Rodrigo Martell

Etyomotic hf5 headphones rock

For less than a mid-to-high end noise cancelling headphone set, the hf5s with custom moulds are the perfect fit for me - literally and metaphorically.

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Late last year I had picked up a pair of Beats headphones by Dr. Dre just before a long-haul flight I had lined up. They were my first serious investment into proper noise-cancelling headphones and after doing some reading and some brief in-store testing out at the famous Kowloon (I think) district in Hong Kong I decided to bite the ~AUD300 bullet and get some.

While the Beats's noise cancellation was good (I'm no headphone buff so by "good" I mean it drowned out background noise including washing machine and conversations ~4m away) and the headphone quality felt high, I couldn't get past the following:

  • Hissing when no music was playing. When you're not playing music you get a very audible hissing in the background. Not a big deal if you're listening to music but annoying if you wear them to just get some peace and quiet from our surroundings. Note that for noise-cancelling to take place the headphones have to be "on", which contributes to the next issue...
  • Poor battery life. I'd say the batteries (fresh 2xAAAs) lasted ~3-4 hours of continuous listening. I wear headphones at work pretty much all day and this gave me the irrits very quickly. What's more, the batteries in the compartment are tricky to pull out, needing a fair bit of force from something other than your nails to succeed.
  • They hurt my ears during long sessions. I don't mean hurting my eardrums, more hurting my ears from the headphone cups pushing against my ear ever so slightly so that after a few hours it felt like the cartilage had been pierced. A weird and uncomfortable feeling.

On the way back home from the same trip I got talking to Ross Gayler whom shared his experiences of his own hunt for the perfect headphones/earphones. He showed me his custom-fit Etymotic hf5's in a tiny pouch and spoke wonders about their isloation capabilities in large part due to custom mouldings he had made for them.

Ross kindly shared some links and info with me later and after a few months I bit another ~AUD250 bullet and order the earphones and the custom mouldings (can't remember the exact split but the ~AUD250 is incl the custom mouldings.)

The process is pretty simple: order the hf5s from wherever you can find them cheapest and then go to the etymotic site to request a custom moulding fitting (you fill in a form). They then pair you up with an audiologist near you to whom you go for the ear canal impressions, which they then send to wherever they get made and they are shipped to you once they're done.

I've been wearing them for a few weeks now and recently completed a 14-hour flight with them without isse and with superior isolation to anything else I'd tried before (including the Beats).

Specifically the major pros I can think of are:

  • Isolation > cancelling given custom fit. Because it's noise isolation as opposed to cancelling, there are no electronics and hence issues of hissing and battery life etc are not present. I can use them to isolate conversations and background noise at the office and they work magically on planes.
  • Small package. They are just earphones so they fit in a credit card sized pouch (they come with one) as opposed to a huge case for headphones (a major inconvenience when taking in your hand luggage)

Like anything, there are some cons:

  • A bit gross when pulled out. Because they are a custom fit they get right in there and when you pull them out there is a fair chance you'll pull out a chunk-of-gunk (earwax) with it. I keep a bit of tissue handy to give them a wipe in between uses, but it's kind of gross doing it in public (e.g. on the plane).
  • No mic for phone. The Beats came with a mic remote in the headphone wire to control a mobile phone and music from your mobile device. That was a nice touch. The hf5s just come with a plain cable. It's really not that big a deal for me as I was able to use my Jabra Clipper to do this with the added benefit of Bluetooth.
  • Cable not insulated that well. If you're listening to music your cable will rub against your shirt and you can hear that rubbing too clearly, it's taht sensitive and well isolated! I wish they'd insulated the cable a bit better to stop this happening. I significantly reduced the noise by using the cable's shirt clip to wrap the cable around it. Not that bad or annoying a solution. I also don't move that much when I'm at the computer coding for hours so no biggie.

The pros for me far outweigh the cons so I'm sticking to the hf5s and loving them. Thanks to Ross for getting me onto them. Thumbs up.

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