Review: Etymotic hf3 custom earbuds

Posted on by Mike Evans

P1000129 I have read many glowing reviews of Etymotic’s hf3 earphones combined with custom-made canal buds. Since I travel a lot I’m definitely in the market for some form of background noise exclusion.

Previously I tried the Bose Quiet Comfort 3 active noise-suppression headphones but got fed up with having to charge the batteries (and having to carry around the unwieldy and non-standard Bose charger).  The whole package is quite large and is just something else to carry around. The idea of tiny canal-phones able to do a passable job of noise suppression without the need for battery power was attractive.

I have strangely shaped ear canals (as I found out when I visited the audiologist) and it now comes as no surprise that I could never get the standard earbuds to fit perfectly. And a perfect fit is essential if background noise is to be reduced to an acceptable level.


In mid-December I bought the Etymotic headphones from my local Apple Store for £130 (now £135 following January’s UK VAT increase). Included in the box was a discount voucher for custom-made earbuds. I checked the list of audiologists on the Etymotic web site, decided to go with the Musicians’ Hearing Service in Harley Street, and managed to get an appointment for a day or two later.

All was not smooth sailing, though. When the audiologist inspected my lugs she announced I would need to have my ears de-waxed before the moulds could be made. Apparently you need completely clear canals because the buds must go in deep. I was about to fly off to Greece, so I booked myself into a private ENT surgery in Athens and had a pleasant few minutes with a mini Dyson wand inside my ear canals. Cost was €70, although if I had waited I could have got this treatment free on our wonderful National Health Service.

As soon as I returned to London in early January I took my vacant ear canals back to Harley Street and had big lumps of special goo pushed unfeasibly deep inside the newly receptive orifices. After a few minutes to allow the material to set, the moulds were extracted and pronounced perfect.

Next step was for the audiologist to send the moulds to ACS and I was promised delivery within six weeks (an accurate prediction as it turned out). Shortly afterwards ACS telephoned to extract my credit card details–another £79. They told me this is an Etymotic discounted price to cover both the audiologist and the crafting of the buds. It seemed very reasonable to me.

The total cost, therefore, was £268. Had I been a tad more patient and waited to have my de-waxing done for nothing on the NHS, I would have paid only £209 (now £214 with new Etymotic price). It’s a lot for a pair of earphones, but less than you would pay for the £299 Bose Quiet Comfort 3 noise-suppression units.

P1000122 Unboxing

I’m very impressed with ACS, the British company chosen by Etymotic to produce the custom buds. The wait it was worth it. The box is substantial and protective and contains a soft leather zipped pocket (similar to the one supplied by Etymotic but better quality) inscribed ACS - Serious About Sound. This wallet is big enough to take the hp3s with ear buds attached.

Also in the box is a small instructions booklet, telling you how to tell left from right and front from rear, and showing how how to fit the buds to the Etymotic headphones. Also enclosed is a small tube of Aloe Vera “comfort cream” which you can smear on the tips of the buds to ease fitting.

P1000125 (1)


I had anticipated some difficulties in fitting, in getting the angle right and in ensuring I didn’t get left and right mixed up. Fortunately, ACS have this one nailed. The two earbuds each have a small coloured ACS icon, one blue for left and one red for right. These icons are also act as a guide when fitting the buds to the hp3s. The icon should face to the front. Couldn’t be easier or more straightforward.

Now to the difficult bit–getting them in the ear canal. To start with I applied a light coating of the supplied aloe-vera cream to the tips of the buds and used a twisting motion. So far I’m not sure I have them in far enough. I think they are right but I will need to experiment further. They do feel comfortable right from the start and there is a definite "ear plug" effect.


I’ve had only a brief opportunity to try the Etymotics since fitting the buds but they definitely sound better than they did with the ill-fitting standard buds. They are also far more secure. Subjectively, I think the bass is more pronounced, although the hf3s are not noted for terrific bass response. But it's early days and I cannot make objective comments until I have tried them out in a variety of situations, including on board an aircraft. When I think I've learned enough I'll post my findings.

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