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Etymotic Research MC5 Noise Isolating In-Ear Earphones

December 7th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments
4 Stars- techdad

Etymotic Research has daringly dove into the under $100 earphone category with their mc5 in-ear monitors (IEM).  Competition in the earphone category has exploded, to say the least, thanks primarily to the iPod.  IEMs have popped up from just about every consumer electronics company known to man.  Can Etymotic fend off the competitors with their latest “canalphones?”


  • Beautifully accurate and detailed
  • Durable build
  • Useful accessories included
  • 2 year warranty
  • Under represented bass
  • Sound quality below average, out of the box
Historically, Etymotic used balanced armature transducers in their high-end IEMs.  The mc3 and mc5 are their first moving coil drivers, used mostly as a cost-reducing measure.  I have often been let down by companies introducing “value” versions of their successful products so I was skeptical about the mc5s.  Consumer Reports’ rating did not invoke confidence either.  Etymotic was kind enough to provide me with a pair of mc5s so I could test them.  As it turns out, Consumer Reports got it wrong and I almost did too.

My initial impression of the mc5 was not good.  Though the details were phenomenal, it just did not sound right.  I struggled with the 3-flange eartips for a good hour before I eventually found a better fit and seal with the gray glider eartips.  Even with a good seal, I thought it was harsh with poor bass response.  I had completed my review based on about 5 hours of critical listening but then decided to give them a 24 hour burn-in for a retest.  In my opinion, those 29 hours of use completely changed the characteristics of the mc5.  The mids and highs were very detailed and clear and the harshness smoothed out.  The bass improved slightly and retained a quality tight sound.  I usually prefer a flat sound from headphones or speakers and my favorite headphones currently are the Sennheiser HD 555s.  Despite this preference, I found the bass on the mc5 to be under represented.  Eminem, Usher and Black Eyed Peas were not as enjoyable to listen to as Sarah McLachlan, Liz Phair, ELO, or Keane.  If you prefer artificial bass, the mc5s are NOT going to be to your liking.

Sound isolation with the mc5 is excellent.  Etymotic claims 35-42dB of isolation.  They are so good that you should take caution when using them while jogging or cycling outdoors.  They are however, ideal for commuting on buses or trains and perfectly acceptable for air travel.  Best of all, no bulky noise-canceling controls or batteries to deal with.  There is some microphonic effect but attaching the shirt clip and or wrapping the cord behind your ears help.

Some people will not find universal Etymotic in-ear monitors comfortable.  The default 3-flange eartips require them to be inserted far into the ear canal and it can be a harrowing experience.  For me, the glider eartips were more comfortable and provided a better seal so even though Etymotic offers custom-fit eartips, I found at least one pair of comfortable universal eartips.  One minor drawback to the glider eartips is that they make the rest of the IEM stick out further from your ear, but I personally don’t care how I look with them.  The 4 foot cord is a perfect length for a wide variety of portable use and the included shirt clip can help keep the cord in place while you’re moving around.

I own a couple of under $30 IEMs and never wanted to spend beyond that because I always feared breaking or losing them.  Etymotic addressed that fear by coating the cables with Kevlar, providing a protective case, and backing it up with a 2 year warranty.

I really appreciated that the mc5s came with a protective case.  It also included 4 types of eartips, shirt clip, a pair of filters, and filter removal tool.

If you like the mc5 but want to use it with your iPod/iPhone/iPad, go check out the Etymotic mc3.  They have identical sound characteristics but the mc3 also has an inline remote and a mic.

The sound quality of the mc5 improved greatly with some burn-in time and proved that Consumer Reports grossly misjudged them.  Though I still feel that the bass response needs to be improved, I think the price for performance is very good.  Etymotic IEMs are not for everyone, but if you prefer accurate details without distorted sound (bass boosting), then you are sure to enjoy the mc5s.

Available from Amazon.com.

* Review sample courtesy of Etymotic Research.
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  1. mateo
    March 16th, 2011 at 23:55 | #1

    How do these compare?*

  2. mateo
    March 16th, 2011 at 23:54 | #2

    I have a pair of Etymotic ER-6i’s. How does these compare?

    • Ed
      March 21st, 2011 at 20:06 | #3

      Unfortunately, I have not had an opportunity to try out a pair of ER-6i’s. I know they’re pretty close in price but since the 6i’s use an armature driver whereas the MC5 uses moving coil drivers, I would lean toward the 6i’s sounding slightly better. Aside from that difference, the specifications for both earphones are very close. One big difference is that the MC5 has a 2 year warranty compared to 1 year for the 6i. I’ve read about some durability issues with the 6i so perhaps that’s why they only feel they can warranty it for 1 year. I would venture to guess that the 6i’s probably sound better, but that’s just speculation based on the fact that the HF5’s sound light years better than the MC5, and the HF5 also uses an armature driver. Again, I’ve tried the MC5 and HF5, but not the 6i, so I can’t say for certain how the MC5 would compare to the 6i.

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