I have reviewed several pairs of headphones in this column, ranging in cost and sound quality. Lately, I have been testing out Etymotic Research’s mc3 headset + earphones, which the company gave to me. Etymotic is known for its high-end, and high-cost, headphones. However, the mc3 is the company’s first foray into the sub-$100 headphone market. Overall, I was pleased with the results, with some minor complaints.
Out of the Box
The mc3 headphones are in-ear-canal headphones, also known as canalphones. In order to achieve peak performance they require a snug, sealed fit inside your ear canal. To that end, Etymotic includes small and large triple-flanged silicone tips and two foam earplug-style tips. If earwax buildup becomes a problem, you are provided with replaceable earpiece filters and a cleaning tool. The headphones have a 48-inch cord that is prone to curling, which I have found is typical of many headsets. Lastly, the headset comes with a black zip-up carrying pouch.
Remote Control & Mic
The mc3 headset has an Apple-style remote with a built-in mic and three buttons (volume up, play/pause/call, and volume down). (For those who don’t need the integrated remote and mic, Etymotic’s mc5 earphones come without these for $20 less.) The remote and mic are supported only by iPod nano (4/5/6 gen), iPod classic (120GB, 160GB only), iPod touch (2/3/4 gen), iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPad. The remote is supported by iPod shuffle (3/4 gen). The buttons were responsive, if not awkwardly placed. They hang just off your right cheek; while this places the mic in perfect position for calls, you have to locate and press the buttons “blind.” After some time you get used to the button position, but it would be better if the mic and button were slid down a few inches on the cord.
Hearing and being heard via the built-in mic was not a problem. Audio is clear, albeit a little thin due to the lack of bass enhancement with the mc3 (more on this later).
Several other reviews have referred to the mc3 as being made for “the audiophile on a budget.” The earphones have “flat” response, which means that high, midrange and low frequencies are in balance, instead of one dominating the others. Since I had been using the MEElectronics SP51P Sound Preference In-Ear Headphones for the last several months with the extreme bass sound ports, my first impression of the mc3 headphones was that they provided weak or shallow sound. If you are looking for bass-pumping sound, the mc3 earphones aren’t for you. However, after listening with them for a while, especially to instrumental movie soundtracks that I am partial to, I found these earphones to offer clarity at the mid and high ranges that more than made up for the “weakness” on the low end. Etymotic places emphasis on clarity over bass, something true audiophiles will surely appreciate. Even at the highest volume there was zero distortion.
The only problem I had when listening with the mc3 earphones was when I used them while working out. Since the earphones fit so snugly in your ears, microphonic issues were quite obvious—cord “thump” or noise is amplified. Therefore, these may not be the best choice of earphones for those who plan on using them while working out.
Besides being quality earphones, the mc3 headphones also provide extraordinary noise isolation. Listening with these earphones while walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago or while riding on Chicago transit, background noise was all but eliminated. If you do want to be aware of your surroundings while using these earphones, there is the AWARENESS! for Etymotic app that listens to your surroundings. With this app, any sound louder than normal background noise will be heard in your earphones.
Custom Fit Option
I found that the mc3 headphones fit very well in my ears with the provided ear tips. However, if you are looking for the best possible fit, Etymotic offers a Custom-Fit option for $100. You can print a coupon from the Etymotic website and go to an audiologist who will take an impression or mold of your ear canals. In four to eight weeks, you receive your custom ear tips.
After using these earphones for the last few weeks, I think they are perfect for an average listener who doesn’t want to break the bank for earphones. These are “budget” earphones that do not sound cheap. I especially like having the volume control included with the remote. I was equally impressed with the earphones’ noise-cancellation capabilities, a consideration for those who wish to block out background noise such as airplane engines. I have reviewed some other headsets in this column, but none that I have run across offers the same combination of functionality, sound quality and value as Etymotic’s mc3 headset + earphones.
- Near-flat response for audiophiles
- Integrated iPhone controls and mic
- Several ear-tip options
- Good combination of price and sound quality
- Lack of bass enhancement can make some music sound thin, anemic
- Cable thump makes the headphones less than ideal for use at the gym
- Control placement takes some getting used to
Etymotic mc3 Headset + Earphones
$99.99 (currently $86.95 from Amazon.com)
Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is the author of “Gadget Corner.” All reviews are based on firsthand experience of the product or service. No third-party compensation is received for opinions on products, services, websites or topics. However, sometimes the author is not required by the manufacturer or their PR firm to return the product under review. In such instances, it is our policy to convey this within the review. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are strictly those of the author. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider.