This is a review of Etymotic Research HF2 headset + headphones. Etymotic Research, Inc. - hf2? headset + earphones
When I decided to expand my review section with headphones, my goal was to find the best value in-ear and on-/over-ear in different price categories. Although in my definition the best value is a ratio of price versus sound quality, the sound quality by itself is very subjective and up to a personal preference. Now just think about it, we have a personal preference of music style and artists we like to listen to. Now the choice is up to how this sound is being delivered to us by means of different headphones, by means of their design and they interpretation of the sound. Which means that at the end it comes down to a preference of how the headphone company interpreted the sound, how they want to color the sound, how they want to balance frequency response among other parameters, and what celebrities they used to tell us "it sounds cool" to wear. But in reality, the true definition of the sound quality comes down to how accurately the original content of the song is delivered to your ears. This is a pure science, not just accidental cooking formula or mix'n'match of different drivers. This is something Etymotic Research has been doing for almost 30 years, and as a matter of fact they are being referred to as one of the first company's to come up with and to perfect in-ear headphone design. Based on my research, on-line reading, and my own test comparison, I found them to have the most accurate sound interpretation and the best noise isolation. So if you are looking for a True sound interpretation, Etymotic HF series is definitely for you. Can you Handle the Truth? Let's proceed with my review so you can decide it for yourself.
I usually start with description of the package, but in this case I wanted to mention the actual mail box it came in with a distinct sticker stating their 30 years of Etymotic Research innovation. The box itself has a very premium feel and look that sets a nice tone for a product. After taking headphones out of the box, you can't help to notice how light they are - at 0.4 oz for headphones with eartips and in-line remote this is super light. You also get a premium soft pouch case, a shirt clip (a bit tough to remove from a cable though), a set of 3 additional eartips, and something very unique - a solid metal filter removal tool with 2 replaceable accu-filters that incorporate wax filters. Eartips are not your typical silicone domes you see with other brands. You get two pairs of triple-flange tips (in standard and small size), a pair of barrel foam tips, and a pair of mushroom shaped glider tips. Upon closer examination of headphones, you quickly realize why you need all these special tips. The pistol shape design of headphone has a very elongated ear piece that goes deep into your ear canal, thus a reference by some of calling HF2 headphones as canal-phones. Selection of eartips for these headphones is very crucial, you either get a premium audiophile sound or tiny stock earphone sound. I found foam tips to be too big, while gliders didn't stay secure in my ears although they were the most comfortable, and triple-flange were too uncomfortable although I probably going to use it later for my ear wax removal
So what did I ended up with? I went back to my trusted Comply Foam tips. I had TSX100 handy which fits perfectly with these headphones. One word of advice since HF2 already has a filter with earwax guard, "x" model is an overkill since it has it's own earwax built in filter and HF2 earphone piece is long enough to pock it out, therefore TS100 model or T100 would be suited better.
You do need to start with a proper burn in since these are armature drivers and out of the box you need to prep them to exercise the drivers (white/pink noise loop is the best for this task). A proper seal of your ear canal is the key to make HF2 shine, and I was successfully able to execute that with Comply tips. Once you get a perfect match - hold on to your seat because you are in for a real treat. The sound is VERY balanced, and by that I mean a super clean and transparent clarity throughout entire frequency range at all volume levels. I was able to focus on every detail of the sound, from warm and natural sounding low frequencies to a crystal clear and vibrant highs, and mids that very perfectly balanced in between without been too exaggerated or recessed. If you are looking for a "fun" signature sound with a typical v-shape EQ or if you are a basshead - these will not be for you unless you start tweaking the EQ. But if you want to appreciate the original content of the sound, if you care about the accuracy of how it's being delivered, and if you want to submerge yourself into one of the best passive noise isolation I have experienced - then by all means HF2 is for you. I quickly started to compare these to my other headphones, such as UE600 and S4A and M-Duo and quickly realized how far ahead they stand in sound quality. As crazy as it sounds, I actually compared these $99 (currently on sale at Amazon) to my $400 quad-armature driver UE900 and to my ears the mids and highs very pretty damn close. Of course, UE900 has 2 dedicated armature drivers for the bass only, and that's where it stands above HF2 but we are talking about headphones that cost 4x as much. I was also very pleased with a soundstage of HF2 where I felt precise placement of every instrument and it sounded very natural rather then too wide and exaggerated (even with crossfeed selected on my Neutron media player)..
Without a doubt these have a superior sound quality, but it comes with a few additional surprise bonuses. I consider these to be audiophile quality headphones which often don't include in-line remote. In this case you get a very compact soft touch in-line remote with a single multi-function button and built in high quality mic. I found the remote to work perfect with my Note 2 and everything got executed as expected with a single button click to play/pause audio and video as well as pickup/hangup the call, double-click to skip next and triple-click to skip prev track, and long press to voice activate Google Now. I was very pleased with a distance of the in-line remote relative to my ear and how well it picked up my voice where people on the other end told me it sounds like I was talking right into the phone. Other important design details worth mentioning too. Earpieces have a very nice soft touch finish and a great strain relief which makes it very easy to handle these. Also, Kevlar-reinforced cables are tangle free and eliminate any microphonics effect. Furthermore, I really liked how it's 270 degree angled 3.5mm jack was easy to handle and protected cable from pulling. A special mentioning goes to included tool to remove accu-filter, something you would expect to be included with premium audiophile headphones at least twice the price. At first I thought that little filter was only used for its wax-guard, but after removing it and trying to listen without it - I definitely heard a difference where it sounded less harsh with a filter in. There is one more thing I would like to mention, and its AWARENESS! app provided by Etymotic to control a sound based on outside noise. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get it to work on my Note 2, although I know it works fine on iDevices. Perhaps it's still a work in progress and I will update my review later once I test a working version.
Overall, I want to say that I just found a pair of my next FAVORITE headphones, that's how strongly I feel about these. For $99 we are talking about audiophile quality headphones with a superior accuracy and a very impressive passive noise isolation. With a bonus of in-line remote with mic and replaceable filter and 2 year warranty the value goes up. Just don't expect heavy bass and make sure to invest into comfortable eartips and you have a pair of IEM that compare and surpass quality of others which cost twice as much. Also, I hope in a near future to have an opportunity to test one of their premium ER4 models. If the sound quality of HF series stands that high, I can't even imagine how much you can improve it further.
Here are the pictures.