ETYMOTIC RESEARCH In-Ear Premium Headphones
Review

On July 5, 2006, in Earphones, Review, by John Nemerovski



ETYMOTIC RESEARCH In-Ear Premium Headphones

http://www.etymotic.com

The company makes three models of premium in-ear sound isolation headphones, and our combo review mentions each of them:

6i Isolator (thin white cables, long-stem speakers, three-section white flange eartips) cost $149 MSRP [one-year warranty] — designed for all personal digital music players, with enhanced bass response

ER-6 Isolator (thin black cables, short-stem speakers, two-section clear flange eartips) cost $139 MSRP [one-year warranty] — high noise isolation and sound accuracy

ER-4P MicroPro (double-strand thicker black cables, color coded right/left ear pieces, long-stem speakers, multiple eartips and many accessories included) cost $299 MSRP [two-year warranty] — designed for nearly perfect sound reproduction with optimum noise isolation

* * * * *

The Media Center press room at San Francisco’s Macworld Expo was buzzing with praise for a “new company” with a “tiny booth over near the far wall,” that “appeared out of nowhere” with “the best d**n earbuds you’ve ever heard.” The company had a strange name, Etymotic Research, and I couldn’t get within ten feet of their display or sample products, due to the crush of interested audio nuts. This was January, 2005, a year and a half ago.

Fast forward one year, to a MUCH larger centrally-located Macworld 2006 booth. Again hundreds of listeners were testing in-ear headphones, and Etymotic’s PR person was surrounded by so many excited potential and actual customers that I decided to wait until the last hour of the final day at Moscone Center to track her down. No way — still crowded!

I finally made contact with Etymotic after the Expo — whew. Gail Gudmundsen, Au.D., Director of Sales and Marketing, with masters and doctoral degrees in audiology, attended the same high school at the same time as I did, and her brother was a classmate of mine. This was so long ago that I won’t embarrass Gail by divulging which decade of the 17th Century we’re talking about. Her comments appear below, but first —

* * * * *

My daughter, Sheba, is serious about her iPod audio earphones, and her saga is relevant to the products under discussion. In Sheba’s own words and punctuation:

like everyone else, i started out with the headphones provided with my ipod, standard issue ear buds. they sucked! they hurt my ears, sounded terrible, and died within one month.

i decided to trade up. i got the apple in-ear headphones. they were just as bad, but for twice the price!! okay, they WERE less painful, but they constantly fell out (i tried all three sizes of fittings, none worked) and they sounded just as awful, and THEY died after a month as well!!

i decided it was time to shell out the big bucks! i had a friend who swore by the etymotic ER-6i, so i went to the apple store assuming i could get them there. no dice, they didn’t have them. well, i needed SOMETHING (i couldn’t be expected to ride the bus ipod-less, now could i?) so i got a shure pair (E3C? E2C? something like that) since they were around the same price as the etymotic and so, i figured, of similar quality. they were okay. once again, they never really fit in my ear properly no matter what size attachment i used, and they had this over the ear thingy i didn’t really like, but they sounded pretty good.

i told my  friend, the etymotic fan, and he was like “what!!! why didn’t you get the etymotic???” i brought my shures over to his house and did a comparison. the etymotics were WAYYYYY  better. they had a squishy foam head which fit comfortably and securely, and they sounded GREAT. i was sold.

i gave my shures to my sister and ordered the etymotics, making certain to order extra sets of the foam heads (it comes with one set, as well as rubber flange tip heads, but i think the foam fits better and is more comfortable), and extra filters, as you have to change the filter when you change the foam head. the heads last about two or three months, and cost a couple of bucks. it may seem like a lot of trouble, changing filters and heads etc, but it is worth it!

i love my etymotic!!! they sound fantastic, they are completely sound isolating, they fit so comfortably, and  they never hurt or fall out of my ears. i’ve been using them for over a year without a single complaint, and if they ever die i will go right out and buy another pair. and they sell them at the apple store now!!

xoxo
sheba

* * * * *

Etymotic means “true to the ear” in ancient Greek, and it is pronounced: ett-im-OH-tik. The company is 23 years old, which is ancient by the duration standards of contemporary high fidelity sound reproduction in-ear technology.

I’ve been using Etymotic Research in-ear premium High Accuracy Noise Isolating headphones ever since we posted a review of competing products from Ultimate Ears and XtremeMac. Take a few minutes to read http://mymac.com/showarticle.php?id=2493 and you’ll be well-informed on this category of earphones.

I did “blind” tests on unsuspecting friends, of the three different models currently offered by Etymotic. Here’s what they said:

JUJU went back and forth listening to the two lower-priced phones, because those were all I gave her at first. To her ears, the 6i was warmer and richer than the ER-6, in spite of 6i’s reduced high end presentation. Then I handed her a set of ER-4P, and asked her to compare them to her preferred 6i. JuJu’s response was “Holy Moses, Nemo! Are these new ones supposed to sound a LOT better or something? There is simply nooooooo comparison. I don’t care how much more this third headphone costs, because after trying them, both of the others are totally out to lunch.”

DAVID WEEKS spent an hour doing a comparative evaluation, again without knowing which was which. For David, ER-6 (in black) was “easy to insert, quite comfortable, with the best fit and seal, with a warm, rich sound.” He added, “Being an airline pilot, I wear earplugs all the time. I don’t know if I could sleep in these phones, Nemo, but I could wear them for a long time. Bass is not as great at a comfortable listening level as I would like to hear.” The white 6i’s “seal is not the same, and not as isolating, a bit less comfy, with a brighter, lighter, thinner sound. More brassy and less bass, nowhere near the full spectrum richness of the first set. These are nothing special, John.” And, surprisingly, ER-4P “is nice to have red for right and blue for left ears clearly identified. These feel higher tech, more sturdy, with thicker wires that are less prone to becoming tangled. These are good, but they are my second choice. How much does each of them cost?”

David added, in general comments: “The fit is REALLY important, John. Isolation of sound makes a huge difference, especially to obtain great audio at low volume. For full isolation there needs to be complete insertion of the eartips, which is why I picked the ones I did as favorites. Proper positioning is essential, and is not always obvious at first. Multi-layer flanges grip better than do foam tips, for me, in spite of what Sheba says.

“I wish the company made it easier to tell left from right on the two models with thin cable strands. And why don’t they include a cable wrapper for those prices? How are you supposed to keep your delicate cables neat and tidy? Those two phones with thinner cables are too easy to tangle.”

SHEBA had a chance to compare her personal set of ER-6 phones to the more expensive ER-4P, and she’s not convinced that the latter is worth more than twice the cost of the former. Using foam inserts, which she prefers, there isn’t enough difference to justify such a large expense. She acknowledges ER-4P is superior, but not for the type of music she listens to most frequently.

* * * * *

Thanks to Sheba, JuJu, and David. Now it’s time for Nemo’s evaluation:

I was skeptical that Etymotic Research’s claims of unsurpassed excellence were more than ear candy, especially after using Ultimate Ears’ Super.fi 5 Pro with complete satisfaction for several months. With my review of XtremeMac and Ultimate Ears phones still fresh in my mind, the listening test results were:

• 6i (white/triple flange) has strong midrange, but is not comfortable, no matter how I position them in my ears. More eartip choices must be included in the retail package for this listener not to have the same negative reaction with 6i as Sheba did with all her rejected units. Why does the company use a completely different tip and flange design than on ER-6?

• ER-6 (black/double flange) are equivalent in quality to XtremeMac FS1 phones (costing roughly the same). But Etymotic’s ER-6 emphasize mostly midrange and treble tones, with very bright audio response, while XtremeMac’s FS1 is biased toward midrange and bass, with a somewhat duller response. Overall I prefer bright to dull, so after repeated comparisons, these ER-6 Etymotic Research earphones are better than XtremeMac’s but not as good as Ultimate Ears’ Ultimate Ears’ Super.fi 5 Pro (which cost a hundred dollars more). Cable strands are exceptionally thin (and vulnerable), and my overall impression is of more balanced audio, with separation and clarity that outclasses both Etymotic’s 6i and XtremeMac’s FS1. Comfort is good for Ultimate Ears, XtremeMac, and ER-6 eartips , but hold that thought for a while.

• ER-4P MicroPro are immediately outstanding for audio presentation, and include enough different eartips to satisfy just about everyone. The sound quality improvement relative to both lower-priced models from Etymotic Research and XtremeMac’s FS1 was so dramatic I set them aside and braced myself for head-to-head comparisons between ER-4P and Ultimate Ears Ultimate Ears’ Super.fi 5 Pro. Listening to all types of music, day after day, ER-4P is indeed the finest in-ear headphone we have heard at MyMac.com. They will be difficult to beat by any subsequent competitor.

* * * * *

I updated the criteria for evaluating in-ear headphones, due to my expanded sample test group and overall experience with listening and comparing. The total possible top score is 20, now based on:

COMFORT and FIT (6 points)

AUDIO QUALITY and SOUND ISOLATION (6 points)

ACCESSORIES, CASE, and MANUAL (4 points)

CONSTRUCTION and DESIGN (4 points)

After weeks of intense listening and thinking, the results for Etymotic Research’s in-ear headphones are:

6i (white/triple flange)

Comfort/fit = 2, Audio/isolation = 2, Accessories/case/manual = 2, Construction/design = 2, TOTAL = 8 for 2 out of 5 (not recommended) by MyMac.com.

ER-6 (black/double flange)

Comfort/fit = 5, Audio/isolation = 3, Accessories/case/manual = 2, Construction/design = 2, TOTAL = 12 for 3 out of 5 (worth considering if on a budget) by MyMac.com.

ER-4P MicroPro

Comfort/fit*** = 4, Audio/isolation = 6, Accessories/case/manual = 4, Construction/design = 4, TOTAL = 18 for 4.5 out of 5 (high recommendation) by MyMac.com.

***The company offers additional sizes of non-included affordable eartips for listeners who need them, for all three models, available online from http://www.etymotic.com and other audio web sites. I keep thinking about Etymotic’s two different physical designs for speaker shafts+eartips. ER-6 uses a short, stubby shaft and very comfy two-flange clear flexible tips, while 6i and ER-4P both have long, narrow shafts and are packaged with less-comfortable three-flange white tips. Is there any way to modify ER-6’s clear, soft tips so listeners can have the same in-ear experience using the other two models? This is a major point for MyMac.com’s reviewer.***

* * * * *

I asked Gail Gudmundsen of Etymotic Research to help MyMac.com’s readers understand the company’s position on potential hearing loss when in-ear headphones are used at high volume levels. She writes:

The main reason people turn up the volume with non-occluding earphones and ill-fitting earbuds that do not seal the ears is to overcome the ambient noise. With the 35+dB of isolation provided by Etymotic earphones, there is no need to play music at unsafe levels.

Etymotic Research is sponsoring a study http://www.etymotic.com/aer/press/pr2006-researchproj.pdf to produce data, rather than perpetuate the scare tactics seen in recent media publications. The bad news is that much of what you have seen is conjecture or just misinformation. The good news is that awareness about potential hearing loss is heightened. Etymotic Research will make a statement when the study is completed. Over half the subjects have been tested and the data are indicating what we expected: Chosen personal listening levels are lower with (sealing) insert earphones.

* * * * *

Some additional thoughts and questions:

1. Etymotic’s brand numbering convention is confusing. Their flagship top-of-the-line ER-4P is the successor of previous sequentially-named/numbered originals in the company’s legacy. ER-6 is neither as good nor as expensive as ER-4, so is the blood line is becoming diluted as the numbers ascend? And why is “6i” given the same generational number as its black ER-6 cousin — definitely not a sibling — that is different in every possible way, to my ears? Why not call it ER-PMP, for portable music player, or something other than simply “6”? Gail, from Etymotic Research, provides the answer. She writes:

ER-1 and ER-2 were developed in 1984 and they are still used in auditory research.
http://www.etymotic.com/pro/er1.aspx
http://www.etymotic.com/pro/er2.aspx

ER-3A earphones are the most widely used insert earphones for audiometric testing. http://www.etymotic.com/pro/er3a.aspx
There is a version of these earphones used in electrophysiologic testing called Auditory Brainstem Response.

ER-4S and ER-4B were developed in 1991 and the ER-4P in 1994.

ER-5A is a newer version of the ER3A for clinical audiometry.

ER-6 Isolator (2002) emulates the ER-4 but at a lower cost, with higher frequency response accuracy and excellent sound isolation.

ER-6i Isolator (2004) has greater output and enhanced bass compared to the 6. The reason for the “i” is because these earphones were specifically designed for the electronics of the iPod.

The numbering scheme is only because they were the next numbers in sequence. The 6 and 6i have a similar form factor but different specs, so they are in the same family. Same is true of the 4-series. Same body–different specs.

2. Your personal comfort and listening response will be different from mine, Sheba’s, David’s, and JuJu’s, just as theirs differed from one another. Not one of us preferred the 6i, and I forgot to mention that Weeks and Nemo used a variety of iTunes equalizer settings to improve each earphone for each listener. P-l-e-a-s-e purchase or audition your Etymotic phones from a place that allows you to return them if they flunk, such as Amazon.com, and/or allows you to try before you buy, both for audio AND COMFORT.

Gail from Etymotic Research adds, on the topics of comfort, health, and quality control:

Some people don’t use foam tips at all and the medium foam fits most foam users. It is rare that we send out the very large or very small foam. Because of the construction of the barrel and nozzle (as it were) on the ER-4, the 2-flange small and 2-flange large eartips that we supply with the 6i earphones are not needed. We have a 15-year history with this product and have not seen the need to modify the accessory offering.

Sometimes wax (cerumen) comes out of the ear when the flanged or foam eartips are removed. Obviously the best advice is to make sure the ears are clean.

ER-4 earphones are made at Etymotic Research. They are channel-balanced to within one dB, which means that the transducers are matched for an almost perfect response. Great care is taken to ensure these earphones meet tight specifications.

3. Why does 6i cost more than ER-6? I’m not going to pursue this matter to oblivion, but a $99 price tag on 6i would yield twice the sales, I predict. I’m not a merchandizing whiz kid, but the iPod Generation (Gen-i?) will flock to phones that are white and “specifically designed for the electronics of the iPod,” with enhanced bass response, if they are priced right for that crowd.

4. If the average retail price of all iPods sold today is close to $300, from my personal survey, is $300 a reasonable expense for earphones that are manufactured to higher than the standard of the world’s most popular audio device? Yes, indeed! I know not all of you can afford Etymotic Research’s ER-4P MicroPro in-ear headphones, but if you can save your pennies and want or need to have a superior listening experience, you’ll certainly agree that these highly rated 4.5 out of 5 phones are worth their cost.

Whichever Etymotic or competing product you buy, please keep them safely away from small children, pets, and jealous siblings.

 

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