Etymotic ety8 Bluetooth Earbud Hands On

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The Etymotic ety8 Bluetooth earbuds are a classic example of a potentially great idea that suffers from a lack of design sense (the picture above tells all) and forethought. These industry-first wireless canalphones work with just about any Bluetooth device so you can listen to music wirelessly without being bothered by ambient noise. Since that device is very likely to be a cell phone, it seems strange that you can’t use the ety8 as a headset for voice calls–when a call comes in, the music simply stops and you have to remove the headphones to talk.

The ety8 comes with a USB charging cable, leather carrying pouch, three extra sets of silicone tips, foam tips, two spare filters (tiny screens that go in the sound tube to shape the audio), and a filter-changing tool. Etymotic also offers an optional iPod-specific adapter that plugs into the dock connector of the iPod Nano (both generations) and Mini, as well as 4th-and 5th-gen iPods. The headphones cost $199, but the adapter costs an extra $100, for a total of $299. It sure would have been nice to have some sort of analog connector so you could use these with a Shuffle or a non-Apple player.

Design and Fit
In terms of looks, the ety8 is undoubtedly outlawed by the fashion police. They don’t protrude too far out from your ears, but the rectangular plastic housings that hang below ear level look nothing short of ridiculous. The flanged silicone tips aren’t very comfortable, but the foam tips fit well and held the headphones securely in my ears. I took them for a spin around my neighborhood and got some odd stares, as well as one comment that the headphones made me look like a “real douche.”


The right earphone has playback and volume controls as well as a jack for plugging in the USB charging cable. No AC adapter is included, so you have to use your PC’s USB port for charging. It takes about 3 hours to charge the ety8 fully, though you get about 80 percent from one hour of charging. The ety8’s battery lasts around 9 hours, depending on usage, and the iPod adapter runs off the iPod’s battery.

Setup
The headphones and adapter are factory-paired, but if you’re using them with another Bluetooth device, you’ll need to go through a short pairing process. I had no trouble pairing the ety8 with my LG Chocolate phone. Just hold down the Play/Power button on the right earphone until the small LED flashes green, indicating discoverable mode, and they show up as “Etymotic Research ER88″. (The ety8 works with Bluetooth 1.1 and higher, supporting the A2DP and AVRCP profiles.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get my iBook G4 to connect to the headphones; the laptop was able to “see” the headphones and set them up as a Bluetooth device, but I couldn’t get it to actually stream music to them. I had better success with a Dell notebook, though I had to repeat the pairing process twice before the streaming worked.

Performance
The sound quality is typical of Etymotic’s headphones, favoring accuracy over artifice. I found the ety8’s bass lacking just like the company’s ER6, but there’s good overall detail despite the compression introduced by the Bluetooth transmission. Speaking of compression, you can definitely hear it around the edges of high-pitched sounds like cymbals and snare drums, and the ety8’s clear highs accentuates the problem.

With the foam tips, these things block out a pretty impressive amount of noise. The less-comfortable flanged silicone tips do a decent job of isolation too, but the foam reduces sounds by up to a whopping 40dB according to Etymotic. The fabric-covered cable that connects the headphones, however, introduces quite a bit of scratchy microphonic noise as it slides against the back of your neck or clothing when you turn your head.

The ety8 gave me about 20 to 25 feet of range for roaming around my apartment, though performance through walls was pretty bad. When I took the headphones out for a spin with my phone, I definitely got better wireless performance (fewer dropouts) with my phone in my right pocket, since your body blocks some of the Bluetooth signal and the receiver is in the right earphone.

Bottom Line
If you can get over the price, the hideous design, and their inability to be used as a Bluetooth headset, the ety8 represents a major advance in wireless headphones. But until they can cram all that technology into a smaller earphone housing that doesn’t make you look like a wedgie victim waiting to happen, I’d stick with good ol’ wired headphones. I also remain unimpressed by the quality of Bluetooth-transmitted music, especially when you’re listening to it on such sonically revealing headphones.

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