Etymotic hf3 Review
First Impressions: Pretty, much pretty than their older siblings but then how hard would that be? I must say I like the look of them mostly because the angle the cable comes out looks like I can get away with wearing these up, fingers crossed. That was one of the things I always really hated about the ER4, you really have no choice, you have to wear them down. It’s a shame but Etymotic have removed the ability to replace the cable and changed it for a clearly inferior cable too. I should note that the cable here looks absolutely fine but when you’re comparing to one if the very best out there it’s not hard to fall a bit short.
Anyway a quick little listen and to borrow a phrase from the chap that plays Sulu, “Oh my!” Well there is no doubt about it; these are definitely Ety’s. Gobs of isolation and they sound fantastic, woo hoo! Away they go for a little burn in just in case.
Source 1G iPod Shuffle with a 75 ohm adapter added and 5G iPod Video line out through a Practical Devices XM5 with LM6171 opp amps, predominantly.
Lows: OMG these are bass monsters! Okay okay I’m joking, these are Etymotics so I’m sure you all know what to expect in terms of quantity. These do a touch more than the legendary ER4 but only a smidgen, the difference is so small if you hated the ER4 then don’t expect there to be enough here to make you happy. For me I’d say the quantity is fine but if you’re not used to Balanced Armatures you’ll be in for a shock, minimal air movement going on here. Now over to the quality and oh my shock of horrors the bass is uber tight and precise. The precision with which the Ety do lows is well known and here they are true to form. It is just excellent, unimaginably precise. If you’re looking for any softness or flabby bass bloom then look somewhere else.
So will everyone like the bass? No. As has been established aver the last 20 years Ety’s are not bass monsters and for those used to flabby bottomed dynamics these will sound as though they have no bass what so ever, so be warned. To those who like an Ety sound these are just outstandingly good.
Mids: Well these are Ety’s and so the mids are super clean and clear, somewhat on the dry side and little bit cold. Passion and fire just don’t come through with these, but then what did you expect. Etymotic is all about the cold precise replication of things and these do just that. I can’t find really anything to complain about, they don’t really have any technical faults but they don’t have much soul either. Voices are that tiny bit dead inside, the singers may be pitch perfect but they don’t sound like they are singing from their hearts like they do from a Shure. Not they they aren’t enjoyable, they are but I’m more inclined to be judging the vocalist on their technical abilities as a singer than to be sat and just enjoying the performance. They do go very nicely with dryer vocals though. Technically these are superb.
Highs: I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again but these are Ety’s so you know before hearing there is going to be an inclination towards the upper end of things. With their relative lack of bass and relative abundance of treble they sound bright and if you’re not used to this it will be an enormous shock to the system, if you’re coming from something like a CX300 you won’t know what’s hit you. Abundance aside which you’ll either love or hate, the treble is excellent. It does like to be amped and its quantity is a little tiring on the ears. I am rather treble sensitive and I must admit that unamped Ety’s grate on me after a bit. Their treble is hard and edgy with a near brutal clarity. If your music has flaws or is a crappy bit rate these will take those flaws and thrust them in your face. If you’re buying these you had better be using good, high bit rate stuff or they will savage you until you do. On the other side of things with good, high quality songs add a little impedance and then throw a little power at them the treble improves so much. They soften and improve in clarity taking the edge and brutality away making some of the best treble out there. The ER4 is better when you do the same but its sure as hell not twice the price better. The highs here are just excellent and absolutely demand you feed them high bit rates. You will be punished if you don’t. Just fantastic stuff here.
Soundstage: Well it’s not too bad, it’s an Ety so it’s not great but a large soundstage wouldn’t suit their presentation anyway. It’s more of an intimate; examine the music feel so a more acoustic chamber feel is fine.
Comfort: I’ve always said in the ER4 the ER stands for Ear Rape. These are not vastly different. For those not used to Ety’s you won’t believe how deep they go in, people often joke you keep pushing in till they hit brain matter and its only half joke. They go in so far you will feel like you have been violated and god help you if you use Ety’s famous triple flange tips. I hate them so I use the far more comfortable Shure olives. With a pair of small olives on these become actually pretty comfy once you get used to being penetrated so deeply.
Fit: Since I’m quite used to the depth these go in I had no problem at all, they go in and the outside world goes away. No muss no fuss but be warned, if you haven’t used Ety’s before expect to be horrified at first, in time you will get used to it.
Cable: I know I’ve already moaned about the cable but compared to most out there it is really pretty good. It has a nice rubbery texture, feels pretty sturdy too. The jack I rather like with its odd 45 degree angle rather than 90’s.
Microphonics: Worn down its pretty crappy, you can mostly fix by using the slider but I hate those. However, you can wear these up without any trouble. Not totally perfect but absolutely fine and so that’s how I wore them. That way there was no micophonics at all.
Amped/Unamped: There is no way to get away from it, these do like to be amped and they do like additional impedance. You can use them fine without either but I found it really hard not to when the trusty XM5 is just sat there tempting with its awesomeness. Out of the shuffle with its power, these too were great even without additional impedance but I just kept wanting to add it back. The difference is there and if these had been the hf5 I’d insist anyone buying should buy an impedance adapter too. The issue with these being the hf3 is that if you do, you loose their mic and control functions for use with fruity products. Let’s face it if you have bought the mic and controller versions you’re not going to be amping or adding impedance.
Iphone Use: Seeing as these are specifically intended for use with fruity products I borrowed a friend’s Iphone 4 (capitalised correctly) to see how they all fit together and everything worked fine. Volume worked, play pause forward and back so if you need that functionality then I can see it being a really, very useful set up. Calls likewise were really good and most importantly even when I wore these up and the mic was effectively at my ear I was told I came through loud and clear.
Acoustically I can’t say I loved the Iphone 4’s quality but it wasn’t bad. It was tilted off towards the warmer, gentler side of things which I guess is probably a good combination given the hf3’s tendency towards brightness. I did feel it somewhat muted the fine detail and clarity of the hf3 but ho hum, it’s what you get for using a phone as a music player.
Build Quality: It’s an Ety, its clearly top quality. Etymotic are legendary for the build of the ER4, their warranty and customer support are famous for being about the best out there. 2 Years too.
Isolation: Duh, it’s an Ety. They isolate like nothing else you have ever used before. They go in and the outside world just disappears, anything and everything disappears. Be it babies crying, traffic, jet engines, the wife, etc it makes no difference. Be warned if you’re walking about keep your eyes open, you will not hear traffic, no cars no taxis no double decker busses. If you don’t look you will die, it’s that simple.
Accessories: You get the normal Ety baggy thing which is reasonable and padded but I’d rather a hard case. You get an assortment of tips which you can try if you want but I’m telling you now, buy a Shure fit kit. Shure tips, particularly olives, are vastly better than the ones that come with these. The tri flanges are savage in their brutality.
Value: Oooh dilemma. Can you get better sound for the money? Yes you can. Head to head the stunning RE-0 beat these and if I’m honest they beat the ER4 too. What really does these no favours in the value stakes is the mic and control which Etymotic will be paying fees to a fruity manufacturer in licensing. It bumps up their price noticeably over the hf5 which is identical bar the mic and controller. For the hf5 prices out there are very, very reasonable with the almighty jungle based retailer having them at £65. That’s approaching unbeatable value, their build, warranty and oh that isolation, its fantastically good value. With the mic and controller, which if you’re going to use, then you pay a premium and the price goes to £130 from AMP3 /Advanced Headphones (note, on sale right now for £122.) That’s a pretty big jump if you ask me but I’m not an Iphone user and having all that integration is worth something but I don’t know if it’s worth all that. On the other hand you sure as hell won’t find any better mic and controller sets out there for the money. Sure the UE Triple Fi 10vi will beat it but you’re looking at £220 for them.
They don’t instinctively feel great value at this price but I cannot think of anything that can compete for the price or even come close.
Conclusion: Etymotic came out with the ER4 in 1991 and since then they haven’t really changed anything in it. It’s the staple baseline in the industry to which all others are measured. So for Ety the hf3 are a bit far out in terms of radical change but acoustically they are still they are same old Etymotics. Comparing these head to head with the ER4 I do notice differences and I can tell where there ER4 just get things more right but the differences are frankly tiny. If you were blind and grabbed the wrong set one day you aren’t going to notice immediately, at all if you’re not closely paying attention. The sound quality these give is basically the same as the Legendary ER4 and is for all intents unbeatable. Yes yes I hear the cries of “oh yes it can!” from the back (panto season approaching) but I’d wager most of those are down to matters of taste than out right technical superiority. I can say there are a few things out there than are technically superior but these are so damn close, so damn cheap and dear god they are Ety’s and they isolate so much you can’t believe till you have used a set. The all round combination of stunning fidelity, rampant isolation, the mic and do dah really propels these to a level few can touch.
What these really boil down to is if you like that famous Ety sound. That ultra “neutral” many would call bass anaemic and bright. However, that’s because people are used to stupendously elevated levels of bass, not because these are at fault. If you like that then these are an all round package without compare.