Claiming to be the best earphones under $200 is a rather intriguing claim. One would think that such a price point would automatically command great sound, and one might also remember from a college economics class the concept of diminishing returns. That is the idea that after a certain price point, each additional dollar spent does not bring commensurate benefits.
So it was with a fair degree of circumspection that I decided to roadtest the hf5 model from Etymotic. The result? I did indeed hear parts of the music I had forgotten about, and these are now my ‘go to’ earphones when I travel. The exact claim by Etymotic is “the world’s most accurate noise-isolating earphones under $200.”
It seems they deserve to own the claim.
I had recently put together a Spotify playlist which I titled and based around the Warren Zevon song “Desperados Under the Eaves.” I assembled some classic tracks from JD Souther, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the celebrated crew of LA musicians from the incredibly fruitful 1970s scene. Much of this music had been almost genetically implanted in my brain when it was released back in the day, on vinyl. Although I had run through the Spotify playlist a few times before, it wasn’t until I was in flight listening through the hf5 earphones that I remembered the subtle sound of the shaker keeping the beat on “Fountain of Sorrow.” I had not heard that element since playing the vinyl version back in the day. The peals of piano also seemed richer than I recalled. A guitar riff from “Trouble in Paradise” had gone missing for years. And the intricate guitar picking on several early Joni Mitchell songs made it seem that I was sitting in the same room. In fact “California” was exactly the song as the plane began its descent into Las Vegas, making me even more homesick than usual as I reluctantly yet dutifully tucked away the headphones. The Eagles tracks had somehow temporarily disappeared from my playlist; no fault of Etymotic but likely a result of the band’s struggles to come to grips with the digital age.
The measurement and quantification of audio equipment is well-documented. Back when we had turntables as the primary first step in the process, it was the stylus that turned an analog signal (the squiggles on the record) into a digital signal. Keeping that signal as pure as possible was the goal as it traveled through the amplifier until it got to the other end of the path, the speakers. There the digital sound was turned back to analog.
Measuring the transition from analog to digital and back to analog was always more art than science. As a result, still the best way to judge styli, speakers or headphones is via A-B comparison. That is how I came to appreciate the hf5 model. The package comes with an array of earbuds to ensure an accurate fit, and a cool tool to clear the schmutz and wax that invariably builds up.
Etymotic’s engineering team is led by Dr. Mead Killion, an audiologist, inventor and jazz musician. He and his team have apparently assembled over 100 patents in the space. They have brought to bear this expertise in a line of headsets and earphones. I found the hf5 very comfortable to wear, and the isolation of the ambient surroundings even while flying was impressive. I did not detect any false boosting of the bass so prevalent in many popular brands. The sound was crisp but not brittle. The midrange was full and satisfying.
Etymotic also has a Custom Fit Program, designed for Etymotic earphone and headset users to have custom earmolds made for their product at a discounted rate. I will look to provide a report on these units in another article. Etymotic products are available directly from Etymotic, from online retailers, and select audio specialty dealers. With a full two year warranty, Etymotic clearly stands behind the investment they have made in these superior headsets. They have made being a road warrior that much more enjoyable.