Etymotic’s hf2 is a redesign of the company’s hyper-accurate ER4P in-ear headphones, adding iPhone compatibility via an inline mic and call button. At $179 USD, the hf2 aims squarely at iPhone owners who are audio purists and favor 256Kbps or higher MP3s or Apple Lossless files. If you’re outside that listening group, you’re better off checking out cheaper headsets from Shure or V-Moda.
The hf2 is compatible with iPods and many other music players, though the inline controls only work with the iPhone. Also, they didn’t work properly as regular headphones with our 160GB Archos 705 WiFi (we only got one channel of audio). If you’ve run across more incompatibility issues, let us know in the comments!
The hf2’s discreet matte black finish looks way more hip than other models from in-ear pioneer Etymotic Research, though we miss the color-coded right and left earpieces of the ER4P. The 4-foot cable is stiff and smooth enough to resist tangling and has a small inline mic module the diameter of a cigarette. The single button on it covers call send/end, music pause/play, and track skip (tap twice).
Music or video pauses automatically when your babysitter calls in a panic and switches over to your ringtone. When you hang up, your iPhone resumes media from where it left off. The button is easy to grab and press quickly without looking, so you don’t fumble an incoming call.
The package includes an extra pair of filters, which you can replace if the sound starts to go a little wonky for any reason (usually submersion or industrial amounts of earwax). An included tool makes filter replacement simple, but the parts are extremely small. We’re big fans of the imitation suede and leather case, which has a mesh pocket on the inside for accessories.
Comfort and Noise Isolation
The hf2’s go pretty far into your ear canals, so if you’re the type who can’t stand earplugs, you’re barking up the wrong tree. The silicone tips are more intrusive but sound slightly better, while the foam blocks more noise and is more comfortable for long periods. The included “baby blue” tips are for smaller ears, and they all block a variety of noise from subway rumble and jet roar to chatty coffee shop goers.
Unless you’re a fanatical Q-Tipper, the hf2’s collect a lot of earwax, which in turn grabs pocket lint; the result is fuzzy, sticky eartips, so use the case. Instead of a cleaning tool (not included), Etymotic recommends simply washing them with soap and water after use, which is good hygiene if a bit of a hassle.
The mic is well-placed and our voice came through crystal clear, but the cable picked up a lot of noise when we walked. The shirt clip partially alleviated this, but we wish the cabling were designed so we could wear them over the tops of our ears, which eliminates it completely. Wind is also a problem – it whistles in these earbuds something fierce no matter how good the seal in our ear was.
We tested using our 8GB iPhone and every genre of music we could think of (more than just Country and Western) ripped to Apple Lossless or 320Kbps MP3 from CDs. We also tried a few movie clips ripped from a test DVD. Here are a few experiences we feel are representative of our testing.
On Buckwheat Zydeco’s Hot Tamale Baby the washboard doesn’t turn everything (especially the horns) to mush — nice detail in the mids. You can hear the buttons being pressed on the accordion.
Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks lack the sheer bass impact required to send us to classic rock nirvana, but the vocals and guitars sound crisp and clear. Jay-Z tracks from The Blueprint have lots of snap, but they don’t quite achieve butt-shaking thump.
On anything with tympani, heavy bass drums, or electric bass, you get a lot of punch without any exaggeration, so they’ll seem to lack depth to the majority of listeners. Tambourines, snare, and cymbals have exceptional clarity, which is what sells many critical listeners on Etymotic headphones.
With movies, sounds seem to come from where they’re supposed to according to what’s on-screen. When the dwarf Gimli blows that huge horn in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, you really get a sense of space. But huge explosions, like when General Ross blows up those desert mountains in The Hulk (2003), suffer from too much detail and not enough impact.
We engaged our iPhone’s bass boost, but it didn’t really improve the sound any. We’re not big fans of Apple’s EQ presets, and since these headphones require the iPhone’s volume to be up fairly high, which can cause muddiness when the bass boost is on.
As you’d expect from a company that designs hearing aids, Etymotic put a lot of effort into call quality. The mic is one of the clearest we’ve heard, and it falls right near our mouth, though it is susceptible to wind noise.
If you fit in the hf2’s fairly narrow niche and rock out to music that isn’t dependent on throbbing bass, the hf2’s are a worthy investment. But if you’re just looking for a reasonably priced upgrade to the iPhone’s stock headset, check out the V-Moda Vibe Duo ($99) or Skullcandy iPhone FMJ ($79.95). Bass heads should try Shure’s SE series headphones (starting at $119.99) and Music Phone Adapter ($49.99).
• The sound is accurate enough for pro monitoring
• They block noise very effectively
• Bass could use some beefing up for musicality.
• The silicone eartips are intrusive.
• Suffers from “cable thump”.