For: iPhone 3GS, 4 and 4S | iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3 | iPod Touch 2nd, 3rd, 4th Gen | iPod Nano 4th, 5th 6th Gen | iPod Classic | iPod Shuffle 3rd and 4th Gen
Many people may have never come across the brand Etymotic before, but that’s by no means a bad thing. When you think of headphone makers the usual suspects will pop up: Sennheiser, Philips, JVC and the like. On the other hand, anyone from the tech website reader to the hardcore audiophile is likely to have heard of Etymotic.
The company has been making in-ear headphones and headsets since the 80s, and the hf3 is the top model in its headset range at the moment. With a price tag of around £135 these are a fair bit more expensive than your average headphones, guaranteed. They’re also only for the Apple device user, being designed to work with iOS devices as well as iPods ranging from the Classic to the Shuffle, but not Android or Windows Phone products.
An inline remote offers easy-access control of your music playback and calls, while the earbuds aim to deliver both excellent sound quality and a high level of noise isolation to help lock you into your own little world.
If you’re an Apple gadget user with a budget that accommodates the £135 price tag then the Etymotic HF3 could well be for you, but are they good enough? With a tagline of “From the Inventor of In-Ear Technology” on the front of the box, you would think so. Let’s have a look at what you get for your money.
In the Box
With the hf3 you get a pretty decent package that matches the price of the headphones – four different types of Etymotic’s ‘ACCU fit’ tips, two replacement wax filters, a filter removal tool, a clothes clip and a soft suede zip-up pouch to keep it all in. You can purchase additional buds, filters and other accessories from Etymotic too, should anything go missing.
You have a choice of four colours when buying the hf3: Black, Ruby and Cobalt. Our review sample came in Cobalt, which is a blue-ish purple colour. The colour finish is matte and almost soft to the touch, which is nice, as we feel that shiny headphones attract too much attention and can sometimes look tacky.
The ear buds themselves are dart-like in shape and thus they stick out of your ear a little way more than most in-ear headphones do. We didn’t find it to be a problem however, and we’re sure as you can see below, they don’t look too strange when worn.
The four different types of ACCU fit tips consist of a soft circular sponge tip, a short and round ‘Glider’ rubber tip and two different sizes of the 3-Flange Tips. It’ll take a bit of trial and error to find out which tip is best suited to your ears, but once you do you should feel a snug fit with great noise isolation and a full sound experience.
We found that the larger of the 3-Flange tips were best for us, nestling well in our ears to block out noise and keep our music in. This type of tip needs to go quite a way into your ear in order to get the right fit, which we understand won’t be for everyone. The sponge tips are a good alternative, as you can squish them down before putting them in your ear, where they’ll slowly expand to create a decent fit.
Some people may find that all four of the supplied tips don’t fit well in their ears, particularly those with small ears, as we found. The tips are all a little on the large side, but thankfully Etymotic has another trick up its sleeve to suit all ears – custom ear moulds.
With the hf3 you have the option to pop along to an audiologist to have silicon moulds of your ears taken, which are then sent to Etymotic, who produces a pair of tips for your earphones that will fit your ears perfectly, ensuring maximum noise isolation and the best sound quality possible. At around £70 it’s a fairly pricy add-on to your already-£135 headphones, but we can assure you it’s worth it for the comfort alone.
Once you’ve found the right tips for you then you’ll know – the sound quality instantly improves when the ear buds have a snug fit inside your ear. We found the overall sound to be very well balanced, if sometimes lacking a little in the bass department. This wasn’t a problem, as a quick tweak of the EQ setting on your iOS device will bring in a satisfying level of bass.
For the main stay we had the EQ setting on our iPhone set to ‘Off’ and the sound quality was very impressive. On some tracks, such as Kanye West and Jay-Z’s ‘Lift Off’, we were able to hear some minor production details that we had never noticed before when listening through cheaper headphones. The level of detail in the treble department was most impressive, with crisp and pleasant tones and a very accurate representation of cymbal sounds.
At no point did we experience a loss of quality with these headphones, and even with ‘busy’ tracks that contain plenty of instruments and different elements; we were always able to pick everything out with ease. These headphones are a pleasure to listen to all types of music with, although if you’re fond of bass-heavy music then you might need to do a little playing around with the EQ settings to reach the desired effect.
Asides from being in-ear headphones, the hf3s also act as a hands-free kit for your iPhone. The inline remote can be used to adjust the volume as well as answering and ending calls using the centre key. We found that the inbuilt microphone isolated background noise fairly well, although in particularly noisy environments we found ourselves having to raise our voice significantly in order to be heard by the other person.
The quality that you’ll hear when on calls is decent with voices clear and loud – you’re unlikely to have any complaints in this department.
With the right tip you’ll achieve a high level of noise isolation with these headphones, even with the volume level at around 40-50% on your device. In an office environment we were unable to hear anybody talking around us, and out on the streets almost everything was blocked out, asides from very loud vehicles and horns.
Etymotic has developed a free app to boost the noise isolation even further, called AWARENESS! It’s pretty clever, although we’re not sure you’ll use it that often. Once you’ve signed up to unlock all features, you can set a decibel level within the app manually. If the inline microphone picks up any sounds that are at the level of loud that you’ve set, it will send it through to the headphones so that you can hear it over your tunes – very useful for staying aware if you’re walking around a busy city or, in our case, if somebody wanted to yell at us from across the office!
The app runs in the background too, so you can continue to use your phone as normal. It didn’t seem to cause much of an additional drain on the battery of our iPhone 4 – probably a few per cent extra per hour at most.
The Etymotic hf3 are absolutely brilliant and are well worth the £135 asking price. With near perfect noise isolation and a stunning sound performance, we couldn’t ask for much more from a pair of in-ear headphones. On the downside we worry that the four types of ACCU fit ear tips won’t suit everyone, but there’s always the option of getting custom moulds fitted to suit your ears perfectly – something that we feel is a great idea and one well worth doing.
Of course, not everybody is looking to spend this much on a pair of headphones, and not everybody will own an iOS device to use them with, but if you fit into both categories then these come highly recommended.
Let us know your thoughts on our comments below or via our @Gadget_Helpline Twitter page or Official Facebook group.
A big thankyou to Ranieri Communications, who provided our review sample.