Etymotic Research MC5 Earphones - Sound Quality and Verdict

By Hugo Jobling



Our Score:


Less easily remedied than the disappointing selection of tips is the slightly lacklustre performance of the MC5 earphones. It's not that they don't sound good; just that they don't sound as good as similarly priced rivals, such as the Klipsch Image S4 earphones.

Of course, it's characteristic of Etymotic earphones to have a bass-light sound, but the MC5s are just a little too clinical for our tastes. As such, the clear, crisp mid-range and high-end notes end up coming across a little sterile, as the low-end doesn't have the warmth of tone we'd like to complement detailed sound. Although they're accurate, that accuracy seems to come at the expense of warmth of tone and in this instance the trade-off is greater than we can tolerate.

The reason for this seems to be that despite their low 16 ohm impedance, the MC5 earphones seem to take a lot of driving. Even with an iPod touch on full volume, the output was still a bit underwhelming. Hooked up to a Trends PA-10 amplifier the Etymotic MC5s definitely sounded better, but that's not a realistic set-up for a £55 pair of earphones. Unless you really don't care about hearing the bass notes in your music, we'd have to recommend looking elsewhere.


Despite delivering a clear, detailed sound, with surprising accuracy considering their £55 price tag, the Etymotic MC5s aren't the best earphones available for the money. To our ears they're just a little too clinical, and we'd probably pick up a pair of Klipsch Image S4s instead.

Overall Score


Scores In Detail

  • Value 6
  • Sound Quality 6


August 16, 2010, 6:47 pm

Hello Hugo,

I currently own the hf2 headset. Although it sounds fantastic, the cable is not up to the job. After some use the remote control only works sporadically, which by the way happened to my first set of hf2 as well, until one the earbuds stopped working forcing me to have the headset replaced.

Seeing the MC5 I am wondering if Etymotic has done anything to improve the cables. Or is it just me having these problems?


August 17, 2010, 3:17 am

@imba > I also had the hf2 and although their top and mid range was excellent, they lacked bass. In addition one earphone stopped working intermittently and the dodgy cable also appeared to be the culprit. Thankfully I was able to sell it on but you're not alone with those problems.


August 17, 2010, 3:50 am

Hello Hugo,

I'd love to see a review on the cheapest custom in ear monitors that Ultimate Ears makes. Either the Ultimate Ears 4 Pro $399 US, or Ultimate Ears 1 Pro $450 US, . I'm not really a music aficionado, but my current phones (Shure SE102) don't fit quite right, and I'm considering going with a custom pair for better fit. The only other brand I've found that offers custom fit on a budget is Livewires, , $249 US, cheaper but not as good looking as the Ultimate Ears. I think anyone considering spending $200 to $400 on a pair of universal fit earphones, which you review regularily, would also benefit from reading a TR review of custome earphones at comparable prices. Thanks.


August 17, 2010, 3:53 am


I also own hf2s which I adore for their sound quality but not their build quality. The remote also only works sporadically for me. However I also find that the volume will go up or down depending on the position of the cable where it goes into the 3.5mm plug. This can be very frustrating as movement changes the volume rapidly. It appears that it actually moves the volume of the iPod up and down!


August 17, 2010, 7:33 pm

imba - Between the TR team we've gone through about five sets of hf2 headsets with various failures. They just kept breaking. Supposedly those issues are fixed now, though.

MGDdrinker - I'll look into it :)


August 17, 2010, 8:00 pm

Hugo is spot on. Etymotic suffered cable and connector problems with the HF2, something that was only fixed in latter batches of the product. The HF3 addresses these issues and I believe a review is in the pipeline.


October 27, 2015, 7:08 pm

How many hours of listening was done on the earphones before conducting this review? Earphones like this usually need 20-30 hours of "burn-in" time before you can truly assess the sound quality. I'm guessing you wrote this review on the same day you received the earphones.

Rodger JOHN

April 13, 2016, 4:49 pm

I have reached a ripe old age before ever buying a product as disappointing as these MC5s. I have returned them to the vendor believing there had to be something wrong. They assured me they are intended to sound this bad, and so returned them as they had been worn, albeit for only a couple of hours. They make Melody Gardot sound like she records in the bath tub.

Other reviews suggested that they did not colour the bass. My perception is that there is next to no bass definition. Compared to €15 unbranded units, they are completely useless.

I would score these less than 1 out of 5 stars. Perhaps after 20hours they might seem better, but as I only bought them to use on flights and trains, it will be a very long time coming.

My recommendation would to be very very wary before purchase.

I wish that I had just bought some standard Apple units to use with my iPad, or stuck with the unbranded ones.

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