Review: Etymotic hf5 earphones
True excitement and pure enjoyment
The advent of mp3 players and smartphones, in particular iPods and iPhones, created a market for earphones. Well-known makers of hi-end headphones turned their interest onto earphones and new companies popped up, with new models started sprouting like mushrooms in a forest after the rain. Among all these makers, a company with a long-standing tradition and experience is Etymotic.
Etymotic Research, Inc. was founded by Dr. Mead Killion 30 years ago with the aim of improving the life of those with hearing problems as well as enhancing the listening experience of professional musicians and music lovers alike. As the Company was deeply involved in acoustic research, it is no wonder that it invented in-ear-phones in 1984, a design that at that time was not only innovative, but also ahead of its times. The first three versions (ER-1, 2, 3) were used for diagnostic testing and precision auditory research; it was 1991 that Etymotic presented ER-4, which was the first noise-isolating high-fidelity earphone. It was the first model using balance armature drivers based on the diffuse-field-response philosophy, in which Dr. Killion was a pioneer (see Mead C. Killion, Elliott H. Berger, and Richard A. Nuss, “Diffuse field response of the ear”, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. Volume 81, Issue S1, pp. S75-S75, May 1987; see also http://dx.doi.org/10.1121/1.2024388). The ER-4 turned out to be so good that not only it is nowadays considered an all time classic, but it has also formed the basis for many future designs (Monster’s Noel Lee has told Chris Martens of AVguide that he greatly admires the ER-4 series earphones, and he used them as one of his competitive benchmarks during development of the Monster headphones; see the “Monster Cable Miles Davis Tribute In-Ear Headphones” review, Playback 30).
Of course, ER-4 was Dr. Killion’s personal project in creating a world-class earphone model; since then, more than two decades have gone by, and many things have changed; ER-4, although an all-time classic and for many a reference model, is not for everyone. It has killer resolution, which means that your recordings have to be top-class, or ER-4 will reveal their flaws; and its tonal balance is so remarkable that some people find it to be bass shy. Nowadays, with the advent of mp3 players and smartphones, such as iPods, iPhones and the like, a new market has been opened up, and Etymotic had to take up the challenge.
The idea was simple yet very successful: Create a model having the merits of ER-4, but also appealing to today’s listeners. The result was the hf5.
Before I go on with the hf5, let me note that Etymotic also offers the hf2, which is equipped with an inline microphone that makes it compatible with an Apple iPhone; and the hf3, which is pretty much like the hf2, except that it has a 3-button mic/phone control module.
The two most popular versions of ER-4 are the ER-4S and the ER-4P; the former provides extremely high accuracy and is the reference version used by musicians, recording engineers and true audiophiles. The ER-4P, on the other hand, has 10 dB greater output at high frequencies and 13 dB greater output at low frequencies than the ER-4S; this makes ER-4P appropriate to be used with any audio source without requiring an additional amplifier. Etymotic offers an optional cable (ER38-24) in order to convert ER-4P to ER-4S response, which is pretty handy as it allows you to have two sets in one. Also, all ER-4 sets are hand built in the US by an Etymotic engineer who precision matched and custom tuned the balanced-armature drivers used in it, a truly unique feature.
Naturally, hf5 has been based on ER-4P; it uses balanced-armature drivers, which are made to strict specifications instead of precision matched and custom tuned like ER-4P drivers are; as a result, hf5, like ER-4P, does not also require an additional amplifier.
Moreover, for hf5 to be even more appealing, particularly to younger people, it is offered in three nice colors, black, cobalt, and red, and it comes with a variety of eartips (for more on the hf5 accessories, read the Accessories and fit section below).
I guess it comes as no surprise that the sonic character of hf5 is very close to that of ER-4P; after all, the former was designed to be a kind of “life-style” version of the latter. Nevertheless, this close resemblance in the sound signature of the two sets, besides being a very pleasant surprise, given how good ER-4P is, it is also quite an accomplishment, if one thinks that the two sets are made to quite different tolerances.
For a set having a street price around $100, hf5 is extremely accurate and balanced. Resolution is also excellent, with hf5 being very detailed and articulate. Indeed, hf5 is so good in both areas that I would be hardly pressed in order to decide which of the two, tonal balance or resolution, is its strong point. The highs are pretty extended, yet the bass is not forward, although slightly warmer than ER-4P; this is probably intentional, for hf5 to be more appealing to the average listener. Would I call hf5 bass shy? By no means; the bass is defined in a way that maintains the set’s neutral presentation, and at the same time it is very taut and well focused (which is the kind of bass that I prefer, too). I think it is pretty safe to say that the majority of listeners would find hf5 to be natural sounding and relaxed.
Of course, all of the above depend on how good is the noise isolation that is actually been achieved; with the supplied variety of eartips, Etymotic claims that hf5 provides an amazing noise isolation level of 35–42 db (depending on the eartip used). I found the standard size of the triple-flange rubber eartips (the bigger of the two sizes that come with the hf5) the best choice for me; no matter which eartip you find appropriate in your case, I do believe that Etymotic’s original triple-flange rubber eartips (small or standard size) would be most people’s choice. To help you achieve a proper fit, Etymotic has a nice eartip insertion guide video at http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/epinsertvideo.aspx.
Does hf5 have the same tonal balance and resolution as ER-4P? As already noted before, hf5 is slightly warmer than ER-4P; nothing prominent, just a touch of extra bass, which makes hf5 to be tonally balanced and at the same time enjoyable. However, when it comes to the ability of unveiling subtle, textural, sonic details, then ER-4P has the lead; it does remind you that no matter how good hf5 is, even compared to earphones in the same price class, it is not by accident that ER-4P is considered an all time classic and a reference earphone. To give you an analogy, it is the difference between a set of very good hi-end loudspeakers (in this case hf5) and a set of professional monitor loudspeakers (in this case ER-4P).
As an example, listen to “Tribute to Dollar Brand” of Donna Viscuso, by the Blazing Redheads, from the album Crazed Women, RR-41, a piece that is fast and combines the Donna Viscuso reeds with Michaelle Goerlitz percussion; it is delivered so airy, with all the transitions having a natural pass, without the slightest distress that could be caused by an unbalanced set. Or, listen to “O Vazio” of Jim Brock & Doug Hawthorne, by the Jim Brock Ensemble, from the album Tropic Affair, RR-31, a quiet and sweet mixture of percussion, piano, trumpet, winds and accordion, where all low passages are rendered effortlessly with extreme clarity. The same is the case with “Jordan” of Van Manakas, by the Brock/Manakas Ensemble, from the album Letters from the Equator, RR-56; here, besides Brock percussion and Van Manakas guitar, we also have Gary Markus keyboards, giving another dimension to the final result; still, everything is delivered with extreme accuracy, without omitting any of the low-level details and sonic information of this beautiful piece that are many times hidden by other sets. Now, go to “Papa was a Rolling Stone” of N. Whitfield and B. Strong, by A la Carte Brass & Percussion, from the album Boogeyin’! Swamprock, Salsa & `Trane, Mapleshade Productions, a complicated mixture of brass, percussion and some mock-operatic vocals, which all sound stunningly real, giving you the impression that you are actually there!
To see how the hf5 stands up to the competition, I decided to compare it with the similarly priced Phonak Audéo PFE 111/112 (with either the grey or the black filters, which, according to my impression, both offer the same level of neutral presentation, although Phonak claims that the grey filters enhance the mids and the black the bass-tremble; MSRP $179) and the more expensive Etymotic ER-4P (MSRP $299). The former was chosen as I consider it to be one of the best performers in the price range of $100-$200, and, until now, it was also my personal preference in this price category; the ER-4P, on the other hand, is Etymotic’s original design on which hf5 was based.
Etymotic hf5 vs. Phonak Audéo PFE 111/112
· Both the hf5 and the PFE 111/112 offer the same neutral presentation, with almost textbook tonal balance and a bass, which is slightly more profound on the PFE 111/112, but slightly better controlled on the hf5 (that I personally prefer, too; all of those depend, of course, on the noise isolation that is actually been achieved).
· I found the hf5 to be more bright, but by no means harsh, than the PFE 111/112, and this left me with the impression that the former has more extended highs than the latter.
· In imaging and soundstage, a subject pretty touchy with earphones, PFE 111/112 appeared to have the lead. In fact, this is about the only point, I can think of, in which hf5 has some room for improvement.
· Comfort wise both the hf5 and the PFE 111/112 are at the same level, with the PFE 111/112 giving you an easier fit, but the hf5 having a greater flexibility of eartips, which allows you, if you try hard enough, to obtain an equally good and even superior fit.
Etymotic hf5 vs. Etymotic ER-4P
· As already mentioned, hf5’s design was based on ER-4P; both sets have similar sonic character, with a few differences: hf5 has a slightly prominent bass, which makes it more likeable by the average listener; on the other hand, ER-4P is even more detailed than the already very good hf5, which is perfectly understandable as ER-4P is Etymotic’s original design intended for musicians, recording engineers and true audiophiles.
· Both sets have excellent tonal balance, and they are almost indistinguishable in that respect if they are placed side-by-side.
· Naturally, ER-4P has a more extensive range of accessories, although what comes with hf5 is quite sufficient.
Accessories and fit
Inside the hf5’s nicely looking cartoon box you will find: Two sets of triple-flange rubber eartips (small and standard size), a pair of foam eartips and a pair of flexible mushroom like shaped eartips; some spare filters (which are specially designed to prevent earwax from clogging the earphone's drivers) together with the filter changing tool; a shirt clip (in case that the listener wants to attach the earphone cable on his garment); and a soft carrying case.
As already noted before, one has to try different kinds and/or sizes of eartips in order to achieve a really good seal that provides true noise isolation; I was fortunate to get that with the standard size of the triple-flange rubber eartips (the bigger of the two sizes that come with the hf5), but this is obviously not the case with all listeners; in that sense, maybe a third, big size, of triple-flange rubber eartips would be helpful for those listeners with rather big ear canals. Keep also in mind that good sealing is necessary in order to enjoy the merits of a good earphone set; it is not unusual that listeners get the wrong impression about a set, simply because they did not obtain a good seal.
Ratings (compared to earphones of similar price):
Tonal balance: 9.5/10
Comfort: 7-9/10 (depending on the seal achieved)
Excellent tonal balance; very analytical sound; very taut and well controlled bass, great mids and extended highs; very good dynamics. And all this in a sleek design, which, assuming that you tried enough, is also quite comfortable. With the exception of imaging and soundstage, which is a very sensitive subject in earphones, I cannot think of anything else that the hf5 does not do really well. Is it as good as the ER-4P? No, but I would say, get the ER-4P for home and the hf5 on the go.
On a final personal note, until I recently tried the hf5, my personal preference on earphones in the $100-$200 price category was, as already mentioned, the Phonak Audéo PFE 111/112, which is a truly remarkable set; the past few weeks, whenever I am out, I always use my old Aiwa pocket radio with the hf5; and so far, I don’t seem to miss the PFE 111/112!
Specifications and price:
Transducers: Single balanced armature
Frequency Response: 20 Hz - 15 kHz
Noise isolation: 35–42 dB (depending on eartip used)
Impedance: 16 Ohms @1 kHz
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL at 0.1V @1 kHz
Maximum Output (SPL): 120 dB
Weight: 0.39 oz (11 g)
Cable: 4 ft (1.22 m) with 3.5 mm plug
Warranty: 2 years