Etymotic Research EtyBLU Dual-Mode Noise-Isolating Headset
Few companies make in-canal earphones as superb as Etymotic's, and we rejoiced when we thoroughly tested the company's iPhone-ready hf2 wired headset this week. The company has also released a monaural Bluetooth wireless product called EtyBLU ($129), which is substantially different in purpose, execution, and appeal: as with all iPhone Bluetooth headsets to date, it's designed solely to let you take and make phone calls, and isn't supposed to be used for music or other audio playback.
As with hf2, we were genuinely excited to test EtyBLU, as we had yet to see an iPhone-ready wireless headset worthy of our A-level high recommendation. Options such as Aliph’s Jawbone offer superb noise reduction but less than optimal fit and pricing, while Plantronics’ comfortable, long-lasting Voyager 520 is in the right price range but doesn’t perform as well in noisy environments. Etymotic’s pricing might have been at the high end of the range, but its feature set promised certain major advantages that really appealed to us, provided they worked as expected.
The base of EtyBLU is a sleek black stick that looks like a slightly larger version of Apple’s iPhone Bluetooth Headset, only glossy and with a silver power button on its face, plus a superior in-canal earphone rather than the old-fashioned foam-covered earbud used by Apple. Two volume buttons are subtly nestled on one of its sides, and a single port is located on its bottom. Left alone on your ear, it’s just about as neutral as can be, and doesn’t technically require any additional parts.
But Etymotic has included them anyway. There’s a simple metal earhook if you need to attach it for added stability. You also get three cover options for the in-canal earphone—two sets of small and regular-sized triple flanges, and one foam alternative. You get one extra filter for the earpiece, and a filter replacement tool, plus a nice zippered carrying case to keep all the parts in. And then the really interesting add-ons start.
There’s an attachable boom microphone with a long black gooseneck wired stem that runs from the base of the earpiece down to your mouth, plus a foam windscreen you can attach if you’re going outside and need wind resistance. There’s also a USB charging cable for the headset. Both the mic and the charging cable attach to the same bottom port on EtyBlu’s earpiece, which is specially sized and grooved to prevent you from accidentally attaching other parts, or attaching these incorrectly.
In premise, this kit is just awesome. Want a low-profile earpiece for everyday use? Use EtyBLU in stripped down mode. It’s the first headset we’ve seen that offers Bluetooth 2.1 support, though it also is backwards compatible with earlier devices such as the Bluetooth 2.0 iPhone, and offers 7 hours of talk time or 100 hours of standby time when fully recharged. Need to improve the cancellation of ambient noise that your callers will hear on the other end? Pop on the boom mic. Etymotic claims that callers will benefit from 25 Decibels of additional noise cancellation with the mic on; the system’s built-in mic and the boom work together. And of course, if you’re willing to fully geek out the set, put the foam cover on the boom mic for wind resistance. In the worst case, however, EtyBLU never looks as odd as last year’s Ety8 stereo headset; Etymotic has sharply rebounded visually from that experience.
The only problem is EtyBLU’s actual performance. Our iPhone tests with multiple callers suggested that the system’s major advantages over its top competitors were mostly cosmetic rather than technical. Here’s how they broke down:
Without the Boom Mic or Windshield Attached. Callers described EtyBLU as a little below the performance of Plantronics’ less expensive Voyager 520, which we have praised as the best overall Bluetooth headset we’ve tested for the iPhone. This configuration was where EtyBLU did its best; while it did not screen out ambient noise, which blended in with our voice as it does in most Bluetooth headsets, Etymotic’s microphone enabled us to be easily heard in a relatively quiet environment. Callers sounded good to us, too; you don’t need an earpiece of Etymotic’s caliber to reasonably present cell phone quality voice audio.
With the Boom Mic Attached, Minus the Windshield. Our callers consistently complained about a major problem with EtyBLU in this configuration: volume level. Though the company unquestionably achieves significant noise cancellation with the boom mic attached, screening out certain ambient sounds even better than the Jawbone, callers told us that we also became harder to hear—a big surprise given that the boom mic can come incredibly close to one’s mouth. Volume changes were reported while something in EtyBLU attempts to adjust its levels, but callers told us that we didn’t sound loud enough regardless of whether there was or wasn’t background noise. One caller noted that ambient sounds were replaced by low static, which wasn’t offensive, but wasn’t great, either.
With the Boom Mic and Windshield Attached. Callers agreed that the foam attachment further reduced the volume a little while also helping to limit wind noise. However, they described the impact of using the boom mic with or without the windshield as detrimental to hearing our voice.
On the flip side of the phone calls, though the earpiece otherwise sounded fine, we experienced a number of static-related issues that detracted from the way that callers sounded to us. Some calls were punctuated by pulses of static, which we thought might be interference from other Bluetooth devices, but the issue persisted when we confirmed that they were all turned off. And we generally had trouble getting EtyBLU to sound as static-free as its competitors when it was well inside the limits of its 30-foot wireless distance.
These results left us somewhat confused. On one hand, we really liked how EtyBLU looked, and generally how it worked without anything attached. It’s a definite style upgrade from the somewhat techie Voyager 520, and Etymotic’s decisions to use a slimmer body, an in-canal earpiece design, and a detachable ear mount were all smart. The fact that EtyBLU includes Bluetooth 2.1 may also be a selling point for users of brand-new computers such as the MacBook Air that actually include that feature. Battery life is only a little shy of Voyager’s 8 hour run time, which is better than par in the Bluetooth market, and though you don’t get a dedicated wall charger with EtyBLU, you do get a USB cable that works just as well, plus a nice carrying case, and multiple earpieces.
The problem is that Voyager 520 carries a significantly lower MSRP of $100, and sells on the street for as little as $50. With EtyBLU, you’re paying a premium for the expandability—the optional boom mic and windshield features—and the promise of superior noise cancellation, which didn’t work anywhere near as well as we’d hoped. Callers told us that they preferred Voyager in quiet environments and Jawbone in noisy ones. And the static issues we experienced made us less thrilled about hearing our callers, especially when walking away from the iPhone, than we’d generally found to be the case with our favorite headsets. It’s worth a brief additional note that the glossy face surface scuffs easily, as well, especially when it’s in the carrying case with the metal earhook and other parts.
If it hadn’t been for the static issues, EtyBLU would have received our flat B, general recommendation based on its big picture appeal: even if its versatility as a dual-microphone headset isn’t great, its very good looks, strong battery life, comfortable earpiece, optional mounting arm and carrying case are all legitimate reasons to prefer it over many lower-quality alternatives. However, the issues with static and the limited benefits of its boom microphone cut its rating down to a limited recommendation level; as much as we liked the majority of the features Etymotic included, we wouldn’t pick EtyBLU over its best competitors for either noisy or quiet environments, especially at a price that’s at the high end of the Bluetooth range. In our view, despite the B- grade, EtyBLU is a raw stone that could easily be polished into a brilliant gem: further tweaking from the company could easily transform this into a product that fulfills all of the promise it had on paper, and should that happen, we’d unquestionably consider using it ourselves on a daily basis.