been picked up to any noticeable extent on headphone forums, probably because it's too new and because of skepticism. But reading the few mentions in the highest-traffic sites, I see now why the discussion is so sparse. There are very few audio engineers in the popular forums, and the non-engineers don't understand what this DSP (or any DSP that uses Fourier-type analysis) actually does.
     
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