Company: Etymotic Research
Compatible: All iPods, iPhones, iPads
There's little question at this point that brief exposure to really loud audio can damage hearing, and that long-term exposure to more mildly unsafe audio can do the same thing. European countries famously forced Apple and other companies to limit the output of portable music devices sold within the EU, but there's no such restriction on most of the iPods, iPhones, and iPads sold these days; consequently, turning up these devices to a higher than 50% volume with most earphones can be dangerous. To help parents protect their kids' ears, Apple introduced a feature called "Volume Limit" that could be set to a headphone-specific level and locked with a password; several companies have released "kid safe" earphones that are incapable of being used at higher amplitudes. Etymotic recently joined the pack with Ety-Kids3 ($79), an in-ear canalphone that's "micro-sized to fit small ears" with "reduced sensitivity for safe sound output."
In a nutshell, what Ety-Kids3 offers is a cut-down version of the earlier mc3: the audio drivers inside have shrunk from 8mm to 6mm, the half-aluminum bodies have been stripped down to pure plastic, and the pack-ins have dropped to become a simpler zippered carrying case, a shirt clip, two pairs of silicone rubber triple-flange ear tips, and one set of small foam ear tips. You still get a three-button remote and microphone capsule built into the right earphone cable, and its performance is basically indistinguishable from the remote/mic units Apple uses—the mic works at the same volume.
Past Etymotic customers should note that there are no cleaning tools, extra filters, big foam tips, or other items in the package, omissions that enabled the company to offer Ety-Kids3 for $20 less than the otherwise comparable mc3. And there’s another version called Ety-Kids5 that goes even further, stripping out Ety-Kids3’s integrated remote control and microphone to hit a $49 price point—$30 less than its older sibling mc5. While we didn’t receive Ety-Kids5 for testing, it’s otherwise indistinguishable from Ety-Kids3, and safe to consider if you don’t need the remote and mic.
There aren’t any huge surprises to report in Ety-Kids3’s sonic performance. Etymotic prides itself on selling earphones that are “neutrally” balanced, rather than deliberately skewed to deliver the elevated midrange and bass that rivals offer as a matter of course. So when we say that Ety-Kids3 performs music in a way that’s “flat,” the meaning here is “measured,” without ear-filling bass or super-sharp treble, though as with all Etymotic earphones, you’ll notice more treble and crispness than low-end thump, and shouldn’t expect to hear pounding beats. Depending on the song you’re hearing—and the headphones you were previously listening to—Ety-Kids3’s renditions of songs may strike some listeners as a little odd, emphasizing elements in songs that weren’t obvious before, while recessing others. Kids will likely object to the reduction in bass more than anything else, regardless of whether audiologists would give it a thumbs up.
By inexpensive earphone standards, the single most impressive feature of Ety-Kids3 is the superb passive noise isolation offered by the rubber ear tips, which all but completely seal out the world around you as you’re listening to music. Few rivals include snug-fitting triple flanges at these price points, and Etymotic’s “baby blue” versions do as great a job for small ears as the frosted clear ones do for larger ones. This isolation enables users of any age to listen to music at lower, safer volume levels—music can be heard properly without competing against whatever ambient noises are outside the earphones.
The major difference between Ety-Kids3 and Etymotic’s higher-end models is the integrated volume limitation. By picking a 300-Ohm impedance level versus the 16-Ohm levels of its other consumer models, Etymotic effectively institutes a roughly 50% reduction in the volume level of whatever device it’s connected to—turn your iPhone, iPod, or iPad up to its maximum level with Ety-Kids3 plugged in, and you’ll hear only what a standard pair of headphones puts out at its halfway mark. Unlike Apple’s password-protected Volume Limit feature, there’s no way around this, and for most young and sensitive ears, even something shy of Ety-Kids3’s top level is more than adequate for daily listening.
While there are some very real practical questions that should be asked before buying a pair of artificially limited earphones, including whether an accessory limitation is preferable to one in the music device’s software or hardware, and whether a young user will respond to limitations by disconnecting the earphones and using other ones instead, we’ll leave those issues for parents to answer on their own. Assuming that you want to give your child a well-made pair of earphones with balanced sound—and are willing to accept the “couldn’t hear you, thanks to these isolating eartips!” excuse—Ety-Kids3 is a good option for safe music enjoyment. It’s not going to thrill ears accustomed to high volumes or exaggerated bass, but it’s not supposed to; parents should consider it a good starting point for a lifetime of critical, detailed listening.