Etymotic Mk5 Review: Great Noise Isolation on a Budget

etymotic-mk5-isolator earphones

Do you want earphones with excellent noise isolation and save some coin?

The Etymotic MK5 in-ears don’t have active noise cancellation, but chances are you won’t miss it with these earphones, if you don’t mind deep-insertion ear tips.

I am sitting on my balcony listening to some coffeehouse music: basically piano and acoustic guitar to help me focus.

The house is down an alley, but still pretty close to a fairly busy city street.

My phone is set to the lowest volume, yet I hear every detail of my music. What was meant to help me concentrate keeps calling me to explore.

And, I hear very little of my environment. These MK5 really do isolate:

I am getting a virtually uniform and strong reduction of all environmental noises, including traffic, droning, and bass noise.

This is not the muffling-type of isolation you get with half-inserted foam earplugs (and many noise isolating earphones and headphones).

So I figured these need a detailed noise reduction test, which is what I’ll start this review with.

Noise Reduction

Etymotic advertises the MK5 in-ears as attenuating noise by an impressive 35-42 decibels.

I have come across claims like “35 dB noise reduction” for many noise isolating headphones (and noise cancelling headphones), only to find that the phones can’t do that against the type of noise that is bothering me.

Some manufactures pick the results for the most favorable frequency range and publish those numbers.

Yep, the chirping bird sounds at 4 to 5000 Hz may have been reduced by 35 decibels.

But what about these pesky trucks at a low 30 to 40 Hz, or the roars of “un-muffled engines on two wheels”?

Often noise isolating headphones provide only modest help against these, to the tune of perhaps 10 decibels, if you are lucky.

That’s where the muffled feeling comes from. Treble noise is effectively attenuated, but not the low and lower-mid frequencies.

To find out what these earphones can do for me, I ran a real ear noise reduction test from 40 to 8000 Hz.

I used pulsed narrow-band noises at increasing frequencies and noted my hearing threshold with an open ear and my threshold with inserted earphones.

The difference between open and occluded threshold for a particular narrow frequency band is the noise reduction for that frequency band.Etymotic MK5 Noise reduction test resultI performed the test a total of 5 times.

Four times I inserted the earphones almost as deep as I could while still staying comfortable (perhaps about 95% max insertion depth).

For the fifth test, I used a shallower insertion, but still deep enough to give me the perception of good noise reduction.

Looking at the chart, with deep insertion, the noise reduction is indeed very good and very even across the whole range, staying mostly between 30 and 40 decibels.

Note how even against bass noise from 40 to 250 Hz, the noise reduction mostly exceeds 30 decibels, which is excellent and at least on par with good active noise cancelling earbuds.

So I am getting pretty close to Etymotic’s claim of 35 to 42 decibels for a broad frequency range.

As it turns out, the MK5 are good against everything, not only the birds.

Here is what deep insertion looks like (for me):

MK5-deep-eartip-insertion

Also note, with a shallower insertion, I am losing quite bit of noise attenuation, in particular against low and lower-mid frequency noise.

So for best performance, optimizing insertion depth is important!

However, even at that somewhat shallower insertion depth, the noise isolation of these barrel-shaped tips is still good.

This is often not the case with tapered foam earplugs, where you quickly lose out on low-frequency noise reduction if you don’t get them in all the way.

Notes:

  • The results published here are only to indicate the MK5’s potential for everyday noise/annoyance reduction.
  • These earphones don’t have a noise reduction rating as would be required for a hearing protector. They are not meant as work earplug headphones for high noise environments.
  • In the past, Etymotic offered a model with NRR, the HD5 Safety, but it appears they are no longer available.

Sound Quality

For the price, the MK5 sound very good, but they are very light on the bass.

In particular instrumental music comes alive:

I very much enjoy listening to acoustic guitar (e.g., Earl Klugh’s Handpicked), smooth jazz, pop-jazz (e.g., Sade’s Smooth Operator), classical music, and new age (e.g., Deuter’s Bamboo Forest) with these.

Because environmental noise is so well subdued, these earphones reveal details I can typically only hear with good headphones in a quiet room.

Vocals sound good as well, but at times I would prefer male singers sounded a tad fuller.

Perhaps it is me being used to a more emphasized bass that extends into the vocals rather than the MK5 not being accurate.

I find the bass too restrained to get the fun out of EDM music, pop, or hip hop. And I definitely would want more kick when the drummer goes to work.

If you want bass, these earphones are probably not for you.

But on the flip side, Etymotic has taken a lot of care that no bloated bass intrudes into the rest of the music.

Overall, I think the MK5 are a very good budget choice for exploring the finer details in music.

They also work well for focus music and white noise.

Last but not least, they are excellent for listening to audiobooks and podcasts.

Ear tip selection and ease of insertion

etymotic-mk5-foam-tips-vs-foam-earplugs

The MK5 come with one size of foam ear tips (gray) and two sizes of triple-flange silicone ear tips (image below).

The gray foam tips are a about as thick as the white Flents Quiet Please earplugs shown in the photo.

MK5-silicone-eartips

Etymotic offers additional foam sizes (extra purchase): yellow foams for very large ear canals (see image above) and beige foams for very small canals (which I don’t have).

Out of interest, I recently also got the huge yellow tips: I can get them in, but the gray ones work better for me.

How to insert the foam ear tips?

You roll the foam up like you would a foam earplug, pull up your ear (to open the canal a bit more) and wiggle the earphone in. The stem of the MK5 is quite thin, and helps to guide them into the ear canal.

Tip: I dip my pinky in a bit of water and moisturize the ear canal entrance before inserting them. (Makes it a lot easier)

The foam of these expands slowly, giving you time.

I would say these are easier to insert then most other foam tips (and foam earplugs).

The tips may look strange and appear a bit rough when you first feel them, but they are very well thought out.

In the beginning, take a bit of time to familiarize yourself with your ear canal anatomy so that you can push/wiggle the earphones in the right direction.

I need to go in a slightly upward direction.

How about the silicone tips?

The silicone tips are to be inserted like reusable silicone earplugs. I recommend you again slightly moisturize your ear canal entrance, lift up your ear and wiggle them in.

The silicone tips will save you money

Personally, I like the foam tips, but there are plenty of other people who prefer to use Etymotic’s earphones with silicone tips.

The main downside of the foam tips is that with daily use they only last a few weeks, so you have to keep buying replacement packs. This adds up over time.

With silicone, you can go for months and you can rinse them, after removing them from the nozzle of course.

Comfort

Depending on how you insert the MK5 and your ear, they can be everything from quite comfy to very uncomfortable.

For maximum noise reduction, you may be tempted to push them in as deep as possible, and boy it works. So it is tempting.

But after a while, they may exert pressure in an area of your ear canal that isn’t used to foreign objects and quite sensitive.

Fortunately, unlike tapered foam earplugs, the MK5 even reduce noise quite well when only inserted 80%. For me, at 80% they are comfy and I can easily wear them for a couple of hours.

Just be aware that these are in-ears: even at a moderate insertion depth they have to go in a lot deeper than earbuds.

So you have to experiment, and as mentioned earlier, use a bit of moisture and take some time to understand the shape and direction of your ear canal.

Overall, I find the MK5 comfortable, but not as much as earbuds that only sit at the ear canal entrance.

The joy is in listening to music in the virtual absence of background noise.

Who are the MK5 for?

etymotic-mk5-with-pouch

The Etymotic MK5 Isolator are great budget in-ears if you want as much noise reduction as you can get and don’t mind inserting something deep in your ear to achieve that.

Unlike many other noise isolating earphones and headphones, these are very good even at reducing bass noise.

Performance-wise they can go toe to toe with very good active noise cancelling earbuds for low frequency noise reduction and outperform them by quite a margin for mid and high frequency noise reduction. That is cool.

They can work well for studying, working in an office (provided you don’t have to talk to people), riding public transport, exercising in a loud gym, listening to audio books, or just enjoying good music in peace and quiet.

Or put them in to just turn down the noise and listen to nothing (or perhaps a light rain sound or ocean waves).

In situations where you have to be aware of your surroundings, the MK5 might isolate too well. You certainly wouldn’t want to get run over by a truck while being immersed in your music.

Comfort-wise I rate these earphones as good, but definitely less so than well-fitting foam earplugs or active noise cancelling earbuds.

I can easily wear the MK5 for a couple of hours, but I would not want to wear them for 8 hours straight every day (or night).

Also, if you, like me, often wear foam earplugs at night, you might want to give your ears a break at times.

Being in-ears, the MK5 are not ideal if you have to take them out every 30 minutes to talk to someone. Like earplugs, they are meant to be inserted and kept in place.

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