Review of the Etymotic HF3 in ear monitor headphone

Over the last 15 years, I've spent a considerable amount of time living in airports and airplanes. Because of this, I am always searching for the next gadget or technology that will make my trip easier or more enjoyable. The first gadget that most travelers buy is a quality pair of noise canceling headphones. 

My first active noise canceling headphones were to Sennheiser PCX-250 then I graduated to one of the first Bose Quiet Comfort's . Although these devices performed extremely well, they had some negative factors that motivated me to look elsewhere.

  • I'm a one bag traveler - this means that I travel light. The last thing I want is gigantic headphones that don't fit into my carry-on bag.
  • Batteries - most active noise cancellation headphones require their own batteries. Most stop working as soon as the batteries die, not good when on a long flight.
  • Sound quality - the primary function of most noise canceling headphones, is noise cancellation. If sound quality is important to you, then many of them may not fit the bill. Read my review of the Bose QuietComfort 15

I've been using passive noise isolating headphones for about four years now, and own some of the best models currently available in the market (brands like Shure, Westone, Ultimate Ears and Etymotic.) Imagine my excitement when I was able to get my hands on the new Etymotic HF-3.

Introduction to the hf3

this is an extremely well-designed smart phone compatible headset that includes all of the features we've come to expect at an extremely competitive price (sub $200). 

The enclosed three button remote, allows you to perform all the standard tasks: play/pause, skipping or rewinding a track, answering the call, disconnecting from a call and of course volume control. 

Sound quality

Since I'm an audiophile and we're talking about headphones, I wanted to jump straight into audio quality. The HF3 (hf-3) offers honest and uncompromising sound reproduction (even compared to my other headphones that cost 3 to 4 times more). 

In order to test the sound reproduction quality, I use the following setup:

  • an iPhone 4S
  • various headphone amplifiers
  • MP3 files encoded directly from the original CDs in various bit rates from 128 to 320  kbit/s
  • audio files stored in the Apple lossless codec format

The songs I used were: 

  • Bizet – Carmen Suite No. 1 - chosen because of the various instruments included such as flute, harp and worn.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Clarinet Concerto in A  - a song that represent a full symphony range.
  • Pink Floyd – Mother - this song includes both guitar and drums. A great way to find out how clean sound reproduction actually is.
  • AC/DC – Back In Black - this is an excellent representation of rock music, and a fantastic way to test the lows in the mids.
  • The ultimate demonstration disc  (difficult to find but worth it). 
  • Some spoken word from Audible using the highest quality format available.

I quickly discovered that the device is tuned in such a way, that you do not need to use a headphone amplifier. This is a plus for portability. 

I love my Ultimate Ear Triple-Fi 10 but too often they sound overly"bright". The HF-3 deliver's a clear, detailed and unbiased reproduction of your content. Regardless of how complex the music was, the HF-3 performed like a champ and never sounded muddied or clouded. 

Mids and highs were crystal clear. Lows were well balanced (as long as the earphone’s had a proper seal in the ear canal).In order to achieve maximum sound reproduction (especially for the lows), you need to ensure the headphones have made a nice tight seal in the ear canal. Users that have just moved to these may not realize how "deep" the headphones need to be inserted. 

I was able to hear instruments and nuances that are lost with most earphones in this price range. Sound stage was wide and open. The Etymotic HF3 is closer to reference headphones than my Ultimate Ear Triple-Fi 10 or Shure headphones. 

I compared the HF3 to its more expensive sibling (the ER-4s) and was amazed at how the HF3 could provide very similar sound reproduction at this price range.  

Some of the most popular headphones sold today are specifically built to provide enhanced bass (sacrificing the quality of the mids and highs). If this is the type of headphone you are looking for then the HF3 is not for you. The HF3 is not a boom boom style headphone.

At high volume (not recommended) the headphones performed without disortion or audio artifacts. When playing some of the lower quality MP3s (128 kbit/s) I could hear compression artifacts which really impressed me. 

Build Quality

Unlike the cheaper feeling remote on the ZAGGsmartbuds, the remote on the Etymotic HF3 feels solid and well made. They have used a nice high quality cable that minimizes bumps and scratches introduced by the cable rubs against your clothes (a complaint I have with many other earbuds).

As soon as you touch the product, you can feel the care that went into it. You know this is a quality product that will last for many years.

Microphone

I read other reviews and have to acknowledge that many complain that sound level of the microphone is low but this isnt a problem I encountered. I tested the microphones by making standard cell phone calls on an iPhone 4s and a Google Nexus and callers said my end of the conversation was clear. I also tested calls via Voice Over IP applications (Skype, Dell Voice and Nettalk) and again callers said I sounded clean and clear.

Even calls overseas to Europe and Asia worked beautifully. 

Noice Isolation

The kit comes with various earphone tips and it is important to take the time to test the different ones and find the best one for your specific ear shape. Finding the right one means you will get better sound and better noice isolation. As soon as you find that best fit tip, you will be dumbfounded at how much sound this little device keeps out.

Etymotic claims

"Documented highest noise isolation of any earphones or headphones on the market today"

and I believe them. The loud road of a jet engine is quieted to a gentle lull. The screaming baby 3 rows down is easily drowned out by your music. 

Noise isolation was better on the HF3 than on any of my other In Ear Monitors including the Triple-Fi 10. 

Custom Ear Tips

I have not gone through the process yet but Etymotic has a program where you can have custom molded eartips produced for your HF3 by a certified audiologist. The cost is about $150 and I will update my review if I ever get around to having a custom pair done. 

The Awareness App

The one "downside" of extreme noise isolation is that you may be too disconnected from the world (i.e. not hearing a warning horn or an announcement that you have arrived at your destination). Etymotic has made available an IOS app called Awareness that uses the HF3's microphone to alert you of sounds louder than a certain threshold. When triggered, the app can pause your music. reduce the music volume or leave the music volume as is but add the external sound to your music. 

Etymotic explains the app as "preserving the listening experience while adding awareness of outside sounds for safety's sake". Etymotic customers get the app for free, but others can buy it from the app store $6.99

 

Verdict

I can't recommmend the Etymotic HF3 enough. I absolutely love it and it is now my Everyday Carry headphones. The sound quality and noise isolation are unbeatable. They outperformed many competitors that cost 4-5 times as much.

 

Some Pictures

Click on the thumbnail below to see the full size one.

The packaging

Nice visual box

properly protected box 

The zippered pouch, the different eartips and the earwax filter + replacement tool

The 3 button remote

The angled connector (nice touch and well designed)

Comparing the tips of 3 earphones (the ZAGGsmartbuds, the Etymotic HF3 and the Etymotic ER-6)

The Zagg and ER-6 have Comply Foam tips while the HF3 has the original stock tip.