Etymotic Research mk5 Isolator Series Earphones Review

Pete Anthony
Last updated on: 9-9-19

The mk5s are a distinct pair of earbuds in that they primarily focus on noise isolation, or blocking out as much external sound as possible. This isn’t to be confused with noise cancellation, whereby active electronics actually create counter sound waves to negate external noise. Either way, external noise reduction is particularly important to people who regularly deal with loud environments – subways, airplanes, obnoxious coworkers, or what have you. It’s also important to those who are keen on ear/hearing health because you don’t have to otherwise turn your volume up to overpower external noise, which can unwittingly result in unsafe listening levels and potential long term hearing loss.

The advantage of passive isolation over active cancellation is that the former doesn’t require electronics, so while good quality active noise cancelling headphones are generally expensive, the mk5s are a noise thwarting solution that remain reasonably priced. Etymotic Research, a company that actually specializes in hearing safety, claims the mk5s reduce external noise by 98%, or 35-42 decibels. That level of reduction would render a loud vacuum cleaner to roughly a faint conversation at a distance (source).

out of the box

Packaging is pretty bare bones but functionally adequate in that the plastic sleeve and packing piece are enough to prevent units from arriving damaged, but that’s about it. Some people seem to start caring about the unboxing experience when the price tag starts to rise above the minimal budget tier and might be disappointed with the mk5s in that regard.

I will say that the included carrying case is pretty nice – faux leather with a sturdy zipper and inner mesh container for replacement tips or other accessories that velcros shut.

Included with the headphones:

  • carrying case
  • larger sized triple flange silicone replacement tips
  • alternative foam replacement tips
  • manual/warranty pamphlet

headphone front and back

The buds have a unique long and narrow design with similarly long nozzles that are thinner than the seemingly standard size. They’re designed to fit with Etymotic Research’s custom tips which mirror the various earplugs they also make:

included custom tips

There’s a smaller and larger pair of triple flange tips as well as a pair of foam tips, all of which have much longer and narrower holes through which the nozzles fit into and sound can pass out of. One disadvantage here is that most standard replacement tips won’t be compatible with the mk5 buds if none of the included tips fit you adequately.

Speaking of the fit, you really have to push the silicone tips rather deep into your ear for them to properly seal. The manual actually instructs the user to pull the earlobe up and back to be able to get them fully inside. This is largely how the isolation is achieved, but it might feel weirdly invasive and somewhat uncomfortable for some people, myself included. I also feel like there’s a particular risk for impacting ear wax. While the foam tips don’t need to go so deep like the triple flange tips do, the foam tips still exude a fair amount of pressure on the ear canal and are somewhat uncomfortable as a result. I do feel like one can get used to either though, and that the fit will bother some people more than others.

Once fully fitted, though, the mk5s really do block out external noise and feel like earplugs even when there’s no music playing. The seal also doesn’t compromise at all now matter how much I move my head and jaw around. The buds are also very lightweight and barely feel like they’re there at all, which is nice.

wire and joint

The wire is pretty basic and somewhat flimsy, and honestly doesn’t look and feel any better than something you can get with a cheap ~$10 pair of earbuds. It was also prone to a little tangling and microphonics. The smaller black piece above the joint can slide up and down to shorten the left and right wires which is a nice feature. The mk5 doesn’t have an in-line mic or controls.

semi-angled 3.5mm plug

The plug feels sturdy and plugged into my device securely and without any issues.

Check them out more on Amazon

Sound And Performance

General impression: The mk5 sounds decent at its price point, but not quite as good as top competitors. The response is generally flat and consistent, and the detail and clarity is good as well, particularly in the midrange. That said, the overall sound is a little thin and feels kind of sucked out, which is the best way I can think to describe the sensation that high noise isolation or cancellation sometimes brings. There’s also noticeable sibilance with some songs.

Sound signature: Pretty flat, but with recessed bass and trebles. The response ceiling of 15k Hz is not that great – even the cheaper headphones will usually get up to 20k Hz even if there is some roll off.

Sound staging: While usually nonexistent with earbuds, it’s actually pretty good and decently wide feeling with the mk5s, and you can definitely hear instrumental positioning with specific recordings.

Bass: Recessed as well. The 20 Hz floor is about average for budget earbuds. Drops I tested were definitely quieter and lost tone and pitch sometimes.

Power/Volume: With a low sensitivity rating of 95 and higher than normal impedance of 32 ohms, the mk5s are definitely a little harder to drive. I had to turn up my device volume like 40% to get it to my normal listening volume that I like. That said, I don’t think any decent device is going to have problems powering the mk5s.

Isolation: Excellent, very high. This is absolutely the selling point of these earbuds. Most likely the best isolation one can get for less than $75, made by a specializing company that really knows how to do it.

Warranty: One year, which is OK coverage at this price-point, though you will see a good number of competitors start to offer 2+ year warranties.

Overall Take, As Compared To The Competition

If you’re looking for an affordable and decent sounding pair of earbuds that can really provide solid noise isolation against loud commuter noise then I’d say the mk5 is clearly the best choice. I’m glad this kind of product exists for less than $100 and I have a pair myself that I’ll use for things like plane rides. That said, I wouldn’t say they’re the best sounding earbuds at their price-point, so if isolation isn’t a priority for you I’d recommend considering competitors. The deep in-ear fit might also be bothersome for some people and does take a little getting used to.

Get the mk5s on Amazon

See our current picks for the overall best earbuds available under $50