Head-Fi.org › Forums › Equipment Forums › Portable Headphones, Earphones and In-Ear Monitors › Review: Etymotic hf5 earphones
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:

Review: Etymotic hf5 earphones

post #1 of 8
Thread Starter 

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.



General description


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).


Sound quality


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!


Comparison results


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

Resolution: 9.5/10

Dynamics: 9/10

Comfort: 7-9/10 (depending on the seal achieved)

Value: 10/10


In conclusion


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

Price: $149



post #2 of 8

AWESOME dude! Thanks a lot. This did a lot to help me in my decision making between these two about which to buy. tell me though, are the ER4 models you have hard to wear over-ear? Because i prefer wearing my headphones that way. Less micro-phonics. 


Also, are the differences in detail retrieval obvious? 


I usually listen to music on the move and was wondering about the the comfort of wearing these over the ear and also whether the difference in detail retrieval make the ER4 worth the price of 2-HF5's...


thanks in advance if you could find the time to reply. :)

post #3 of 8

Bought a lot of "broken" Etymotics, 6 HF3/5's and 5 MC5's.

Most of them just had a clogged filter. Only paid 70 dollars.

I love them so much.

post #4 of 8
Originally Posted by Deeman View Post

AWESOME dude! Thanks a lot. This did a lot to help me in my decision making between these two about which to buy. tell me though, are the ER4 models you have hard to wear over-ear? Because i prefer wearing my headphones that way. Less micro-phonics. 


Also, are the differences in detail retrieval obvious? 


I usually listen to music on the move and was wondering about the the comfort of wearing these over the ear and also whether the difference in detail retrieval make the ER4 worth the price of 2-HF5's...


thanks in advance if you could find the time to reply. :)

both are not really done for over the ear use, but the hf5 is easier to use that way than the er4 . 

you can get angled adapters for the er4, also not perfect but better, or you can tie the cable in a way that improve over the ear comfort (see the er4 topic for pics of this).



is the difference in detail retrieval obvious? yes it is. both because the signature pushes the high medium and trebles in your face a lot more on the er4, but also because the hf5 sounds like it's slightly distorted compared to an er4. (but then anything in the 150$ range would sound distorted compared to the hf5).

if you like this kind of sound (IMO: not enough sub bass, bright signature) the er4 is clearly a better IEM. if you look at how easy it is to use (microphonics, less cold signature pleasing for more people) then the hf5 is clearly the winner.

I sold the er4 and kept the hf5, but that was not a choice based on sound quality.


as you can guess I'm not seeing things the same way Notaris does (yet very informative review thanks for the effort) as for me this is not neutral sound, and what he calls controlled bass, I call not enough bass and really recessed sub bass(not trying to start an argument, we all see neutral as we see fit). still the hf5 is my IEM of choice, as it is impossible to find that quality and isolation in this price range. don't buy those only if you love sub bass rumble.

also might be worth telling that if you're planning on the long run, then the er4 are more durable (removable cable).

post #5 of 8
Thanks for that. I haven't made a decision, but you've definitely brought me closer to one.
BTW, you know any other analytic sounding IEMs around the price range of the that are around the price of the HF5's? i checked the crazy "300 over IEM shootout" thing, but was wondering if you knew anymore....just suggest a few off the top of your head, no need to go digging through the thread to find out whats not there.


Originally Posted by KorkiPoo View Post

Bought a lot of "broken" Etymotics, 6 HF3/5's and 5 MC5's.

Most of them just had a clogged filter. Only paid 70 dollars.

I love them so much.


Man....i wish it was that easy for me over here... 

post #6 of 8
Originally Posted by castleofargh View Post


I sold the er4 and kept the hf5, but that was not a choice based on sound quality.

What made you give up the ER4PT then? The inconvenience of use? Did you see it as giving up some detail for comfort? Elaborate of you will....



This is exactly why i can't decide between the two... Should i go with the HF5's for ease of use (i listen to music while moving a lot), or live with not having ease of use but not losing any of the gobs of detail that the ER4 provide.


:confused_face(1): my indecision just spilled onto my keyboard... i need to go listen to some music now...

post #7 of 8

let's just say that after spending too much time and money trying to find the perfect sound, I'm now coming back to reality and try to buy stuff for their intended use (AKA music/isolation while commuting). the ER4 with or without angle adapters, and with all cables I could try on, was still making too much "microphonic" noise while moving for me to be happy. so my other use was when standing still in a train/subway. but then even with the amazing ETY isolation, the outside noise is still here a little, so it's not like I could enjoy the ultimate refinement of music sited in a train. 

so I went for the hf5 because I can actually walk with it if I use foam tips and once in a train I still get the great isolation. in my head it's a win/win situation.


but as I said the er4 is clearly better if you're into analytic(colder, more detailed,more precise), and more durable too. it's a matter of point of view, and I went back to ETY after years only because I remembered the superior isolation. so my aim was different from the start.


good luck making your choice, but for both it's hard to get a better bang for the buck.

post #8 of 8
Thread Starter 

Dear Deeman,


Thank you for your good words about my review of Etymotic hf5 earphones; I am glad that the review is helping someone to choose among the many earphones in the market.


Now, let me come to your questions:

- Comfort wise, both the hf5 and the ER4 are not the most comfortable earphones on the market; however, with a little effort, you can make them fit. Among the two, I feel that the hf5 are the easier going ones. Furthermore, as castleofargh pointed out, you can use angled adapters for the ER4, which will not solve but nonetheless will improve things (Etymotic has some nice pictures on that).

- The difference in sound quality is clear. The ER4 are very analytical, trying to give you exactly and precisely what is in the recording; it was the personal project of Dr. Mead Killion, and it was also one of the first earphone models appearing in the market (as ER1). Once, Noel Lee of Monstercable said that when he was designing his Turbine earphones (another very nice model), he was trying to reach the level of ER4. Having said this, I should also add that ER4 is not for everyone; their unmistakable performance of telling things as they are is not the preferred choice of most people. It is certainly what a Professional Musician or an Audio Engineer would like to hear, but not all people belong into this category. That is, I guess, how the idea of hf5 pop up; a set of earphones with the same character as the ER4 (although not at the same level), but more relaxed and towards the sweet side of music. Also, the hf5 is a bit more comfortable and it costs half the price of the ER4, so a better choice on the go! Both models, the ER4 and the hf5, represent true value for money, but they are designed for different people and different purposes.

- Other comparable models from other companies? I could say the Phonak Audéo PFE 111/112but they are unfortunately discontinued. Really, at this price range, and with this level of performance, you would be hardly pressed to find another set. If you go beyond or well beyond $200, you have a lot of choices, but then you could also stick to ER4.


On a final personal note, let me add that the hunting of the absolutely best performer is maybe a lost game. Earphones are designed by people, so besides all the Mathematics, Physics and Engineering involved, the final tuning is done by the earphones' designer according to what sounds accurate and neutral to his ears. Of course, these are professional and very experienced people, but they are still human. In that sense, I doubt that there actually exists whatever people call absolute neutrality, but even if there is such a thing, would an earphone set with that characteristic be your choice? One could go on and on into that search, but during that time he is loosing the music!


Please let me know if I could be of anymore help.


Good luck in finding a proper earphone set.  

New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:
Head-Fi.org › Forums › Equipment Forums › Portable Headphones, Earphones and In-Ear Monitors › Review: Etymotic hf5 earphones