If you've ever shopped around for a pair of headphones, you've probably noticed a trend: there is a seemingly endless array of choices in the ultracheap, sub-$50 range; plenty of options in the $80 to $110 range; and quite a few luxury selections that run for $200 or more. There are surprisingly few models that list around $150, which might just be the sweet spot between "nice" and "ultra high-end." Etymotic seems to have recognized this deficiency and answered it with the hf5 High-Fidelity Noise-Isolating Earphones. These sleekly stylish in-ear 'phones strike an excellent balance between price and sound quality, offering audio on par with some pairs priced well above them.
The design of the hf5 earphones is strikingly similar to that of the hf2, except without the microphone. Like the hf2, the hf5 earpieces are long and thin, which means they go farther into the ear than many other noise-isolating sets, such as the Shure SE320. Even the sleeves that come in the package--two sizes of triple flange silicone fittings and one set of foam tips--are extra long, so if you're uncomfortable sticking things into your ears (or have shallow canals), it's best to look elsewhere. That being said, we found the earphones to be quite comfortable and liked that there wasn't a bulbous 'bud sticking out of our ears, thanks to the sleek, skinny shape. We're also taken with the understated, slightly shimmery color options (black, cobalt, and ruby).
The Etymotic hf5 earphones feature a black, 4-foot cable with a detachable lapel clip and a slider at the Y that helps prevent tangles during storage. A padded zipper pouch with a handy inner pocket is included for such occasions. Etymotic also throws in a filter-changing tool and an extra set of filters, which are tiny cylinders that are inserted in the earphone opening to smooth the frequency response and prevent earwax from entering the earpiece. This is a cool feature as it gives the user at least some opportunity to self-repair the earphones, which is rare with in-ear styles.
At the very least, the Etymotic hf5 earphones provide an ultrasecure fit (probably because the 'buds insert so deeply) and offer some of the best sound isolation we've come across. Also impressive is the fact that you don't get a lot of noise from the cable brushing across your body (we had to try pretty hard to cause any). Sound quality overall is quite good across all genres, although we found that rock, electronic, and classical were much more impressive than hip-hop, which had a slightly deficient quality to it. Other than that minor quibble, we were very pleased with the listening experience. Audio is nicely balanced, with a tight low-end that is underlying rather than overpowering and shimmery, encompassing mids. In particular, Belle & Sebastian's track "Lazy Painter Jane" sounded fantastic, with absolutely striking guitars. High-end detail and clarity is mostly good, with the exception of some hip-hop tracks, where the higher frequency sounds can tend to get lost in the shuffle. All in all, the Etymotic hf5 earphones are an excellent option for the price.