Friday, November 28, 2008

EarPhones


With the success of the Apple iPhone and now iphone 3g, third-party manufacturers have flooded the market with accessories meant to capitalize on the devices’ popularity. Etymotic Research, a purveyor of high-end earbud headphones, is one such company. Its $179 Hf2 Headset + Earphones is billed as a high-fidelity, hands-free premium accessory for the iPod, both versions of the iPhone, as well as other music players and cell phones that accept a 3.5mm headphone jack.


The Hf2’s black-and-gray conical earbuds match Apple’s minimalist design ethos. Thanks to its light weight and size, the Hf2 fit snugly into our ears and hardly budged even during strenuous exercise. Along with the earbuds, you’ll find a pair of replacement rubber eartips, a filter tool for cleaning, two replacement filters, and a soft storage pouch. We did wish, however, that the company included a 2.5mm adapter, which would allow the headset to be used with many other cell phones.

As a headset, the Hf2 shines, letting the crystal-clear voice quality of AT&T’s 3G network come through. Even inside a crowded mall with lots of echo and chatter, we were able to speak naturally and hear calls perfectly without straining to listen or pulling the microphone up to our lips. In fact, callers reported that our voice was isolated from (abundant) ambient noise while we were speaking. The microphone piece itself has a small button to send and end calls, which worked flawlessly.

The Hf2 handles phone calls well, but it’s a different story when it comes to music. In our tests, audio fidelity was flat and dry, just barely edging out our stock earbuds. The Hf2’s balanced armature drivers provide a relatively narrow frequency response (20Hz to 16kHz), whereas dedicated models like the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC3 Quietpoint earbuds provide a much wider range of frequency tones (15Hz to 22kHz).

We tested out the Hf2 earbuds across a variety of music genres. Rock music like My Chemical Romance and the White Stripes sounded best, with good response on midrange vocals and high-pitched guitar solos. Classical music sounded rich enough, but a subtle harpsichord part in one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos was muted, sounding almost like a light percussion. Electronic music from the Presets sounded the worst, as many of the gradient bursts of bass were lost in the narrow frequency range. Live music sounded dull, the crowd reduced to a light hiss, and talk podcasts from the 1UP Network—which usually have high production values—sounded as though they were recorded inside a cardboard box. On the rumbling subway ride, the Hf2’s sound isolation was a bit humdrum, and we missed the active noise cancellation of headphones like the ATH-AH3. The music was audible, but ambient noise did bleed through quite a bit.

It seems that Etymotic favored call quality and functionality over audio playback, and given the high-end Hf2’s relatively low price and stylish looks, you can overlook the poor audio quality if you’ll be placing more business calls than raving in your subway seat. Still, we were disappointed by the Hf2’s audio quality, especially when the device was designed so tightly around the iPhone. As hands-free headsets go, you could do a lot worse—but you could do a lot better, too.

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