Senior editor Phil Ryan contributed to the review.
Ever since the first Bluetooth headset for cell phones came out, plenty of folks have been eager to see the day when Bluetooth audio made the transition to stereo sound, so you could ditch that wire connected to your iPod--or other portable music device--and feel, well, a bit more liberated. That finally happened last year, and now several new Bluetooth stereo headphones are trickling their way onto the market. The only problem is, most of them don't sound all that good, which is why we were pretty excited to hear that Etymotic, which is known for its high-performance wired earbuds, was getting into the wireless game.
With a rather hefty price tag of $300, the company's Ety8s can only be described as premium Bluetooth headphones. They come in two models: the model reviewed here comes with a Bluetooth transmitter/dongle that attaches to the bottom of your iPod, while a second package contains only the wireless 'buds themselves (if you already have a device with built-in Bluetooth) for $100 less. Etymotic says the Ety8s are compatible with devices "supporting Bluetooth specification 1.1 and higher, as well as A2DP and AVRCP for profiles for stereo listening," and have a wireless range of about 30 feet. They come with a leather storage case and custom USB cable to juice up the headphones' internal rechargeable battery, which delivers about seven hours of power.
As you might have gathered from its picture, the Ety8s offer one of the most distinct headphone designs ever created, and when you see them you realize there's a fine line between really cool and really ugly. For starters, what's unusual about the Ety8s is they're indeed true earbud headphones. Until now, most Bluetooth stereo headphones offered some sort of over-the-ear design that often included an around-the-head "street-style" neckband. Part of the reason behind that design choice is that Bluetooth headphones require a certain amount of power and a not-so-tiny battery to keep the wireless tunes flowing.
For better or worse, Etymotic has made earbud-style headphones that essentially have the battery graphed right onto each 'bud (Etymotic reps told us the external part of the earbud is in fact the exact shape and size of the battery). In short, this is currently just about the smallest possible design you could have for Bluetooth headphones. The only problem is it's just not all that attractive.
Modeling the headphones around the office, this reviewer got a few laughs from co-workers, who thought it looked as if he was wearing giant square earrings. Perhaps some folks might find the look sexy in a sort of geek-chic way, but there's a higher probability you get some disparaging comments and you may feel self-conscious wearing them. Of course, if you're comfortable with your inner geek--and want some extra attention--you might be fine with the Ety8s' design. (Note: a trip on the New York City subway with the headphones didn't provoke any stares or smirks from fellow riders, but that really isn't saying much in a city that's used to seeing funky styles everyday.)
...Now the good news
OK, so that's the bad news. The good news is the Ety8s sound really good and they're comfortable. Similar to Etymotic's wired premium earbuds, they come with various rubber and foam tips you can swap onto the 'buds cylinderical posts until you find one that fits your ear best (the 'buds are connected by a cord you wear loosely around the back of your neck or below your chin). We're more partial to the foam tips, but whether you go with foam or rubber, you're going to get a very good seal that blocks out noise as well as active noise-canceling headphones such as the Bose Quiet Comfort series.