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Etymōtic mk5 Isolator Earphones

Product Review

These affordable noise-isolating earphones are a great alternative to bulky, expensive over-the-ear headphones when you're traveling light but want to shut out your jet's background roar at 40,000 feet.

Etymotic mk5 Isolator Earphones on a Delta 757

ABOVE: An onscreen companion watches my field test of the Etymōtic mk5 Isolator Earphones during a long-haul Delta Air Lines flight.

If you fly often (or even if you travel by air only occasionally, but for long distances), the roar of your jet plowing through the atmosphere for hours at a time can be annoying--especially if you're trying to hear a guitar solo on your phone or the dialogue from Spiderman XII on the inflight entertainment system.

The obvious solution--noise-cancelling headphones--creates problems of its own, because over-the-ear headphones tend to be bulky, heavy, and expensive. It's a nuisance to lug headphones along on a two- or three-week trip when they're going to spend most of their time taking up space in a backpack or suitcase.

Etymotic m5 Isolator EarphonesRecently, I tried an alternative to noise-cancelling headphones: a pair of Etymōtic mk5 Isolator Earphones, which are earbuds for people who hate background noise. Unlike bulky headphones from companies like Bose and Sony, they don't use electronics to generate noise-neutralizing signals. Instead, they're designed with interchangeable, tight-fitting tips that physically block outside noise from intruding while you listen to audio (or even when you're just sleeping). The battery-free earphones are also far less expensive than quality noise-cancelling headphones, with a street price of about US $65.

Etymotic mk5 Isolator Earphones and components

The mk5 package includes several items:

  • The earphones themselves, which have a 48-inch (122-cm) cord between the stereo plug and the earpieces. (Yes, these are wired headphones, and they're designed to fit a standard 3.5-mm stereo jack.)

  • Three sets of interchangeable earpieces: large 3-flange soft-plastic tips, standard 3-flange soft-plastic tips, and foam tips that compress to fit ear canals of any size. You can use whichever tips work best in your ears.

  • A shirt clip to keep the cord in place.

  • A tiny zipper pouch.

  • A user manual in English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Italian.

My experience with the mk5 earphones:

Etymōtic Research mk5 Isolator Earphones packageEtymōtic Research mailed me a sample pair of mk5 earphones that arrived in the standard retail packaging. When I opened the package, I found that the  large 3-flange tips were already installed, so I tried working the tips into my ears with the recommended twisting motion. They went in fairly easily, but their depth made me feel a bit queasy, so I tried the other tips. I ended up using the foam tips, which were the easiest to insert and felt most comfortable.

Etymotic earphone pouchIn subsequent days, I used the mk5s with my Android smartphone and on two Delta Air Lines 757s with inflight entertainment systems. The sound was clear and clean, with a smooth frequency response and a total absence of bass-heavy muddiness. The earphones sounded especially good with classical music and vocals.

Noise isolation was on a par with the audio performance: When I wore the earphones but disconnected them from the inflight entertainment system during my two Delta flights, I could barely hear ambient noise (which sounded very distant). And when I was listening to music or a movie soundtrack, I didn't even notice the jet's roar. Best of all, when I got off the plane, I could tuck the tiny Etymōtic pouch into my shirt pocket instead of adding clutter and dead weight to my backpack.

Etymotic MK5 Isolator Earphones logoAs of this writing, I've been using the earphones daily for more than two weeks, and I'm extremely happy with them. (I've now switched to the standard 3-flange tips, which seem to work as well as the foam tips but are likely to last longer.) The mk5s isolate noise so well that I can listen to a news program on my smartphone while my wife is playing music on the stereo. She needs to wave at me to get my attention, even when I'm listening to the news at a modest volume.

  • Note: If you're an obsessive audiophile, a professional musician, or a recording engineer, you might be tempted by Etymōtic's mc, hf, or er series, some of which are classified as "studio reference" devices. These high-performance models range in price from under US $100 to nearly US $350. Some versions have close-proximity microphones (for headset-style communication), with optional 3-button controls for Apple products. But for price-conscious travelers like me, Etymōtic's more affordable mk5 Isolator Earphones offer a practical and satisfying combination of noise isolation, better-than-average sound, and value.

For more information, or to order a pair of mk5 earphones, see the mk5 page on the Etymōtic Research Web site at (Etymōtic products are also available from third-party vendors such as Amazon.)

Discount offer for our readers:

  • If you order the mk5s directly from Etymōtic Research, use the checkout code MK15TP to get a 15% discount off the purchase price.


  • We are not receiving any commission or other payment from Etymōtic Research. (In other words, this is a real product review, not a "sponsored post.")