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MY TAKE: Klipsch S4 vs Etymotic HF5

post #1 of 29
Thread Starter 
(Updated: Jan 4, 2010)

So, several weeks ago I started looking into IEMs for a couple of different reasons. 1) I need to replace my aging (and lame-ish) Zune Premium headphones, 2) I needed a better IEM for all-around listening, and 3) I needed an IEM that I could use as an on-stage monitor for lower-volume "live" performing. I wanted to a good solution for me as well as some options in various price ranges to suggest to others -- since folks on my team will need to purchase IEMs for on-stage use. Yes, price was a big consideration. Isolation was another. And, as always, sound quality was important.

As a quick bit of background, the best IEMs I've owned *to date* are the Zune Premiums and the Sennheiser CX300. Both are decent, but nothing to write home about. I also own some AKG 141 Studio semi-open headphones, which are very nice. I've been a professional musician, as well as spending quite a bit of time with studio recording, mixing, and mastering. I don't have "golden ears", by any stretch, but I have some knowledge.

Back to the story.

After some "cold searching" (Bing, Google, etc.), I was fortunate enough to land here in the Head-Fi universe. I'm very appreciative of that, as well as the knowledgeable folks who share their insights/opinions here.

With a good price-point and some very positive (almost TOO positive) reviews, I ordered up the Klipsch S4s which I burned in for a good 110 hours or so. Although I was initially impressed with the S4s, I found it somewhat "muddy" with the mids and lows. I decided to order a pair of the Etymotic HF5 IEMs, which also have a decent following.

This write-up is intended to be my personal comparison between these IEMs. In most cases, the audio source was a Zune HD with no eq. Audio files were either 256kbps MP3s or 192kbps WMAs. Test tracks included Tears For Fears "Sowing The Seeds", Fiona Apple "Extraordinary Machine", The Dear Hunter "Act III", The Avett Brothers "I And Love And You", and The Working Title "About Face".

Klipsch S4: $70
Etymotic HF5: $105
Advantage: ????. Obviously at $35 cheaper, the Klipsch S4 is potentially the better value if it's really a better product. We'll see.

Packaging & Accessories:
Klipsch S4: Decent, but not incredible. I don't personally like the included tin carrying case, but it's better than nothing. Also comes with (3) sets of Klipsch Gels ear tips, which I find very comfortable
Etymotic HF5: Nice packaging, and more impressive than Klipsch. Comes with (2) sets of tri-flange ear tips, one set of foamies, one set of "gliders" ear tips, a cleaning tool, and some extra filters. Impressive.
Advantage: Etymotic HF5.

Style & Appearance
Klipsch S4: The S4s have chrome accents and a shiny,black plastic casing which (to me) borders on somewhat cheap-ish looking. Maybe slightly 90s looking, whatever that means.
Etymotic HF5: The HF5s are flat-black and (in my opinion) very cool. The ray-gun look is both retro and modern. I dig it.
Advantage: Ety HF5.

Build Quality
Klipsch S4: While appearing cheap-ish in design (to me), they feel solid enough. Both the casing and cables feel fairly sturdy, and break-age isn't a huge concern right now. Compared to the Shure E3s, however, the cable feels fairly thin.
Etymotic HF5: More or less on par with the Klipsch S4s -- thinner cable, sturdy casing, and generally appear to be well-built. The rubbery cable was more difficult to mange, in my opinion, and I preferred the smoother cable of the S4s.
Advantage: Tie, with a slight edge to the HF5s -- primarily because the narrow body is easier to grab onto when removing from the ear.

Klipsch S4: Perhaps due to the slightly angled design, I've found the S4s quite easy to isolate. Depending on the ear tips used, isolation rates from decent to very good. Shure Olives have provided the best isolation for me, with the Etymotic tri-flange ear tips next. Klipsch Gels, while most comfortable, give somewhat less isolation. Personally, I've had the best isolation/comfort combo using the small Etymotic tri-flange tips with the S4s.
Etymotic HF5: With a very long nozzle, the HF5 can potentially get much deeper into the ear canal. It may be for that reason that the HF5s gave me more difficulty getting good isolation. It wasn't impossible, by any means, it just took me longer to accomplish. In a somewhat ironic twist, I preferred the large Klipsch Gels with the HF5s.
Notes: Again, likely due to the longer nozzle on the HF5s, I tended to prefer larger-sized ear tips with the Etymotics, and smaller-sized ear tips with the Klipsch. Just something of note.
Advantage: Tie, with a slight edge to the Klipsch S4s, which were easier for me to isolate. Otherwise, isolation was really more a matter of which ear tips were used. Since these IEMs can interchange ear tips, it's more or less a matter of personal preference/fit.

Klipsch S4: With a smooth, plastic cable, the S4s gave me very little microphonics -- especially when worn over-the-ear, which is my preference.
Etymotic HF5: With a rubbery cable, the HF5s were occasionally quite microphonic, though mostly unnoticeable while playing music.
Advantage: Klipsch S4

Klipsch S4: Lightweight and very comfortable, especially with the Klipsch Gels. My personal preference is wearing them over-the-ear, which works well with the S4s.
Etymotic HF5: Also lightweight and comfortable, though (perhaps) slightly less so than the S4s. The rubbery cable made these slightly more cumbersome to use.
Advantage: Tie, with a slight edge to the S4s.

Klipsch S4: As noted by many others, the Klipsch S4s have very pronounced mids and lows. You really feel the bass and kick, which can border on "muddy" in some cases. Mids are very present, and (again) can border on too much. Highs are nice, though sibilance has been an issue at times. Not always, but occasionally. At this point, it's not particularly distracting to me. Also, I've noticed some very discernible differences depending upon the ear tips used. Ear tips with deeper insertion tended to sound more "muddy" to me, whereas shallower insertion gave me more sibilance. My currently preferred ear tips are the Etymotic small tri-flanges, which are a good mix of insertion, isolation, low-end, and reducing sibilance.
Etymotic HF5: The HF5s are typically noted to sound "true" with a slight boost to the low-end, at least compared to the ER-4Ps. "Anemic" is a word often used to describe the low-end, and it is somewhat correct. In my opinion, the low-end felt "back" in the mix, and was easily lost in louder conditions. I rarely "felt" the low-end at all, although it was present and tight. I'm not a basshead, per se, but (evidently) I prefer a more pronounced low-end, which the HF5s didn't give me -- no matter what ear tips I used. Mids were decent, if a bit "back" in the mix as well. Highs and mid-highs were extremely present -- to the point of almost sounding "colored" to me. It didn't come across as natural or "what the author intended". It was, at times, almost fatiguing to my ears. The soundstage, at least compared to the S4s, felt completely central and narrow. When switching back and forth, I always felt more "free" with the S4 soundstage, and more confined when using the HF5s.
Advantage: Klipsch S4

With a larger sampling of IEMs, I could probably start to discern my personal preferences even better, but as it is I just have these two to compare. Honestly, I wanted to prefer the Etymotic HF5s. I like the way they look, I like the company, and I figured that spending an extra $35 would net me a better pair of IEMs. Also, as I listened to the Klipsch S4s more and more, I noticed the low/mid "muddiness" that was becoming distracting. A "true" sound, as potentially offered by the HF5s, was very welcoming to me.

As it stands, however, I can't help but prefer the Klipsch S4s. The soundstage was better, the low-end was much more noticeable, and the sound was all-around "warmer" to my ears. Using the S4s has been more enjoyable, even though they're not perfect. Would I change the S4s? Sure. Dial back the lows/mids slightly, deal with the sibilance, and bring out the highs/mid-highs a tad. The HF5s, on the other hand, I would (personally) change a lot more.

All that said, I give my nod to the Klipsch S4 IEMs. Hmmm.... I wonder how the Klipsch X5s sound?

Thanks for reading.


UPDATE (Jan. 4th, 2010)

I hate to waffle on this, but I want to give honest feedback as much as I'm able. Here's what's transpired...

So, I've spent a considerable amount of time listening to these two sets of IEMs over the past few days. I had posted that I was able to get the Shure Olives comfortable for me on the HF5s, which was a nice find. The isolation on the olives is amazing, to say the least. Also, the HF5s have really improved for me with these ear tips.

Anyhow, as I've listened back and forth, I've begun to prefer the "true, non-colored" sound of the Etymotics. Certainly a smaller soundstage, but the detail in the highs and mids is really great. Listening back to the S4s has shown me how over-bearing and muddy the lows/mids can be, which has become somewhat distracting. Vocals especially feel pushed back on the S4s. The enhanced bass is somewhat nice for tracks that already lack low-end, but it can get out of line pretty quickly.

Another point that I'd not spoken to was "which IEM would be better for the on-stage use" between the two of them. Truth is, I'm going to want high/mid detail more than low-end. Since it's "on-stage", I'll be able to 'feel' a bit of the low-end via the bass amp and sub-woofer, but highs/mids are easily lost and not gotten back. This has helped me decide that the Etymotic HF5s are a better solution for my needs.

Rethinking my decision, now: I'm going to stick with the Ety HF5s. I prefer the natural, "airy" sound, and the bass is sufficient for me. Never overbearing, but not missing either. The on-stage benefit of the HF5s and the "muddiness" of the S4s finally changed my mind.

Hope that helps someone out there.
post #2 of 29
Very nice. I like the review format (and the review ). Bonus points for not fawning sycophantically over the S4, as is currently fashionable.
post #3 of 29
Nice review, i am also glad your not all over the s4, like everyone else is
post #4 of 29
I am surprised at the outcome, I would have thought the Ety's would have won from what I have read. Great review by the way!
post #5 of 29
well from my experience with ety's its more of an acquired sound i guess is the right way to put it. people either hate it and could never get used to it or they are just absolutely amazing for you.

i am surprised about the isolation tho. i didn't find the isolation on the S4's that great to be honest and i would think an ety iem would absolutely destroy the S4 in terms of isolation.

nice review however
post #6 of 29
Originally Posted by rawrster View Post
well from my experience with ety's its more of an acquired sound i guess is the right way to put it. people either hate it and could never get used to it or they are just absolutely amazing for you.

i am surprised about the isolation tho. i didn't find the isolation on the S4's that great to be honest and i would think an ety iem would absolutely destroy the S4 in terms of isolation.

nice review however
Co-sign re: isolation. Getting a *perfect* seal is critical for both isolation and SQ. As a committed Ety-head (20 years or so) I found the isolation on the HF5's to be almost as good as my trusty ER4's and retired ER6's. Noobs tend to never insert then far enough into the canal to get the best of either isolation or sound. Other IEM's are easier and more practical for most. Nice review nonetheless.
post #7 of 29
Nice review. I heard the S4 once briefly (a friend of mine had just purchased it about two weeks prior). I thought the mids were nice, the treble was good, but the bass was a bit muddy for my taste. Now, I don't know how much burn-in time he got with them. I actually own the HF5 (along with the Ortofon e-q7, Shure e530, UE tf10 and the on-the-way Sennheiser ie7). I quite like the HF5 sound signature, although it's very clinical. It's my second favorite earphone, right after the e-q7 (two totally different sounds). I will say that you might have gotten more bass out of the HF5s if you use the Shure olives from the e530s. I really appreciated your review. I wish I had gotten more time with the s4.
post #8 of 29
Thread Starter 
Thanks for the replies, folks. A few things in response...

I am definitely familiar with deep insertion ear tips, and I tried both deep *and* shallow with the Etys. Certainly a bass difference, but it never sounded "full" to me. Also, I did try the Shure Olives on both sets of IEMs. They definitely isolate better, but they hurt my ears -- even the small size. I'd love it if they made an extra-small size, but alas...

Again, this was done as a "comparison"... and in my (totally personal) opinion, the warmer sound of the S4s was preferable. It just reinforced the "clinical", small-soundstage qualities of the HF5s. To reiterate, I really *wanted* to like the Etys more than the Klipsch, but at the end of the day I just couldn't.

I would *really* like to hear the Klipsch X5s now!
post #9 of 29
Some people report better comfort/performance with ety tri-flanges having chopped off the smallest flange. Not sure if that's something you want to try out.
post #10 of 29
yipcanjo, try to see if you can get a set of Comply Foam T-100 or Tx-100 ear tips and then find out how the Image S4 or HF5 sounds. Because the Comply ear tips uses "memory foam" that to conform to the ear canal shape, that could change the sound characteristics of both IEMs quite a bit.
post #11 of 29
Thread Starter 
Some follow-up here...

I decided to retry the HF5s with the Shure Olives -- this time taking extra effort to really get the ear tips into the canals. Not only are they *more* comfortable than before, the isolation is most certainly the best of the ear tips I've used. The low-end is better too. Not a "feel it" type of low-end like on the S4s, but not missing either -- and not likely to get "muddy", which is nice.

The HF5s are "airy", though, if that makes sense to anyone. Also, they feel so "middle of my head" when I use them. Is that a soundstage thing? If so, what is that caused by? Why do some IEMs feel more spread out than others?

@SactoMan101 -- I can certainly order up some Comply T-100 or Tx-100 tips. Are they better than the Shure Olives? If so, in what ways? Isolation? Comfort? Durability? I'm just asking...

Thanks, folks.
post #12 of 29
Thread Starter 
UPDATED... with a new decision.
post #13 of 29
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by bcpk View Post
Some people report better comfort/performance with ety tri-flanges having chopped off the smallest flange. Not sure if that's something you want to try out.
Thanks, bcpk. I might try that.
post #14 of 29
Originally Posted by yipcanjo View Post
UPDATED... with a new decision.
Having owned the ER4P and currently owning a pair of Altec-Lansing im616s (Ety drivers) with custom tips, I can certainly understand your decision. If you ever feel like really enhancing those Etys, get some custom sleeves for them. It really adds to the detail, depth and airiness. I bought the UM56s for my UM3X, but recently sold them. As luck would have it, those $115 custom tips fit the im616s and sound great on them. I do have to EQ the bass on the Sony X, but they are amazing phones. I was lucky and got the 616s for $17 back in December, but they were $149 MSRP back in 2005.
post #15 of 29
Thread Starter 
So... I was listening to the HF5 + Shure Olives combo all day today. Sounds very good, very natural, and the bass is *almost* perfect for me, if a tad bit lacking. Unfortunately, the uber-isolating Shure Olives still hurt my ears after a time. Not excruciating, but not painless either. It's enough (right now) to make me want to use them sparingly -- like when I *need* the best isolation.

Anyhow, per earlier recommendation (thanks, bcpk) I decided to cut the first flange off my tri-flange Ety ear tips. I noticed immediately that the sound hole (after cutting) was larger, which surprised me. It seems like the 3rd flange also reduced the sound hole opening. Anyhow, I slapped them in (hey! comfortable!) and played some tracks. Wow! An improvement in low-end... like surprisingly so! I was definitely shocked, but listened to a number of tracks to prove the point.

All things considered, this is a great setup for me: comfortable, even better low-end (while keeping the detail), and some isolation. It's not *great* isolation, by any means, but good enough for wearing around the house, at work, and so on.

Thought I'd mention it.
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