Ever since the first Bluetooth headset for mobile phones came out, people have been eager to see the day when Bluetooth audio made the transition to stereo sound. This would enable you to ditch that wire connected to your iPod -- or other portable music device -- and feel, well, a bit more liberated.
That finally happened last year, and now several new Bluetooth stereo headphones are trickling their way on to the market. The only problem is, most of them don't sound that good, which is why we were pretty excited to hear that Etymotic, which is known for its high-performance wired earbuds, was getting into the wireless game.
With a rather hefty price tag of £200, the company's ety8s can only be described as premium Bluetooth headphones. Etymotic says the ety8s are compatible with devices "supporting Bluetooth specification 1.1 and higher, as well as A2DP and AVRCP for profiles for stereo listening", and have a wireless range of about 9m. They come with a leather storage case and custom USB cable to juice up the headphones' internal rechargeable battery, which delivers about seven hours of power.
As you might have gathered from its picture, the ety8s offer one of the most distinct headphone designs ever created, and when you see them you realise there's a fine line between really cool and really ugly. For starters, what's unusual about the ety8s is they're indeed true earbud headphones. Until now, most Bluetooth stereo headphones offered some sort of over-the-ear design that often included an around-the-head 'street-style' neckband. Part of the reason behind that design choice is that Bluetooth headphones require a certain amount of power and a not-so-tiny battery to keep the wireless tunes flowing.
For better or worse, Etymotic has made earbud-style headphones that essentially have the battery graphed right onto each 'bud (Etymotic reps told us the external part of the earbud is in fact the exact shape and size of the battery). In short, this is currently just about the smallest possible design you could have for Bluetooth headphones. The only problem is it's just not all that attractive.
Modelling the headphones around the office, this reviewer got a few laughs from co-workers, who thought it looked as if he was wearing giant cufflinks on his ears. Some might find the look sexy in a sort of geek-chic way, but there's a higher probability you get some disparaging comments and you may feel self-conscious wearing them. Of course, if you're comfortable with your inner geek -- and want some extra attention -- you might be fine with the ety8s' design.
The good news is the Ety8s sound really good and they're comfortable. Similar to Etymotic's wired premium earbuds, they come with various rubber and foam tips you can swap on to the 'buds cylindrical posts until you find one that fits your ear best (the 'buds are connected by a cord you wear loosely around the back of your neck or below your chin). We're more partial to the foam tips, but whether you go with foam or rubber, you're going to get a very good seal that blocks out noise as well as active noise-cancelling headphones such as the Bose Quiet Comfort series.
Etymotic reps warn that since Bluetooth doesn't transmit all that well through your body, you should ideally keep your iPod in a pocket (or armband) on your right side, which ensures a better connection with the Bluetooth receiver in the right earbud. That right earbud is also where you'll find some small buttons that are essentially a basic remote control. You can play and pause tracks, advance tracks forwards and backwards, and raise and lower volume levels. It is worth noting that when you press the buttons a loud clicking sound reverberates in your ear, which is slightly annoying. It pays to remember that the volume control on the right ear bud is the real volume control -- not the one on your iPod. At lower volume levels, the amount of useful bass drops off noticeably.
Though there isn't much competition in the premium Bluetooth headphones market today, we can say that the ety8s are the best-sounding Bluetooth headphones we've heard to date. Similar to all Bluetooth stereo headphones and many mono mobile phone headsets, these aren't immune to interference and signal dropouts; they also take a few seconds to pair up with your iPod once the dongle is clipped into the player's universal port. It's worth the wait, though -- the sound quality is excellent.
Etymotic says the ety8s sample sound at a 44.1 kHz sampling rate, with 16-bit resolution, and we really didn't feel we lost anything by going wireless, which is rare. The Etymotic ety8s seem as if they have a slightly flatter response than Shure's high-end wired earbuds (the e3c and e5c), which give more emphasis to lower (bass and lower midrange) frequencies, as do most consumer-oriented speakers.
Some some nitpicky listeners, therefore, might find the ety8s slightly bass deficient when compared to a pair of full-range tower speakers or higher-end, over-the-ear headphones. That said, the earphones got a comfortable, if not overpowering, amount of bass, and tonnes of detail in the upper-mid and higher frequencies.
They also do an admirable job of delivering lots of complex musical information -- that is, they don't mush up in the mids. This becomes evident when you have a bunch of instruments playing at the same time, such as in Buena Vista Social Club's hit El Cuarto de Tula -- each of the guitars, the percussion, and the voices retains its individuality and sounds clear while combining, rather than blending unintelligibly, into a cohesive musical unit.
Overall, we really liked the ety8s -- we just weren't so keen on how they looked. If they cost closer to £100 we'd be more forgiving of their unique design, but at £200, you start to get pretty discerning. As it stands, however, if you're an early adopter with high-end tastes, you won't be disappointed by the sound or comfort level of these headphones.
Of course, stereo Bluetooth is still in its early days, so we expect to see even better Bluetooth headphones from Etymotic and others in the not-so-distant future. Whether you want to wait will most likely be tied into how much disposable cash you have to burn.
Editor's note: In our tests, the dongle (and headphones) did not work with the 3G iPod, but they worked fine when tested with more recent models, such as the 4G Photo, nano, and 5G iPod with video.
Edited by Jasmine France
Additional editing by Kate Macefield