We often talk about the importance of isolation with IEMs. Usually, we talk about how we experiment with ear tips and fiddle with positioning of our IEMs to get a “good seal,” and how it’s important to hear the full frequency response range of a headphone and block outside noise. But there’s more to it than that — good isolation allows you to listen to music at lower volumes and protect your hearing. Etymotic is one of very few companies that is as focused on protecting hearing as it is on making quality earphones. Today we’re trying one of their entry level models — the Mk5 Isolator IEMs. Not only do they live up to their name, they also sound way better than they should for under $65.
Etymotic earphones have been around for decades, and have looked essentially the same. The Mk5 isolator have all the hallmarks of an Etymotic earphone — a simple 4-foot cable terminated in a 3.5mm plug, tiny cylindrical housings barely larger than their 6mm drivers, and iconic triple-flange ear tips. The Mk5 Isolator’s driver housings are made of plastic, with a simple construction and visible seams — no exotic materials here. They’re incredibly small and light and, with the included zippered storage case, very portable. If you’re feeling a little intimidated by the triple-flange ear tips, you’re not alone. These go deep into the ear canal, which can be a very weird experience. However, the benefits outweigh the weirdness — the triple-flange tips provide for an extremely secure fit, and isolate extremely well. In addition, the extra length of these flexible tips seems to compensate well for those with complex inner ear shapes (visit an audiologist for that insight). Two sizes of triple-flange tips are included, along with a set of simple round foam tips that perform almost as well.
Having very little experience with triple-flange tips, we tried them in a variety of scenarios. Insertion of the tips can be strange, but we find that moistening them slightly makes the process much easier. They exert some pressure on the inner ear that can take time to get acclimated to, but over time became comfortable and blocked outside noise well enough that the initial awkwardness was worth the effort. One caveat, however, is that these are not the kind of earphones you’d want to use in a setting where you’d have to take them out repeatedly — re-insertion of the triple-flange tips can become uncomfortable over time. In general, however, we’re believers, and we highly recommend reading the literature about hearing protection available on Etymotic’s website.
The Mk5 Isolator sounds very good. They’re highly resolving, and their frequency response is a respectable (though not “Hi-Res”) 20 hz — 15 kHz. Though they do reproduce bass at low frequencies, the Mk5 Isolator’s sound signature is very balanced, maybe even bass-light. Though this will likely not be exciting news for fans of hip-hop and pop music, we were impressed by how resolving the Mk5 Isolator is for a headphone in this price range. With such excellent isolation, it was easy to hear finite detail and excellent imaging, which was a welcome surprise out of such a tiny headphone. Though they were driven well enough by the iPhone’s Lightning Adapter, it’s worth noting that the Mk5 Isolator has a surprisingly high impedance for a headphone of this size — at 32 ohms, they could use a bit more power if higher volumes are desired.
For us, the Mk5 Isolator was full of surprises. Though the triple-flange ear tips are an acquired taste and their sound signature might be too neutral for some users’ tastes, we think they’re worth trying for the isolation alone. The Mk5 Isolator outperform their price; if this is what $65 gets you from Etymotic, we can’t wait to see how their higher-end offerings can do.
Company and Price
Model: mk5 Isolator