Review: iPhone headsets

Here's an extensive comparison of the leading models

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As true in-ear-canal headphones, it's vital to get a complete seal in the ear canals with the HF2. Etymotic includes three different kinds of earpieces to help achieve this goal: one pair of large, three-flange silicone tips; one pair of small, three-flange silicone tips; and one pair of foam tips. (I personally find it easier to get a good seal with foam tips, although the downside is that foam doesn't last as long as silicone, so you'll need to buy new tips -- which are relatively inexpensive -- periodically.) Once you get a good seal, the HF2's eartips block more external noise than any other iPhone headset we've tested, and provide sound quality that is head-and-shoulders better than the other headsets tested here. Treble and midrange clarity are superb, allowing you to hear things that are simply inaudible with the other models. And although, like most in-ear-canal headphones, bass isn't prominent, it's all there -- tighter and more accurate than you'd think something this tiny could produce.

As with audio-listening performance, the HF2's microphone was the class of the group, providing the clearest, loudest audio. The only drawback here is that because of the tight seal between the HF2's earpieces and your ear canals, the occlusion effect can be quite severe; when no audio is playing through the headphones, you can even hear your own breathing. As noted above, this doesn't affect the sound of your voice to those on the other end of your calls; however, it's something you'll need to get used to on your end.

The HF2 includes a filter tool for keeping the driver opening clear of debris and for replacing filters; you also get a set of replacement filters and a padded, zippered carrying pouch.

(If you're wondering why the ER-4P's list price is $299 and the HF2, which uses similar components while adding a microphone and control button, is only $179, the answer relates to outsourcing. ER-4P headphones are put together by Etymotic Research in the company's U.S. facilities. In addition, each earpiece driver is individually tested, and the two earpieces are carefully matched to each other. Etymotic also records the serial number and frequency response of each driver; if you ever need to replace a driver, the company can use these records to carefully match the replacement driver. The HF2, on the other hand, is put together overseas and without the same stringent testing and matching. The result is a product that sounds just as good to the vast majority of listeners but is much less expensive.)

Macworld's buying advice

Each of the products tested here offers some degree of improvement over the iPhone's stock headset. For fans of basic earbuds, the Maximo iP-HS1 is a solid product, but at $70, it's tough to recommend as an elective upgrade given that it's not dramatically better than Apple's included headset. It's a better bet for earbud fans who've lost or damaged their original earbuds and are looking for better microphone performance or prefer the iP-HS1's metal appearance.

If you're looking for something comfortable with good sound quality and a bit of noise isolation, canalbuds are the way to go. V-Moda's $101 Vibe Duo and Ultimate Ears' $150 4vi lead this category. The former is perfect for bass lovers, is very comfortable, and looks great. The latter excels when it comes to musical detail and offers one of the best microphones we've tested; however, note that it's price isn't much less than that of the superior Etymotic HF2. For those on a budget, Maximo's $70 iP-HS2 doesn't excel in any particular area, but is a solid overall value.

Finally, if you're looking for audiophile-level sound quality and significant noise isolation, Etymotics' $179 HF2 in-ear-canal headset is in a class of its own, offering the best audio quality for both listening and talking, as well as the ability to seal out the world. And its price is a relative bargain compared to its microphone- and controller-less ER-4P inspiration. Just keep in mind that it may take a while to get used to the sound of your own voice with the HF2.

This story, "Review: iPhone headsets" was originally published by MacCentral.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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