Etymotic HF5 Review
Etymotic: the king of accuracy. There a company you have surely heard if and who have been making IEMs from the start. For 18 years their flagship the ER4 has stayed the same while taking different incarnations for various purposes and as they years went on, most people still titled them, the accuracy kings. Throughout the years they have kept the ER4 series at the top but have always had cheaper alternatives that maintain claims of superior accuracy. First came the ER6, and then there is the current line. Starting at the bottom there are the MC series and above that sitting nicely under the ER4 is the HF series. These are the HF5 and are the same as the HF2 and HF3 but lack a microphone.
I’d thought id mention these boast big things and claim to offer a 85% accuracy. Not bad that all this is being delivered from a single microscopic (not quite but you get the jist) balanced armature driver. So when I got the opportunity to get a pair of these cheap I had to try them and see if they lived up to the claims. Enjoy!
As it happens with my time so far with these I have really experimented with these and found them to respond quite amazingly to amplifiers. For this review I will of course do the main sound write up from what they delivered straight up from my Cowon J3 with FLAC and my iMac with Apple Lossless and some AAC and MP3 of mixed bit rates.
However I will do a little bit of a write up on amping.
I am going to find this hard to comment as I actually bought these in quite a state. The cap on one of the back of the housings had came off leaving all the inside oozing out. I have managed to tape it up and it is still in perfect working order and I am having no problems with it since the taping.
Okay so starting with the cable. Starts with your standard hardly bulky gold plated straight ‘I’ jack. I’d like to see a right-angled jack like the ER4 series have but most earphones I have use an ‘I’ jack so I won’t complain. Its gold plated which helps static sounds. This moves onto the lower cable that I would say is your average thickness with a very solid, glossy feel to it. It seems very resistant to tangling as well. The split is very low profile and the separated cables are of course thinner but still remain with their sturdy feel. There is a chin slider that I find handy.
The housings are made of a plastic that actually feels solid enough but I think it’s the way that the back cap of the housing and the front is glued around the strain relief is going to be prone to problems as this is were mine had the break. The strain relief is a flexible silicone that does not seem to look like it could be a hazard for problems. Another part I am not keen on is the sound tube/nozzle that is the thinnest I have ever seen and I get worried whenever I have to change tip.
The design is very low profile as they are all black. It has a matte finish that is nice and does not finger print. There is an R and a L on the corresponding phones underneath the housing.
I did not get the full collection of accessories. What you do get originally is a plethora of different tips including two triple flanges, foam tips and some foam glider tips. Other than the full range of tips I got the rest of what Is quite a good pack of goodies.
You get a shirt clip that is not in need of any more detail.
You get a nice pleather zippered case which although will not offer protection from crush it will stop scratches etc. I also found that it is a good size and looks and feel nice. Good case.
You also get a pair of replacement filters and a tool to change them. The filters don’t change sound like with the Phonaks I reviewed but it is handy that you can change them I guess.
No comfort is something that for me as been like a burn in experience. I started with some unused stock triple flanges and when I inserted them I found that I was with actually in pain. I have scary thoughts that I will not be able to use these and will have to sell them. It saddened me.
But then like a leaf in the autumn a improvement blossomed, I was very determined and the pain started to ease and the tips burned in. No we will not have a debate over tip burn in but basically the just softened and almost molded to my ears.
Now three weeks down the line I’m used to them and they are not half bad!
This is simply put the best isolation I have ever come across. They insert so deep, they actually make contact with the brain, and even with no music playing the outside world is blocked. Completely. These get rid of everything I reckon a bomb could go off next to you and chances are you wouldn’t hear (am not guaranteeing these will save your life however). The other plus side to this is that you can listen to your music at lower volumes and this will protect you from dangers in the future.
If you are someone who uses public transport daily or are a regular flyer, these are these are the isolation that you may need. If this is a priority then do not look past these or their more expensive siblings the ER4 series (boasts better isolation, I don’t know how).
Microphonics (Cable Noise)
I expect you to have noticed by now that these are worn cable down. For those who don’t know one of the main reasons for them going over your ear is that this helps lose the annoying cable noise that comes with earphones that people have come to expect with cable down earphones. Obviously there are exceptions and certain earphones suffer more than others.
I would not go to say that these suffer largely but they do have microphonics. Your not going to suffer from them like I do with my HiSoundAudio Crystals but it can be irritating at times. There are luckily a few ways you can combat this. The first way is to se the included shirt clip that helps reduce the microphonics. The other way is just as simple and that is to wear them over the ear, its not ideal but if you cant deal with any microphonics then you will at least have a couple of options.
Soundstage and instrument separation
I don’t think that Etymotics thing is to have some super large soundstage and if it did I would love to know whether it would compliment the earphone well as personally it would just not be right. That being said they don’t have a small earphone its just nothing large and to get excited at. It all stays in your head but that just feels like the way it should be.
The instrument separation on the other hand is just sublime. It’s like in each song they have got each part or instrument and put them in their own separate bubble of breezy air. They separate second to none and they are only a touch of my DBA-02s in this department, which is not a shabby quote.
As for presentation although all in your head the separation make its all work and everything seems in the right position. There’s such an airy feel to these.
The bass on these is a good way to check for a seal as if your getting absolutely none then you has not got a seal. Once you have some then boom, your ready to go.
Single balanced armatures can’t have a big bass response and in this case its right. I don’t believe in that rule but this is something these are a prime example anyhow. Mid-Bass lacks majorly in quantity but does live it up a bit by its real good quality which delivers with a beautiful punch. Its super tight but just lacks ever so slightly in body. These claim to be 85% accurate and I think it’s the slight lack of bass body that marks it down. These are also surprising to have more bass than the ER4, which make me even more curious to try them.
Sub-Bass if you feel some well your lucky because in my time I have owned them they have yet to show me any.
So with my Cowon I thought just for review purposes I would try and EQ the bass up. I am not a big EQ fan but I know some of you use it daily with your best earphones so I gave it a try. Was not impressed it gives it a hump in order to boost quantity and even has a mid bleed. Did not work for me to say the least.
Now I am going to mention that I am by know means a bass head and can happily deal with low bass amounts so this is by far no where near an off put for me and is not biased and compared to plenty of bass heavy earphones. Check my round up at the end for a better idea.
Now I find there to be a slight peak in the mids leaving them sitting slightly above the other frequencies. These are still by no means a mid-centric earphone or even shouty but you notice its present just slightly above the rest. The detail is as you can guess with their accuracy ratings, something special. I find these to be very dynamic with great speed taking everything in their stride and they really leap around the place volume wise to the song.
Vocals seem so silky smooth but also underemphasized. They sit just right but can sometimes feel a bit whispy.
Part of they analytical Etymotic sig however makes these feel very thin and un-textured where they lack body. Makes out for a very two-dimensional sound. This is not to worry about as it is all part of the sound and it works.
The right finish to the analytical signature with a great extension which goes miles up the frequencies. The highs are not aggressive or laid back and they have big sparkle, not close to fatiguing like the DBA-02 but lets symbols really stand out. The detail as with rest of the HF5 is beautifully on the money.
I thought I would mention the naturalness of the instruments. The decay seems just perfect. I do find though that drum hits are lacking and can feel empty but symbols make goo use of the highs and really shine. Guitar solos are just soooo natural and really have some zing.
Adding Impedance and Amping
So I heard that by adding impedance to these such as the ER4P to ER4S adaptor or an attenuator bundled with earphones that you can make these pretty much as good as the ER4’s. So I got my UE airplane attenuator out which add 100 ohms of impedance and then went iMac to Objective 2 to HF5. OH GOD! The improvement was unreal, more details, more body, better presentation and transparency and a smoother sound overall. It was great.
So the after some more experimenting I made the best iPhone rig that I have done today using the attenuator, my Phone 4 and my cMoy BB amp. Same effect and also super portable.
If you have these I recommend playing around with this stuff.
The whole series with the HF2 and HF3 with their mics make these earphones cater for everyone. They can be had fairly cheap and offer superb analytical and accurate sound. However even though these are so accurate and maintain pretty much neutral frequency response (other than slight mid boost, really slight like 0.5 or 1 db at a guess) they do not sound natural and extremely false. This is not bad and I really enjoy these earphones nonetheless. These are great for a lot of situations. For example want a cheaper earphones that sounds neutral with mic, tick! Want a super isolator earphone, tick! Want to get the ER4 but can not afford them or unsure on the sig, then these will more than likely do nicely.
MY IEM ROUNDUP (too compare these to my other earphones)
Edited by Swimsonny - 5/3/12 at 12:26pm