(2C1) Head-Direct RE0
Reviewed Nov 2009
Details: Summer 2009 version of the RE0 IEM (cloth cable).
Current Price: $79
from Head-Direct.com (MSRP: $239)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic
| Imp: 64 Ω
| Sens: 100 dB
| Freq: 16-22k Hz
| Cord: 4.1' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm
| Preferred tips: Soundmagic PL30 foamies, De-Cored Shure Olives
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear
- Spare filters, a nice selection of silicone tips (both single- and bi-flanges), and a shirt clip
Build Quality (4/5)
– classy-looking and solid metal shell feels sturdy, but there are occasional reports of splitting. Cabling is properly-relieved and features an L-plug in the current version
– above average, typical for a sealed straight-barrel IEM
– Low when worn over-the-ear, and still not bad when worn straight down
– Housings are fairly small and light. Comfort hugely dependent on tips
– The overall sound is natural and boasts incredible clarity and top-notch separation in the average-sized soundstage. The high-end is incredibly detailed and seems to extend upwards endlessly. The microdetail in the treble is close to the best I have heard. Very impressive also is the apparent flatness of response. The mids have good clarity and are also incredibly detailed. They are very neutral with maybe just a hint of warmth, but lack lushness or liquidity. The lows are not huge in quantity, but very good in detail, extension, and control. These can drop below 35Hz and individual notes can be distinguished all the way down. Overall, it is a sound signature that makes it easy to both tune them into the background and pick out fine details, whichever strikes your fancy at the moment.
Amping: Like being amped, but don’t require it explicitly. High impedance rating is deceiving. Warm amp (e.g. T4) will make these more well-rounded for those who prefer a warmer, darker sound. A more powerful and transparent amp (such as a mini3) will take these to the next level, bringing to the table incredible speed and precision to match the best of the rest.
– At $79, it is easy to recommend the RE0s as what is probably the best-value all-around earphone for the detail freak and accuracy lover. The RE0s’ sound signature is definitely not for everyone, but those looking for the absolute best accurate sound reproduction to be had in the realm of reasonably-priced IEMs will not be disappointed. Pros: Top-tier sound quality for mid-fi money; superb detail, accuracy, separation, and clarity
Cons: May sound thin, boring, or bright to some, reported durability issues (2A2) Audéo Phonak PFE 122
Reviewed Jan 2010
Details: the original ‘Perfect Fit Earphone’ from Swiss hearing aid manufacturer Phonak
Current Price: $169
from Audeoworld.com (MSRP: $169) for 111/112; $199 for 121/122 with microphone
Specs: Driver: BA
| Imp: 32 Ω
| Sens: 107 dB
| Freq: 5-17k Hz
| Cable: 3.6’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 3mm
| Preferred tips: Jays silicone single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear
– Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes), Comply T130 foam tips, 8 filters (4 grey; 4 black), cleaning tool, silicone ear guides, and zippered carrying case
Build Quality (4/5)
– The plastic housings are extremely lightweight and the cabling is fairly thick and quite soft, with a strong tendency to resist tangling. The PFEs certainly don't feel bulletproof but the newest revisions should survive daily use quite well
– Isolation is quite tip-dependent and best with the included Comply T130s or similar foamies. With silicone tips isolation is average
– Quite low, partly because they must be worn over-the-ear
– The part of the housings that fits inside the ear is small and the earphones are very light. As a result the PFEs can really disappear during everyday use. Bonus points for the included silicone cable guides. The only (rare) problem I had was that of losing seal under strenuous exercise with silicone tips
– Ultimately, the sound is really what makes or breaks an earphone. After my initial listening rounds with the PFE I settled on the grey filters and kept them in for the duration of the test. To my ears the grey filters provide more sparkle in the treble and a slightly smoother and thicker upper midrange. The black filters accentuate the bass but I found the (slight) hardware bass boost provided by my iBasso T4 to be a better solution. Tips matter as well – the included comply T130s will provide a more tactile bass presentation but also slightly veil the high end. The silicone tips have a more transparent sound but for some reason none of the stock tips fit me quite right. I did finally find a good fit with Jays silicone tips off of my J-Jays though.
The overall sound of the PFEs amazes with its smoothness and clarity. The bass is tight and accurate. The mids are somewhat liquid and very well-positioned in being neither forward nor recessed. The treble is similarly accurate and quite enjoyable. There is a small amount of unevenness at the high end, but this can be reduced a bit by using the black filters. I wasn’t bothered enough by it to give up the grey filters though. Overall the PFEs have a tonal balance on the cool side of the spectrum and very high resolving capability. Soundstaging is about average – wider than the Ety ER-4S and RE0 but not as expansive as the ATH-CK10 or RE252. Instrumental separation is excellent and positioning is quite good as well. They lack the famed Etymotic forwardness, which makes it a tiny bit harder to pick out details with the PFE but results in a less fatiguing sound. They also can’t quite compete in absolute faithfulness with either the Er-4S, which makes them better-suited for lower bitrate tracks.
Amping: The PFE is one the rare IEMs that do benefit substantially from amping. Despite the relatively low rated impedance and high sensitivity, the PFE becomes truly effortless when fed enough power. My iBasso T4 was sufficiently powerful but the transparency of the D10 and mini3 gave a nicer sound. When properly amped the PFE maintains its incredible clarity and resolution and becomes very hard to beat in transient response and all-around speed. A positive side effect of their inefficiency is the ability of the PFE to suppress background hiss from impedance mismatches. At listening volume the PFE exhibited no notable hiss from any of my amps or sources except the Amp3, with which they were still far more tolerable than with most earphones.
– Despite the crop of excellent mid-range earphones currently available to the average consumer, the year-old Phonak PFEs still amaze with their incredibly coherent presentation and musical sound signature. I can’t recommend them enough for acoustic tracks, but they work well with nearly all music styles. The possible combinations of tips and filters and the responsiveness of the armatures to equalization also make the PFEs very tunable. Die-hard bassheads may want to look elsewhere, but for the rest of us the PFE might just be able to provide the desired sound. If Phonak has indeed made the necessary improvements to the build quality of the PFE for the v1 release, the PFE should be shortlisted by anyone looking for balance and clarity without the need for monstrous isolation. Pros: Comfortable, low microphonics, very balanced and musical presentation, great clarity and resolution
Cons: Reported build issues with original version, mediocre isolation (2B7) Etymotic Research HF5 / ACS Custom Tips
Reviewed May 2011
Details: mid-range single-armature consumer earphone from the pioneer of universal IEMs
Current Price: $120
from amazon.com (MSRP: $149); $140 for HF2 with microphone
Specs: Driver: BA
| Imp: 16Ω
| Sens: 105 dB
| Freq: 20-15k Hz
| Cable: 4’ 45º-plug
Nozzle Size: 2.5mm
| Preferred tips: ACS Custom Tips, Stock triple-flanges, Shure Olives
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear
– Triple-flange silicone tips (2 sizes), Etymotic foam tips, Etymotic Glider tips, replacement filters (1 set), filter replacement tool, shirt clip, and zippered velour carrying pouch; ACS Tips
: cleaning tool, insertion lubricant, and zippered leather carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5)
– The HF5 is similar in design to Etymotic’s other models and features slim, tubular housings and Kevlar-reinforced cabling. Unlike the aluminum-shelled MC5, the body of the HF5 is all-plastic. The nozzles are quite thin so care should be taken when changing eartips. The cord is slightly thicker than that of the MC5 but also carries a bit more memory character, preserving its shape for some time after being coiled up. Small strain reliefs are used to protect the cable on housing entry and the hockey stick-shaped 3.5mm plug is designed to withstand a good amount of abuse; ACS Tips: The tips are made out of soft medical-grade silicone and molding quality is excellent - no cracks or bubbles are visible in the material. The color of the ACS logo on each tip differentiates which earpiece they go on (red for right, blue for left)
– The combination of a slim, deep-insertion design and sealed housings gives the HF5 mind-bogglingly good isolation – passive attenuation just doesn’t get much better than this with universal-fit earphones; ACS Tips (5.5/5)
: Amazingly, the ACS custom tips are an improvement over standard Ety sleeves when it comes to isolation, which makes them dangerously isolating. Wearing them around traffic or anywhere lack of auditory awareness may be a safety concern is not recommended. The consistent, deep-ear seal of the custom-molded tips means that there is absolutely no way for significant amounts of ambient noise to leak in. Of course low frequencies will still be audible in via bone conduction but when inserted properly the ACS Etys isolate about as much as in-ear earphones can
– Quite low when worn cable-down, nonexistent with over-the-ear wear
– The balanced armature drivers used in the HF5 are smaller than the dynamic transducers used in the MC5, allowing the earphones to be lightweight and extremely slim in diameter. Like all Etymotic in-ears, the HF5 are deep-insertion earphones, which can feel intrusive at first, but with the right tips they can be very comfortable; ACS Tips (5/5)
: As with full-shell customs, there is a slight learning curve to inserting custom-fitted Ety earphones. Once mastered, however, it is much quicker than putting on a full-shell acrylic custom. When inserted correctly, the tips should press very lightly in all directions against the ear canal, providing the same comfort level as a soft foam tip but noticeably greater isolation. For the HF5, the ACS custom silicone sleeves provide the best of both worlds – the consistent, deep-insertion fit of triple-flange silicone tips with the long-term comfort and stability of foamies. As with most customs manufacturers, ACS offers a 30-day fit guarantee - if the tips do not fit comfortably and securely, by all means have them re-fitted until perfect
– For Etymotic Research, the sonic ideal has always been neutrality and accuracy. Those familiar with other Ety models will not be surprised to learn that the low end of the HF5 will do little to satisfy a basshead. The bass put out by the single balanced armature is extremely tight and controlled but the tiny drivers don’t move a whole lot of air - those looking for eardrum-quaking gobs of impact will be sorely disappointed. Instead, the bass is punchy and highly detailed. The speed and clarity of the earphones allows them to texture notes in ways lower-end sets simply cannot but opinions will undoubtedly be split on whether such a presentation is ‘natural’. For those who think ‘natural’ sound hinges on realistic attack and decay times as well as note weight and presence, a dynamic-driver earphone will provide more satisfactory bass response. On if the other hand if ‘natural’ means hearing the track the way it was mastered, down to the tiniest detail (including mastering and compression flaws), the low end of the HF5 leaves little to be desired. No matter how dense the track, the HF5 never misses a beat. Low end extension is quite linear down to around 30Hz and drops off quickly after that - no exaggerated sub-bass or mid-bass bloat to be found here. Interestingly, the dynamic-driver Etymotic MC5 responds to equalization a little better than the HF5 does but in both cases even the best equalizer can only do so much - those looking for rumbling, full-bodied bass will want to look away from Ety as a brand.
The midrange of the HF5 is again typical Etymotic – clear, detailed, and quite neutral in tone. Unlike the lower-end MC5, which can seem almost mid-centric at times due to the thicker note presentation, the thinner and dryer-sounding midrange of the HF5 is not at all attention-grabbing. The mids are smooth and free of grain, though a poor seal can result in moderate vocal sibilance. Of course if the sibilance is present on the track, the HF5 will be relentless in pointing it out. Those looking for an earphone that will make 128kbps mp3s sound better should probably look elsewhere or at the very least consider the MC5 as an alternative.
The treble is slightly elevated, as tends to be the case with analytical earphones, but not so overly prominent that it becomes fatiguing. In contrast to the lower-end MC5, it is crisp and very highly-detailed, with excellent extension across the audible range and impressive definition. Naturally, these earphones, like all Etymotics, are not for the treble-sensitive. Presentation, on the other hand, is perhaps where the HF5 is most similar to the MC5 – both do a good job of separating out individual instruments but neither provides the type of highly immersive three-dimensional listening experience one would expect from a truly top-tier earphone. The soundstage has good width but mediocre depth and height. That said, the highly accurate and impeccably detailed HF5 still sounds plenty convincing and easily relates the differences between foreground and background instruments to the listener – it just doesn’t give the same three-dimensional sonic image as, for example, the ATH-CK10 or Westone 2. Tonally, the HF5 is quite neutral, foregoing the warm accented lower harmonics of cheaper earphones for bright and crisp treble. Its timbre might seem slightly ‘off’ to those used to warmer signatures and dynamic drivers, but instruments are no more difficult to differentiate with the HF5. ACS Tips
: The sound quality of the HF5 depends heavily on the integrity of the acoustic seal between the drivers and the listener’s ear canal. Now, this is true for all in-ear earphones but because the HF5, like all Etys, is tuned for maximum accuracy and realism, a good seal is arguably even more important with it than with most other in-ears. Bass response, especially, is at risk with a mediocre seal.
Expectedly, the custom tips are not capable of radically changing the sound signature of the earphone but they do provide a consistently perfect seal, bringing out the absolute best in the HF5. The sound quality is very similar to what I got when inserting the triple-flange silicone tips as far into my ears as I could tolerate – not a comfortable proposition for long-term listening enjoyment. If there are any sound quality improvements brought about by the custom tips, they are mostly tiny changes in imaging and sub-bass extension and response. Of course if poor seal quality led to shrill treble or recessed mids with universal tips, the ACS custom sleeves will remedy that as well, but they will not affect the core signature of Etymotic earphones in any major way.
– The Etymotic HF5 is a thoroughly modern take on the classic Etymotic design philosophy. The single balanced armature transducer produces clear and detailed sound that never misses a beat, conveying every nuance of an audio track with impeccable accuracy and no added coloration. As is the case with many high-end armature-based earphones, the HF5 lacks the enhanced bass response, warmth, and thickness of mainstream competitors and the treble may be excessive for those used to a more relaxed sound. The slim, deep-insertion form factor, eerie levels of isolation, and subdued aesthetics all make the HF5 a quintessential Etymotic earphone. For those who are simply looking to dabble in entry-level audiophile sound, the cheaper and sturdier MC5 may be a better match but if absolute fidelity is a priority, the HF5 is hard to beat for the money. Pros: Stellar noise isolation; impeccably clear, detailed, balanced, and accurate sound; comes in three flavours of varying smartphone functionality
Cons: Deep-insertion form factor takes getting used to; sound signature not for everyone; lower-end MC5 is built better ACS Tips (8/10)
: The Etymotic Custom Fit program is a collaboration between Etymotic Research and UK-based customs manufacturer ACS to provide custom-molded eartips for Etymotic’s universal-fit models – for an additional charge, of course. The tips carry an all-inclusive $100 price tag, making them one of the cheapest products of the sort. The total cost of a custom-molded Etymotic earphone runs somewhere between $180 and $330, depending on the starting model - still a fairly low price in the customs realm. Furthermore, while full-shell customs with smartphone controls are still very rare, the custom-fit HF2, HF3, and MC3 models provide all of the functionality of a stock headset with the sound of a custom-fitted audiophile-level listening device. Combine that with the comparative ease of use, superb noise isolation, and faultless comfort of silicone custom sleeves and the investment starts making more sense. Pros: Stellar noise isolation and long-term comfort; consistently perfect seal; easier and quicker to insert than full custom earphones
Cons: Proper insertion takes a bit of practice; will not improve sound quality for those who get a very good fit with stock triple-flanges