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Etymotic Research ER-4P Micro-Pro Earbud Headphones (phew...) --------------------------------------------------- Some people are never satisfied! After dispensing with the Sony MDR-EX70SL earbuds I had plugged into my iPod (they broke... twice) and being dissatisfied with the sound quality of the £30 replacement headphones, I was left in a bit of a rut. You see, I'm a bit fussy when it comes to the quality of the sound I let tickle my eardrums, and I really didn't know where to go next to satisfy my need. I suppose you could call me an audiophile, but I hate that word. I started to wonder just how good earbuds could get, and with the internet at my disposal I had all the tools I needed to find out. It turns out that the field of quality earbud-style headphones is dominated by two American companies, Etmotic Research and Shure. They both have emerged from different sectors, with Etymotic being a manufacturer of high-quality hearing aids, and with Shure having a more musical history. What they both have in common is a desire to deliver reference-quality sound to those who have the money to spare. The company ----------- I ended up leaning towards the market leaders, Etymotic Research. They produce a range of earbuds - the 'budget' ER-6's come in at a hefty £119, while the more expensive but more popular ER-4's generally come in at over £240 (although I managed to get hold of a pair for £160 by importing from the US). The ER-4 range is split up further into three different types. The ER-4S (S for Stereo) earbuds are the best quality, having superb accuracy for such a small driver. They are suited to studio or home use, where a decent amp
lifier is available to drive them. Portable devices with low-power amps will struggle, and as a result Etymotic introduced a new range, the ER-4P (P for Portable). These 'buds have exactly the same drivers as the ER-4S's, but with a lower impedance to make them easier to drive by devices such as the iPod. They also have enhanced bass response and a rolled-off higher-end to compensate for the harsh signal that usually comes from portables. A third type, the ER-4B (B for Binaural) is suited to binaural recordings that haven't been equalised for loudspeakers. If you don't know what this means, then you don't need them. The design ---------- The ER-4 range all have the same novel design. They consist of a long, thin driver section (about three-quarters of an inch long) that goes deep into your ear. This section is normally housed by a white silicon triple-flange, which forms a very good seal in your ear canal. The earbuds therefore poke about half an inch into your ear canal, which is perfectly safe and enables isolation from the outside world to the order of 20-25dB, which is much more than active noise-cancelling systems can achieve. This is enough to totally block out most of the noise on a busy street, and as a result it is not safe to cycle or drive with these headphones in, and even when walking around you'll have to be very alert. On the flipside, this isolation makes plane/bus/train journeys a pleasure, and makes the music sound absolutely fantastic. This is something I'll come back to later. Insertion is a tricky procedure, but it's vital you get it right for the sake of sound quality. I follow the supplied instructions and have no problem getting a good seal. Some people complain about lack of bass, only to come back a few days later saying that they w
eren't putting them in right. It entails reaching over your head with one arm, pulling your ear up and backwards, and then pushing the earbud into your ear canal until the third flange is just in. The first thing that will strike you is just how quiet everything is, with the exception of eating and drinking which can be very noisy indeed! Once inserted, the headphones are very low-key and do not look like a £240 piece of kit. This will be a relief to people who are worried about their safety when wearing obvious "Come and mug me" headphones, such as the white iPod 'buds. The feel takes a while to get used to. In fact, for the first few days I found them uncomfortable, even bordering on painful. Now I'm used to them they're a lot better, although I still know they're there. The comfort of these headphones is a matter of personal opinion. One way of seeing if they'll be suitable is to buy some earplugs that go inside your ear (cheap from chemists or high-street stores) and try wearing them for a while. Foam inserts are supplied which replace the white flanges, and some people find these more comfortable. Tiny green filters covered with acoustic mesh protect the diaphragms from your earwax. These are replaceable, although you won't have to do that more than a couple of times per year. The white flanges are washable, unlike the foam inserts which have to be replaced every now and then. The cord is very good quality twisted cable, covered with a black plastic. The sound --------- I have to say I was disappointed the first time I pressed 'play'. The midrange was beautifully detailed, but the bass was non-existent and the higher frequencies were harsh. The panic began to creep in, as I had bought these from the States and there was no option of returning them now. They
were still better than my old headphones, but definitely not six times better, as the price might have suggested. I needn't have worried. I put my first few days of worry don't to something called "burn-in". The burn-in period is the amount of time it takes for the diaphragm of the headphones (or speakers) to reach the intended state. Some say it takes hours of music to occur. Some say it takes days, and some even say that it never reaches completion. Others say that they're all talking rubbish, and burn-in is a myth. Well, I believe that my headphones took about 25 hours to burn-in and each time I listen to them the bass gets weightier and the treble gets more refined. The sound now is worth every single penny and more. If these headphones don't uncover some detail in your CD then the detail doesn't exist. Put simply, you can hear every nuance of every guitar string, the breath of the musician, the ambience of the recording studio. The bass is fantastic. It's not very strong, but a drum sounds like a drum, and that's what I expect. The midrange and treble boast unworldly detail, normally only found in speakers that cost more than your car. And nothing is drowned out by external noise, thanks to the effectiveness of the noise attenuation. You could say that I'm happy with my purchase! Problems experiences by users generally come down to lack of bass. This is normally down to the lack of a good seal, but I've also found that a bit of pressure can build up when you insert these headphones. This has the effect of deadening the eardrum. Yawning can balance this pressure, a bit like when your ears 'pop' when coming down a mountain. The package ----------- The headphones come in a box about the size of a hardback novel, with a dense foam insert.
4;he components are arranged a bit like the separate part of an assassin's rifle in a suitcase (yes, I have an active imagination!). Included in the package are the headphones, three sets of white flanges, ten foam eartips, four replacement green filters and a filter changing tool, a small zippered pouch, a shirt clip (the cable can be quite microphonic) and a gold plated jack converter to convert the small jack into a traditional larger jack. Everything was very nicely packaged, and there was no chance that these could have been damaged in transit. Accessories available but not included are different size foam eartips, a cable which converts the ER-4P's into the ER-4S's if you want the best of both worlds and an airline jack for the headphone sockets on some planes. Value for money --------------- I believe these headphones are very good value for money, despite the price. You get reference-quality sound in a discrete portable package, something that is akin to taking a £3000 pair of speakers onto a train with you. Etymotic have developed somewhat of a cult following, and with good reason. Look around on the internet and try to find a negative review. Just try. Then maybe start to wonder what we're all shouting about, and maybe one day you'll understand when you put a pair of these beauties into you ears.
Imagine even quiet passages being crystal clear through your earphones in a noisy train carriage, WITHOUT having to up the volume to absolute max. Imagine enjoying solid booming bass without getting looks that kill from your fellow passengers. I wouldn't have thought it possible until I got a pair of Etymotic's ER-4 earphones after I saw a rave review in (I think) Wired and tracked down the UK distributor. But you don't have to be an audiophile to appreciate these 'phones, which according to Etymotic have won a hi-fi award - personally, I'm more interested in just being able to hear music properly (or, sometimes, at all) than in the fidelity of reproduction. You do have to have something in the dosh department though, see below. WHO THEY? Etymotic Research is a specialist US hearing research and product development company. According to their website www.etymotic.com, "The name "etymotic" means "true to the ear" and is pronounced "et-im-OH-tek." The company says it provides integrated circuits used in 10% of all hearing aids, plus other innovative products to help protect or enhance hearing. (And no, I'm NOT hard of hearing, in fact I've been tested at slightly better than average...). WHAT IS IT? You get, in a little black foam-padded hard case, the 'phones (cabling and operative bits) plus a choice of 2 types of eartips, and a small gizmo for changing the even smaller filter with some spare filters. There are foam eartips that you squeeze and insert, like you get in hotels or chemists, and (my preference) white flanged jobbies that look a bit like a beehive or maybe 3 rounded nested pyramids and are made I'd guess from silicone or something similar. (There are also a 1/4" stereo phone adapter plug, shirt clip and carrying pouch, which I don't use) The cable goes from the usual stereo minijack plug to a thin grey cylin
der (which presumably contains the magic works) and then splits into cables for the right and left ears. The eartips seem to me to play a major part in the effectiveness of the 'phones to block out ambient noise as they actually go inside the ear canal. You need to wiggle them a bit as you push them in, to ensure a tight seal. Big Red Warning: when removing them, you have to be VERY careful - I tilt them as I pull - to avoid eardrums going pop or worse, the fit is that good! The direct link to the ER4 page is http://www.etymotic.com/html/main.cgi?sub=9 where they have specs as well as a FAQ. IS IT ANY GOOD? The first time I tried these 'phones I was sitting waiting for a train. I only realised the train had pulled in when the person next to me stood up! Granted, I'd been concentrating hard on what I was listening to - you CAN hear the rumble in the background if you listen out for it. But I have missed hearing train announcements when using these 'phones! The main point is, if you get the seal properly tight, background sounds like trains, people talking etc do become just that - vague background - and you don't have to risk damaging your ears turning up the volume too high just to be able to hear your music. Plus, some quiet bits that I previously couldn't hear over background noise at all with normal 'phones are audible with the ER4's though I do have to increase the volume there. Being able to listen at lower volumes generally helps prolong battery life too, of course. CAVEATS: Cost: The biggest downside is the price. They cost US $330 if you order from Etymotic direct and I don't know how much the carriage costs to the UK are or whether you would get charged customs and VAT on top (I know you don't with books but maybe with earphones?). The UK distributor Elcea 01582 767 007 won't take credit card payments, you have to send them a cheque first,
but postage is included, and it costs £210 plus VAT from them. I guess Etymotic's a small company, and maybe if more people buy their stuff the cost may come down, but for the moment it's a lot of money. Personally I have found it worth it for the bliss of being able to hear properly over train and people noise. Use when Stationary is Best: I think they're best for when I'm sitting or standing still, eg on public transport, or just around at home. If walking or jogging (as if - exercise, moi?) they probably aren't the most suitable because, for me anyway, the eartips can move a bit within the ear so if you're in constant motion you get a kind of whispery rustling which doesn't exactly do much for the atmosphere of the music. This is less noticeable with louder music and I haven't tried the foam eartips yet to see if they're any better for this but I thought I should mention the point. Eartips Need Changing: Also, the Etymotic website says to clean or change the eartips "before they get gross". The white ones are washable (obviously take them off the works first and dry them properly before replacing!), the foam ones aren't, but you can buy replacements for a few quid. The tiny filter should be changed as they may get clogged with (sorry, can't get away from that word) earwax, but they provide a thingy for that with a few spare filters, and again you can get replacement filters. I admit I haven't changed mine so far, maybe they don't need it yet or the quality of sound has to get really bad to overcome my natural sloth and the "Oo it looks a bit fiddly" factor! A NOTE: I bought the ER-4S model. The website now says you can get (or upgrade to) the 4P for the same price, which is specially designed for use with lower powered portable gear. Unfortunately Elcea doesn't sell the 4P and won't do the upgrade, as they're moving more to stocking
their own products these days. If you want the 4P's you'll have to buy from Etymotic direct or find another UK seller. SUMMARY: The ER-4s are absolutely superb if you value your hearing or simply want to beat background noise - but you will have to dig deep. Not for those squeamish about putting anything inside their ears (the 'phones go only about half an inch inside the ear canal, but I know some just aren't comfortable with that sort of thing). Forget it too if you're one of those people who get their kicks out of annoying others with tinny chikachikachik sounds from their cans, 'cos you won't find these ones any fun at all!