Review: A week with the Etymotic hf2

David Wertheimer's a longtime blogger and electronics fan whose gadgets include a 1982 Walkman, a 300/1200 baud modem and a first-generation iPod, all of which are still in working order. He's going to be reviewing headphones for Boing Boing Gadgets in the coming weeks, starting with the Etymotic hf2.
Etymotic Research's noise-isolating headphones are for the purist, and the hf2's extended jack brings their technology to Apple's iPhone and iPod. The hf2's tech is otherwise similar to the rest of Etymotic's in-ear models, particularly the hf5 on which it's based. This makes for startlingly clear audio: more than once I'd switch to another set of headphones and immediately miss the hf2's clean, crisp sound. They're great for appreciating musicianship--play some jazz, for example, and each instrument sounds terrific. These headphones don't really rock, though. Bass is always moderate in strength, even with my iPod set to Bass Booster. Songs with midrange get more definition, but a bit less warmth. The hf2 ships with two sets of foam in-ear cushions and two triple-flanged rubber ones. Etymotic is known for the flanged earbuds, but I preferred the thick foam, which improved bass response and provided more isolation from the outside world. Speaking of which, the Etymotics are solid performers at noise isolation. On the bike-commute proving grounds, I was able to hear my music on low volume while quieting, but not completely tuning out, the outside world. In my simulated airplane test--sitting in front of a window air conditioner unit, which rattles at 75 decibels (airplanes are even louder), with the iPod's volume just a hair above mute--I could hear the audio perfectly. They performed less well on the subway, where music was audible but the train rumble was not suppressed. The set also come with a soft leatherette case that's large enough to fit everything but small enough to toss around. Its cord is the standard four feet and picks up noises a little too readily for use during heavy physical activity. Etymotic's hf2 phones are remarkable in their clarity and dynamic reproduction. I've learned, however, that great doesn't always mean ideal: they're not going to satisfy hip-hop and rock fans who want more oomph in their audio. If you like your music crisp and pure, though, they're a real treat. Product Page [Etymotic]
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13 Responses to Review: A week with the Etymotic hf2

  1. CP says:

    I’ll try it. Not sure if I have any ethanol lying around.

    I did wonder if it was that, but I assumed it must be a connector when the sound occasionally came back at random intervals. I figured dirt would be more consistent.

  2. CP says:

    How long do they last?

    The problem I have with all these headphones, is that no matter how great they sound, how excellent they are blocking out noise,how comfortable they are and how much I love them, they invariably pack in on at least one side after a few months normal use.

    I don’t abuse them, but I do use them on most days, and they go in a jacket pocket with my ipod and nothing else.

    This is the one thing that is really hard to find out from reviews, but how long do they last? Because if you can find a pair of decent and reasonably priced in-ear headphones that I don’t have to replace in a few months (at the moment I’ve resigned myself to buying a ten pound pair of Creative ep 630s every two months) then I would be very grateful.

  3. haineux says:

    Interesting and useful review. I have heard tell that bass can be increased by making sure the plugs are inserted firmly — but even then, these are not BOOMIN’ BASS headphones.

    For the budget minded, the 6i headphones should sound near identical at a far lower price. You don’t get the click-controller.

  4. David Wertheimer says:

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

    CP: If it helps, several of the headphones in the review queue come with cleaning tools. I’ll call them out when possible.

    Winkybb: I’m in Manhattan. Much of my bike commute runs down the west side of Manhattan, next to a highway and past a helipad. Noise isolation is key to my sanity. Plus 80% of my ride is on a dedicated bike/jogging path.

    Narual: You are correct about how to generate bass, and on Etymotic not compromising on clarity, well said. I use the foam ear cushions whenever possible, so they expand in my ear and create a seal. The Etymotic’s bass response stays moderate regardless.

  5. strider_mt2k says:

    If that doesn’t work you can always apply the ethanol internally until you don’t care anymore! ;)

    I’ve never tried “high end” earbuds to know the difference.

    Sony seems to keep coming out with something in the 20 dollar range that suffices for me.

  6. winkybb says:

    You wear ear-buds when bike commuting? I prefer to experience the world with all my senses when on my bike. Might be a tiny bit safer, too. Just sayin’s all….

  7. Chevan says:

    #3 – “they invariably pack in on at least one side after a few months normal use.”

    Have you tried cleaning them out with some ethanol?

    I’ve had earbuds go bad on one side before, and although they weren’t visibly dirty dunking them in some 95 ethanol a couple times and letting them dry brought them back to like-new.

  8. Zan says:

    If you want something like this with more bass response, try the Sony line of in-ear headphones. I have both the MDR-EX71SL and the MDR-EX51LP (same as the 71 but shorter cord), and both have the best bass of any headphones I’ve used. They are similar to the Etymotics, except the three included silicone ear inserts aren’t ribbed. They still do a great job of blocking outside noise.

    Sony now makes a slightly larger version (13.5mm driver instead of 10mm) sold as the MDR-EX85LP and MDR-EX90LP (the latter has an aluminum housing), which has an even better base response (rated down to 5Hz). All those can be found for under $50.

    If you want to go all out with the Sonys, there’s the new flagship MDR-EX700SL, which has a 16mm driver rated down to 4Hz, but its size would probably look a bit goofy, and it’s priced at $350.

  9. Chevan says:

    “I assumed it must be a connector when the sound occasionally came back at random intervals.”

    Oh, okay. That does sound like a connector problem. I didn’t know you were having dropouts, not total loss. Sorry about that.

  10. InfoMofo says:

    I’ve had the hf2s since December, and I’m definitely a fan, but they have their drawbacks too.

    Pros: Lightweight, great sound, stylish, usable remote, Great support from the company
    Cons: I don’t like the default phlanges, but you can get replacements, The thin wires seem particularly fragile- I don’t know if I’m extraordinarily rough with my headphones, but I’ve gone through 3 pairs- the company is great about replacing em though.

  11. Narual says:

    If they’re anything like my shure monitors, the bass is there if you put them in your ear right. It’s just a matter of not letting any air escape. If you have earplug style covers, try those for the best possible sound… then you adjust the more comfortable reusable ones to try and match that as well as possible.

    Of course, to get stronger bass from something like etymotics or shure you’ll probably need their higher end products that have multiple drivers (for shure, that’s the 420 and 530 models, or the older E5) — they’re not going to compromise on clarity to force out some extra bass.

  12. lecti says:

    “Have you tried cleaning them out with some ethanol?”

    I think he is talking about electrical connection. There is a serious design defect for hf2.

  13. Shin Wachi says:

    Hf2 sounds great, but I want to warn you that the headphone jack is extremely fragile and can break in a matter of months. I had to return mine twice and I hear similar reports from others. They will replace it, but you will need pay for shipping and insurance.

    Just a warning before people drops $180 for this headset.

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