20
Dec
32954298-2-440-OVR-1

Before seeking out a few companies to find the best Android-friendly headphones around, I had never heard of Etymotic Research. Apparently, they've been around quite a while - since 1983, actually, and were among the first companies to market in-ear headphones to consumers. They actually claim to be the inventors of in-ear headphones (or "canalphones"), though whether or not that's actually true is apparently an object of some controversy.

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Anyway, the good folks at ER sent me a pair of their hf2 in-ear headphones with Android-friendly inline controls and microphone, and I have to say, these headphones rock - the sheer difference in sound quality from your standard $30-80 earbuds is mind-blowing. The included in-line microphone is pretty great, too. Here's a brief summary on these little guys:

Etymotic Research hf2 Earbuds

  • Price: $179 MSRP (much cheaper on Amazon)
  • What are they? High-fidelity, noise cancelling earbuds with inline controls and microphone for Bluetooth commands and phone calls.
  • Why are they special? Etymotic's headphones are widely renowned for their extreme noise-cancellation (35-42dB) and very balanced, accurate sound.

The Good

  • These things sound awesome. You will hear things you never heard before in your music - the fidelity is, if you've never used headphones of this quality, almost unbelievable.
  • At around $100 at many online retailers, they're a great deal - the sound they produce is on a level with products like Logitech's Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10 - which cost at least $75 more.
  • The noise-cancellation is supreme, making them ideal for the office, on a plane, a train, or any loud environment.
  • You get replacement sound filters for the earbuds, something not many headphone makers provide - including a replacement tool.
  • A large assortment of earbuds, rubber and foam, are included.

The Not So Good

  • The triple-seal earbud tips reach pretty deep in your ear (they're a conical shape), which some people just will not like. Try before you buy. The foam tips are equally... interesting, you may not enjoy how they feel compared to traditional earbud tips.
  • The in-line controls suck. They do not pause music properly on my phone, they just bring up Bluetooth voice commands, which are useless. This may or may not work depending on your phone.
  • Comparatively weak bass - these probably aren't the headphones for fans of hip hop, dubstep, or other thump-happy music.

Comfort

32954298-2-440-OVR-1We're starting with comfort because this is, without a doubt, going to be the single most important consideration for most folks before buying these headphones. As you can see in this picture, the hf2's have a very unique earbud tip compared to your standard in-ear headphones. That's because the hf2's aren't technically in-ear headphones at all, they're canalphones. And that's because they reach a significant distance inside your ear canal while wearing them.

This is one of the big reasons why these little guys are so great at noise-cancellation, because the triple-seal tips isolate far better than a single, circular tip you'll find on most earbuds. This is a good thing, because it means you'll be able to enjoy your music without having to crank the volume, meaning less chance of long-term hearing loss.

The negative aspect is how they feel. "Weird" is how I would have described that feeling after my first hour or so with them. And that's to say, they really get in there. But after a day of use, they felt far more natural, and I really appreciated the fantastic isolation they provided. As far as long-term wearing goes, they do give you a little fatigue, for me especially because I had to put on the larger tips, as the smaller ones wouldn't even come close to making a seal on my apparently gigantic ear-holes. After an hour or so of wearing them, you may want to take them out for a few minutes. Alternatively, the foam tips are far less fatiguing because they don't penetrate so far, but they definitely feel different - like you're wearing ear plugs (because they essentially are earplugs).

Of course, the alternative to all of this is to go to an Etymotic-authorized fitting location and pay for them to make molds of your ears. No, seriously. If you do that, I imagine they'd fit like a glove (an ear-glove, that is), but I also think many buyers probably aren't going to shell for that extra unless they're buying significantly nicer headphones.

Microphone / In-Line Controls

The microphone on the hf2's is top-notch, far better than what you'll find on most earbud headsets of this type. It hangs close to your face, eliminating the need for a clip. Obviously, I heard people on the other end just fine, but how well did they hear me? No one noticed I was using an external microphone, so apparently pretty well, in fact, some actually said I sounded much better than normal. So the microphone gets high marks.

The in-line controls, on the other hands, are pretty lackluster. I couldn't get pause/play functionality to work on any music app (Pandora, Google Music, Subsonic, Slacker), instead, I was just directed to Bluetooth voice commands whenever I'd press the function button. Call answer and hang-up do work, though. But otherwise, the inline controls are almost totally crippled by what is apparently a lack of proper Android compatibility.

Sound And Isolation

Here's where things get better. The hf2's sound amazing. Like, really amazing. If you've never tried headphones using balanced armatures (almost exclusively, headphones under $100 use coil drivers), you need to. The fidelity is just outstanding, every little piece of the song comes to life, and you actually will hear things you never heard before in your favorite songs. Because the soundstage is so isolated from environmental noise, it also means you don't need to hit maximum volume to hear those little things, either. For classical, classic rock, jazz, and other non-electronic music, the hf2's provide a supreme listening experience at a price that belies their quality.

The sound is extremely flat and balanced, meaning you'll hear recordings as they were meant to be heard. There's no "enhancement" going on here - just really good, really clear, and really accurate sound.

If you're looking for more bass-heavy headphones, I'll say it right now: these aren't up your alley. While bass-heavy songs don't sound at all bad on the hf2's, they're probably not giving you the full dynamic "experience" for low-frequency bass. You'll hear all the bumps and booms, but they won't be as bumpy or boomy as you might expect or desire. The hf2's are single-armature headphones, and typically you need multiple armatures to bring out the bass (or a separate bass driver) on earbuds of this type.

As far as isolation is concerned, Etymotic advertises 35-42dB of noise cancellation, depending on the earbud tips your use (foam provides superior isolation). And isolate they do - you'd be lucky to hear an oncoming train while listening to music with the volume maxed out. Etymotic actually claims their earbuds provide the best isolation of any on the market, and I'm inclined to believe them.

Conclusion

At $100 street price ($179 MSRP), the Etymotic hf2's are hard to go wrong with, unless you can't stand the way they feel in your ears, or you're looking for earbuds that really bump, not sing. In fact, I'd say their fidelity puts them on the level of significantly more expensive offerings from their competitors - you're really getting a $200 pair of headphones in terms of sound quality. And compared to slightly cheaper (say, $75-100) earbuds, the hf2's are miles ahead in terms of fidelity and clarity.

If you can, try a pair before you commit to a purchase (or get them somewhere you can return them, just in case), but if you care about uncompromising sound quality and noise isolation first and comfort second, the hf2's are definitely a no-brainer at this price point.

David Ruddock
David's phone is an HTC One. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, imparting a legal perspective on tech news, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • crazifyngers

    I love my etymonics. i have er4 models. I loved the sound but not the fit. they have a coupon to get custom molds on their website. I will never go back to regular earbuds.

  • drew

    weak bass compared to what? are they the more flat response you'd get with a pair of akg or seinnheisers? cause if so I may look into these. I have been loving my seinnheiser hd280s but they can get annoying if I wear them with my glasses for long periods of time

    • David Ruddock

      This is strictly comparing to other in-ear headphones, not over the ear. They are pretty flat (compared to similarly priced fare from Klipsch or UE), for sure, but you'll probably want to try them out, especially because of the way they fit.

      • http://www.pretentiousname.com Leo Davidson

        Some (low to medium quality) in-ear headphones have ridiculously boosted bass (to the point of massive distortion).

        With higher quality, expensive in-ear headphone ranges, my experience is that the bottom of the ranges tend to have poor bass while the top of the ranges have excellent, flat-response bass.

        Flat-response as in they play what they are sent and reproduce it perfectly. Which may sound like "not very much bass" if you are used to headphones that boost bass to try to sound cool and/or compensate for devices that have poor sound quality and don't output much bass (like my Nexus S, sadly, which sounds terrible on fantastic (and very expensive :) ) headphones and requires EQ to sound right).

  • 0iramrepu5

    I have the HF2 since last x-mas and i really love them. The sound is just awesome. From time to time you need to change the little green filters: 15$/6pcs. That's ok, but 50$ (!!!) for shipping to germany is really too much.

  • Bek

    Been using Etymotic products for years and love my HF2's. I'll note that I use PowerAMP and the in-line controls work just fine if you increase PowerAMP's priority (under their preferences).

    Additionally, consider the ER6i's if you don't want inline controls. They're slightly less expensive for the same quality sound.

    Finally, go peruse LifeHacker for articles on DIY in-ear molds.

  • Joshua

    Honest Question:

    How am I going to try these before I buy them? I doubt most retailers will allow me to bury these deep within my ear canal before my purchase.

    • David Ruddock

      Find a friend. I know it's practically not going to be an option for most people. I'll say this - you CAN get used to the feeling of the triple seal earbuds, you just need to keep using them. It's going to feel weird the first day or so, but after that, you'll get accustomed to it. If you really want something great-sounding around $100, they're worth the occasional discomfort.

    • http://www.pretentiousname.com Leo Davidson

      If the idea of sticking a friend's earbuds in your ears sounds offputting, note that the headphones usually come with spare/alternative sets, so David's advice is good. :)

  • http://graesen.com Eh, just some guy

    I am actually interested in the ear tips. Do you know if they're a standard size or proprietary to their earphones? I ask because I bought Munition SITi's (incredible sounding, bullet-shaped earphones) but their ear tips aren't the most comfortable. I'd like a double or triple tip like what's pictured above, but not sure where to buy them. Munitio claims their tips are a standard size and I can use other brand tips with them.

    • David Ruddock

      I'm pretty sure they're fairly specific to Etymotic's headphones, they sell them on their website (under "Accessories" if you select any model of headphone), so I'm assuming but not *certain* that they're proprietary.

    • Ben

      I have owned a couple pairs of Klipsch earbuds, and the tips are interchangeable with my hf2's.

  • palmer nyako

    send me the review ear buds
    O_O

  • animejay

    I have these earphones and I wasn't sure if I would like them because they are indeed flat sounding. Now that I've had hem for a couple of months, I have to say they are the best I've ever had. i had Shures (canal) and Sennheiser (in-ear) before, but these for sound isolation and clarity were the best. period.

  • Duplissi

    So how do these compare to say a pair of grado sr325is cans? I need a good pair of iems to complement them... obviously the sr325is arent exactly the best headphones for portability, which is why i want some iems.

    • David Ruddock

      Duplissi, I'm not too familiar with over-the-ear phones, so I really can't give you a great answer on how the hf2's will sound by comparison to your Grados. If you're willing to spend even more, ER does make a line called the ER line that provide a true audiophile experience (minus in-line controls and mic) and represent the pinnacle of canalphone tech, especially for noise isolation.

      If you're primarily looking for something that behaves like a monitor, these are a solid choice, for sure - as I said, response is nice and flat, and isolation is great, but coming from over-the-ears you may be wanting a little more "oomph" from the low range than these can offer.

  • Ben

    I have owned a pair of the hf2's for a bit over a year now, and agree that the in-line controls can be finicky, but they now work for me in Pandora and the Google music app, running Cyanogenmod.
    If you miss the thump, try the Equalizer app (free) which includes a "bass booster" which serves me well.
    I purchased these for the inline mic, but they have become my go to bud, over Shures of considerably greater expense.

  • Hasan

    You can get the HF5s if you don't need the controls and they are exactly the same.

    These headphones rock, I bought them because the isolation they provide is unbelievable and I need that because I travel on loud trains every day. I can't hear a thing which can be quite dangerous when you're walking along a street.

    I assume the sound quality is amazing based on reviews but I really don't know much about sound.