Gadget of the Day Series
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Product: Etymotic hf3 Headset and Earphones
What It’s Good For: Blocking out the outside world while listening to your tunes. Plus, there’s a built-in microphone for making and receiving phone calls.
Who It’s Good For: Audiophiles who want a pair of noise-isolating earbuds that can also double as a headset for use with a smartphone.
Limitations: While the headphones work with any device, the accompanying app (more on that below) is only available for iPhone, iPad or iPod. The microphone isn’t the best; getting the perfect seal can take some time.
Bottom Line: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better value for high-quality in-ear headphones for use with a smartphone.
A Close-Up Look At the Etymotic hf3 Earphones
Etymotic might not be a household name, but in the audio world, these guys have serious clout. The company was founded in 1983 with the goal of “improving the lives of those with hearing loss,” while also protecting hearing. The company released its first insert-earphones in 1984, and it released the ER-4, its first noise-isolating in-ear earphones, in 1991. Nearly 20 years later, the ER-4 is still in production (the latest version is theER-4PT) and beloved by many.
The hf3 headset and earphone is essentially a lower-cost version of the ER-4P. Etymotic claims the performance quality between the two models is nearly identical, but the ER-4s have replaceable drivers and are held to a more stringent performance rating.
While I don’t consider myself a “real” audiophile (I just sometimes play one on the Internet), I do have a bit of an earphone fetish. I had a pair of ER-4P earphones about five years ago and loved them dearly. When they got misplaced, I spent a significant amount of time investigating less-expensive substitutes but never managed to find anything close to what I had in the ER-4s.
For the past two years, my day-to-day earphones have been a pair of Klipsch S4i earbuds. As luck would have it, the ends started tearing up just as I started this review. My big question going in was, “Are the hf3′s worth paying twice the price?”
For me, the answer is a resounding “yes.” The Klipsch earphones are great — and I definitely recommend them (especially if you can get a great deal) — but the difference in audio fidelity as well as the overall build of the buds is just better with the Etymotic hf3 headset.
The key to in-ear earphones, especially those that promise noise-isolation, is a good seal. Without a good seal, you don’t have anything. Etymotic has good instructions for how to to insert the earphones on its website (it even has a video), but getting the right seal can be a challenge.
I like the three-flange eartips, but the hf3 earphones also come with glider and foam eartips for users who prefer that fit. You can also use Shure eartips with the hf3 earphones, if you have a comfort preference.
For users who really want the best fit, Etymotic encourages users to get custom-molded earbuds for the hf3 headphones. To do this, you’ll need to visit an audiologist who will take a wax molding of your ear canal and translate that into the silicon that attaches to your earphones. By some standards, this is a bit pricey, at $100 or so, but in the realm of custom-fit, in-ear earphones, it’s actually not that bad.
Once inserted correctly, the earphones definitely do their job when it comes to noise isolation. I recently moved to New York City and the hf3 earphones definitely block out the sounds of the subway, ambient street noise and even office chatter. Etymotic isn’t known for being a bass-heavy earphone — look elsewhere if that’s what you’re after. What you do get is very, very accurate, crisp sound with lots of focus on the highs. I find that music sounds as it was meant to be heard.
One note about noise isolation — as great as it is to get the full impact of your audio, it can also be a very real safety risk. For that reason, Etymotic has started bundling a new version of Essency’s fantastic iPhone appAwareness [iTunes link] with the earbuds. Just register your headphones and you’ll get a code to unlock all the features of the app.
The app is ingenious because it uses the microphone on the earphones to listen for ambient noise. If noise reaches above a certain level, that sound is pumped through the earphones. The net result is that users get a noise-isolated experience without being completely shut-off from the world.
Speaking of the microphone — the one weak spot on the hf3 headphones is the built-in mic. Callers said I sounded fine, but quiet, and the fidelity of the microphone isn’t exceptional. On the brighter side, the built-in remote control/volume control switch works brilliantly with the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch and iPod nano. I like the placement of the remote control/microphone as well.
For my money, I haven’t come across a better in-ear headset/earphone combination. For consumers who value a good audio experience and want a pair of earphones that will outlast the $30 cheapies, give them a listen.
Earbuds Get a Close-Up
The key to getting the best sound from noise-isolating in-ear earphones is a good, tight seal.
It can take a bit of time to find the right seal with the hf3 headset and earphones, but once its found, the only sounds you’ll hear are the tunes coming from your audio device.
iOS Friendly Remote
The hf3 headset and earphones aren’t just for Apple products — we successfully used the earbuds with our Android devices and laptops, too — but an added bonus feature is that the remote control is compatible with the iPhone, iPad and iPod nano. This makes it easy to not only accept phone calls, but adjust volume, play and pause music and scan forward and backward in your library.
Etymotic doesn’t scrimp on the accessories. The hf3 headset and earphones come with a durable, soft case (great for keeping your earphones tangle free and in good condition), a larger set of three-flanges insets and foam and dome-shaped inserts. Use whatever feels best in your ear and whatever gives you the best seal.
Etymotic also includes two replacement filters and a cleaner to keep your earbuds sounding their best.
By registering their earphones, users gain full access to the fantastic Awareness app for iOS.
This app uses the built-in microphone on the hf3 earphones to alert users of what is happening around them when the noise gets above a certain decibel. That means that you can get the benefits of a noise-isolating experience, while still being on alert for things happening around you, like a fire engine or a honking horn.
Awareness App Settings
The Awareness app has lots of customizable settings to really make it useful for users that want a way to keep an eye on something else, while still enjoying their earphones.
The app works with any audio on the iPhone, but some features, like ClearVoice, only work in the default iPod app.