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Headphones

These affordable audiophile in-ear headphones banish noise

The Etymotic ER2 in-ear 'phones sound great and keep noise at bay.

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The Etymotic ER2 in-ear headphones 

Etymotic

Etymotic made a big splash in 1991 with its ER4 in-ear headphones, which brought professional audio monitoring into the mainstream. 

The Etymotic ER4 headphone was my go-to in-ear for years, and in 2017 the line was refreshed with the ER4SR (Studio Reference) and ER4XR (Extended Response) at $349/£360 each. 

This model was quickly followed by the ER3SE/XR ($179/£199), and it was the Audiophiliac affordable Headphone of the Year for 2018.

Now in 2019 we have the ER2 in-ear, which also comes in two versions, the ER2SE (Studio Edition) and the ER2XR (Extended Response). The two models look the same, it's just that the XR version has slightly more bass. Each one retails for $159 in the US and £169 in the UK.

Both ER2SE/XR models use dynamic, not balanced, armature drivers featured in the ER3 and ER4 models. The ER2's impedance is rated at 15 ohms, the 4 foot (1.2 meter) long cable is user replaceable. The ER2's warranty is two years.

Use the included foam or flanged silicone ear tips with the ER2 and you'll bask in the quietude of 35 dB of noise isolation, that's so much better than average. There's one catch, to achieve the maximum noise hushing you'll have to jam the tips deeper into your ear canals than most in-ear headphones' tips. Some folks aren't comfortable with the feeling, but I don't mind. True, comfort isn't stellar, but the ER2's superior noise isolation on the New York City subway was excellent while listening with my iPhone 8. The ER2 doesn't use batteries; its deep insertion tips hush noise with their airtight seal.

Listening tests

I listened to the ER2XR for a few weeks before I compared it with the other ER models. Bon Iver's soaring vocals were set free by these headphones. The open quality and warmth of the sound balance tickled my audiophile ears; I was a happy camper.

I wondered how this new Etymotic would compare with the ER3 and ER4. They all look nearly alike, but what about the sound? I listened to all three ERs with my iPhone 8 (with an Apple 3.5mm to Lightning adapter).

The sound was fine, but I couldn't resist upping the ante with the FiiO i1 Lightning to 3.5mm adapter/digital audio converter ($40 on Amazon) and noted a distinct improvement in the sound of all three Etymotic headphones. The Apple adapter sounded muffled by comparison.

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The Astell & Kern Super Junior music player

Astell & Kern

I also listened to music with an old Astell & Kern JR portable music player, which provided much improved sound over the iPhone 8/FiiO i1 combination. The current Astell & Kern Super Junior sells for $220 on Amazon.

The ER2XR and ER3XR sound nearly the same, the ER3XR was a bit clearer, but the ER4XR was a decisively more transparent and more open sounding headphone with the Gang of Four's brilliant Solid Gold album. The spiky guitar riffs cut through the haze like a knife over the '4XR, but they were blunted by the ER2XR and ER3XR headphones.

The ER3 sounds a little better, and the ER4 is still my favorite, but the Etymotic ER2 has its easy listening charms, and it hushes external noise like a champ.