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 amazon.com 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 Tips: cleaning 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.
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