Pictured from left to right; Apples white In Ear Headphones (IEH), red Zagg Z-Buds, and the blue Etymotic HF2 buds.
I’ve owned a pair of Zagg Z-Buds for about 1.5 years now and they had been my earbud of choice until I won two new sets of buds from Gear Diary last winter. (Thanks so much, Gear Diary!) Now that I’ve had several months to use them all, I’m prepared to give you all a brief review of all 3; , Apple’s In-Ear headphones (IEH), and Etymotic HF2 headphones. All of these were tested for the first half of this year on my iPhone 3G and for the last 2 months on my iPhone 4.
Ability to stay put They all seem to fit very well and feel very comfortable. I like to listen to podcasts, music, and audiobooks while I’m mowing, jogging (which isn’t often enough), or working (I work outside quite a bit). I explain how they fit in my ears below. But here I want to address Zagg’s unique behind-the-neck cord management, which can help reduce the weight of the cord at the buds, reducing the potential for the buds to get pulled out of your ears. At first, I gave the Z-Buds a plus in this area. The Z-Buds are designed so that they loop around your neck, so that if the cord gets lightly tugged or if the cord is bouncing while you are running or working, the cord won’t pull the buds out of your ears because it is looped over your neck. Here is a picture of the cord diagram I snagged from the Zagg Z-buds features page.
And this design works great, with one exception … only tug lightly on the cord. Twice during my time with the Z-Buds, I snagged the cord on something while walking or working and instead of popping the buds out of my ears, it ripped and broke the cord in two. Zagg offers a 1 year warranty, and I was able to get one set replaced on this warranty. Whenever I work and wear buds, I try to slide the cord down the inside of my shirt to reduce the potential for snagging, but there is still some cord sticking out near my neck and near my front pants pocket where I carry the iPhone. (My SEV shirts has also helped in keeping my cords safe.) Since I’m so rough on my buds and I work around too many potential snagging objects, I’ve chosen to use my other bud sets, or not loop the Z-Buds behind my neck; that way the buds can be pulled from my ears, rather than ripping the cord apart.
Winner: Depends on how rough you are with your buds. Jogging, biking, in wide-open spaces — the Z-buds are a clear winner. But when hiking in woods, mowing and trimming around trees and shrubs, working on cars, or using buds near corners and items that could snag your cord, you might be better off getting the buds yanked out of your ears than ripping the cord. So it is really up to how you intend to use them.
Bud Fit and Feel The foam plugs that you see pictured on my Z-Buds and HF2 headphones work great most of the time, except when I’m really working up a sweat, working or exercising, then these seem to get slippery and slide out. The Apple In-Ear headphones seem to stay put in most environments. If I were to guess, I’d say it is a combination of the bud material and the weight of the Z-Buds and HF2 buds that causes them to slip out of my ears while I’m exercising or mowing. The Zagg Z-Buds and the HF2 are heavier, and the HF2 are longer and stick out of my ears farther.
Winner: For me and my active work style, Apple’s IEH buds fit best and most comfortable in my big ears.
Sound Quality I’m not going to pose as an audiophile, but no review could be complete without talking about sound quality. I enjoyed the sound all three produced in all situations throughout the last several months. But for this review, I sat down and picked a few different types of songs and an audiobook and tested them. For audiobooks and podcasts, it was probably a draw. They all sounded good to me. For music, if I had to rank them, I like the sound of the Z-buds best with the other two pair sounding the same, but still sounding great. With all that about the sound quality being said, picking the right bud that fits perfectly in your ear eliminates outside noises and increases overall sound quality; my favorite buds are shown installed on each of the headsets in the photos.
Winner: Z-Buds sounded the best for music and the HF2 and Apple’s IEH tied for second. For audiobooks and podcasts, all three sounded good.
Ease of Use/Controller All three sets have microphones and playback controllers built into the cord that work great with the iPhone. Check the close-up pictures below. The HF2 has a small raised black button that can easily be found by finger feel and clicked or double clicked to answer/pause/play or skip to the next song. The Z-Bud’s button is smooth and sometimes harder to find by touch, but it functions the same. The Apple headphone controller is molded so you can easily feel where to press to pause/play or skip. You can press in the middle to play, pause, skip, and answer/end, and you can press on the top of the controller to increase the volume and press on the bottom to decrease the volume. I have to give major pluses to the Z-Buds and Apple’s IEH because they have the ability to control the volume at the in line controller. Many times my iPhone is deep in a pocket and I need to adjust the volume, and I don’t want to pull it out of my pocket or try to push the volume buttons through my pants. Therefore, having the ability to control the volume right on the cord is a must for me for any good set of buds.
Winner: The HF2’s controller is easy to use, but lacks volume control. So I choose the Apple’s IEH controller. It has the easiest to use and most feature packed controller. The controller on the Z-buds was the weakest feature, it was cumbersome to find the button and the scroll-wheel volume felt a little like 1980. I’d like to see what the controller on the new version of the ZAGGbuds looks like.
Cord Management. The Z-Buds website has a few videos showing how easy it is to wrap up, unwrap, and untangle your cords. In my experience, it is not quite as easy as the woman shows it to be. All of these buds have cords that must be controlled/managed when storing them in your pack or pocket. I usually wrap up my cords as demonstrated in this YouTube video.
The Z-Bud cord has a cloth/rope like covering, and they do wrap up nicely and stay wrapped tight in my bag. The cord on the HF2 and Apple IEH could be classified as slippery, and the wrapped up cords can loosen, unwrap, and become tangled in my bag much easier than the Z-Bud cords. With that being said, the HF2’s that I received came with a smartwrap cord manager, ER23-88, as seen on this accessory page and a little zip-up pouch. But I didn’t use the cord manager much. I found it was easier and faster to just use my hand like in the video above. The pouch offered some protection from other objects in my gear bag, but I didn’t use it too much. It seemed too much of a hassle to wind up the cord and stuff it into the pouch and zip it up.
The Apple IEH’s comes with a nice plastic case to keep the buds protected in. It does take more time to use this case than wrapping them around my hand, but I really like the way it protects the buds. Sometimes when I’m yanking my buds out of my bag, the little rubber buds pop off when they get snagged on other junk in the same pocket like my Livescribe Pen, X-Mini II speaker, or Kennsington green laser/powerpoint presenter. I used to have a hard case that I got with a set of Sony buds a long time ago like the one pictured above. I kept that case and re-used it with many replacement buds, long after the Sony’s died. I wish the Apple IEH case had some of the features the Sony case did. The lid on the Sony case was attached via a hinge…(I have spent more than a few minutes, rearranging paperwork on my desk looking for that little clear lid that goes to the Apple case.) And with the Sony case, you would drop your buds in the center, close the lid and then spin the center around like a record to wind up the cord. It worked great. I could make a plea right here and now to anyone at Apple reading this post to upgrade the case, but I imagine hinges, lids, and wind up cord wheels probably don’t fit with Apple’s minimalist artistic style. That’s a bummer. It would be nice though.
Winner: The cord on the Z-buds wraps up and stays tight so it is commendable, but I really like Apple’s IEH…for including a hard case. The HF2’s included a small zip up pouch, but I didn’t like it as well as the Apple hard case.
Headphone jack. All three had different styles of jacks. See the pictures below. I normally carry my iPhone in my front pocket of my pants/jeans/cargo shorts. So I like the idea of a jack that is bent or angled…it makes me feel like it is less likely to break off or damage the iPhone headphone jack when it gets pressed/bent in my pocket. So I like the angled HF2 and 90-degree bent Z-Bud design. With that being said, the Apple IEH, design is very small and I don’t feel nervous about it getting bent inside my pocket… it doesn’t stick out of the phone very tall. However, it is too small for me to get a firm grip on when I try to remove the jack from my iPhone. I feel like, over time, I’m going to pull the cable out of the jack….there is not enough plug for me to grip, so I’m assuming some pressure is applied to the cable. I don’t know if it will or when it will, but I’m afraid that Apple IEH jack will break over time.
Winner: Z-Buds for a low angle sturdy jack. The HF2 jack is almost tied with the Z-Buds but it is a little longer and sticks out more from the phone than I prefer. The Apple IEH jack is small enough to not get bent in my pocket, but it is too small to grip and remove from the iPhone.
Overall all Winner/Which one is best? I have to say my favorite headphones are……(drum roll, please)…..it was close. I like the way the Z-buds sound and the way they hang around the back of my neck when I’m riding my bike, but since the summer has been so brutally hot, I have not exercised as much this year, so I’ve been using the Apple In Ear Headphones the most. I’d have to say they are my favorite.
The Apple IEH sound great, they fit well in my ears, the controller allows me to play, pause, adjust volume, and answer/end calls. The Z-buds have many of the same features, but the Apple IEH just does it better…(The Z-Buds volume controller is a crank/wheel/dial, whereas the Apple IEH volume controller is activated by pushing on the top or bottom end of the controller. Many times with the Z-Buds volume controller, I would adjust the volume the wrong way before adjusting it the desired way…there is no easy way to feel if you are going to increase the volume or decrease the volume on the Z-Buds.) The HF2 are very well built and sound great, but I really like the extra control features found on the controllers of the other buds and their buds are a little long. If I were to purchase a replacement set of ear buds today, I have no problems recommending any of them, but for myself, I’d purchase the Apple In Ear Headphones.
There are pluses and minuses to all the buds in this review. I wish I could put the jack from the Z-Buds, sound of the Z-Buds, durable feeling of the HF2, with the controller and comfort of the Apple IEH to make the best pair in the world.
Cost and Where to Buy The Apple In Ear Headphones are available for $79 from many brick and mortar stores and from the Etymotic website. The Zagg Z-buds I reviewed here just got cleared out to make room for their new and improved . So you can’t purchase the Z-Buds from Zagg anymore, and the new ZAGGbuds are selling for $44.99, which is considerably cheaper than the $79.99 I paid for my Z-buds. I’d like to try the ZAGGbuds, or at least I’d like to see more pictures of the controller and other features.. The Etymotic HF2 headphones are available for $179
Close-up of the Etymotic HF2 buds and controller. The black button on the controller is the pause/play/answer/skip button. This button is raised up and very easy to find by touch. The white spot is the microphone. The barrels on these buds are a little bit longer, which could cause them to weigh down and slip out of the ear easier during physical activity.
Close-up of the Zagg Z-Buds and controller. The three lines near the top of the controller is the microphone opening, and the fingernail shaped button below that is the pause/play/skip/answer button. The volume dial sticks out of both sides of the controller for easy turning. But you can’t easily ‘feel’ if you are going to turn the volume up or down.
Close-up of the Apple IEH. It is not entirely clear in this photo how the controller looks, so head over to the Apple website to get a better view. The controller better and it can pause/play/skip/answer and adjust the volume on my iPhone. The buds are light and fit in my ears very well. The controller is small, but yet easy to ‘feel’ and operate while it hangs by my neck.