Etymotic hf5 High-fidelity Noise-isolating earphones
Etymotic Research, Inc.
Etymotic Research is a heavy hitter in the iPod earbud field. Their hf5 earbuds are a new addition to their wide selection of high-end earbuds. The Weeks Division of MyMac Labs spent some time with the hf5s. Here’s what we found.
If you judge quality by specifications alone, the hf5s should sound great. They have a frequency response of 20Hz-15KHz, which is quite good for such small drivers. On top of their wide frequency response, the hf5 can pump out 122 decibels, which is guaranteed to turn your eardrums into a quivering mass of bleeding tissue. Rest assured I did not try these at max power! In the interest of audio self-preservation, be careful that you check the iPod volume level before you hit Play.
Sound isolation is part of the name. The spec sheet shows the hf5s reduce sound by 35-42 dB; that’s a lot of noise reduction. More on this later.
The hf5 earbuds come in three colors; black, red, and blue. While the earbud color won’t color the sound output, it does allow you to make an ear fashion statement. Our review copy was red. My wife felt it looked more like a dark coppery-red, but she says I don’t know my colors.
Right off the bat, I liked the four foot long cord. Too many earbuds come with a cord that’s just a bit too short. This one has a clip to fasten the cord to your shirt or jacket, and a small cable slider to take up slack near your head.
For your $149, you get three sets of ear tips; foam, flanged, and rounded plastic. The real prize in the box is small pointy tool for removing ear wax from the ear tips. Wax be gone!
Proper fit is essential to get the most from any earbud, and the hf5 is no exception. If you can’t get a good eartip fit, you’ve wasted your money, and might as well use the stock Apple earbuds. Here’s where the problem started.
The hf5s come with the flanged eartips pre-installed. Try as I might, I could never get a comfy fit with the flanged eartips. Without a good fit, the sound was blah, with weak bass. Also, I kept feeling the buds were about to fall out of my ears.
Not wanting to give up too early, I watched the Etymotic video about proper eartip fitting. I was struck by the fact Etymotic recommends moistening the flanged eartips to get a good fit. The video shows the model dipping his finger into a glass of water. Since I figured the average user is not going to have a glass of water handy each, I did what anyone would do: I licked the eartips.
Doing reviews can be hazardous to your health, but since I don’t share my earbuds, I hoped I was not allergic to myself, and pressed on.
With a moist eartip, and then reaching over the head with one hand to stretch out the ear, while inserting the hf5 with the other, I got a tight seal needed. The difference in sound quality was extraordinary. The hf5s blossomed into full, rich, tight bass, crisp highs, and a wide sense of soundstage.
Unfortunately, my ears felt too full, as though they were overstuffed. I next tried the foam eartips. I’ve been using foam earplugs for hearing protection for 25 years, so I had not trouble with the “roll them between your fingers and quickly slide them into your ear canal” technique. My doctor was pleased that the foam eartips did not require licking them to get a good seal.
With the foam eartips, the sound quality was good, but qualitatively a bit darker. The sound was warmer, with less sense of glittery high frequency response. It was not lower quality, but it was different. The sense of a wide soundstage was still present. Also quite noticeable was the increase in noise reduction with the foam eartips. Noise reduction was good with properly sealed flanged tips, but was outstanding with foam. With foam eartips properly inserted, and a moderate volume level, you’re by yourself on another silent planet.
Just to hit all the bases, I tried the round plastic eartips. I instantly disliked them. They were not pliable enough to fit properly, and I soon went back to the foam eartips.
When you’ve got a good fit, the hf5s produce very high quality sound. If you’ve been using the Apple earbuds, you’ll never know that you’re not getting the most from your iPod/iPhone and music ripped at high bit rates. Good ear gear like the hf5s bring out the music that was hiding inside your music player.
I almost made the mistake of giving up too soon when trying to get a comfy fit. Stick with it until you do. The main drawback to needing a good fit is that you can’t really just drop the hf5s into your ears with one hand while striding down the sidewalk. Even with the right eartip, you need two hands to get the right fit. A one-handed insertion will work, but it won’t get the best sound from the hf5s. If you spend $149, take 30 seconds to get the quality you spent good money for.
I did not like the fact that the cord transmitted noise from friction. Whenever the cord touched my shirt, shirt collar, or jacket, I could hear the friction noise transmitted up the cord. I spent lots of time trying to find the best spot to clip the cord to minimize this annoying noise, but I never found a truly satisfactory answer. Oddly, my wife, who also spent time listening to the hf5s, did not notice this problem.
The hf5 earbuds work just perfectly with the iPhone. But you’re not going to be talking to anyone, as there is no microphone. Now, if Etymotic would just add a microphone, iPhone owners could enjoy the hf5s great sound and noise reduction. But they have! iPhone owners who want the sound of the Etymotic hf4 and have an in-line microphone can buy the hf2
Conclusion. The Etymotic hf5 earbuds are high quality earbuds that produce excellent sound while significantly reducing the ambient noise level. The hf5 comes with three very different eartips; take the time to test each pair. The main drawback is the requirement to use two hands to get a proper insertion. Improperly inserted, the hf5s are not much better than the Apple earbuds. If you just jam the hf5s into your ears, you’re wasting your money. But when they fit right, they’re golden. Between the three types of eartips supplied by Etymotic, most buyers will find a comfortable fit. If not, you can purchase other eartips from Etymotic.
MyMac.com rating 4.5 out of 5 Expensive, but produce great sound. Getting a good fit is critical. Some people find the cable transmits excessive noise from clothing friction.