Etymotic Research hf2 & hf5 in-ear headphones Etymotic Custom-Fit earmolds
In my review of Etymotic Research's hf5 and hf2 in-ear headphones in the August 2010 Stereophile, I mentioned that the company was about to offer custom earmolds via its Custom-Fit program, which would produce custom eartips for its headphones via a nationwide network of audiologists, for a cost of about $100/pair. Once the master molds have been made, additional pairs of earmolds are available at a discount.
I'd had earmolds made previously, first for my original pair of Etymotic ER-4s, and later for several pairs of very costly Ultimate Ears 'phones. I thought I knew how the song went: I'd go to an audiologist, sit there for 15 minutes with my mouth open as the specialist pumped my ears full of goo, and, three weeks later, I'd receive in the mail my headphones with hard-plastic negatives of my ear canals.
Compared to "regular" in-canal eartips from Etymotic, Shure, or whomever, the custom molds were quite comfortableat first. On long airplane flights, which are where I most often listen for hours on end, I found that the hard earmolds grew uncomfortable, rubbing some parts of my ear canals or, more often, just seeming too warm. Given the custom molds' better fit and increased reduction of ambient noise, these weren't huge negatives; still, I'd find myself removing one earmold, then the other, to stick my finger in my ear to massage it. This wasn't a huge problem in the days when airplanes had more empty seats, but nowadays I usually end up with two seatmates staring at meand, of course, with hot ears.
Etymotic's Custom-Fit earmold routine wasn't quite like that. You still need an audiologist to make the molds (for a referral, click here), and Etymotic will e-mail you a certificate that guarantees their $100 price, no matter what the audiologist normally charges. The company sent me to Dr. Craig Kasper, AuD, FAAA, at the Audio Help Hearing Center in Manhattanthe "Chief Audiology Officer" who developed Etymotic's network of audiologists. Dr. Kasper used a new (to me) system that took casts of my ear canals in just a few minutesand, when he examined the completed molds, it was revealed that they didn't extend as far into my ears' twisty inner canals as my previous molds had. (Just to show you how proud one can be of something over which one has no control, when, after making the molds, Dr. Kaspar said "Nice ears," I simply glowed.)
Three weeks later, when I received my Custom-Fit earmolds in the mail, I was startled to find that they were made of soft silicone rather than the hard plastic of my other molds. They slipped easily over any of the Etymotic headsets I had on hand, once I'd removed the headsets' stock flanged eartips. Although the molds are sold as complements to the models hf2 and hf5, they also proved perfect for my ER-4s. (Molds that fit all other Etymotic models are also available.)
Etymotic refers to the material of its Custom-Fit molds as "ultrasoft" silicone, and that's about right. Think of the consistency of a Gummi Bear. They fit extremely well, as you might imagine, and I've found them extremely comfortable for listening sessions of up to eight hours. In fact, rather than having to take them out periodically to air out my ears, I tend to get irritated if, for some reason, I have to remove thembecause the earmolds are made of clear silicone, people tend not to notice you're wearing them, and they will insist on talking to you. And, because of the custom fit, the earmolds improve on the stock Etymotic eartips' claimed 3245dB reduction of ambient noise. With both earmolds in place, you won't be having any conversationsnot a drawback, in my opinion, but another feature.
Bottom line: The hf5s and hf2s have been my go-to headsets for quite a while, not necessarily because they're the best I've heard (though they sound plenty fine), but because their cables are flexible, convenient, and nonmicrophonic. Also, they're easy to throw in my gym bag or briefcase. (I always feel I'm dissing the pricey Ultimate Ears models when I don't store them in their supplied hard cases.) However, the addition of the Custom-Fit earmolds has elevated the performance of all of my Etymotics at least a full level above my previous assessments of them. The ER-4s are still my reference portable headset, the hf5s still my everyday model. With the Custom-Fit earmolds, the bass is better, the midrange is clearer, and the highs are crisperbut most important, they're comfortable.
And let's face it: In headsets as in shoes, comfort trumps almost everything else. Custom-Fit earmolds more than justify their $100 price.Wes Phillips