Etymotic HF3 review

If you are blessed with small ears Etymotic's HF3 earphones are a godsend. The company has recognised that to get a comfortable fit and block out external sound in small ears and children's ears the earpiece needs to be smaller. Hence the HF3s come with the option of a smaller flange – finally buds that don't hurt when inserted in tiny ears.

So much depends on getting a good fit in the ear canal – big or small. If you don't have a good fit both sound quality and noise isolation will suffer. We've heard people complain about the sound reproduction of in-ear phones and generally advising them to fit a larger earpiece solves the problem. Luckily Etymotic includes a number of different ear tips so hopefully there will be one to suit you.

Once canalphones are inserted correctly more external sound is kept at bay. Etymotic says that if you can clearly hear people talking while the earpieces are inserted (even without music playing) the earpieces aren't inserted correctly. We found we could block out much of the office noise by plugging in the HF3s and not even opening up iTunes.

The benefit of good noise isolation is that it is that you can play music at a lower level and not risk damaging your hearing. If you can hear the music the person next to you on the train is listening to just think about what it is doing to their ears. As well as earphones Etymotic makes hearing aids and hearing protectors, so you can rest assured that for the company the health of your eardrums is a priority.

There are a few differences between the HF3 and the HF2 that they replaced. The one that makes the biggest difference to us is that fact that the 3.5mm jack is now at an angle. You may wonder why this is worthy of note. We were happily using the superb HF2 headphones only for the jack to develop a lose connection. Etymotic clearly noticed this fault because the HF2 headphones that the company replaced our original HF2 set with had the addition of a curved jack. Happily this new design seems to rectify the fault, so we are confident that the problem will not be encountered on the HF3. For extra peace of mind, the company offers a two-year warranty on its headphones.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the new and old version of the headphones is the introduction of a three-button headset, letting you pause, adjust volume and navigate through music tracks. Previously there was one button allowing you to pause, move to the next track, or repeat a track, now two extra buttons bring the addition of volume controls.

When a call comes in answering it is a button click away, as is disconnecting from the call. The integrated high sensitivity mic works well, we had few complaints from the caller on the other end of the line; other than that we were a bit quite. This at least beats the usual complaint we've had with other headsets; that the ambient noise, from traffic or crowds, was deafening. In the case of the HF3s it was less noticeable to the person we were calling.

Of course the ultimate question is how good is the sound. The HF2 were a great set of headphones (apart from the jack issue on early models). The HF3 are similarly great sounding, as you would expect for a set of headphones that cost £130 (incidentally the HF2 were £99 at launch). Etymotic claim that the HF3 deliver "the quality of sound approaching the legendary ER-4 "golden ear levels". The ER-4 are designed for audiophiles, performing musicians and recording engineers and have a price to match: around £225.

There is new technology behind this claim: Etymotic says the HF3 uses its ACCU•Driver technology that makes it possible to create a small and efficient balanced armature driver system that meets Etymotic's 25 band accuracy response of 85 per cent or better (compared to 92 per cent for the ER-4S and 86 per cent for the ER-4P).

Technology claims aside, the important question is: "Do they sound any good". The answer is yes they do. The HF3 offer a breadth and clarity, with rich detailed musical reproduction. Treble and midrange clarity are superb, allowing us to hear things that are inaudible on cheaper headphones, and the bass was just right, rather than overpowering or non-existent. If you are a real bass-lover then there are more bassy headphones out there, but we feel that too much base detracts from the rest of the track.

Our pet hate with headphones is the feedback you get from the cable. Try running, or even walking, with your headphones in and with some competitor models the sound of the cable rubbing against your clothing can be deafening and sometimes even the sound of your feet pacing the floor can be distracting. We were quite happy using these Etymotic headphones in the gym with very little cable noise – the least cable noise we've ever experienced.

If none of the four eartips provided sit well in your ear you could consider the Etymotic Custom•Fit Earmold Program. You get a mould made of your ear canal at any hearing centre, and a eartip is provided that is an exact replica of your own ear, providing the best seal for sound quality and comfort. They cost an extra £70.

OUR VERDICT

When it comes to in-ear headphones it’s really a two horse race between Shure and Etymotic. Both offer superb sound and excellent noise isolation. We found that the Shure headphones we compared the HF3s too were a little too bassy for our liking and would pick the Etymotics over them for that reason and for the option of smaller earpieces. We also found that the mic was ideally placed for making calls, while the Shure mic hung down our front and needed to be held up to our mouth if we were to be heard.

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