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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. Hey!
    I’ve owned the HF5 and GR07 Classic for a while now, and I’ve decided I want a high-end equivalent of both. While I prefer the sound signature of the HF5s, I sometimes find myself wanting a wider, deeper soundstage.

    The ER4Ss are the obvious upgrade to the HF5s, I think. Do you agree? While I’m not necessarily looking to combine the two sounds, are there any that sound similar to the ER4Ss with a better soundstage?

    For the GR07s, firstly, are there any IEMs with an even better soundstage for a similar price? Besides the GR07 BE. Secondly, as to the upgrade, what high-end IEM would you recommend based purely on its soundstage? I’ve read here that the Aclair References are a solid GR07 upgrade.

    Thanks for any guidance you may be able to provide, and for all the amazing reviews!

  2. Hard to quantify but maybe 90-95% of the way there compared to my ER4S? They are very similar earphones, with a similarly good fit I doubt you could tell them apart without a head-to-head A:B comparison.

  3. Thanks for the info. How does the HF5 compare against the ER4p/s in terms of sound? I have lost my ER4s and I’ve have used multiple pairs in the past 15 years. I’ve tried so many different earphones and headphones, and yet haven’t found anything that gives me the reliable euphoric experience of the ER4.

    Since I’m not ready to go with the custom mould yet, I’ll probably look into get another pair of Etys but wonder if the HF2/3/5 could give me similar sound at a lower price.

  4. Thanks ljokerl,

    Ok, reshelling sounds risky as well (in fact more so, if I should lose my CK10 forever after the reshell!). So, back to the 4 selections, namely (in order of my preference):

    1) Etymotic ER4P-T
    2) FLC Technology FLC8
    3) Fischer Audio DBA-02 mkII
    4) Audio-Technica ATH-IM02

    Ety’s ergonomics (comfort and fit) is a major issue for me.
    I will go test out the FLC8 (now FLC8s), Fischer Audio DBA-02 and
    Audio Technica…ATH-IM02. Thanks for the advice!

  5. Kind of a crapshoot – it may sound the same, it may sound better, or it may sound worse because the reshell might not maintain the same internal geometry, residual volume of the ear canal, and so on. If you do get them shelled make sure the CIEM maker you choose does before and after testing and attempts to match the original tuning. I think they use standard Knowles filters so if the filters need replacing for the re-shell that shouldn’t be a problem.

  6. Thanks ljokerl,

    Last question : Do you think, that reshelling and recabling my CK10, may actually be a viable option, since there is no real definitive replacement to the CK10 in the market currently?


  7. Amazingly, while the in-ear earphone market is constantly expanding and there are more options now than ever before, earphones with the level of performance and sound tuning of the CK10 are getting more and more rare. There are always some on the horizon that promise to reprise that kind of performance, but they’re mostly vaporware so far (except for the new q-JAYS, but those cost about $600 and I haven’t tried them yet).

    Anyway, a few options that I think can replace the CK10 without breaking the bank:

    Etymotic ER4 – 20 years later, the ER4 is still relevant in any discussion of balanced-sounding earphones. One of the few sets that was able to stand up to the CK10 in clarity and detail when the latter was first released.
    FLC Technology FLC8 – I recommend these often because of their level of performance in their “stock” sound signature, which is a mild v-shape, and also their customization potential with the built-in tuning system. The DUNU DN-2000 is also a good option for this type of sound but I tend to prefer the FLC8, especially its more ergonomic form factor.
    Fischer Audio DBA-02 mkII – This is the closest relation to the CK10 currently on the market. It uses a similar driver, tuned for a bit less brightness.

    You can also stick with Audio-Technica and go for the current ATH-IM02 but I’ve always thought these were more similar to the CK10’s darker-sounding sister earphone from that generation, the ATH-CK90Pro. Still very nice earphones, but more a replacement for the old Westone 2 than the CK10.

  8. Dear lJokerl,

    I have a fast cosmetically disintegrating ATH CK10, and would love to hear from you a few suggestions, on what would make a good replacement (if not better). Am not technically grounded on how to explain the nuances of the sound signature I desire, but suffice to say, I like what I hear from the CK10. Thanks!

  9. They don’t really have anything in common so it’s hard to compare them in sound and most other aspects. The isolation is better on the HF5, though – it’s typically high enough to use them on a plane without having to adjust the volume to compensate. With the MA750 you’ll have to give it a few extra volume notches, but it’ll still be usable.

  10. Hey joker, I was wondering, would you prefer the RHA MA750/750I to the HF5? Could you provide a few examples on the isolation provided by the HF5 vs MA750?

  11. This is a very good question. I rarely recommend jumping headfirst into top-tier IEMs, and the Etymotic range is no exception. In my opinion it’s always best to explore mid-tier sets in order to focus in on your ideal sound signature before going all out and getting an end-game set.

    Considering that this is your first move into higher-end, more analytical-sounding IEMs, and you’re (probably) not 100% sold on the Etymotic sound signature, I’d go HF series.

    As for the isolation, as long as you exercise common sense it shouldn’t be a problem. I wore Etymotic IEMs for years in college commuting to and fro, and if you keep the isolation in the back of your mind when crossing streets or walking on bike paths, you won’t find yourself in a bad situation. It can lead to some awkwardness when people talk to you without realizing you’re wearing highly isolating IEMs, though.

  12. Hello Joker.
    Thanks for your in-depth reviews and guides. It’s amazing how you can spot a professional, even when they’re experts in a totally different field.
    I can boil down my taste in music to this: Classical and Rock Alternative (think SnowPatrol, Radiohead, Muse). In my next hunt for IEMs, I’m willing to put some more emphasis on the former rather than the latter. Therefore I’m going for clarity and a near-flat natural sound; although I have never had such IEMs and to tell you the truth, my closest experience to being an audiophile is my Grado SR60i cans with their infinite sound stage. The rest of my headphones (IEMs specifically) were all quite warm. As I said, I’m trying something new, mainly because of my classical aspirations.
    I’m currently undecided between legendary ER-4 series (probably ER-4PT) and HF5. There’s quite a difference in terms of price and the more I read about them, the less I’m convinced the extra $200 makes sense considering my novice status; still I’m making an investment here and might be able to afford ER-4PTs if and only if they’re really worth the extra buck.

    So, what do you think? which pair should I choose? HF5 or ER-4PT?


    P.S. These will be used with my Cowon i10, almost exclusively with FLACs. Also I’m almost always on-foot, using public transportation; would you say the sealing on these things could be actually dangerous? (might seem silly but I have not heard of such noise isolation before, makes you wonder… 🙂

  13. Good tip! I think those instructions are typically in the Etymotic user manuals as well. I’ve definitely seen them in a printed format.

  14. Hi joker. Thanks for the advice. I was able to solve my problem without buying aftermarket tips. I found a video by Etymotic Research that shows how to insert their earphones (link below). Its posted by some other group but I confirmed that the original source is indeed Etymotic.
    Personally, I found that opening my mouth solved the problem of inserting the earphone in my left ear. I’m hoping this video will help others who may face similar problems. Thanks again and long may your good work continue.

  15. While I’m not a big fan of Etymotic foam tips, all foam tips generally work the same way – by expanding to fill out the ear canal. You get used to the feeling, but the trick is finding the right size foam tip – it should provide a gentle seal, not a large amount of pressure on the inside of your ear. Complys come in three sizes, and I believe Shure Olives do as well, while Etymotic foams don’t.

    The model number for Shure Olives is EABKF1

  16. Forgot to mention that neither can I afford custom tips at the moment nor could I figure out and where to buy the Shure Olives. Maybe they have a different name now? Thanks

  17. Hi joker. Due to a lovely twist of fate, my wife gifted me the HF3s….. and i am in love, to say the least……with my wife of course
    Perfect bass and stupendous clarity IMHO….as long as they stay inside my ears.
    The only problem I have is with insertion of the included ear tips in my left ear. In general, I prefer the triple flanges but my left ear appears to be shallower with a larger opening so none of the tips stay put….they refuse to stay put and i end up holding them in place to extend my bliss. I have also tried mixing and matching tips but to no avail.
    I saw one of the comments above suggested the comply tips, but when I tried the ones provided by Ety, the expanding foam felt really uncomfortable in my ears. Any thoughts/ suggestions?

  18. That’s pretty tough to do these days – all of the good ones are getting hard to find. It also really depends on what you’re looking to see improved, because you can’t really get more neutral than the HF5.

    If we’re talking sound only and you’re willing to “suffer” a slightly brighter signature for a bit more resolution, soundstaging, and maybe bass depth, something like a VSonic VC1000 or Brainwavz B2 would be a viable option (but hard to find, as I said). Worst case scenario, a Rock-It Sounds R-50 with better tips and an impedance adapter.

  19. I’m on my second pair of HF2’s. In between pairs I picked up the HiFiMan RE-400a’s. I love the HF2’s.

    I discovered these IEM’s thanks to you, ljokerl.

    What would be a step up from these at under $200?

  20. Awesome, I’m very glad to hear that! They’re both great earphones, and your duty split is exactly what I’d expect.

    Finding an upgrade to both the GR07 and HF5 will be quite a challenge! Hopefully the market keeps evolving so we get more options at that top performance level in a year or two.

  21. Hi joker,

    I just wanted to follow up on this comment and say I did end up getting them both (GR07 and HF5), and I love them both. I can definitely tell the difference between them, but I can’t really say one is better than the other. I basically have come to use the Etymonics for music where the bass isn’t as important (classical, vocal, piano, etc) as you’d expect, and the GR07 for the bassier genres. I have found that if I turn up the lowest bass levels on my EQ, I can get passable (still weak) bass out of the Etymonics if I need to. The GR07s still sound best with a flat EQ to my ear.

    Again, thanks for your site and your help. These are both definitely a step up from my old Sonys. Now I just have to decide what my next step up is in a year or two.

  22. Yes, similar effect. Everything is a matter of magnitude and it might well be a small difference. The change could also be a positive but it’s still a change. I just find it worth noting that BAs tend to have non-linear impedance and are affected by this (at least in comparison to a dynamic driver), and the performance may not be 100% consistent between sources. With that said, there are definitely instances where the sound of a BA IEM is more balanced with higher impedance (e.g. the Klipsch X10).

  23. You mention that the S4 might have too high an output impedance. Would a high output impedance produce a similar effect to adding a resistor to the chain? I’ve seen objective and subjective claims that this model doesn’t change that much (and even improves) with serial resistance.

  24. Thanks Joker! I really appreciate this site and all your reviews. I saw about the GR07 a little later, and I’m considering those as well based on your review. It’s really unfortunate there’s not a place to go try these out. Maybe I should get both to compare.

  25. Unfortunately I haven’t tried the EX500 – only the EX300 and EX600. The common thread with those compared to the HF5 is that their dynamic drivers tend to move more air so the bass is a little more naturally weighted and full-bodied. The EX300 is not as clear and detailed as the HF5. The EX600 is quite close.

    All in all, for clarity and resolution the HF5 is really hard to beat but if you don’t want to risk potentially having less natural bass weight, maybe a VSonic GR07 would be a better option in the same price range.

  26. I currently have some Sony MDR-EX500s that I love, and I’m starting to think about taking the next step up. I listen to a lot of classical and piano music, so accuracy and clarity are really important to me. But my music tastes are pretty eclectic, and I also listen to pop, electronic, choral music, just about anything. Bass isn’t unusually important to me, just that it have a relatively-realistic presentation (I hate exaggerated bass). I’m not really sure if I want warm or flat, but I really like the way my current headphones sound, especially the detail I can hear and the size of the soundstage. Do you think HF5s will give me a step up, or do I need to go higher range? Or a different headphone?

  27. Unless you think you will have a problem with their flat/non-enhanced bass (I know pro drumming earphones/headphones tend to be on the bassy side), I would definitely go for the HF5. That’s the sort of application is excels at.

  28. I’m looking for a nice pair of noise isolating in ear headphones in the $100-$150 price range. I’ll be primarily using them as IEM’s for practicing on acoustic drum set and possibly for playing gigs. My favorite two headphones I found so far are the Etymotic hf5 and the RHA ma750. It seems that the ma750 has better sound quality although the hf5 has better isolation and a more accurate kind of sound. I am leaning more towards the hf5 for use when drumming, and ma750 for casual listening; although I can only buy one of them. Which do you think is better/worth buying in my case?

    Thanks in advance!

  29. For build quality I would pick these over the RE-400 any day. The quality of the cable, which is probably the real weak point of any in-ear, is quite good here.

    I have heard some reports of nozzles cracking but I definitely have not had that problem myself. Might just be improper removal of eartips causing the issues.

    Etymotic’s warranty is the standard 1-year as far as I know, but I’ve heard nothing but praise for their after-sales support in the years I’ve been doing this.

  30. I’d love to get these, but my only worry is the build quality, I’ve heard varying things… I had owned a pair of RE-400’s and they broke on me twice (they’re out of warranty now). So my only question is – have you have any problems with the build quality? You said the nozzles were quite thin, have they broken? And what is etymotics warranty policy?

  31. If you’re looking at Etymotic earphones, that means you’re interested in accuracy and clarity. The HF5 is better in this regard than the MC5, so for me the choice would be easy if both were in my budget.

    The eartips they come with are identically-sized, so which one you go with won’t make a big difference in terms of fit. Either they will both fit with the stock eartips, or you will have to get larger-sized aftermarket tips for both.

  32. Hey I’m pretty new to the IEM game here, and I’m going back and forth between these and the MC5s. Should I be worried about the BA driver vs the dynamic one? I have large ears and am worried that I wont get a good seal with the HF5s.

  33. These are still among my absolute favorites in the price range. The S1 and S2 are definitely comparable, but they are heavier on the bass and have a lift in the upper midrange. They’re just not as balanced and poised overall, although they do have a wider, more open presentation and of course the bass is more dynamic and capable of belting out low notes with more authority.

  34. Seems amazing at that price range. How do they compare to Philips Fidelio S1 and S2 as the price is quite similar (Fidelio S1/S2 are absent in review list so I can’t compare scores)?

  35. BTW if anyone was curious the Comply mediums are slightly smaller than the Ety foams and are amazing.

  36. One more question. The factory foam tips that come with the earphhones, are they comply? And if so what size are the ones that come with it? I like them but and they are pretty comfy but I think a slightly smaller size would work better. Also if they aren’t comply tips what size are these comparable to when it comes to the comply’s?

  37. Alright cool thanks. They sound pretty good with the S4 but I just feel like they can sound much better I’ve looked at the E18 I just wish I could find one for a bit cheaper. $159.00 on Amazon is a bit steep for me right now. I appreciate your help.

  38. Hmm… the S4 might have too high an output impedance to drive a BA earphone properly. The Etys are not as sensitive in this regard as some other BA IEMs but still it is worth at least trying them with a different source.

    The Fiio E18 is the only Android DAC I’ve tried, and I only used the amp section of it very briefly. I thought it sounded quite good and it stacked great with my Nexus 5. Pretty sure it can be used with a computer as well as the S4 and has a line-out as well.

  39. So far pretty happy with them. They sound great but I know i’m missing out on more. This may not be the place to ask but not I’m in the market for a portable DAC to go along with them that I could use with my android phone. Galaxy S4 to be specific and also something that I could use at home with my laptop and a pair of powered monitors. May not be your expertise but I know you know more than I do when it comes to that.

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