Etymōtic's wonderfully affordable model hf5 Earphones


Etymōtic Research has been around since antediluvian times when you might have found a much younger version of me installing a turntable, stereo and loudspeakers in Malibu beach or high in the Hollywood Hills, out on Sunset Boulevard or down south in Laguna beach where everyone was tanned, hip and youthful. In fact, Etymōtic’s first model, the ER-4, has been in production since 1991. It was based on the first insert-type earphones invented in 1984 by Etymōtic founder Dr Mead Killion for use in clinical audiometry and research. Etymōtic has always had a high reputation for quality and accuracy. They were, and perhaps still are, the “audiophile's earphone.” I've always thought that if I ever did buy intra-aural earphones, Etymōtic would be the first ones I'd check out. They were in those days prohibitively expensive, but thanks to the Chinese economic miracle (based on labor practices that would be regarded as criminal in a real democracy), they are now quite affordable. The hf5 under review here retails for $149.

My current interest in investigating these diminutive earphones began with purchasing a Samsung Galaxy MP3 player (which handles various formats, including uncompressed audio), a very cool, albeit rather complex, device that runs the Android 2.3.5 operating system (courtesy of the Google colossus) and sounds many times better than the Sanza Clip+ I had been using for a couple of years. Like the Sanza, but unlike the ubiquitous iPod, the Galaxy is not bound to a particular computer operating system and does not require a proprietary program for adding and removing music files. You plug the Galaxy into a computer’s USB port, it appears as an icon on the desktop with a hierarchical directory structure, and you can add and delete files and folders just as you would with a hard disk.

I was interested in comparing a couple of medium-priced high-end earphones, and after considerable research settled on Etymōtic and Shure. Shure, unfortunately, responded to my query that they do not send earphones for review; perhaps they regard the inevitable contamination caused by ear wax not worth the expense for a mere review. (A shame really, because at least one Shure model has separate high and low frequency drivers and it would have been interesting to compare it with Etymōtic’s single driver.) Or perhaps there has been a change in their policy, because Shure reviews are to be found on the internet. Etymōtic fortunately was more compliant.

There are three models in the Etymōtic mid-range series, the hf2 with headset and earphones for audio devices and smart phones, the hf3 with headset and earphones for Apple three-button control, and the hf5 that are just earphones. The Etymōtic hf series is widely considered the best in class under $200, feature four foot, Kevlar®-reinforced cables terminated with a standard 3.5mm gold-plated TRS plug with angled strain relief, use a balanced-armature driver with 16 ohm impedance, have 105 dB sensitivity, are capable of playing dangerously loud (120 dB) and come with a two year warranty. Far as I know, that’s the best warranty in the business.

The Etymōtic driver uses diffuse-field equalization which mimics the flat frequency response of a loudspeaker in a reverberant room, where sound arrives at the ear from all directions. Another approach to earphone design is free-field equalization that mimics the flat on-axis response of a loudspeaker in an anechoic chamber. Günter Thiele argued against the free-field model on the basis that the stereo image with loudspeakers is in front of the listener (in a room, one might add, with walls, floor and ceiling), whereas with earphones it is not. He argued that a diffuse-field response will produce a more accurate frequency response and a more realistic image at the ear drum. I wasn’t able to do any comparisons of these two designs but on the face of it the diffuse-field theory makes good sense.

Etymōtic’s standard eartips are designed for noise-canceling (an impressive 35-42 dB) and when properly fitted do very good job of it. It would be not only illegal, but very unwise, to drive a motor vehicle with these earphones in place. They do not, of course, shut out external sounds completely, but the level of attenuation they do provide creates a sort of aural sanctuary I find very appealing.

The hf2 and hf3 earphones ship with an application called AWARENESS! for Etymōtic which takes advantage of the appended microphone to provide a straightforward but sophisticated interface allowing the listener to control awareness of external sounds, to turn the microphone on and off, set microphone level, microphone trigger delay, threshold for pausing playback or lowering volume level, voice clarification, etc. Having used the hf5s for some weeks now, I think having these features would be godsend, particularly as it eliminates the need to pop out the earphones to hold a conversation!

Etymōtic earphones ship with four different eartips: rounded foam cushions that fit into the concha of the ear, compressible foam cylinders that work rather like ear plugs (and presumably like foam ear plugs lose their resiliency over time and have to be replaced), and two tapered sizes made of a soft plastic with concentric flanges (as pictured) that go quite deep into the ear canal and take some getting accustomed to. These latter provide great detail, wide frequency response and a high level of noise isolation. The larger (grey) version of this eartip is the one I chose to test with. The fit of this eartip is very secure and I’ve never had one come loose.

Also for those who want the ultimate in fit and frequency response, the Etymōtic CustomFit program refers consumers to local licensed hearing professionals who can take impressions of their ears and send them to an ear mold laboratory. It would have been interesting to have personally auditioned a pair of these custom silicon plastic eartips and compared them with the standard tips, but I did find this comment from another reviewer: “With the Custom-Fit earmolds, the bass is better, the midrange is clearer, and the highs are crisper…”

Short of paying for a custom job, finding the ideal eartip and positioning it perfectly may take some time and experience: I may have never achieved really deep bass with my chosen eartip, but I never really missed it either since I listen mainly to classical music which generally lacks kick drums and amplified bass guitars and isn’t intended to stupefy through sheer physical impact. I’ve no doubt very low bass is available to those more experimental and of different tastes than myself.

Regarding bass response, I did audition one of my most unusual CDs, J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by Martin Schmeding on the Gottfried-Silbermann Organ in Dresden (Cybele Records hybrid-SACD 030.802), an instrument the composer himself played two-hundred and fifty years ago. The sound was simply awesome. First off, it is a gorgeous organ, and through the hf5s the tones were crystal clear and articulate, the lower registers deep and rich and utterly convincing. I was very impressed.

I also turned to a trusted disc for a bit of mild jazz, Clifford Jordan’s Live at Ethell’s (Mapleshade 56292). This particular test provided an object lesson in how crucial the proper positioning of the earphones can be. I apparently didn’t have the eartips quite deep enough in my ear canals and was almost shocked at how “thin” the sound was, how tinny the piano sounded, how lifeless the drum set. Repositioning the eartips a tiny fraction of an inch absolutely revolutionized the sound quality, bringing it up the superb standard I am used to from Mapleshade CDs. Again, I was very impressed.

Etymōtic claims they are the only manufacturer that publishes frequency response information about their products. I have found no evidence to the contrary. The hf series have a frequency response from 20 Hz to 15,000 Hz with an 85% accuracy score. As I interpret it, 85% translates to an accuracy of considerably better than ±3 dB. Remarkable. Two other models, the ER-4B (for binaural recordings) and ER-4S (for stereo CD recordings), retailing for $299, respond to 16,000 Hz and have a 92% accuracy score. There are few, if any, loudspeakers capable of this level of accuracy.

Another important feature of Etymōtic earphones is that the eartip can be removed to reveal a narrow sound tube (nozzle) and inside this tube is a replaceable ACCU•filter that does two things: it is integral to the flatness of the frequency response and, perhaps more importantly, it traps ear wax. The earphones come with a special tool to periodically remove these filters as they become clogged and install new ones. The eartips themselves can, of course, be easily removed and cleaned; and replaced as they age. After some weeks of use I soaked the ones I have been using in warm water and Ivory liquid and they came out clean as new.

Used in conjunction with my Galaxy, the sound quality of the hf5's is exceptionally clear, detailed and uncolored. Worlds of improvement over the generic earphones that ship with even expensive smart phones and MP3 players. This is not surprising. But I really had a more specific test in mind when I contacted Etymōtic. I got the idea from observing a friend of mine whose “stereo” was an iPod Touch and a pair of mid-level Sony circumaural headphones. These he wore on his head when he wanted to listen to music and shut out external distractions, and around his neck when he wanted to converse in Peet's over a cappuccino and cheese Danish. Which raised a question that has interested me for quite some time: how would an intra-aural earphone compare with a circumaural headphone?

So I compared the Etymōtic hf5s against my Sennheiser HD580s. Perhaps not a fair comparison since Sennheiser has been at this game for many decades, and as well the 580s originally cost two or three times the cost of the hf5s.

Although I tended to favor the Sennheisers overall, I must say I was extremely impressed with the Etymōtic earphones. The 580s are more “open” sounding, provide more of an illusion of sound stage, or at least of a certain sense of space around the instruments (which is generally about all you can expect from stereo recordings which are intended for widely-spaced loudspeakers, not earphones; binaural recordings, which are unfortunately rare, are another matter altogether). But the hf5s were wonderfully articulate and nuanced with—as far as a non-musician can ever judge these things—tonal and harmonic accuracy, and a rich and complex presentation. They are revealing of even the subtlest details of a recording. Could I live with the hf5s and do without a couple of plastic earmuffs clamped to the side of my head? Absolutely. Do I find the sound quality of the hf5s up to audiophile standards? Definitely. Enough so that, did I not already own the Sennheisers, the decision to go circumaural, supra-aural or intra-aural would require serious consideration, and serious comparison using favored program material. I would no doubt want to audition the ER-4 as well as the hf5. (And if I had the money, I’d insist on including Stax headphones in my research—I’ve known a number of audiophiles and musicians who simply swear by electrostatic headphones.)

Ultimately, for me this decision would depend on at least two factors: How often do I use headphones? And how much trouble am I willing to go to? Mine is not a headphone-friendly stereo. None of my gear has a built-in headphone jack so I purchased a Supreme HeadRoom stand-alone amplifier. Although the RCA outputs on the Bel Canto DAC are unused, they are electrically coupled to the XLR outputs (which drive my monoblocks) and the manufacturer advised me ages ago to not leave my headphone amplifier connected as it would load the circuit and affect the frequency response. I have never actually compared the sound of the XLR outputs with and without the headphone amplifier plugged into the DAC, so I have no empirical evidence to confirm this. But since I’ve always been something of an audio “purist,” I took their recommendation at face value.

So, listening with headphones is not exactly a simple, straightforward matter: the REF1000 monoblocks have to be powered down (so the loudspeakers will not sound), RCA cables have to be run between DAC and headphone amp, and headphones as well as a headphone extension cord have to be pulled from storage so I can sit back in a comfortable chair to listen. Because this degree of trouble is involved, I don't listen with headphones very often, but I'm always surprised and captivated when I do. The imaging may be nil, but room reflections and sonic distractions are eliminated and the tonal quality, clarity and detail, are simply wonderful. You can really hear into the music.

If my stereo were headphone-friendly, I think in the end I might prefer a pair of practically weightless Etymōtic intra-aural earphones (probably ER-4s with CustomFit eartips) to boxy headphones pressing on the sides of my skull. In my experience, any type of headphone becomes distinctly uncomfortable after extended listening. And although the hf5's may sacrifice some openness, some illusion of sound stage, as well as the upper few thousand hertz of frequency response (a non-issue in my case since I can no longer hear these frequencies), they are eminently listenable when positioned properly. It's important to note that they require fairly deep insertion in the ear canal and having a plastic eartip up inside your ear is perhaps not to everybody's liking. But when they are in the proper position, the sonic rewards are impressive indeed.



Price: $149.00
Frequency Response: 20 Hz - 15 kHz
Transducers: balanced armature
Noise Isolation: 35-42 dB
Impedance: (@1 kHz)16 Ohms
Sensitivity: (@1 kHz) SPL at 0.1V 105 dB
Maximum Output: (SPL) 120 dB
Cable: 4 ft with 3.5 mm plug
User Replaceable ACCU•Filters™
Warranty: 2 years
Features: CUSTOM•FIT Option

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