It’s funny how iPod has become synonymous with MP3 player, as Hoover is to vacuum cleaner. Strange, though, that Etymotic is still not more widely recognised, as it was the company to devise and promote the canalphone – an earphone that slips so initimately into the ear, it forms an airtight seal and shuts out practically all outside noise.
More than that, the acoustic seal caused by snug silicone rings truly augments and tightens the bass response. The earphone works more efficiently, so overall distortion is lower and volume can be kept down on the personal stereo.
They also prevent the kind of sound leakage that otherwise makes you the pariah of public transport.
Etymotic Research’s main line was professional hearing protection and monitoring, but it branched into high-grade consumer earphones with the Etymotic ER-4, a costly set when first launched 20 years ago, and still commanding a UK price close to £200 today.
One step down the range today are the Etymotic hf5 earphones, and the sister versions of hf2 and the Etymotic hf3 here. The latter two are complete headset solutions using the same transducers, but adding microphones on the cable, enabling them to be used for conversation on mobile phones.
Separating the Etymotic hf2 and hf3 headsets is a simple change in the control functionality. The Etymotic hf2 has a single button on its in-line remote to answer calls; Etymotic hf3 takes the three-button principle to add full volume control over the Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
Unlike some older models, the cable is now essentially silent; before, the wire could prove somewhat microphonic, passing the sound of idle brushes against your clothing into your ears.
The main body of the earphone is made from lightweight anodised aluminium, available in a choice of three colours. Included accessories include additional foam and glider eartips (as an alternative to the fitted 3-ring flange types), a filter changing tool and zipped carry pouch.
As with all such canalphones, finding a good fit is key to best performance. It takes some trial and error to settle on the most suitable eartips to suit your own taste and ear shape. Get it right, and you’re rewarded with the correct sound balance; in particular, deep, tight bass and the correct immersive experience.
Sound quality is firmly in the high-end audio class. A solid foundation is formed from that deep, extended bass – apparent as a firm kick to bass drum in rock and jazz, and a seeming sub-sonic presence in good live recordings.
At the other extreme, the Etymotic hf3 can recreate the air and atmosphere of a performance with sweet, detailed treble. This is evident in the dulcet chime of steel-strung acoustic guitar, letting you into the finer strokes of the guitarist’s strum.
Vocals sound out clearly and naturally, well balanced in the mix where lesser earphones can sound either shouty or cardboardy when reproducing voices.
High volumes are also possible from the Etymotic hf3's sensitive transducers. Etymotic Research quotes a maximum sound pressure level of 120dB: otherwise known as the onset of auditory pain. Played on an iPhone 4, we rarely needed more than around 50% volume setting for a comfortable rock ’n’ level.