Review: Etymotic Research hf2 Noise-Isolating Headset + Earphones
Few companies make in-canal earphones as superb as Etymotic's: the company's low-end ER-6 and mid-range ER-4 headsets are past iLounge Best of Year award winners, and still amongst our very favorites despite increased competition. Both users and other companies have long recognized Etymotic's quality -- so much so, in fact, that when Etymotic didn't have its own iPhone-specific headset ready for a 2007 release, an entrepreneur started selling modified ER-6s just to cater to the demand. That unsanctioned headset, dubbed the Ultimate Buds UB7, sold for $146 and did a very good job while Etymotic prepared its own iPhone-ready alternative.
This month, Etymotic unleashed two separate iPhone headsets—one a markedly superior wired alternative called the hf2 ($179), and the other a monaural Bluetooth wireless product called EtyBLU ($129). The two headsets are substantially different in purpose, execution, and appeal, so we review them separately, but our bottom line conclusion is simple: hf2 is a groundbreaking wired iPhone offering, while EtyBLU is a nice but not spectacular wireless product.
The appeal of hf2 is extremely straightforward. Etymotic has taken the $300 ER-4P earphones and added them to an iPhone-ready microphone and control box, while making subtle refinements to their styling and comfort. As before, the company packs hf2 with replacement filters and a changing tool, plus a zippered carrying case that we really like. But now hf2 uses clean single wires rather than twisted pairs, and features newly slanted, soft-touch black rubber earpieces; it also comes with two different sizes of triple-flange earpieces and foam tips for those who prefer them to rubber. Simply put, the new version looks and fits better than even the most recent ER-4Ps we’ve seen; the iPhone-compatible headphone plug is obviously a benefit, as well.
At this point, the major price difference between the ER-4P and hf2 bears some explanation. The hf2 sells for nearly half the price of the ER-4P, which Etymotic attributes to slightly more relaxed accuracy tolerances in the newer model. One of the low-end headphone industry’s big secrets is that two pairs of earphones from a given company can possibly sound a lot different, something that the accuracy-obsessed Etymotic has kept in check through more rigid testing than many of its competitors. To keep hf2’s cost down, there’s a possibility of more variation between units than with the reference-caliber ER-4P, and consequently, a higher-end earpiece and microphone set can sell at a price that’s comparable to Etymotic’s lower-end ER-6 series.
Practically, the listening difference between the ER-4P and hf2 isn’t profound. Putting the known and impressive isolation characteristics of the triple flanges aside—though it should be noted that the smaller baby blue-colored flanges will now comfortably fit even smaller ear canals—these are great earphones for serious music lovers. They also exhibit less cable noise than the ER-4Ps, and include a shirt clip that further mitigates what’s left.
Our review sample showed the hf2 to contain superb, relatively low-distortion earpieces that were highly similar to our ER-4Ps—a little more sensitive in a way that makes the music sound a little punchier at the same volume. As with ER-4P, hf2 is designed to present music neutrally—equal parts treble, midrange, and bass—and is therefore not a basshead’s earphone; it thrills you with its ability to render high-frequency and mid-range details that you’ve never noticed before, and provides just enough bass to let you hear the low notes, but doesn’t have any specialized drivers to deliver enhanced, deep bass sound. For the price, we really like how hf2 sounds—it is currently the best dedicated iPhone headset we’ve heard, without question—but serious bass fans will find other options such as V-Moda’s Vibe Duo to skew more to their liking sonically.
Where hf2 unquestionably trumps all of its wired competitors is in microphone quality. Callers told us that they found us markedly easier to hear and understand when using hf2 than with Apple’s iPhone pack-ins, and even other options such as Shure’s MPA-3c and V-Moda’s Vibe Duo. Etymotic has apparently picked the ideal location for the microphone and control box, allowing it to dangle very close to your mouth from the right earpiece, plus a great microphone that renders speech more intelligible while passively screening out most—not all—nearby noise. Though you can do better on noise reduction with certain dedicated Bluetooth headsets, the hf2 audio experience is excellent, as should be expected for the price. The call and music playback button on the remote works exactly as expected, and uses an elevated bump of plastic that is easy to find.
Overall, Etymotic’s hf2 is a fantastic headset option for iPhone owners, and highly deserving of the 2008 Best of Show award it has already received. Apart from the fact that it’s the most expensive iPhone mic and earphone combination we’ve yet tested—which is not trivial, considering that other options range from $30 to $100 in price—our only reservation here is that increased competition from companies such as JAYS of Sweden has made single-driver earphones like this less desirable, and that the first double-driver dedicated iPhone headset in this price range surely can’t be too far away. But for now, hf2 has the high end of the iPhone headset market all to itself, and for $179, the only thing we’d wish for is a little more bass; Etymotic has otherwise done a superb job of designing a headset that’s impressive on both ends of a call and during music playback.
Updated September 30, 2008: Etymotic has subsequently released hf2 in a red version, shown above. This version uses soft-touch metallic rubber in a ruby red tone as an accent to the black plastic found elsewhere in the design. The company has also released a microphone-free version called hf5, covered elsewhere on iLounge.