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Etymotic Research HF3

Etymotic Research HF5 / HF2 / HF3 Review

Etymotic Research HF3Etymotic Research HF3 ACS Tips
Reviewed May 2011

Details: mid-range single-armature consumer earphone from the pioneer of universal IEMs
MSRP: $149 (manufacturer’s page) / $179 for HF2 with mic & 1-button remote (manufacturer’s page) / $179 for HF3 with mic & 3-button remote (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $120 from for HF5; $114 for HF2; $149 for HF3
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-15k Hz | Cable: 4’ 45º-plug
Nozzle Size: 2.5mm | Preferred tips: ACS Custom Tips, Stock triple-flanges, Shure Olives
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Note: in addition to the HF3 earphones, I was able to test the Etymotic custom eartips produced by ACS labs.

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 velour carrying pouch; ACS Tipscleaning tool, insertion lubricant, and zippered leather carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The HF5 is similar in design to Etymotic’s other models and features slim, tubular housings and Kevlar-reinforced cabling. Unlike the aluminum-shelled MC5, the body of the HF5 is all-plastic. The nozzles are quite thin so care should be taken when changing eartips. The cord is slightly thicker than that of the MC5 but also carries a bit more memory character, preserving its shape for some time after being coiled up. Small strain reliefs are used to protect the cable on housing entry and the hockey stick-shaped 3.5mm plug is designed to withstand a good amount of abuse; ACS Tips: The tips are made out of soft medical-grade silicone and molding quality is excellent – no cracks or bubbles are visible in the material. The color of the ACS logo on each tip differentiates which earpiece they go on (red for right, blue for left)
Isolation (4.5/5) – The combination of a slim, deep-insertion design and sealed housings gives the HF5 mind-bogglingly good isolation – passive attenuation just doesn’t get much better than this with universal-fit earphones; ACS Tips (5/5)Amazingly, the ACS custom tips are an improvement over standard Ety sleeves when it comes to isolation, which makes them dangerously isolating. Wearing them around traffic or anywhere lack of auditory awareness may be a safety concern is not recommended. The consistent, deep-ear seal of the custom-molded tips means that there is absolutely no way for significant amounts of ambient noise to leak in. Of course low frequencies will still be audible in via bone conduction but when inserted properly the ACS Etys isolate about as much as in-ear earphones can
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low when worn cable-down, nonexistent with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – The balanced armature drivers used in the HF5 are smaller than the dynamic transducers used in the MC5, allowing the earphones to be lightweight and extremely slim in diameter. Like all Etymotic in-ears, the HF5 are deep-insertion earphones, which can feel intrusive at first, but with the right tips they can be very comfortable; ACS Tips (5/5)As with full-shell customs, there is a slight learning curve to inserting custom-fitted Ety earphones. Once mastered, however, it is much quicker than putting on a full-shell acrylic custom. When inserted correctly, the tips should press very lightly in all directions against the ear canal, providing the same comfort level as a soft foam tip but noticeably greater isolation. For the HF5, the ACS custom silicone sleeves provide the best of both worlds – the consistent, deep-insertion fit of triple-flange silicone tips with the long-term comfort and stability of foamies. As with most customs manufacturers, ACS offers a 30-day fit guarantee – if the tips do not fit comfortably and securely, by all means have them re-fitted until perfect

Sound (8.8/10) – For Etymotic Research, the sonic ideal has always been neutrality and accuracy. Those familiar with other Ety models will not be surprised to learn that the low end of the HF5 will do little to satisfy a basshead. The bass put out by the single balanced armature is extremely tight and controlled but the tiny drivers don’t move a whole lot of air – those looking for eardrum-quaking gobs of impact will be sorely disappointed. Instead, the bass is quick and highly detailed. The speed and clarity of the earphones allows them to texture notes in ways lower-end sets simply cannot but opinions will undoubtedly be split on whether such a presentation is ‘natural’. For those who think ‘natural’ sound hinges on realistic attack and decay times as well as note weight and presence, a dynamic-driver earphone will provide more satisfactory bass response. On if the other hand if ‘natural’ means hearing all of the nuances on the the track down to the tiniest detail (including mastering and compression flaws), the HF5 leaves little to be desired. No matter how dense the track, the HF5 never misses a beat. Low end extension is quite linear down to around 30Hz – no exaggerated sub-bass or mid-bass bloat to be found here. Interestingly, the dynamic-driver Etymotic MC5 responds to equalization a little better than the HF5 does but in both cases even the best equalizer can only do so much – those looking for rumbling, full-bodied bass will want to stay away from Etys.

The midrange of the HF5 is again typical Etymotic – clear, detailed, and quite neutral in tone.  The mids are smooth and free of grain, though a poor seal can result in vocal sibilance. Of course if the sibilance is present on the track, the HF5 will be relentless in pointing it out. Those looking for an earphone that will make 128kbps mp3s sound better should probably look elsewhere or at the very least consider the MC5 as an alternative. The treble is balanced with the rest of the signature, as tends to be the case with analytical earphones, but not so overly prominent that it becomes fatiguing. It is crisp and very highly-detailed, with excellent extension across the audible range and impressive definition. These earphones, like all Etymotics, are not for those who prefer laid-back, smoothed-over treble.

The presentation is perhaps where the HF5 is most similar to the MC5 – both do a good job of separating out individual instruments but neither provides the type of highly immersive three-dimensional listening experience one may get from a top-tier earphone. The soundstage has good width but mediocre depth and height. That said, the highly accurate and impeccably detailed HF5 still sounds plenty convincing and easily relates the differences between foreground and background instruments to the listener – it just doesn’t give the same three-dimensional sonic image as, for example, the ATH-CK10 or Westone 2. Tonally, the HF5 is quite neutral, foregoing the warm accented lower harmonics of cheaper earphones for bright and crisp treble. Its timbre might seem slightly ‘off’ to those used to warmer signatures and dynamic drivers, but instruments are no more difficult to differentiate with the HF5.

ACS Tips: The sound quality of the HF5 depends heavily on the integrity of the acoustic seal between the drivers and the listener’s ear canal. Now, this is true for all in-ear earphones but because the HF5, like all Etys, is tuned for maximum accuracy and realism, a good seal is arguably even more important with it than with most other in-ears. Bass response, especially, is at risk with a mediocre seal.

Expectedly, the custom tips are not capable of radically changing the sound signature of the earphone but they do provide a consistently perfect seal, bringing out the absolute best in the HF5. The sound quality is very similar to what I got when inserting the triple-flange silicone tips as far into my ears as I could tolerate – not a comfortable proposition for long-term listening enjoyment. If there are any sound quality improvements brought about by the custom tips, they are mostly tiny changes in imaging and sub-bass extension and response. Of course if poor seal quality led to shrill treble or recessed mids with universal tips, the ACS custom sleeves will remedy that as well, but they will not affect the core signature of Etymotic earphones in any major way.

THL Recommended Badge 2014Value (9/10) – The Etymotic HF5 is a thoroughly modern take on the classic Etymotic design philosophy. The single balanced armature transducer produces clear and detailed sound that never misses a beat, conveying every nuance of an audio track with impeccable accuracy and no added coloration. As is the case with many high-end armature-based earphones, the HF5 lacks the enhanced bass response, warmth, and thickness of mainstream competitors. The slim, deep-insertion form factor, eerie levels of isolation, and subdued aesthetics all make the HF5 a quintessential Etymotic earphone. For those who are simply looking to dabble in entry-level audiophile sound, the cheaper and sturdier MC5 may be a better match but if absolute fidelity is a priority, the HF5 is hard to beat for the money.

Pros: Stellar noise isolation; impeccably clear, detailed, balanced, and accurate sound; comes in three flavours of varying smartphone functionality
Cons: Deep-insertion form factor takes getting used to; sound signature not for everyone; lower-end MC5 is built better

ACS Tips (8/10): The Etymotic Custom Fit program is a collaboration between Etymotic Research and UK-based customs manufacturer ACS to provide custom-molded eartips for Etymotic’s universal-fit models – for an additional charge, of course. The tips carry an all-inclusive $100 price tag, making them one of the cheapest products of the sort. The total cost of a custom-molded Etymotic earphone runs somewhere between $180 and $330, depending on the starting model – still a fairly low price in the customs realm. Furthermore, while full-shell customs with smartphone controls are still very rare, the custom-fit HF2, HF3, and MC3 models provide all of the functionality of a stock headset with the sound of a custom-fitted audiophile-level listening device. Combine that with the comparative ease of use, superb noise isolation, and faultless comfort of silicone custom sleeves and the investment starts making more sense.

Pros: Stellar noise isolation and long-term comfort; consistently perfect seal; easier and quicker to insert than full custom earphones
Cons: Proper insertion takes a bit of practice; will not improve sound quality for those who get a very good fit with stock triple-flanges





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.


64 Responses

  1. Just checking back to say that 3 months later, I’m still impressed with the hf3’s. I’m noticing so many details that have been hidden by either a poor seal or less than stellar presentation. This being a “neutral” IEM was a big risk, as I’ve only ever owned bass (or v shaped) headphones/IEMs. The bass here isn’t anemic; it’s certainly there but it’s far more heard than felt. I’m also finding this less fatiguing.
    Listening to a lossless copy of Therion’s Secret of the Runes, I’m able to hear everything from the kick down to the bass and violins. For some reason (I’m not an “audiophile”) I’ve always had a hard time discerning where the bass is in relation to the other instruments (especially the rhythm guitar) using the AKG y20us. Some subtler passages (specifically when set against louder sounds) are also far easier to hear with the HF3s; no muddiness at all. The only thing I wouldn’t listen to on these is something like Dark Ambient, where good sub bass is necessary.
    I took a huge risk based on the strength of this review and it looks like I’ve found a new favorite. 🙂

  2. Just wanted to say that I bought the HF3 based on your recommendation. They’re excellent! The level of detail is just astounding. I ended up getting a great seal with the smaller tri flange tips, though they do take a bit of work. Coming from a pair of AKG y20’s, this is a huge step up (particularly in the mids, which I found recessed). Thanks, joker!

  3. I have chosen this in ear and are fantastic. Maybe because are my first in ear of good level, maybe because i like a balanced bass, not exagerated but i think that these etymotic, are good also for this aspect. Great Sound quality and superb isolation. When I have these in my ear, i don’t hear almost nothing other of music. Thanks ljokerl

    p.s. ah banal consideration but to do, is important choose the correct tips for have a real isolation and good bass. try every tip and use that one that isolate better.

  4. Yeah I was really surprised. Do you think a custom fit tip for the HF would be even more isolation than the comply tips? I personally don’t know if it would increase the isolation more than what I have achieved. I mean this is the highest isolation I have ever experienced this far.

  5. I think I still have these rated higher in isolation than all other universals and some custom IEMs, except for full-shell silicone customs, so I definitely tend to agree with you. It’s a combination of the deep fit, straight shell, and the type of tips they’ll take (no single-flanges included, etc). Comply foam tends to be a little denser than Ety’s own foam tips, so that probably helps as well in your case, and the P-series ones are extra isolating (too bad they only come the *100 size).

  6. Question: is it possible that the Etymotic iem design for the HFs enable more isolation than customs?

    I am currently traveling on an airplane and I am able to get more isolation using my HF3s with large p-series comply foam tips than with my custom silicone Westone UM56 tips on the TDK BA200s and the Westone UM2s. I do have to put the HF3s pretty deep in my ear canal (I hope this is safe) but there is a significant difference comparing the two tips. The complies definitely cut more decibels than my customs and do a better job of cutting down the higher frequencies. However, my customs block more than the triple flange tips.

    Now here is the interesting part, I could not produce the same amount of isolation that I got on the HF3s with complies when I put the same complies on the TDK BA200s. So either the straight design of the Etymotics help enable increased isolation than my customs or my ear has changed since I got my customs done in October of 2013.

    What are your thoughts on the matter as I find this incredibly interesting.

  7. Either option would work, really. The MC5 is inexpensive, isolates nearly as well as the HF3/ER6i, and isn’t *less* bassy than what you’re used to. It’ll take your P-series tips and happily do gym duty, though you might have to play with the cable routing a bit if you are used to wearing the smaller ER6i over-the-ear style.

    Or you could get a Shure SE215 – it has a native over-the-ear fit with quite a bit more bass (without going completely overboard in bass quantity), costs less than an HF5 still, and will take P-series Complys. Clarity won’t be as good as you’re accustomed to but the bass will be plentiful coming from the ER6i.

  8. Hey Joker

    Thanks for that perspective. If I do go with the Etymotic I’ll report back on my experience:)


  9. Hi ljokerl, I’ve seen your work on head-fi and innerfidelity, and I’m a fan! I’m looking to replace my trusty Ety er6i’s, which finally bit the dust, and I need the best isolation I can get. I was mostly using these in a really noisy gym environment with very loud background music that I needed to block out, and I used them with the longer Comply P-series foam tips, which did the trick. For the rest of my listening, I use HD650’s, so bass was a little thin with the er6i’s, but by EQing, I got acceptable results that I could live with given the great isolation. So I’m wondering if I choose another IEM with the same nozzle diameter that fits the Comply P-series tips, will I get the same level of isolation since there is the same amount of foam in my ear? Or is there some other factor I’m overlooking that makes the Etymotics isolate better with the same tips? If I can get away with using something else with the Comply P tips and get similar isolation levels, I’d like to go with something with better bass response and cheaper since these are mostly doing gym duty. However, if Etys + Comply foam tips really do provide much better isolation than anything else, then I will go with the hf3 (or perhaps even the dynamic driver mc3 for the better bass response if it provides the same level of isolation as the hf3).

  10. The HF3 won’t really have more bass than a Grado can but the voicing is very different. This is definitely a slightly risky move for someone who likes bass, but I think everyone should experience an ultra-accurate IEM like the HF3 at least once.

  11. What a great website this is! Nice to read reviews of both the RHA 750 and the Etymotic’s, on the same site, so the ratings can easily be compared.

    I like bass, though not to the extent that I don’t hate the sound of Beats headphones. That said, I can’t find anything pleasurable in listeting to Grado headphones either. So I’m kinda hesitant getting the Etymotic HF3 – but I think I will, as I want the noise isolation and may “grow into” their clear sound character.

    Thanks again for good reviews!

  12. I haven’t come across anything that worked with my ACS tips other than these and the Ety ER4. Good question, though.

  13. Sorry to bump an old post but I’ve got some dying HF2s currently holding the cable together with Sugru!

    I’m looking for a replacement but I also got ACS customs done and I’m wondering if anything half decent has a similar nozzle that I could fit the customs on?

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