Etymotic Research Cuts the Cord

On November 7, Dr. Mead C. Killion, founder and president of Etymotic Research, invited Stereophile to experience the company's newest in-the-ear high-fidelity earphone, the ety-8. What was so special about these half-ounce 'phones? No wires—the ety-8's are the industry's first and only in-the-ear, high-accuracy, noise-exclusion earphones.

The ety-8s employ a new, low-power, full-bandwidth Broadcom BCM-2037 chipset, which, Killion said, "represents a major advance in Bluetooth technology." Its small size and low current drain enabled Etymotic to shrink the size of the stereo Bluetooth earpieces and keep power drain "handleable."

Dr. Killion confided in Stereophile, "There are good reasons nobody has managed to create an in-the-ear Bluetooth stereo earphone—it's extremely difficult to make one small enough that sounds good enough. Our experience in manufacturing miniature sound transducers helped, but the big hurdle was creating an antenna that could fit inside the earpiece—and that was extremely clever." Killion sketched a curve in the air and pointed to the small module attached to the earpieces. "We folded it, but it still receives a signal as well as a straight receiver, if not slightly better."

The new chipset, Dr. Killion said, has enough bandwidth to allow transmission, of 44.1kHz-sampled data, which means that even WAV files and other uncompressed formats are delivered with full fidelity.

The Bluetooth earpieces cost $199/pair and they will mate with any Bluetooth-enabled product. If you want to listen to, say, the most popular personal portable digital player, such as, oh, an iPod, you'll need the $100 8Mate iPod adaptor (actually sold as a set with the earpieces for $299). The 8Mate attaches to an iPod Nano or 5G iPod via its dock and runs off the iPod's battery. The advantage is that you can then put the iPod inside your clothing and control it with the switches embedded in the right earpiece of the ety-8s.

There are a couple of disadvantages, of course. The 8Mate does somewhat diminish the battery life of the iPod, and the earpieces make you look like you're wearing two matchbox-sized earrings. On the other hand, the freedom from cord-snag is pretty fantastic—some might even say liberating.

We were allowed to leave the interview with a pair of ety-8s and will take them on the road for a hands-on full-bore demo, but preliminary results are promising. The sound quality seems pretty hi-fi, and the convenience is certainly top-drawer, once we got the right in-ear flanged tips installed. Like all Etymotic earphones, the 20dB ambient noise reduction brought about by the tight seal of the in-ear tips is welcome. It seems that Bluetooth connection is far from certain, even when transmitter and receiver are relatively close together, but this may not be a long-term issue.

The ety-8 may be the killer app high-fidelity portable headphones have been waiting for. Stay tuned.