If you’re serious about getting the best in-ear headphones, start with this one.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Etymotic pioneered in-ear headphones in the mid-1980s, decades before other headphone companies followed its lead. Its ER4 model debuted in 1991, and it remained the company's flagship model, with only slight changes, until recently. The all-new ER4 SR (Studio Reference) and ER4 XR (Extended Response) build on the original's strengths, but they still sound very much like the earlier ER4s, and that's a good thing.
It's a complete redesign, the ER4 SR and 'XR's single balanced armature drivers are all-new, CNC machined metal earpieces have replaced the old molded black plastic ones, and the headphones now sport user-replaceable cables fitted with MMCX connectors. Impedance is rated at 45 ohms. The ER4 XR and SR are made in the USA, and they come with two year warranties.
Before I get to the sound. I have to tell you the ER4 SR and XR ($349, £360, AU$599) are the absolute champs at blocking external noise. They're not noise-canceling headphones that use electronics (and therefore batteries) to hush noise. No, the ER4s' silicone or foam ear tips quiet the external racket by creating a better, deeper-in-the-ear seal than other universal fit in-ear designs. I find the noise hushing on par or better than earphones that are custom molded to my ear, Etymotic claims up to 42dB of noise isolation!
Some users may find deep insertion uncomfortable, I do not. The other big advantage of deep insertion is that the fit is remarkably secure. During all my years of wearing ER4 headphones they never once accidentally fell out! So the ER4 is a great headphone to travel with -- from the noisy New York subway to when I fly, the ER4 does a great job hushing the din. Oh, and the ER4 SR and XR also sound better than any noise-canceling in-ear headphones I've heard to date.
Comparing the ER4 SR and ER4 XR, the sound differences between the two with Badbadnotgood's "Sour Soul" album of moody/jazzy instrumentals was obvious: the ER4 XR gooses up the bass a wee bit. The ER4 SR is more neutrally balanced, and if you plan on listening mostly at home, its advantage of a straight-down-the-middle frequency response will come into play. That is, the ER4 SR is the more accurate of the two headphones. Outside, when traveling or on the street, the ER4 XR's richer balance sounds better to me than the SR's. Both models score big with resolution; they're extremely clear.
I picked the Logitech UE 900 in-ears for another round of comparisons. This model has also been around for a while for good reason, it's a great headphone. It has four balanced armature drivers per earpiece while the ER4 XR has just one, so I was expecting the UE 900 would clobber the ER4 XR's bass oomph and fullness. It did, but not by all that much, and it couldn't touch ER4 XR's clarity -- the UE 900's overall sound was softer and blurrier. The UE 900's sound was also less open, more stuck inside my head than it was with the ER4 XR. Stereo imaging was also more precisely focused than the UE 900s.
The Etymotic ER4 SR and XR in-ear headphones will appeal to audiophiles, or anyone with a hankering for clarity that's just not available from other similarly priced in-ear headphones. Etymotics are also built to last. I know folks still using ER4s they bought 10-plus years ago!
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