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.
Though there isn't much competition in the premium Bluetooth headphones market today, we can say that the Ety8s are the best-sounding Bluetooth headphones we've heard to date. Similar to all Bluetooth stereo headphones and many mono cell phone headsets, these aren't immune to interference and signal dropouts; they also take a few seconds to pair up with your iPod once the dongle is clipped into the player's universal port.
Etymotic reps warn that since Bluetooth doesn't transmit all that well through your body, you should ideally keep your iPod in a pocket (or armband) on your right side, which ensures a better connection with the Bluetooth receiver in the right earbud. That right earbud is also where you'll find some small buttons that are essentially a basic remote control. You can play and pause tracks, advance tracks forward and backward, and raise and lower volume levels. It is worth noting that when you press the buttons a loud clicking sound reverberates in your ear, which is a bit bothersome. It pays to remember that the volume control on the right ear bud is the real volume control--not the one on your iPod. At lower volume levels, the amount of useful bass drops off noticeably.
As we said, the headphones sound very good. Etymotic says the Ety8s sample sound at a 44.1 kHz sampling rate, with 16-bit resolution, and we really didn't feel we lost anything by going wireless, which is rare. The Etymotic Ety8s seem as if they have a slightly flatter response than Shure's high-end wired earbuds (the e3c and e5c), which give more emphasis to lower (bass and lower midrange) frequencies, as do most consumer-oriented speakers. So, some nitpicky listeners might find these headphones slightly bass deficient when compared to a pair of full-range tower speakers or higher-end, over-the-ear headphones. That said, the earphones got a comfortable, if not overpowering amount of bass, and tons of detail in the upper-mid and higher frequencies. They do an admirable job of delivering lots of complex musical information; that is, they don't mush up in the mids, so when you have a bunch of instruments playing at the same time, as in Buena Vista Social Club's hit El Cuarto de Tula. Each of the guitars, the percussion, and the voices retain their individuality and sound clear while combining, rather than blending unintelligibly into a cohesive musical unit.
In the end, we really liked the Ety8s--we just weren't so keen about how they looked. If they cost closer to $150, we'd be more forgiving of their unique design, but at $300, you start to get pretty discerning. As it stands, however, if you're an early adopter with high-end tastes, you won't be disappointed by the sound or comfort level of these headphones. Of course, Bluetooth stereo is still in its early days, so we expect to see even better Bluetooth headphones from Etymotic and others in the not-so-distant future. Whether you want to wait will most likely be tied into how much disposable cash you have to burn.
Editor's note: In our tests, the dongle (and headphones) did not work with the 3G iPod, but they worked fine when tested with more recent models, such as the 4G Photo, Nano, and 5G iPod with video.