Review: Harman Kardon EP710 High-Fidelity Noise-Isolating Earphones
When you get something right the first time, the decision of whether to follow up with a changed or similar sequel is obviously a difficult one. Such is the dilemma faced by Etymotic Research, which has enjoyed enough success with its ER-6i Isolator Earphones (iLounge rating: A) that we haven't seen any true sequel: other than making the once white and clear earphones available in black, Etymotic's left them basically the same, and excellent. Even today, with half a dozen recently-released competitors in its price range - the $149 ER-6is can be had new on Amazon for only $69 - the model remains one of our top two "in-canal" options at the $150 and under price level, alongside JAYS' newer $99 d-JAYS (iLounge rating: A-).
So what Etymotic has done is to offer its earphone technologies and expertise to other companies, creating models that are similar to the ER-6i and its more expensive ER-4 siblings, but with small sonic and cosmetic changes. Altec Lansing was up first with its iM616 and iM716 (iLounge rating: B+) earphones, which went with all-white and black bodies versus the partially clear Etymotics. Now Harman Kardon has released the Etymotic-designed EP710, EP720, and EP730 earphones, which are physically very similar to the Altecs, but sound a bit different. All of these models are designed to appeal to fans of bass, while preserving much of the detail Etymotic’s earphones are known for.
Like the other two Harman models, EP710 ($100) is sold in black or white versions, and comes with pack-ins identical to the more expensive models: a carrying case, two replacement ear filters and a filter replacement tool, one set of silicone rubber triple flange ear tips, and one set of foam ear tips. The nylon carrying case is large enough to hold an iPod and the earphones inside, and has two zippered mesh compartments for the accessory tips. Cosmetically, the only difference between the EP710 and the EP720 earphones is in shape: the 710 bulges a little more than 720, but has the same shirt clip and an identical gently sloped headphone plug at the end of a nearly 5-foot cable.
In our testing, however, the EP710 wasn’t a sonic standout. While we hate to cite numbers in earphone reviews, it bears initial mention that a cursory glance at the Etymotic, Altec, and Harman tech specs would incorrectly lead some to conclude that the ER-6i, iM616, and EP710 are virtually identical. They’re not. The EP710 uses a new moving coil speaker - not present in Altec’s iM616 - versus a balanced armature speaker in the 720, which Etymotic claims to deliver near-premium audio quality at a low price. So despite identically stated impedance levels, the ER-6i canalphones sound a lot louder at the same volume level than the EP710s, which need to be turned up past the iPod’s 50% mark to be heard at levels similar to the ER-6i at the 40% mark.
Similarly, though EP710 is rated at 82% “accuracy” by Etymotic versus 84% for the Altec iM616 and 81% for the ER-6i Isolators, and have the same general level of clarity and detail, they don’t sound the same: we preferred the Isolators’ sound, and that of JAYS’ d-JAYS, to the EP710’s. Though we’d still classify the EP710 as a fairly “neutral” earphone, its contrasts with the ER-6is and d-JAYS are important. Assuming you can get the d-JAYS to fit your ears, as some of iLounge’s editors have without any problems, you’ll find that they deliver enhanced but properly balanced treble and bass enhancement relative to the ER-6is, which are more universally ear-compatible but not as strong on the low end as the d-JAYS. The ER-6is and EP710s have similar but not identical ranges, with noticeably different biases.
Like the iM616, the EP710 has an elevated midrange - particularly in the mid-bass, but also in the mid-treble - relative to the flatter ER-6is, resulting in sound that feels somewhat more ear-filling but doesn’t create the same sense of depth and range found in the ER-6i. Whereas the ER-6i’s highs immediately strike you as crisp, the EP710’s are not as prominent, due either to elevated mid-treble or slightly diminished treble capacity, perhaps both. We also noticed some occasional sibilance - slight lisping in S and F sounds - in the EP710’s treble that wasn’t an issue in the ER-6is. And what of the low end? It’s as present as in the ER-6is, but once again, the sound signature here doesn’t create the richer, deeper bass some people seek from Ultimate Ears or XtremeMac FS1s at around this price level.
It’s also worth noting that the EP710’s cables are like the iM616s and unlike the ER-6is and d-JAYS in one significant way: they’re coated in thick rubber, which has the benefit of durability but the consequence of enhanced microphonics - slight sounds in the earphones when the cables bang against each other or your body while you walk. Etymotic has limited microphonics in its thinner-cabled ER-6is and newly braided cables in the ER-4Ps, but the EP710s persist in this, so using them with the included shirt clip is all but mandatory at low volume levels when you’re walking. On the other hand, as with its Etymotic and Altec-branded predecessors, EP710’s included silicone flanges and foam tips continue to provide superb external noise isolation, making them a nearly ideal option for quiet listening when sitting down, especially if you’re stuck for hours on a plane.
Overall, EP710 is a good but not great new canalphone - another attempt to reach a compromise between those who love the ER-6i and those who demand more low-end oomph. In our view, such subtle tweaks and enhanced midrange are unlikely to satisfy the needs of serious bass heads, but they do offer a modestly different alternative for those who believe the ER-6i is sonically too thin, an opinion we don’t share. From a rating standpoint, we consider EP710 to be on the fine edge of B+ and B ratings, tilting to the B+ only because of its reasonable $100 pricing, which puts it in the same performance and quality ballparks with the many other good earphones we’ve recently seen for that price.