Review: Etymotic hf3 Earphones

A few months ago I was in the market for some high quality earbuds, just ahead of several holiday flights across the country. While I was still content with my Beats Studio by Dr. Dre headphones and the noise cancellation performed well on flights, they were large enough to become cumbersome during frequent travel. After a bit of poking around, I purchased a set of Etymotic hf3 earphones (retail 180).

etymotic hf3 and HTC Nexus One running Pandora
hf3 earphones + Nexus One + Pandora. I wish the jack wasn't angled like that. 90 degree angle preferred.

Many of you probably haven't heard of Etymotic before. They only manufacture high-end audio gear but have definitely made a name for themselves in the consumer audio space in the last few years. Etymotic is known for some of their rather eccentric services for audiophiles. For example, most of their products support something called "Custom Fit" — you can get a mold made of your ear canal impressions from an audiologist, send the mold to Etymotic and they will send you custom eartips for your headphones (for a 100 fee).

etymotic hf3 retail packaging
hf3 retail packaging

On that note, I'll start talking about the hf3s I picked up. They're unlike any set of earbuds I have picked up. They're not actually earbuds or what you think of when you see typical consumer-oriented in-ear earbuds. They get nestled very deep in your ear for an airtight and noise canceling fit. They are completely different beasts from the 50 Sony earbuds I have been using for the last few years.

etymotic hf3 earphone closeup
hf3 earphones with their included triple flange tips

They come with a wide variety of tips and I've become fond of the larger white triple flange tips they come with. Etymotic recommends replacing them every several months so I also ordered an extra set of tips directly from Etymotic for 14. The hf3s also have replaceable filters in the driver housing and come with a special tool for that purpose. The drivers themselves are single full-range balanced armature transducers. In layman's terms, they're much better than moving coil drivers found in cheaper earphones.

The cable has an interesting texture due to its kevlar reinforcement and is 4 feet long, which I find to be the perfect length. I would have preferred flat cables though to allay cord tangling. I've only seen flat cables on some Monster / Dr. Dre earbuds though.

etymotic hf3 tips


It took me a few days to get used to the hf3 earphones. The fit is deeper than I have ever experienced with any earphones. If the fit is not airtight the sound quality is ruined. Even after using these for a few months, they're not the kind of earphones you can just push in and go on your way. I always need to fiddle with them for a few seconds to get it just right. This ends up being a rather large annoyance when you're out ordering coffee for example and have to take an earbud out for a while, then fiddle for a while to get it back in just right. Sometimes you'll end up pressuring your ear since the fit is air-tight, so you'll have to move it to pull it out and try again.

Etymotic actually has fairly thorough instructions for how to put the eartips in:

For best results, moisten the white soft plastic eartips before insertion. Using your right hand, grasp the eartip with the red plug. With your left hand, pull up and back on your right ear to straighten your ear canal. Carefully insert the right earphone so that it seals deeply and comfortably in your ear. Repeat procedure for the left ear, using the earphone with the blue plug. Remove earphones slowly with a twisting motion to gradually break the seal.



But... when these things are in perfectly, it's pure bliss. First off, these are not your typical bass-emphasizing earbuds from Best Buy aimed at rap-loving youth. Hf3 response is relatively flat and well-balanced; like reference earphones. Bass isn't overemphasized, nor is treble. Everything sounds like it all should. Noise isolation is rated at 35 dB - 42 dB and I would say that is accurate. The white 3-flange tips I prefer block out closer to 35 dB while the black foam tips (that have an odd fit IMO) are closer to 41 dB average external noise isolation. Once properly in, I can no longer hear the air conditioning heater (San Francisco..) or any of the ambient buzz/hum associated with flying. The only downside is that noise travels very easily through the cable. If you're walking or jogging and the cable isn't secured with the included shirt clip, you will hear the cable moving around more than your music.

Overall, the hf3 noise isolation is surreal. Random office noise and chatter gets eliminated. I don't dare wear these when walking back home late at night because that just makes it all too easy for a mugger to sneak up behind me undetected.

etymotic hf3 earphone closeup
built-in iPod/iPhone control is lightweight and doesn't weigh down the cable

The hf3s also include a tiny, inline iPhone control module. Adjust volume, mute/unmute and answer phone calls. The controls also have an integrated microphone that performs only okay. You get the best results by holding the mic closer to you so person on the end of the line can hear you at a decent volume. Don't expect a Jawbone-like experience here. I rarely talk on the phone, much less with a headset so this was of minimal concern to me.

Taking off the earphones after wearing them for a few hours feels a bit odd; as if the eartips forced your ear canal to get larger. I have tried all the included eartips. To get a proper fit as recommended, it will be fairly snug. The question is if that is too uncomfortable for you in the long run. Pro tip: dampen the eartips before putting them on.

Verdict: Amazing noise-isolating earphones at the expense of a tighter-than-you're-used-to fit. Perfect for coffee shop coworking. 8.5 out of 10 Stammys. Cable length is perfect but the 45 degree angled connector is really annoying.

Checkout the Etymotic hf3 earphones on Amazon.

Thoughts? Do you use any such high-fidelity in-ear earphones on a regular basis?

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