The Elk Grove Village, IL-based firm Etymotic Research is one of the oldest and best-known makers of high-performance in-ear headphones, producing several models, such as the ER-4 Micro Pro family of headphones ($299/pair), that have come to be regarded as classics. But since the advent of the ER-4 Micro Pros a number of years ago, several market factors have changed. First, we have seen the widespread acceptance of the game-changing iPhone (yes, the ER-4 design pre-dated the arrival of the iPhone), meaning that many prospective buyers not only want high quality earphones, but also require devices that can function as headsets (i.e., that have built-in microphones and other cell phone control features). Second, a number of new competitors have joined the fray, creating pricing pressures, so that many enthusiasts want top-tier (or at least near top-tier) performance at a lower entry price that Etymotic's ER-4 models can provide.
To address these emerging requirements, Etymotic Research created the hf2 (hf2 stands for “high fidelity | hands-free”) noise-isolating headset/earphone—one that, in terms of configuration and sound, is in essence an “ER-4 junior.” Like all of the ER-4 models, the hf2 features balanced armature-type drivers. According to Etymotic Research Product Development Engineer David Friesema, the firm believes that balanced armature-type drivers offer, in an absolute sense, the highest overall performance potential (although Etymotic soon intends to release lower cost models that will use moving coil-type drivers).
Accordingly, the balanced-armature-equipped hf2 represents an effort to capture much of the sonic goodness of the ER-4, but at roughly half the price—and with headset functionality thrown in for good measure. Friesema enthusiastically encouraged me to compare the hf2 side-by-side with the ER-4P, which is precisely what I do in this review.
Consider this combination headset/earphone if: you favor a sound that is built more for accuracy and tonal neutrality than for any kind of bass or upper midrange/treble embellishments. If anything, the hf2’s tonal balance struck us as offering a slightly warmer and arguably more natural sound than that of the ER-4P. Resolution is very good, though not quite up to the (extremely) high standards set by the ER-4P. Noise isolation is simply excellent, provided you can find a set of ER eartips that seal well and fit comfortably. When fitted properly, the hf2 makes a very viable alternative to larger and more costly active, noise-cancelling over-the-ear headphones.
Look further if: you seek true top-tier levels of resolution in terms of capturing the finest of low-level sonic details and bits of textural information. While the hf2 is one of the stronger performers in its price class in this respect, you’ll enjoy an even more sharply focused sound by by stepping up to the ER-4P. The fit of the hf2s can be controversial. We raise this point because Etymotic’s familiar triple-flange rubber eartips—the units shown in most Etymotic product photos—fit some users beautifully, but can be borderline uncomfortable for others. If the triple-flange eartips don’t work for you, try using Etymotic’s compressible foam and/or mushroom-shaped “Glider” eartips, either of which may provide a more comfortable fit. For sheer sound quality, however, we think the triple-flange tips are tough to beat.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced in-ear headphones):