Review: Etymotic Research ety8 In-the-Ear Bluetooth Earphones and 8-Mate Adapter for iPod
Pros: A lightweight pair of Bluetooth 2.0 stereo earphones with the first-ever ability to fit inside your ear canals rather than on top of or around your ears. Includes adapter for connection to iPod; earphones work reliably at distances of 30 feet away. Aggregate sound quality is close to company’s award-winning ER-4P wired earphones, a major step forward for wireless technology, and though battery life varies by iPod model, it’s comparable to other wireless systems out there.
Cons: Very expensive relative to other iPod Bluetooth wireless headsets already in the marketplace. Wireless transceiver boxes look awkward in your ears, and possibly your iPod. Otherwise impressive audio quality is reduced by clicking interference in bass of some songs. Cable microphonics noticeable during movement.
Etymotic deserves serious credit for ambition. As the latest company to release iPod-compatible wireless headphones, its new ety8 In-The-Ear Bluetooth Earphones with 8-Mate Adapter for iPod ($299 with 8-Mate, $199 without) offer three noteworthy breakthroughs - namely size, weight, and sound quality. But ety8’s looks, pricing and certain performance deficiencies prevented us from considering it to be a top performer overall in the wireless headphone category.
On the surface, ety8’s concept is exactly what many people have been dreaming about since Bluetooth iPod earphones were first introduced: wireless earbuds small enough to fit inside your ear canals, rather than sitting around or on top of your ears. Like Etymotic’s earlier ER-4-series headphones (iLounge rating: A), which they’re heavily based upon, they come with a collection of several silicone rubber tips and ear foams, replacement filters, a filter removal tool, and a carrying case. And though their stems are actually a bit larger than the ER-4-series parts, the silicone rubber tips and ear foams - the parts that fit inside your ears - are the same size, so you won’t really notice this difference at all.
When you’re using wired earphones such as the ER-4s, all you’re dealing with are the tips, stems, and a cable to connect the phones to your iPod’s headphone port, but the ety8s add a new element to contend with: three wireless component boxes. The first and most familiar part is Etymotic’s 8-Mate Adapter - an iPod Dock Connector-mounted transceiver - which is similar to the iPod-draining Bluetooth adapters we’ve seen before from JBL and others. Once you’ve connected 8-Mate to the bottom of your iPod, you can put the ety8 earphones on and walk slightly over 30 feet away from the iPod while still reliably hearing its music, matching Etymotic’s claims of 10-meter distance performance.
Designed to sit flush with first-generation iPod nanos, and as such a little off-center on new nanos and fifth-generation iPods, the 8-Mate Adapter is also compatible with minis and 4G models. In each case, it draws down the iPod’s battery rather than including its own, a design choice that makes the transceiver smaller and lighter at the cost of additional iPod play time, which varies from model to model. (You’ll get between 6 and 9 hours of run time from a fully-charged iPod.) A small light in its center indicates that it’s connected to the earphones, and its best feature is volume mirroring: volume adjustments made with the controls of iPod 5Gs and nanos actually affect the volume of the Dock Connected earphones, and vice-versa. This isn’t a trivial feat for bottom-connecting iPod accessories, and though it doesn’t work on iPod 4G or mini models, it has been accomplished nicely by Etymotic on compatible iPods.
The company’s more controversial wireless design choice is found in the earbuds themselves. Rather than developing a single, neck-mounted casing to hold the necessary wireless components - a transceiver and a battery - Etymotic has placed these parts in conspicuous rectangular boxes that are grafted to each of the earphone stems. One of the boxes (marked L for left) is bare but for Etymotic and ety8 logos. The other (marked R for right) has an LED light for power and charging, plus five buttons - one a dual purpose power and play/pause button, the others for iPod volume and track adjustment. These volume controls properly adjust the earphones’ volumes on all iPods, and because of the lack of volume mirroring noted above, are necessary for their proper use with 4Gs and minis. You recharge the ety8s by connecting an included USB cable to the right earbox and your computer’s USB port; a 2-3 hour charging process will yield 8-10 hours of earphone battery life. In other words, expect the earphones to run longer than the iPod they’re connected to before requiring a recharge.
A major piece of good news is that the boxes aren’t heavy or close enough to your ears to make the ety8s uncomfortable to wear in any way - these are actually the least fatiguing Bluetooth headphones we’ve yet tested. Each of the earpieces weighs less than a half ounce, which is substantially comparable to but not quite as light as the company’s ER-4 and ER-6 series earbuds, which weigh under a full ounce in total including all of their cabling. Price, looks, and sound quality aside, given the choice between wearing the ety8s and Logitech’s recent FreePulse headphones, we’d pick the ety8s for comfort overall - but then, we’re fans of in-canal phones and prefer them to over-the-ear designs.
Unfortunately, as you can probably tell from the pictures, they don’t look great: there’s nothing organic about the black and silver boxes, which stick out from your ears like African tribal earrings. As a consequence, if you’re concerned about how you look to other people while listening to your music, the ety8s aren’t for you - you may need their 35-42 decibels of external sound isolation to keep from hearing people laughing at how the boxes look on your head. Etymotic could have satisfied more users with a single box that hangs necklace-like between more traditional in-canal earphones.
As a final component of the design, a thick and durable fabric-covered cable runs between the boxes and either in front of or in back of your neck, connecting the earbuds to each other. On our ears, this cable felt odd when worn to the back, but different-shaped ears may find it more comfortable there. Like other Etymotic cables, it suffers a little from microphonics - the ability to hear cable movements in the earphones - and when the cable’s worn in front of your neck, the effect’s a little more noticeable than in the company’s most recently redesigned, improved ER-4Ps. Users who listen primarily in a stationary position won’t mind this issue as much as those who are moving around a lot - the latter perhaps more of a concern here given the way that people commonly use wireless headphones.
Looks and feel aside, how do the ety8s sound? Our initial answer - surprisingly good - is modified by two factors. Up front, we’ll say that the ety8s come impressively close to the sound of Etymotic’s ER-4Ps, which in 2004 won our Best Headphone of the Year award, and today remain amongst our favorite iPod-ready earphones. Though Etymotic rates the ety8s at 86% sound accuracy, identical to the iPod-matching ER-4Ps, we’re not sure that the rating is entirely correct or even apples-to-apples: ety8’s highs and lows were ever-so-slightly off the peak levels of the ER-4Ps, and to our ears, detail across the spectrum was a hint lower, as well. It’s strongly to Etymotic’s credit that the differences between any Bluetooth wireless headset and some of its best, reference-quality earphones are so minor, but we wouldn’t take the ety8s as a complete substitute for the ER-4Ps.
A significant modifier, however, is some audio noise that was evident in some songs we tested with the ety8s - small click-like pops that accompanied bass notes. The noise wasn’t evident in every song we tested, and didn’t always appear at the same times in the same songs, but appeared to be related to the amount of bass in a song, our movement while listening, and the volume level at which the audio track was encoded. Tracks ripped at high bitrates with iTunes - ones that sounded perfect with ER-4Ps and other wired headphones - exhibited the issue, so it wasn’t a low-bitrate or poor encoder problem, it was the ety8s.
It’s worth noting that each of the wireless headphones we’ve tested has had some sort of minor- to medium-grade audio quality issue like this one - none is perfect from an audio standpoint - but the difference here is price. Etymotic is a company obsessed with sound quality, a fact which we note in an entirely complimentary way, and for the dollar, we think that most of its products deliver outstanding detail and balance for iPod owners. The ety8s aren’t quite as strong: they don’t deliver the pristine audio experience you’d get from a pair of ER-4Ps, or the static-free sound you’d get from less expensive ER-6s, yet you’ll have to pay $299 if you want to use them with your iPod. This price strikes us as around $100 too high for the experience they deliver, arguably more given that Logitech is now offering its Bluetooth 2.0 FreePulse earphones with an iPod-ready adapter for only $99.
For the ety8’s high asking price, we would expect that a wireless audio system for the iPod would be basically flawless, but Etymotic’s first entry falls a bit short of that mark, primarily in aesthetic design and interference-free audio. It’s a strong first wireless effort for the company, but certainly not as enduring of a design as its excellent ER-4- and ER-6-series earphones. That said, we were impressed by ety8’s comfort, distance, iPod control, and battery performance, and view this as a good interim solution for those early adopters who are willing to sacrifice both looks and extra dollars to get generally strong wireless sound quality.