So you've bought your iPhone or iPod and now you need a set of earphones to help you enjoy the music or make people's voices a little clearer. In steps the Etymotic hf3 headphones from Etymotic, promising to not only make everything sound rosy, but also give you help in controlling your Apple device when it's still in your pocket.
For those that have been paying attention, you'll realise that the 3 in hf3 stands for the third iteration of the headphones, which equates to a couple of years valuable experience making this type of device. We will make no bones about it, we like the Etymotic/ACS hf2 custom fit headphones a lot, so much so that until the hf3's, they were the headphones that this reviewer used on a day-to-day basis.
Aside from two in-ear headphone drivers you get four noise-isolating ear tips enabling you to equip your ears with the most comfortable fit. If that isn't enough you'll also get a voucher in the box to pay towards a custom made ear fitting from ACS, that is well worth the extra £70.
The custom fit involves you getting a blue goo squirted in your ears, enabling ACS to make a custom mould for you. If you haven't seen the process, check out this video from last year when we were fitted for the hf2.
But the hf3 aren't just about listening to music, which we will come to in a minute, but about talking as well. As such, the hf3 headset features a three-button control pod with a close-proximity in-line microphone that lets iPhone users pause music and answer a telephone call. iPod, iPhone and iPad users can also adjust volume and skip through music tracks whilst on the go.
In our tests people we called could hear us clearly even in busy restaurants, although most claimed we were very quiet. This quiet problem was easily fixed by turning up the volume on the phone (in our test case an iPhone 3GS), and while that improved the noise levels so the person on the other end could hear us it meant that they became very loud in our ear - such is the quality of the headphones.
The only way to get a comfortable medium between the two was for us to either talk up a bit, to accept that we were to be deafened by them, or to hold the mic up to our face like you see so many people doing, which apart from being a pain, made us look a bit stupid.
The controls are a lot easier to manage and don't come with any problems, allowing you to perform basic navigation around your iPod's functions.
In terms of sound quality you get a sound that is rounded, well balanced, although slightly lighter on bass. If you've read our interview with Harmon Kardon's Floyd Toole, you'll know that being light on bass isn't necessarily a bad thing, with a more natural sound being created. Of course you can, and we did, bump the bass up via our device's equaliser setting, and the headphones coped well enough.
We liked the hf2 headphones and we like the hf3's as well. The well-balanced sound makes them easy to listen to, while the additional functionality for iPod and iPhone users comes in handy.
We are still trying to master the voice calling headset capabilities and are getting better at judging the level at which we need to talk, but it's frustrating that you can't seem to adjust the voice volume and not the ear volume - a side affect of having such good sound.
If you travel a lot and need to eradicate noise while listening to music or talking shop with friends or work, the combination of the headphones and those ACS custom fits make the Etymotic hf headphones a great choice, and one that we can highly recommend.