Etymotic HF3 Earphones
(4.5 star rating)
A very well-known name in the audio world, Etymotic Research has always stood for accuracy and fidelity. Their latest budget-priced model that we recently reviewed - the MC5, successfully extends the company’s philosophy to a lower-end market but the true jewels of Etymotic’s consumer-oriented lineup are the HF-series earphones. Like the classic ER-4 model, the HF3 utilizes a single full-range balanced armature transducer and promises to bring the utmost clarity and fidelity to a new generation of portable devices. Does it deliver? Let’s find out.
Packaging & Accessories
The Etymotic HF3 comes in a simple but handsome carboard box. Opening the flap reveals a window showing off the earphones themselves. Inside the box you will find:
- Etymotic Research HF3 earphones
- 2 sets of triple-flange silicone ear cushions in S/M sizes
- 1 set of Etymotic gray soft foam tips
- 1 set of Etmoyic Glider foam tips
- Zippered velour carrying case
- Shirt clip
- 1 set of replacement nozzle filters
- Filter replacement tool
- Instruction manual
The accessory pack is identical to what is included with the $80 MC5 model except for the cloth carrying pouch, which has been replaced with a fancier velour one for the pricier HF3. The included tips are varied enough to fit most ears and geared for maximum isolation. Aftermarket tips designed for 2.5mm nozzles, including those from Klipsch and Shure, will fit as well - the Shure Olive foam tips are a personal favourite.
The bundled cable clip is designed to reduce cord contact noise (microphonics) during physical activity. A set of replacement filters and filter changing tool are also included, along with instructions on how to use them. Lastly, a brochure advertising Etymotic’s new custom eartip molding service is included for those interested in taking their listening experience a step further.
- Driver Type: Single Balanced Armature
- Frequency Response: 20 Hz - 15 kHz
- Impedance (@1 kHz): 16 Ohms
- Sensitivity (@1 kHz) SPL at 0.1V: 105 dB
- Maximum Output (SPL): 120 dB
- Cable length: 4 ft (1.2 meters)
- Input connection: 3.5 mm plug
- Noise Isolation: 35-42 dB
Design & Build Quality
The HF3 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 HF3 earphones is all-plastic but the matte finish of the housings does wonders for perceived quality and gives the overall product an upmarket feel. The nozzles are quite thin so care should be taken when changing eartips. The cord is slightly thicker than the one found on the MC-series earphones but also carries a bit more memory character, preserving its shape for some time after being coiled up for storage. 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.
Fit, Comfort, & Isolation
The balanced armature drivers used in the HF3 are much smaller than the dynamic transducers used in the MC5, allowing the earphones to be extremely slim in diameter. The fit is still highly dependent on the eartips used but at least the housings don’t get in the way. Like all Etymotic Research in-ears, the HF3 are deep-insertion earphones and require a good seal for optimal sound quality - a poor or shallow seal will undoubtedly result in a severe lack of bass response and very shrill treble. The correct fitting depth can feel intrusive for those new to high-end in-ear monitors and may take some time to acclimate to.
The cable doesn’t bounce around much while walking or running but the included shirt clip is still highly recommended for active use to mitigate cord contact noise (microphonics). The sliding cable cinch can be useful as well but less so on the HF3 model since the microphone gets in the way. The cable exits the housings at a good angle for wearing the earphones both in the conventional manner and with the cable looped over the wearer’s ear – something that helps reduce microphonics further and can become quite convenient with some practice.
The combination of a slim, deep-insertion design and sealed housings gives the HF3 mind-bogglingly good isolation – the level of passive noise attenuation provided by the HF3 can match that of the legendary Ety ER-4. Overall isolation is dependent on the tips used but in general the Etymotics cut out more than enough noise to compete with most high-end active noise cancelling headphones. Naturally, such high levels of isolation come with some caveats – the HF3 really should not be used near traffic or anywhere others may require your attention. For those in search of maximum passive attenuation, however, it simply doesn’t get better than this.
Sound Quality Testing
Testing note: All on-the-go listening was done using a Cowon J3 portable player with a wide range of tracks in mp3 (bitrates ranging from 128 to 320kbps) format. Critical listening was done via an optical-fed iBasso D10 using only WMA and FLAC lossless files.
As is the case with the majority of in-ear earphones, the sound quality of the Etymotic HF3 is highly dependent on tip selection. A good seal is absolutely essential to getting any sort of bass response out of the earphones but even with that out of the way there are still improvements to be had by switching tips. The triple-flange silicone sleeves and aftermarket Shure Olives (model EABKF1) were our favorites for sound quality but of course no two sets of ears are alike so results will vary for individual listeners.
|Closeup||Closeup with filters|
As we noted in our recent review of the Etymotic MC5, Etymotic Research has what is known as a ‘house sound’ – a sound signature that all of the company’s offerings strive towards. For Etymotic, the sonic ideal has always been perfect neutrality and accuracy. The balanced armature transducers that the company utilizes in the ER- and HF- series models are perfectly suited for achieving the type of response sought after by the engineers – capable of great clarity, speed, and detail, balanced armatures can be tuned for near-flat frequency response, though not without sacrifices.
Those familiar with Etymotic earphones will not be surprised to learn that the low end of the HF3 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 light, punchy, and impeccably 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 likely provide more satisfactory bass response. On if the other hand if ‘natural’ means hearing the track exactly the way it was mastered, down to the tiniest detail (including mastering and compression flaws), the low end of the HF3 leaves little to be desired. No matter how dense the track, the HF3 will never, ever miss a beat. Low end extension is quite linear down to around 30Hz and drops off quickly after that - 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 HF3 does but in both cases even the best equalizer can only do so much. Those looking for rumbling, full-bodied bass will want to look are more mainstream brands but the on the whole the accuracy and clarity of the HF3’s low end is faultless.
The midrange of the HF3 is again typical Etymotic – clear, detailed, and quite neutral in tone. Unlike the lower-end MC5, which can seem almost mid-centric at times due to the thicker note presentation, the thinner and dryer-sounding midrange of the HF3 is no more attention-grabbing than the mastering engineer intended on any particular track. The mids are smooth and free of grain, though a poor seal can result in moderate vocal sibilance (the accentuation of ‘ssss’ and ‘shhh’ sounds in vocals). Of course if the sibilance is present on the track, the HF3 will be relentless in pointing it out but otherwise well-fitting tips should be able to mitigate the issue. The treble is slightly elevated, as tends to be the case with analytical earphones, but not so overly prominent that it becomes excessively fatiguing. It is bright, crisp, and very highly-detailed, with excellent extension across the audible range and impressive definition. Naturally, these earphones, like all Etymotics, are not for the treble-sensitive.
Presentation is perhaps where the HF3 is most similar to the lower-end MC5 – both do a good job of separating out individual instruments but neither provides the type of highly immersive three-dimensional listening experience one would expect from a top-tier earphone (which, of course would cost significantly more). The soundstage, or virtual ‘space’ in which the earphones can position instruments, has good width but only average depth. Soundstage height, which is something most in-ears struggle with, is also average at best. That said, the highly accurate and impeccably detailed HF3 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 $379 Westone 3.
|Plugin remote||UE TripleFi 10, Ety MC5, Ety HF3, Westone 3|
Tonally, the HF3 is a cooler-sounding earphone, foregoing the warm and accented lower harmonics of cheaper earphones for bright and crisp treble. It is very unforgiving of low-bitrate rips and poor mastering and will diligently point out clipping, distortion, sibilance, and any other artifacts present on the track, as a good earphone should. 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.
A final note regarding Etymotic nomenclature – the HF5, HF3, and HF2 are identical earphones except for iPhone functionality, with the HF5 being a simple set of stereo earphones, the HF2 having an iPhone mic and a one-button remote, and the HF3 outfitted with the whole shebang – earphones, mic, and three-button remote, including volume controls. The same applies to the MC line, consisting of the MC5 and MC3. Therefore, if iPhone functionality is not desired, the cheaper HF5 would be the one to buy over the HF2 and HF3. Ditto on the MC5.
Etymotic Research HF3 Earphones
The Etymotic HF3 is a thoroughly modern, iPhone-compatible take on the classic Etymotic design philosophy. The single balanced armature transducer produces sound with the highest attainable levels of clarity and detail. Like the flagship ER-4 model, the HF3 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 HF3 lacks the enhanced bass response, warmth, and thickness of mainstream competitors and the treble may be excessive for those used to a more relaxed sound. The slim, deep-insertion form factor, eerie levels of isolation, and subdued aesthetics all make the HF3 a quintessential Etymotic earphone. For those who are simply looking to dabble in entry-level audiophile sound, the cheaper and sturdier MC3 may be a better match but at a reasonable $180 for the 3-button iPhone version, the HF3 is a seriously impressive piece of audio equipment for those who are very serious about their music.
Pros: Stellar noise isolation; impeccably clear, detailed, balanced, and accurate sound; comes in three flavours of varying smartphone functionality .
Cons: Deep-insertion form factor can take time getting used to; neutral and balanced sound won’t appeal to everyone.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5