Etymotic MC3 – Going In Deep
Type 8-mm dynamic driver
Frequency Response 20Hz ~ 15,0000Hz
Sensitivity 100 dB
Connector ‘J type’ 45-degree angled 3.5mm plug
Cable Length 4 Feet / 1.2 metres Kevlar coated!
Noise Isolation 36-42 dB (98%) !!!
Introduction, or Thank You For Your Condolences, It Was A Good Wallet:
Before I start the review, I just wanted to say Hi and thank you to everyone here on Head-Fi! To be honest, I can’t remember how I stumbled on this fantastic community. I dimly recall old man Google referring me to some reviews of my trusty bundled MDR-EX82 earphones.
I came from a long succession of Koss clip-ons which I had enthusiastically evangelised to my high school friends. I had dabbled in audiophilia by choosing ATRAC on my minidisc instead of ATRAC3. “The poor huddled masses!” I had laughed to myself. “Lying in the streets, ears bleeding from their sibilant ATRAC3 compression.” What hubris, what folly!
My development in musical tastes was just as stunted. In my high school years, my music collection consisted almost entirely of anime soundtracks, video game music and parodies by Weird Al Yankovick. All of which I still enjoy – though to paraphrase Cookie Monster, Weird Al is only sometimes music.
Since then I’ve realised that music isn’t just what is played on the radio, that there are some amazing artists out there just waiting to be discovered and listened to. My music collection consists almost entirely of things that don’t sell all that well – from experimental electronic operas about Darwinian evolution (‘Tomorrow In a Year’ by The Knife) to sampled folktronica (‘Thought for Food’, The Books). I’ve also realised that there are also people out there who care enough about the listening part to source exotic equipment from the most obscure manufacturers – and not just the crazy ones who spend thousands on diamond plated magical audio cables. All to get that little bit closer to having music directly injected into their brain and bloodstream.
However, none of this realisation could prepare me for my first purchase on the collective recommendation of Head-Fi, the Head Direct RE0. In a secluded temple in China a hundred year old master of the aural arts milled these earphones with his bare hands. A liturgy to the Fang was chanted, and they were spirited away on the back of a dragon to an Australian distributor in a mystical leather case. At least that’s what I expected. For two hundred and sixty Australian dollars, you expect quite a lot.
Since then I’ve fallen in head over heels for headphones as a full-blown collectors hobby. My parents are mystified why I seem to need so many pairs – I only have two ears after all? My friends come to me for advice (which they subsequently dismiss when I tell them how much money they’ll have to spend to get something ‘decent’.) However, this is Australia. Things are expensive. I’m just a student with a part time job, and I’m terrible with saving money. It just seems to just slip out of my fingers no matter how hard I grip, shrieking, “Hold on! Don’t let go! You have so much to live for!” I think it frightens people when I do the shrieking at the cash register, so I do most of my purchases online, where I can shriek in peace.
In this regard, Head-Fi probably hasn’t helped. But I just want to say: thank you Head-Fi and all the people here. Thank you for opening my eyes to a new world of friendly people and amazing equipment. I hope you enjoy my first review, and forgive me for my criminal levels of waffling.
What are the Etymotic MC3’s – Old School Gets Cheaper
Amusingly, I first heard of Etymotic in High School when I was showing my friend my shiny new Koss clip ons, and he told me of a family friend who had such insanely expensive earphones that plugged directly into the ears with foam plugs that had to be discarded after every single use. This struck me as dazzlingly extravagant at the time, whereas now it just strikes me as dazzlingly stupid and false. While he didn’t say the specific manufacturer, talking only in vague terms of “research” and “European” and “insane expense”, considering how long ago this was, he could only really have been talking about the Etymotic ER-4 series It remains a popular IEM even today – the old hand that shows people how its done, like the Koss Porta Pro.
While I’ve never heard any of the Etymotic series before this review, I’ve always been curious about the philosophy of sheer detail, clarity and isolation that the company espouses. It’s always struck me as a brand for classical music lovers. It’s a good bet to trust companies that only manufacture one type of product, and in that sense it seems like Etymotic has been around to know what they are doing. However, my past IEM purchases have taught me that I do prefer a bit of bass, and I am a bit sensitive to sibilance, so I’ve been wary of the Etymotic brand until I had heard they were releasing new, cheaper dynamic driver based earphones.
Enter the Etymotic MC5 / MC3.
They Etymotic MC3 (and the identical, microphone/music control-less brother the MC5) are touted as Etymotic’s entry into the lower end of the market, with dynamic drivers driving down the cost and increasing the bass, while keeping most of the Etymotic sound signature and famed isolation.
While a lot of Head-Fi members speculate that the MC5 is Ety’s answer to the Head-Direct RE0, to be honest given Etymotic’s long pedigree and relative reputation in audiophile circles, I’m not too sure that the RE0 would be a large enough target to be in their sights – rather than say, the Klipsch S4 or other more well known brands. That isn’t to say the comparison isn’t very valid – given the analytical nature of both house sounds its an extremely valid comparison in my opinion – it just is nice to think about the target market at times. At the same time, the mass market headphone market seems to be exploding with brands like Monster and Skullcandy (I know), and perhaps Etymotic wants a entry level product and a slice of that pie.
Kevlar coated cables and a 2 year warranty inspired confidence in what was for me really a very mixed purchase – from early Head-Fi reviews, and particularly a very bad review on TrustedReviews, I wasn’t expecting all that much. I ordered the set from Etymotic directly on a Friday, and received it shipped by international express courier on a Monday, which is pretty fantastic in my book. Since then I’ve clocked in about 50 hours on them of burning in and listening. I’ll give my impressions of burn in later on in this review.
What’s in the Box– Spacer Laser Headset Pew Pew Pew!
The Etymotics come in a nice, easy to open and classy though understated, small cardboard box with a flip up cover that shows off the little space lasers inside. I haven’t posted pictures of the unboxing, because I think the whole fascination with the unboxing process is a little unhealthy, but rest assured the unboxing inspires confidence considering the price of the product – unlike the unboxing experience of say the RE252’s with their tiny plastic box, or the much more expensive CK90Pros which come in what resembles a little box of cereal.
The accessory selection is relativey generous – you get a bag, filter changer and a pair of replacement filters, a pair of foam tips, the strange mushroom ‘glider’ tips, and small and large silicone bi-flanges. The small tri-flanges come attached to the nozzle, which is surprising given how small they are. It does seem to be Etymotic’s suggestion of how deep these are supposed to go in.
Build Quality, Cables and Microphonics – Bulletproof
This is probably the best part of the Ety’s. The earphones are well built, and inspire a lot of confidence. The strain reliefs are meaty and thick, as are the cables which are supple with a nice texture, fairly tangle free and little memory effect. They are leagues ahead of any other IEM that I have – the old style rigid RE0 cables, the decent though not fantastic CK90Pro cables, the kinky and annoying nylon cables of the Radius DDM’s. I’m not sure how much Kevlar is used in the product – I’m not even sure what the texture of Kevlar is - all I can say is that the cables are a high point. Microphonics are average when worn down, and non-existent when either used with the included shirt clip or worn over the ear. With a 2 year warranty, I really couldn’t be happier with the build quality of a 100 USD product.
Comfort and Isolation– If You Find Brain on the Tip, You’ve Gone Too Far
Here was my first stumble with the Etymotics. The MC3’s have a narrower nozzle then I have ever seen on an IEM, though I understand this is relatively usual with sets from Shure, Ety, etc. The tips are described as deep insertion, and they were not kidding – I have never put anything so far into my ear canal except for Q-tips to clean my ears. And if you’ve ever used Q-tips to clean your ears, the feeling is almost identical.
It took me a long while to adjust to the tri-flange silicone tips, and initially I found the tri-flanges desperately scratchy and uncomfortable. The flanges would scratch against my ear canals, the small tips were difficult to get a secure seal with, the big tips sealed but the flanges rubbed against my ears painfully. I found myself using the foam and glider tips more and more, which after intial insertion were comfortable. However, they did terrible things to the clarity, taking away so much sparkle that I went back to wrestling with the silicones. I preservered, given other Head-Fi members saying that as the silicone absorbed body oils, they would become softer and seal would be easier to achieve.
I can say, after a few days, that thankfully this is true. I’ve worked out a way to insert them so that they are comfortable, no part of the nozzle is digging into my ear canal, and I get a seal each time. Unfortunately, this way means that I have to wear them down rather than over the ear, which means microphonics are an issue. Also troubling, is that swapping out the foam tips so many times, the glue that attaches the rubber cores to the foam is coming apart. So I’m essentially stuck with the silicone bi-flanges.
Isolation is amazing, as expected. When music is playing you literally cannot hear anything else. This is dangerous in a way because not only can you not hear any screams if a dinosaur is going to attack your Jeep, but also because the lack of relative volume means that it’s fairly easy to turn these up way too high.
An important thing to note is that Etymotic is running a program which means that you can go to an audiologist and have custom tips made for you from ACS, with a total price including impressions of $100 USD. This seems to me to be an extremely reasonable offer, though you have to like the MC’s enough to more than double their price as a package. I’m considering this option, as the comfort of customs seems pretty attractive.
About the Review, or Almost There Folks!
As with any review, its important to know about the sources, the music itself, and of courses the listener.
For an unamped, portable source, I’ll be using my shiny new iPhone 4, which has proved itself to be a really surprisingly fantastic source. It maintains the relatively balanced presentation of the iPod series, but far outstrips my old 3G in instrument seperation, treble and bass extension. It also stomps all over my old Sony Walkman S739, which sounds a little bloated, and yet simultaneously rolled off in treble and bass comparison.
For my amped source, I’ll be using a Macbook Pro/ iTunes with a Nuforce uDac. Here I’ll be using lossless tracks whenever possible.
Throughout the review I’ll be making direct comparisons to the RE0, because that seems to be fairly common among the members of Head-Fi and a similar IEM in both sound and price. It’s important to note that my RE0’s are NOT STOCK. I have changed the amount of foam in the RE0’s to thicken up the mids and bass, which while removing a little treble sparkle, balances out what is in my opinion a little bit of a thin sound. Apparently, using foam tips on the RE0 achieves a similar effect.
I’ll also be making comparisons to the balanced armature
As for my own ears, I’ve done a few tests on http://www.audiocheck.net/ and can apparently only hear differences in volume of 3dB or higher. I’m fortunately still blessed with relative youth, and the highest frequency I can hear (or at least any of the gear I have can reproduced) is 18.5kHz which I determined by generating pure tones in Audacity. I relate this only because I wonder if different IEM’s have more positive responses for older people – perhaps the RE0’s treble emphasis seems more balanced the older you get, for instance. Personally, I find it quite thin and sometimes harsh unamped.
As for the music, my intention is to give my impressions with a variety of tracks, which are some of my absolute favourites and best exemplify some aspect of sound recording. With each track I want to give an idea of what I’m listening for. In the end its all about the music, and so I hope you enjoy them, have a listen to the ones that seem interesting in the descriptions, and get an idea of my schizophrenic tastes in music. I’ve also linked each song to a high quality Youtube version (using the &fmt=18 hack) if you wanted to have a listen and compare with your own gear – though of course that’s a fairly different set of circumstances. If the only effect of my review is to have someone rush out to buy an album rather than the MC5’s, that’s cool too.
Another thing to note is that the sound changed quite significantly during the burn in period, from a very harsh and yet mid-heavy sound, to a more balanced one at the end of 50 hours. It would be hard to say how much it will change over a longer period, but I feel as though they have settled now.
I’ll give some impressions on specific tracks and then some general notes on the sound (with numbers).
Listening Impressions, or Finally, the Point
Zero, from the album It’s Blitz by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Genre: Indie Electro-pop
About the track:Something exciting to start off with, Karen Oh’s gasping vocals on this track remind me of a more mainstream version of Bjork. I heard this in a store one day and the eclectic mix of electronic sounds and piercing vocals grabbed me. The whole album is mastered in a distinctly studio clean kind of way, with a little bit of compression which can make this track sound a bit messy on the wrong equipment.
What I’m listening for: Female vocal energy, instrument separation, speed (especially upper bass), possible sibilance
Unamped: The Ety’s sound on this track is fairly dry and crisp. What stands out most in the vocals is that the MC5’s have a peak in lower treble, which makes them sound quite ‘hot’ – an aggressive and somewhat harsh sound. Compared to the RE0’s, which sound smooth with this kind of breathy female vocal, the MC5’s take the sharpness in this kind of vocal way too far. While they are are quite fast in general, this almost spitting kind of harshness makes the track sound almost messy and compressed and detracts from the layering. Bass extension is better than the RE0’s, but with the foam mod, the RE0 trumps the MC3 in bass quantity.
Overall not a great start for the MC3.
Amped:The uDac is a warm source compared to the iPhone 4, and on this track it works very well with the MC3’s. Despite the low impedance stated for the MC3’s, they actually seem as hard to drive as the RE0’s and benefit as much from amping – the messy compressed sound is lifted, instrument separation improves, and overall the tone is much less harsh.
The RE0’s are considered a top tier IEM when amped, and certainly deserve that reputation. They sound much sweeter here than the MC3’s, with a more fleshed out warmth. However, it becomes more of a difference in signature preferences, because the MC5’s have an etched clarity. In my opinion, the RE0 wins again, though I think a stock RE0 would be on quite even keel here.
Another Saturday, from the compilation album Dark Was the Night by Stuart Murdoch
About the track:A beautiful, calming acoustic guitar, male vocal track
What I’m listening for: Vocal smoothness, transparency, imaging, soundstage
Unamped:Here is the type of track where the MC3’s shine. Where the track is already liquid and smooth, the MC3 brings a clarity that, combined with their good bass extension, give a good sense of balanced transparency and accurate timbre – with guitar strumming and squeaking in equal measure. Dynamics are also a nice point here. The RE0’s sound more full here, and while still smoother, lack that sense of transparency and subtlety. I’d be pretty happy with both signatures, but if you want that feeling of being able to hear everything in the music, the MC3 is the pick here.
Incidentally, this is also the kind of track that the Radius DDM’s excel, with an even more emotional sense of timbre.
Amped: All the little details come out for the MC3’s here, with a sense of the vocals getting a lift and floating a little, and little squirks in the guitar emerging. The RE0’s sound more intimate and smoother. Again it’s a question of preferences, with the MC3 sounding more separated. What stands out really is again, how much the MC3 benefits from amping for a supposedly portable source.
Take You On, from the album I Feel Cream by Peaches
About the track:Peaches is the closest that I listen to mainstream hip-hop. She considers herself a conceptual artist, and I’m never sure its integrity or because she realised she could never be a mainstream sex icon. Nevertheless, the raunchy sex drenched lyrics and the ironic comments about getting old in this album are quite fun. Don’t be fooled by her voice, Peaches is getting wrinkles.
What I’m listening for: Bass!!! Also vocal transparency, clarity
Unamped: The MC3’s, for a supposedly analytical earphone, acquits itself well here – though its not going to impress any bassheads. The bass extension means that it flexes its muscles pushing air into the ear canal, while the synthesizers still manage to hang in the air. The part of the song at around 2:30 where the electronic tone kicks in is a lot of fun here.
The RE0’s with the foam mod are a little stronger in bass quantity, but the shallower bass extension means that the difference between the opening bass notes and the subsequent bass beat isn’t as noticeable as it should be.
Amped: Since there is not much to reveal in this track, amping doesn’t do a great deal besides upping the bass. The RE0 might do a better job of imaging the left/right pan of the vocals here in sections of the track. The MC3 continues to sound thinner than the modded RE0.
Meister Eckhardt and Quackie, Third Movement of the Harmonielehre suite, composed by John Adams
About the Track:This is an orchestral track from the Minimalist composer John Adams. It describes, amusingly enough, a dream Adams had of his daughter flying through clouds with a philosopher, before being confronted with an oil tanker rising out of the ocean. Trippy.
What I’m Listening for: Dyanamics, detail, full frequency reproduction
Unamped: Being classical / instrumental, this track is the MC3’s home turf here. The clarity of the MC3’s work well, with a stridency to the trumpet notes towards the end, and a real sense of the detail in the strings. The RE0 sounds a little less sure here with its slight lack of dynamics and imaging.
Amped: The amp works magic here for the MC3. You can tell this is how this particular earphone is meant to sound, with detail over the whole orchestra range. The modded RE0’s sound more fleshed out and smooth again, but without that detail. Dynamics on an amped RE0 may be a fair bit better though.
General Listening Impressions / Conclusion
Overall, the MC3 is a mixed bag for me. Because of its relatively etched sound, in my opinion it does quite poorly when coupled with a harsh source. On a badly mastered track, or even one that is mastered a little ‘hot’, the sound signature can be sizzling. This means that on any track where they add a high pass filter to make the vocals sound a little more dry – an effect really frequently used in electronic music – the effect is actually doubled and it can be quite painful to listen to. This isn’t the kind of usual “S” or “F” sibilance (though this can have that as well), but more of a general aggression to the tone. In those cases, you have to turn down the volume, though thankfully the isolation is good for that. If you don't mind a bit of EQing, then with a bass boost the MC3's are really fantastic sounding. Soundstage and instrument separation are nothing unusual for this price point - nothing that stands out as particularly great, but not poor either.
How much of this sizzling signature can be attributed to their hard to drive nature distorting the relatively low output on the iPhone headphone amp is hard to say. Certainly, it gets worse as you turn the volume up, which leads me to suggest not coupling the Ety with a weak source.
The suggestion that switching to dynamic drivers have significantly increased the bass on the Ety's is somewhat misleading - though not Etymotic's fault, considering that they never made the assertion themselves as far as I know. While these have good bass extension, and more bass than an unmodded RE0, they should still be considered bass light.
The sound of the Ety’s can best be described as dry and transparent, with accuracy and extension on both ends – more bass extension than the RE0’s and as much sparkle, but with less smoothness. This seems to match exactly with what Etymotic prides as their sound signature – tremendous accuracy and articulation. The signature is probably quite closed to a stock RE0 but fuller mids and better bass extension. Unfortunately, I cannot recall with 100% accuracy the sound of the RE0 before I messed with the foam.
For a $99 dollar iPhone headset, or a $79 headphone, considering the build quality and isolation, the MC5’s are great for anyone who would like an analytical sound, and who is relatively immune to sibilance.
On another note, these are probably a great option for an iPhone headset at their price point, with the convenience of having music controls and a microphone really very useful. One amazing thing that I didn’t consider is that the iPods allow for voice control for music playback with the microphone – for instance you can say “Play Arist The Flaming Lips” and it will do so, obeying your every whim. For anyone who is wondering if the headset version is worth the premium, the answer is yes, definitely.
Also important to note is that the MC5s do offer an upgrade path in the form of the relatively cheap custom tip option. I can’t say how much that would change the sound, but if I do take Etymotic up on their offer I will write updated impressions in the second post.
If I had to choose between the MC5 and the RE0, it would be a harder question – depending on how important build quality and isolation was to the equation. The Ety's are more transparent and as long as nothing flips the sibilance switch, they sound detailed and balanced. For me, with the amount of electronic/filtered music I listen to, I think I personally still prefer the sound of the RE0’s by a small margin – and only after I tweaked the RE0’s to my taste. Their characters are similar enough that anyone who would be happy with one would be happy with the other. Your mileage may vary, as may it vary with the comfort and fit.
Despite all this, it's good to keep in mind that the RE0's originally retailed at over two hundred dollars, and are still heavily recommended by people on this forum as an excellent first choice at their price point - they are giant killers with a few flaws. In the same way, the MC5's have a mix of good and bad, but with their build quality the best I have ever seen, and great sound for the price, I would not hesitate to recommend them for someone with around that much to spend - as long as they are aware of the caveats.
After a few weeks now of using the MC3's, I can report that the sound hasn't changed much more with burn in, though they are perhaps a little less etched. What continues to impress me is the tremendous noise isolation the MC3's offer, which is an asset which can't be underemphasised. Overall for portable use in the city, these canalphones will have higher quality sound, simply because they will be able to block out more noise and let you hear more of your music. The transparent presentation of the headphones has grown on me, and I can now recommend them for portable use more than the RE0s.
Thanks if you made it to the end of my first review, and I'd really appreciate any comments or suggestions for future reviews. I hope this helps anyone pondering giving these a spin, and thanks again for reading!
Edited by a_recording - 9/16/10 at 6:47pm