Etymotic Research HF2 Headset + Earphones
At a Glance
Etymotic's $299 ER-4P has long been a favorite among headphone-loving audiophiles, and the company is a pioneer in the hearing-device microphone market. Etymotic combined these assets to create the HF2 Headset + Earphones, essentially a set of ER-4P in-ear-canal headphones with an iPhone plug, microphone, and controller. Using tiny, matte-black earpieces and black-rubber cables, the HF2's right-earpiece cable includes a relatively large (1.5-inch) microphone/controller pod with a button that's easy to locate and press. A removable clip lets you attach the cable to your shirt to reduce cable noise (which is fairly loud).
As true in-ear-canal headphones, it's vital to get a complete seal in the ear canals with the HF2. Etymotic includes three different kinds of earpieces to help achieve this goal: one pair of large, three-flange silicone tips; one pair of small, three-flange silicone tips; and one pair of foam tips. (I personally find it easier to get a good seal with foam tips, although the downside is that foam doesn't last as long as silicone, so you'll need to buy new tips--which are relatively inexpensive--periodically.) Once you get a good seal, the HF2's eartips block more external noise than any other iPhone headset we've tested, and provide sound quality that is head-and-shoulders better than the other headsets tested here. Treble and midrange clarity are superb, allowing you to hear things that are simply inaudible with the other models. And although, like most in-ear-canal headphones, bass isn't prominent, it's all there--tighter and more accurate than you'd think something this tiny could produce.
As with audio-listening performance, the HF2's microphone was the class of the group, providing the clearest, loudest audio. The only drawback here is that because of the tight seal between the HF2's earpieces and your ear canals, the occlusion effect can be quite severe; when no audio is playing through the headphones, you can even hear your own breathing. As noted above, this doesn't affect the sound of your voice to those on the other end of your calls; however, it's something you'll need to get used to on your end.
The HF2 includes a filter tool for keeping the driver opening clear of debris and for replacing filters; you also get a set of replacement filters and a padded, zippered carrying pouch.
(If you're wondering why the ER-4P's list price is $299 and the HF2, which uses similar components while adding a microphone and control button, is only $179, the answer relates to outsourcing. ER-4P headphones are put together by Etymotic Research in the company's U.S. facilities. In addition, each earpiece driver is individually tested, and the two earpieces are carefully matched to each other. Etymotic also records the serial number and frequency response of each driver; if you ever need to replace a driver, the company can use these records to carefully match the replacement driver. The HF2, on the other hand, is put together overseas and without the same stringent testing and matching. The result is a product that sounds just as good to the vast majority of listeners but is much less expensive.)