Etymotic Research MC5 / MC2 / MC3 Review

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Etymotic Research MC5
Reviewed Apr 2011

Details: First dynamic-driver earphone from the pioneer of universal in-ear monitors
MSRP: $79 (manufacturer’s page) / $99 for MC2 with mic & 1-button remote (manufacturer’s page) / $99 for MC3 with mic & 3-button remote (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $59 from amazon.com for MC5; $69 for MC2; $80 for MC3
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 20-15k Hz | Cable: 4’ 45º-plug
Nozzle Size: 2.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock triple-flanges, Shure Olives
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Triple-flange silicone tips (2 sizes), Etymotic foam tips, Etymotic Glider tips, replacement filters (1 set), filter replacement tool, shirt clip, and zippered soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4.5/5) –Though the MC5 is lightweight and for the most part plastic, the outer (colored) bits of the housings are aluminum and the cables are Kevlar-reinforced and well-relieved all around. The slightly rubbery cabling is very flexible and doesn’t stick or tangle and the entry-level Etys really feel like a quality product all around
Isolation (4.5/5) – Typical of Ety earphones, isolation just doesn’t get much better than this
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low when worn cable-down, nonexistent with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – Depends on the eartips used but the included assortment should fit most people. With a good fit the slim housings don’t contact the ear and the cable exit angle actually works for over-the-ear wear, making the MC5 very comfortable for those who can handle deep-insertion earphones

Sound (7.8/10) – First, a note on tip choice – though the included foamies and Glider tips were very comfortable for me, I settled on the triple-flange silicones and my trusty Shure olives for sonic reasons. The Gliders, though comfortable, seem to accentuate the weaknesses of the MC5 and the stock foamies simply have no comfort advantages over Olives and muffle the top end more.

Though the dynamic driver used in the MC5 is a departure for Etymotic, the audio engineers managed to develop a moving coil transducer that, for the most part, conforms to the Ety mold. The MC5 really does its best to emphasize no one frequency range above others and covers enough of the frequency spectrum to compete with most earphones in its class. The dynamic transducers move more air than the balanced armatures used in other Etymotic earphones and as a result the low end of the MC5 is a bit more punchy and tactile but not as textured as those of the higher-end ER4 and HF5 sets. The bass is tight, controlled, and quick for a dynamic-driver earphone but lacks the reverb and sheer presence of some of the bassier dynamic earphones in the price range. Extension is quite linear down to about 40Hz and drops off gradually beyond that, though the earphones do respond well to equalization. Naturally, the low end of the MC5 is never intrusive and imparts no coloration on the midrange – the MC5 invariably remains calm and composed no matter how bassy the track.

The midrange of the MC5 comes with fewer caveats than the bass. Due to the extremely balanced nature of the MC5, they can seem a bit mid-centric at times but in reality there’s not much emphasis on any part of the middle registers. The mids produced by the MC5 are clear and detailed but not as crisp as those of armature-based Etys and can still sound quite dry. With a poor or shallow seal, the upper mids can step out of line on occasion, bringing with them bouts of vocal sibilance but with well-fitting tips sibilance is not an issue with well-mastered recordings. Moving on up, the treble of the MC5 is accurate and prominent but not hyper-detailed as it tends to be on analytical armature-based earphones such as the Etymotic HF5 and Phonak PFE. Compared to the HF5 and even the RE0, the treble of the MC5 is not as crisp, bright, or energetic, instead appearing softer and more controlled. It isn’t what I would call ‘sparkly’. Still, the MC5 is definitely not for the treble-sensitive.

Etymotic earphones usually do a good job of separating out individual instruments but aren’t known for providing the most three-dimensional presentation, and the MC5 is no exception. The soundstage has good width but only average depth. There are earphones that provide a more immersive experience for the money, such as the Fischer Audio Silver Bullet and Head-Direct RE-ZERO. The RE-ZERO is especially interesting since that is the one dynamic most likely to be compared to the MC5 and for me, despite sounding more intimate on the whole, the RE-ZERO has the more natural presentation by a margin – better height, better depth, slightly better positioning and imaging – the presentation of the RE-ZERO is simply bigger and more true to life. The RE-ZERO also has better dynamics to my ears, though not by much.

Tonally, the MC5 is not as cold-sounding as the higher-end armature-based Etys, not as clinical. It is also slightly more forgiving of low-bitrate rips and poor mastering but the whole garbage in = garbage out adage still applies on the whole. Clipping, distortion, sibilance – any and all mastering artifacts will be made apparent by the MC5 but not to the same degree as with the HF5 and ER4. It should be noted also that the MC5 is not a very efficient earphone – much less so than the higher-end HF5 or the HiFiMan RE-ZERO. On the bright side, the MC5 cuts hiss well when used with sources that have a high noise floor.

Value (9/10) – The Etymotic Research MC5 is a capable dynamic-driver earphone from a company that doesn’t normally do dynamic drivers. Like all things Etymotic, the MC5 is well-built, well-packaged, and highly isolating but requires deep insertion to sound its best, which may take some getting used to for those new to Ety earphones. The sound is clear, accurate, and neutral but for many the MC5 will lack the desired bass presence and treble energy. Even those who like a highly analytical sound may find the MC5 slightly boring, slightly inept at conveying energy and excitement. I, for one, can’t help feeling ever so slightly underwhelmed every time I use them and keep picking the RE-ZERO up out of the drawer, except when isolation is a priority.

Pros: Stellar noise isolation; solid build quality; fairly clear, balanced, and accurate sound
Cons: Deep-insertion form factor takes getting used to


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About Author

Living in the fast-paced city of Los Angeles, ljokerl has been using portable audio gear to deal with lengthy commutes for the better part of a decade. He spends much of his time listening to music and occasionally writes portable audio reviews across several enthusiast sites, focusing mostly on in-ear earphones.

13 Comments

  1. Hanna on

    Hi Joker,

    First, thank you so much for all the hard work you’ve put in. I have only just recently discovered your site and reviews, and absolutely love your work. Your reviews are always extremely detailed and well-written and your site is so clean, organized, and professional. What’s most admirable is how you respond to every comment with such diligence and patience, always willing to help and offer insight. I truly appreciate your contribution.

    Based on your extensive knowledge, I would like to ask for some advice. My Etymotic mc2’s just stopped working last week after 4+ years due to a worn out cable. I loved them because they have lasted me for so long, when every other IEM I had tried always broke within a few months due to a worn out cable (although to be fair, my previous IEM’s were budget ones like the Sennheiser CX300). I am considering repurchasing the mc’s, mainly for this reason, but I wonder if there may be other IEM’s that match me better. I am only just beginning to learn the terms used to describe sound and haven’t really discovered what I like yet or how to describe it, but if I were to attempt to describe it — I think that these Etymotics were probably too neutral for my liking. I would’ve liked more bass and I think I would like something more spacious. I primarily listen to EDM (big room, most types of trance, progressive house, future house) and some hip hop and top 40. What IEM would you recommend that would work better with my sound profile, but still have the same level of durability (cable won’t break in less than a year) and is around the same price ($50 via the out of warranty discounted price they offer) as the Etymotic’s? Or should I just repurchase the same Etymotic’s? I also might be willing to pay more if it’s really worth it (around $100), but would like to know my options.

    Thanks again for your help and greatly appreciate any advice you can give me.

    • ljokerl on

      Thank you very much, glad the reviews have been helpful!

      That’s an interesting question. Short answer – finding something that’s reasonably priced, as or more durable than the MC5, and not worse in terms of sound is a tall order.

      There are plenty of options that will do what you want sound-wise – the MC5 is one of the most neutral IEMs in its price range and your chances of picking a fun one out of the other commonly recommended $50 sets, even if you pick at random, are very good.

      However, I don’t think there is anything around $50 that will definitely outlast these. With a strict $50 budget I’d consider the new RHA S500 – although they haven’t been around very long and it’s not clear if they will be more durable than Etymotics in the long run, the initial construction is good and they do have a rather lively and exciting sound. Another option would be the Soundmagic E10 – compared to your Etymotics they look very inexpensive, but they are much more reliable and better-sounding than appearances indicate. Also, spacious sound is their forte and they remain versatile across all genres with a less neutral sound than the MC5.

      I don’t think either of those is ovciously better than the MC5, but they’re the closest alternatives around the same price with sound that should be a better match for what you want.

      Nearer $100, you have more options. Some that I often recommend for durability are:
      -Brainwavz R3, with the downside of being somewhat large and cumbersome compared to an MC5.
      -Shure SE215: great bass and user-replaceable cables are a plus for longevity but it might sound a little “off” coming from Etymotics due to its relaxed treble
      -RHA MA750: excellent earphones, especially for EDM, and come with 3-yr warranty but they’re the most expensive of the bunch

      I couldn’t tell you if the extra investment is worth it for you – really depends on how much value you put on trying something fresh and new that may take your listening experience up and a notch. There’s always a chance you’ll decide later that the MC5s were all you really needed.

      • Hanna on

        Thanks very much for your detailed response! I went to listen to the RHA S500’s in store based on your recommendation, but wasn’t sold on the way they sounded, although I couldn’t say exactly why at first. I think they may have been too harsh on the treble, and perhaps not warm or smooth or enough for me, but this is just my guess. Then I decided to try the RHA MA750 in store, which from reading your reviews, sounded like a really good fit for me, based on their sound signature and build quality. They sounded amazingggg!! I was shocked at the difference, since I never thought better sounding earphones would make such an impact on me. The build quality combined with 3-year warranty made me feel like they would last. So, I bit the bullet and ordered them, deciding that it was worth it. Thanks so much for all of your help! 🙂 Can’t wait to get them!

        • ljokerl on

          Awesome, appreciate you sharing your experience! It’s great that you got the chance to try both. Glad you enjoyed the MA750 – it’s been one of my favorites in its class for going on two years now.

  2. Arekus on

    Hi Joker,

    i like these headphones, but I’m afraid of 300 ohm volume limiter. Can my Phillips mp3 (GoGear Ariaz) drive to at least some moderate-high volumes? For example, my klipsch S4 are comfortable on volume setting 15 of 31.

    • Arekus on

      Oh sorry, I mean ETY kids.. Otherwise by the sound quality the best is MK5 then KC5 and last ETY Kids 5 as worst?

      • ljokerl on

        I haven’t tried the MK5 but from what I understand it’s just an EtyKids without the volume limiter. Probably a better choice than the EtyKids in your case (based on the very efficient S4 needing 15/31 volume), but not sure how its sound stacks up to the MC5. If they were the same price I’d probably go MC5.

  3. Jurij Fedorov on

    What about the mk5? It’s cheaper. But is it worse?

    • ljokerl on

      Looks like a new model. Probably an EtyKids minus the volume limiter.

      • Jurij Fedorov on

        Looks like it yes. They also have a HD5 version which is the same thing again. They probably just want to release more of their bestsellers. I am thinking of getting a Shure SE215 in the future too.

      • Jurij Fedorov on

        Make that Shure SE112. Even though they don’t sell them or any kind of Etomotic in Denmark anywhere.

  4. Dario on

    MC5 vs XBA1? Should i replace my XBA 1 for some MC5 or get a back up of the XBA 1? They’re at the same price, also wondering if you are going to do a review on the XBA 1 and your thoughts on the Brainwavz Delta :D, thanks lJokerl!

    • ljokerl on

      I can’t make the comparison to the XBA1 since I haven’t heard it at sufficient length. The Delta I haven’t heard at all :/

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