The Elk Grove Village, IL-based firm Etymotic Research is one of the oldest and best-known makers of high-performance in-ear headphones, producing several models, such as the ER-4 Micro Pro family of headphones ($299/pair), that have come to be regarded as classics. But since the advent of the ER-4 Micro Pros a number of years ago, several market factors have changed. First, we have seen the widespread acceptance of the game-changing iPhone (yes, the ER-4 design pre-dated the arrival of the iPhone), meaning that many prospective buyers not only want high quality earphones, but also require devices that can function as headsets (i.e., that have built-in microphones and other cell phone control features). Second, a number of new competitors have joined the fray, creating pricing pressures, so that many enthusiasts want top-tier (or at least near top-tier) performance at a lower entry price that Etymotic's ER-4 models can provide.
To address these emerging requirements, Etymotic Research created the hf2 (hf2 stands for “high fidelity | hands-free”) noise-isolating headset/earphone—one that, in terms of configuration and sound, is in essence an “ER-4 junior.” Like all of the ER-4 models, the hf2 features balanced armature-type drivers. According to Etymotic Research Product Development Engineer David Friesema, the firm believes that balanced armature-type drivers offer, in an absolute sense, the highest overall performance potential (although Etymotic soon intends to release lower cost models that will use moving coil-type drivers).
Accordingly, the balanced-armature-equipped hf2 represents an effort to capture much of the sonic goodness of the ER-4, but at roughly half the price—and with headset functionality thrown in for good measure. Friesema enthusiastically encouraged me to compare the hf2 side-by-side with the ER-4P, which is precisely what I do in this review.
Consider this combination headset/earphone if: you favor a sound that is built more for accuracy and tonal neutrality than for any kind of bass or upper midrange/treble embellishments. If anything, the hf2’s tonal balance struck us as offering a slightly warmer and arguably more natural sound than that of the ER-4P. Resolution is very good, though not quite up to the (extremely) high standards set by the ER-4P. Noise isolation is simply excellent, provided you can find a set of ER eartips that seal well and fit comfortably. When fitted properly, the hf2 makes a very viable alternative to larger and more costly active, noise-cancelling over-the-ear headphones.
Look further if: you seek true top-tier levels of resolution in terms of capturing the finest of low-level sonic details and bits of textural information. While the hf2 is one of the stronger performers in its price class in this respect, you’ll enjoy an even more sharply focused sound by by stepping up to the ER-4P. The fit of the hf2s can be controversial. We raise this point because Etymotic’s familiar triple-flange rubber eartips—the units shown in most Etymotic product photos—fit some users beautifully, but can be borderline uncomfortable for others. If the triple-flange eartips don’t work for you, try using Etymotic’s compressible foam and/or mushroom-shaped “Glider” eartips, either of which may provide a more comfortable fit. For sheer sound quality, however, we think the triple-flange tips are tough to beat.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced in-ear headphones):
- Tonal Balance: 9
- Clarity: 9
- Dynamics: 8
- Comfort/Fit: 6-9 (varies with users, types of eartips chosen)
- Sensitivity: 8
- Value: 8.5
- Balanced armature-type drivers
- Offered in three colors: black, cobalt, and red.
- In-line microphone module provides a multifunction Send/End control button. Music automatically mutes and pauses for an incoming call.
- Inbound calls: When an inbound call is received, pressing the Send/End button once allows the listener to answer the call. Pressing the Send/End button again disconnects the call and allows music to resume.
- Listening to music: When listening to music, pressing the Send/End button once causes music playback to pause. Pressing the Send/End button again allows music playback to resume. Press the Send/End button twice in rapid succession cause the iPhone or iPod touch to skip forward to the next track.
- Accessories: the ht2 comes with an extensive set of accessories, as listed under the COMFORT FACTOR/ACCESSORIES section, below.
- Important: apart from the assortment of eartips provided with the hf2, the Etymotic Research online store offers an even broader range of eartips, accessories and spare parts for use with the hf2. If the included accessories don’t quite align with your needs, visit www.etymotic.com/ephp/hf2-acc.aspx to seek out further options.
The Etymotic hf2’s are voiced with an eye toward sonic neutrality, a design choice that I find pleasing but that might not suit all tastes. One reason I say this is that headphones in general cannot produce the deep, tactile, rattle-your-chest cavity bass that you might hear from great loudspeakers and would certainly hear from live music. To compensate for this, many headphone makers dial in some degree of bass enhancement (some more than others), whereas Etymotic tends to apply little if any bass boost, and to use bass enhancement, if any, in a very conservative way. As a result, many competitors focus on giving you more bass, while Etymotic typically gives you somewhat less bass, but bass that sounds almost perfectly neutrally balanced and that is unfailingly taut and well focused.
Interestingly, if you listen to the hf2 in back-to-back comparisons with Eytmotic’s own ER-4P, you may find—as I did—that the hf2 seems a little less bright and a touch warmer sounding than its more costly and analytical-sounding sibling. Much though I admire the ER-4P, I think many listeners might find the hf2’s sound more natural and accessible overall. What goes on here is that, with the ER-4P, there is a region in the upper midrange where the headphone is just a bit forward sounding (though not to a degree that is distracting or that would draw your attention when listening to the ER-4P in isolation). But when you hear the hf2 alongside the ER-4, the latter’s subtle upper midrange prominence becomes apparent—a comparison that works in the hf2’s favor.
However, when you focus in on the headphones’ ability to render small, subtle, low-level details and sonic information, the advantage shifts back to the ER-4P. While the hf2 can and does capture a great deal of musical information (meaning it is competitive with if not superior to other models in its price range), the fact is that the ER-4P captures even more (which is one of the reasons the ER-4P is considered a classic design). But that said, I think that the hf2 will prove a delightful revelation for many listeners, giving them the sense that they are at last being given a deep, insider’s view of what’s really contained in their favorite music files.
One worthwhile point to note is that certain of Etymotic’s various eartip designs may give you much better sonic results than others. I say this because I have found, as have many of my colleagues who use Etymotic headphones, that I achieved the best overall sound when using Etymotic’s signature triple-flange rubber eartips (two sizes of which are provided with the hf2). I’m not sure why, but this material and eartip design seems to yield maximum sonic clarity and impact—especially on crisply delineated transient sounds and on vigorous bass content. In contrast, Etymotic’s foam eartips, which some listeners might prefer for their more comfortable fit, tend to produce a sound that is a smidgeon softer and more diffuse, making it harder to hear low-level details clearly.
I asked Etymotic’s David Friesema about these findings and he sent me this reply:
“Measured at the same reference point, the acoustic differences between the hf2 foam eartip and the 3-flange eartip are minimal. More likely, any observed sonic difference between these two tips is due to a difference in eartip placement in the user's ear canal. While not always the case, many people can't get as deep of a seal with the foam eartip.”
Noise isolation: Like the ER-4P, the hf2 can be amazingly effective at blocking out external noise—enough so that you can get way with things like listening to music while other family members watch a TV show in the same room with you. To achieve this level of noise isolation it is, of course, imperative to find a set of hf2 eartips that seal well in your ear canals. Etymotic says the hf2 provide a whopping “35-42 dB (depending on eartip used)” of noise isolation—specifications superior (in some cases dramatically superior) to those quoted for even the best of today’s active noise-cancelling headphones.
To appreciate the delicacy and finesse the hf2 has to offer, try listening to the first movement of the Hilary Hahn/St. Paul Chamber Orchestra performance of the Meyer Violin Concerto [Barber & Meyer: Violin Concertos, Sony], paying close attention Ms. Hahn’s string tone. What has long enchanted me about this young virtuoso’s playing is the fact that she achieves a sound that is incredibly articulate and, when appropriate, emphatic and incisive, yet that is never edgy or inappropriately aggressive or hard-edged. Instead, even in the most volatile passages, her tone preserves an underlying element of elegance—even of sweetness. This a distinctive quality I’ve admired when listening to Hahn in concert and a quality I’ve used as a litmus test when evaluating costly loudspeakers. But the great news, here, is that it’s also a quality that the Etymotic hf2 effortlessly reveals for listeners to enjoy. Part of why you would invest in a headset/earphone of this caliber is to savor subtleties that show the differences between great performers and merely excellent ones.
To see what I’m talking about in my comments on the pleasingly (but not exaggeratedly) warm and natural sound the hf2 has on offer, listen to the track “Split Window” from Far From Enough [ ], the debut album from the great bluegrass/jazz bassist Viktor Krauss. The song opens with a beautifully meditative solo acoustic bass phrase from Krauss that speaks volumes. Krauss begins the phrase by striking a deep bass note that is left to linger in the air for a few seconds as he sprinkles in an almost subliminal cluster of surprisingly high-pitched high harmonics for contrast. Then, using the hearty middle range of the bass’s voice, Krauss introduces a curving, growling theme that is supplemented, at points, by double stops, and then augmented as the atmospheric and plaintive sound of an electric guitar and other instruments join in. Now this passage can sound very good on a variety of speakers and headphones, but what made the hf2’s rendition of it special was the way in which these little earphones captured both the depth and heartiness of bass—in particular, it evocative and “woody” voice—while also revealing (but not overemphasizing) the delicacy of its harmonics and upper register. In short, the Etymotics naturalism really nailed the bass’s ability to sound earthy and yet refined at the same time. In contrast, many otherwise fine headphones can give this passage a more analytical treatment that somehow misses its deep, rooted-in-the-ground quality.
To give you a sense for how the hf2 fares in comparison both with like-priced models and more expensive units, let’s look at how it stacks up relative to the similarly priced Monster Cable Turbine and to Etymotic’s own more costly ER-4P.
hf2 vs. Monster Cable Turbine
- The Monster Cable Turbines offer a similar emphasis on neutral voicing, but provides a response curve shaped with an eye toward achieving a slightly darker, warmer, and perhaps somewhat “richer” sound.
- The hf2 is arguably the more textbook neutral sounding design with a greater emphasis on clarity and resolution of low-level detail. The hf2 and Turbine are identically priced, yet the hf2 provides welcome headset functionality, while the Turbine does not.
- While both headphones come with a good mix of eartips, I found Monster’s eartips were—on the whole—more comfortable and could more easily be adjusted to achieve a good, airtight seal in my ear canals.
hf2 vs. ER-4P
- Etymotic’s hf2 and ER-4P designs are similarly in voicing, though side-by-side comparisons reveal an upper midrange region where the ER-4P sounds a little more prominent than the hf2 does. This difference underscores the fact that the ER-4P can resolve low-level sonic details more effectively than the hf2, but also tends to make the ER-4P sound a bit bright and/or bass-shy in comparison to its less costly sibling. Bass is well controlled in both earphones, but is a bit more prominent in the hf2—a difference that I think many listeners will welcome.
- The ER-4P comes with an even more extensive range of accessories (especially eartips) than the hf2 does, but the hf2 offers the compelling benefit of having headset functionality, while the ER-4P does not.
- The hf2 does a good job with low-level details and is one of the clearest sounding offerings in its price class, but the ER-4P gives an even more focused and explicit rendering of subtle musical details (the ER-4P is quite exceptional in this respect).
The hf2s come with two sets of triple-flange rubber eartips, a pair of foam eartips, and a pair of flexible mushroom shaped “Glider” eartips, spare filters (designed to prevent earwax from clogging the headphone's drive mechanism), a filter changing too, a shirt clip (to attach the headphone’s signal cable to a garment, if desired) and a soft carrying case.
As noted under SONIC CHARACTER, above, the various Etymotic eartips differ in shape, size, and material composition. My preference (and that of many of my colleagues) is for the sound achieved when wearing the triple-flange eartips. The foam tips may feel better, at least for some listeners, but they also seem to yield a somewhat softer sound that can undercut clarity to some degree.
That said, I feel the triple-flange eartips are a mixed blessing—at least for those (like me) with relatively large-diameter ear canal openings. The problem is that the triple flange tips are basically offered in just two sizes (small and standard). For me, the standard-size triple-flange tips are not quite large enough, so that I have to insert them very, very deeply in my ear canals (uncomfortably so) to get a good seal. What would help, I think, would be a third, larger size of triple-flange eartip.
The hf2 is a welcome addition to the Etymotic product range, offering—exactly as advertized—many of the sonic benefits of the flagship ER-4P model, but at a lower price and with the added convenience of headset functionality. What I think many listeners will appreciate are the subtle shifts in tonal balance in the hf2 relative to the ER-4P; namely, the hf2’s slightly less prominent upper midrange frequencies and slightly more prominent bass. These shifts are subtle, not huge, but together they add up to a sound that conveys the natural warmth of music in a rich and welcoming way.
Prospective owners who like the idea of the hf2, but would prefer a headset with a 3-button mic/phone control module, will be pleased to know that Etymotic has plans to offer an hf3 model. The hf3 will be much like the hf2, but will provide a 3-button control for play/pause/end/send, volume control, and track changes.
SPECS & PRICING
Etymotic Research hf2 noise-isolating headset/earphone
Frequency response: 20Hz – 15kHz
Weight: 1.3 ounce/pair
Sensitivity: 105 dB/mW
Warranty: Two years, parts and labor