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The Etymotic Research hf3 headphones are a set of in-ears with a remote & mic.

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The headphones have the small ear buds and triple-flange sleeves that are typical of Etymotic headphones.

The remote & mic is a bit minimalist. The volume toggles are the outer two buttons, and while they have tiny embossed arrows to differentiate them from the playback control button, it's easy to hit the wrong button if you're not looking.

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The headphones end in the standard 1.8-inch audio plug, which has an adequate cord guard protecting its innards.

The headphones come with three extra sets of sleeves, a pouch, a cleaning tool, and two nozzle guards.

The Etymotic Research hf3 headphones seem well made, but they're still a set of in-ears. In-ears often see much more wear and tear than on-ears or over-ears, since they're built for portability. People can't crumple a set of over-ears into a ball to shove in their pocket.

There's not a whole lot you can do with a set of in-ears to make them flashy. Sure, you can make them look like earrings or bedazzle them to your heart's content, but there's not a whole lot you can do with such a small surface area without coming off as gaudy. It's hard to rave about a simple design or a splash of color, which the hf3s have.

For the majority of the frequency spectrum, the hf3 headphones were pretty balanced. The bass response is even, most of the mid tones are even, but towards the high end it drops off a bit. Etymotic Research does this intentionally (read the section titled "Target Curve Explained") to compensate for the boosted highs often found in commercial recordings. If you're listening to content that doesn't feature this boost, however, the playback might sound a bit dull.

Regardless, the left and right channels aren't as in sync as we would've liked. Intentional or no, this wasn't the best performance.

Frequency Response Graph

Click here for more information on our frequency response test.

The hf3s had minimal levels of distortion throughout the frequency spectrum, but never in an amount that would matter to the average user. Audiophiles might look at the chart and scoff, but unless you have super human hearing, you're not going to notice distortion levels less than 1%.

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Distortion Graph

Click here for more information on our frequency response test.

The hf3s' tracking was pretty much even throughout the whole spectrum. The only problem was the headphones themselves were a bit unbalanced.

Tracking Graph

Click here for more information on our frequency response test.

The hf3s, like most Etymotic Research headphones we've reviewed, were excellent isolators. Like most in-ears, they block out more high frequencies than low ones, but they don't exactly slack with lower hertz bands. Overall, the hf3s put up an incredible performance here.

Isolation Graph

Click here for more information on our isolation test.

The hf3 headphones really don't leak much noise. This isn't really surprising because virtually no in-ears have leakage issues. If you don't want to annoy people around you with your horrible taste in music, the hf3 headphones can help you hide your shame.

Click here for more information on our leakage test.

The Etymotic Research hf3 headphones were capable of a high maximum usable volume: we clocked them at 123.24dB before they reached 3% distortion: the point at which the distortion would have been annoyingly audible.

Click here for more on our maximum usable volume test

The hf3 headphones are pretty comfortable if you don't mind in-ears. Their sleeves are pretty comfortable and the handful of options should be enough to ensure most users find a good fit. We didn't notice any comfort issues for the first few hours of wear.

Of course, this is just our dumb opinion and has no bearing on whether or not you'll actually like the hf3s' fit. Our staff is notorious for having grossly disfigured heads, to the point where we're barely recognizable as human beings. We didn't have any problems fitting the hf3s into our misshapen ear equivalents, but that doesn't mean you'll find them comfortable. As with any headphones, you should test them out for a few hours first, before you decide to keep them.

We didn't notice much in the way of decreased comfort over time, even after 6 hours.

Good in-ears typically come with different sleeves to help customize fit. The hf3s come with two different sizes of triple-flanged sleeves and two different styles of foam sleeves. Some in-ears come with a few extra options or different sizes, but there's enough variety here to make most ears happy.

The Etymotic Research hf3 headphones have a four foot-long cord, which is ideal for a portable set of headphones. They don't, however, come with any additional connectivity options, such as an extension cable, airplane adapter, or 1/4-inch adapter.

The hf3 headphones are in-ears, which means portability is priority one. Their form factor certainly lends itself to this end, since most in-ears are just tiny bits of plastic on top of thin cords. In-ears are easy to ball up and shove into a pocket, making them significantly more portable than headphones with full ear cups or head bands. If you tend to carry lots of sharp metal shards or miscellaneous cables of different length, fret not: you can keep the hf3s in the included pouch, which should protect it from the stabbing or entangling they'd otherwise suffer. The pouch even has a mesh pocket lining its interior, to keep the hf3s' sleeves restrained. The pouch itself doesn't have a cord wrap or any other tool from keeping the headphones from knotting on themselves however, so it's not 100% ideal.

Your hopes of maintaining the hf3s rest with the included nozzle filters. The filters are small sections of plastic tubing that fit inside the nozzle. Basically, you just wait for the nozzles to fill up with disgusting garbage, then use the handy extraction tool to pull the filters out and clean them.


The Etymotic hf3s don't require any batteries. Since batteries are annoying and require additional maintenance, we award any battery-free set of headphones some points.

Remote & Mic

The Etymotic hf3s have a remote and mic located a few inches below their left ear bud. The controls are three hard plastic buttons, the outer two of which serve as volume control. The buttons don't offer much in the way of a unique texture, so it's easy to hit the wrong button if you're not super careful.

The hf3s look a bit plain in comparison with the MIE2s, but they tend to stay put a lot better. We also thought the MIE2's remote and mic was minimalist to the point of being a bit hard to control.

While neither set of headphones had a perfect frequency response, the hf3s at least have some sound reasoning behind their performance. The MIE2s are kind of all over the place.

Neither set of headphones had a noteworthy amount of distortion.

The hf3s had a much more even keel to their tracking.

If you care about isolation, the MIE2s aren't for you. The hf3s, however, might be.

We thought the MIE2s didn't stay put very well. We had no such problem with the hf3s.

The hf3s were simply the better set of headphones, although it wasn't by a particularly wide margin. They had slightly better performance and didn't have the wear issues we ran into with the MIE2s. You should try both pairs out before deciding on this purchase, however, just in case you find the MIE2s unique design to better suit your ears.

The SE535s clearly have a better design than the hf3s. Their cable detaches to allow inline accessories and to easily replace a broken cable without having to replace the more expensive ear buds.

Both headphones had similar frequency responses, but the SE535s were a bit more accurate than the hf3s.

Neither set of headphones had much distortion.

The headphones both had very even tracking.

While both headphones were excellent isolators, the SE535s were just a bit better than the hf3s.

We didn't so much see a difference in the comfort levels of these two headphones, but they do have different wear styles. The SE535s are meant to be worn with the cable slung around the back of the ear. They're still wearable otherwise, but they have the option. The hf3s do not.

The SE535s are high end headphones. They have a ridiculously fancy design and represent an investment in portable audio. The hf3s aren't as durable and might break down over time, but they also cost significantly less.

The hf3 headphones might look a bit boring by comparison, but take away the CX 680is' splash of color and crux fins and—well the ear buds still have a more interesting design. The main difference between the two headphones is how they impliment their remote & mic control pendants. The hf3s have a better position for their remote & mic, placed high up on the left ear bud's cable. The CX 680i's control is a bit lower, which makes it a bit awkward if you have a bag slug between your shoulders: the strap will push its buttons. We liked the CX 680i's button style better, however, as they're a lot easier to use without looking. The hf3 has three identical buttons, and it's easy to accidentally hit the wrong one.

The hf3s underemphasized the high end but didn't overemphasize the low end like the CX 680is did. The hf3s also have much more consistency between their left and right channels.

No real distortion issues here, though the hf3 has slightly more in the middle of the frequency spectrum.

The hf3s have a much more even tracking.

The hf3s isolate a lot more bass than the CX 680is.

We thought both headphones were about the same in terms of comfort, though if you're used to in-canal earphones, the hf3s will probably feel like a better fit.

This is a rough match-up since the two headphones are so similar. We're leaning towards the hf3s on this matchup because they're more compact, have a much more consistent audio quality, and have better placement for their remote and mic. Really, though, the differences are minor and their price point is roughly the same: try both out before making a final decision.

The hf3s and CX 980s are both nice sets of in-ears. We'd put them on the same par durability-wise, because their designs are very similar. Both have in-line accessories, but the hf3s implement theirs better than the CX 980s do: their bulky volume pendant looks to be far less durable than the hf3s' remote & mic.

The hf3s and the CX 980s both had issues in their high end response, but they did opposite things: the hf3s started getting gradually quieter, the CX 980s got suddenly louder. The CX 980s also have a lot more bass, if such a thing suits your fancy.

Neither set had issues with distortion.

While neither set of headphones had any tracking issues worth mentioning, the hf3s were a bit more stable than the CX 980s.

The hf3 headphones blocked out a lot more external noise all across the frequency spectrum.

The hf3 headphones and CX 980s are about the same level of comfort. Both have various sleeve options to help customize fit.

The Sennheiser CX 980s and hf3s are on pretty equal footing, price notwithstanding. The CX 980s have slightly better audio quality and the hf3s isolate much better. If price is an issue though, the hf3s win this comparison.

The Etymotic hf3s are a great set of headphones for their price. They have their own approach to frequency response, and while that doesn't really mesh with our testing approach, they have some solid reasoning behind their choices. The headphones also feature a remote & mic, which is increasingly necessary on a set of in-ears. We weren't really fans of the button implementation, though, since the buttons all feel identical and hitting the correct button without looking requires a bit more touch navigation than we'd like. Overall, though, these headphones are a great deal for their price.

Meet the tester

Mark Brezinski

Mark Brezinski

Senior Writer


Mark Brezinski is a senior writer with seven years of experience reviewing consumer tech and home appliances.

See all of Mark Brezinski's reviews

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