Review: Etymotic Research ER-4S/ER-4P Earphones
Pros: Supreme sound reproduction for the dollar, complete with numerous ear foams, triple-flange rubber earpieces, two carrying cases, extra filters, and adapters. Outstanding support/customer relations from the company.
Cons: Expensive - but worth the price.
[Editor’s Note: Our original review of Etymotic’s ER-4 series earphones by Edward McShane was published on April 9, 2002, and focused on the then-current ER-4S - an outstanding pair of in-canal listening devices that received our flat A, highly recommended rating. Since then, mini-reviews published in our 2004-2006 Buyers’ Guides and Books have only added praise to the ER-4 family, which had by then expanded to include a newer, more iPod-appropriate model, the ER-4P. Today, more than four years after our first review, we’ve briefly updated this piece to discuss a number of revisions to that model, as well as to note its impressive longevity - see ER-4P Update at the bottom of this piece.]
ER-4S Review - April 9, 2002, by Edward McShane
On my very first experience with the iPod I was forcefully reminded of that tried and true axiom of high fidelity music appreciation: “it all comes down to the speakers, man.”
I say “forcefully” because I literally had to painfully force the buds into my ears in order to get the best sound from them. The difference between the optimum earbud placement and any other position was obvious and great, particularly in their bass response.
I also noticed that in order to achieve a quality listening experience with my ‘pod in a noisy environment, I had to seal off my ear canals from the outside world with the buds. For my ears, and for most ears I think, this involved a lot of painful experimenting to find that correct position. But the damn things would pop out or misadjust with just the barest tug on the wires.
Then I got lucky: my dog ate my ‘buds. True. I had to find replacements. Quickly.
The Long and Winding Road
What I ended up with were a pair of $30.00 Sonys. They didn’t go in the ears but, instead, rested at the ear by way of a sort of spring-loaded clip that goes between your ear and skull. These headphones sounded good to me, then, particularly if you pushed them against your ears, but they were inadequate in any but a quiet environment. I considered them as temporary replacements for Apple’s buds while I searched for something better—headphones or earbuds that matched the quality, control, and performance of the iPod itself.
In my search I was determined to put sound quality above all other considerations, even if I had to lug around a pair of bulky, living-room type of headsets. I wouldn’t like it because, after all, it seems absurd to have your ‘pod in your shirt pocket and your headphones in a suitcase. The trouble is is that this is exactly the scenario I had come to accept as I interviewed set after set of plug-in type ear buds. None of them could match the Sonys.
Then, praise be the music gods, while perusing iLounge’s forums, I stumbled upon a reference to Etymotic Research’s Earphones. The rest of the story took me to audio nirvana. Here were earphones that truly matched the quality of the iPod itself. In fact, if I may quote an article in Stereo Review, “(the ER-4S earphones are the) Closest thing yet to a direct sonic connection to your brain.”
This is high praise indeed, but my own experience fully verifies it. I have never heard better sound anywhere. To be sure, the earphone or headphone experience differs from listening to living room speakers or a live performance. (I’m talking about the very best hi fi system or the very best live performance conditions.) You don’t hear room ambiance with earphones, and you don’t physically feel the bass notes with earphones. But, what you DO get with Etymotic’s ER-4S is astounding clarity, frequency response and faithful reproduction, and an almost overwhelming sense of being purely “inside” the music.
On my iPod, through the ER-4S, I have listened to tracks that go back ten, twenty, thirty or more years. I have listened to these same songs on the radio, on record players, on cassette tapes, and on cd players. To put it mildly, I am familiar with these songs. I know every guitar note, every trumpet solo, every drum roll. I know all the accompanying instruments. Or, at least I thought I did. Now, I am hearing things I never noticed before. I am hearing overdubs that were indistinct before. This experience is something akin to hearing an expertly re-mastered old favorite album: everything sounds richer, more distinct, and just plain better.
How does Etymotic Research achieve this? Well, they are a hearing aid company. They know ears. Also, they put their earphones in the ears. This makes your ear canal part of the device and it seals you effectively off, by 25db or so, from outside noise. You can listen to your music practically anywhere without having to turn up the volume so much that it would damage or desensitize your hearing.
The ER-4S earphones are compact; they easily tote along with your iPod. They come with extra soft plastic and foam inserts. There is a clip that keeps them from pulling out. There are also extra filters and a tool for inserting them into the ‘phones. And there is an adapter so they fit both types of headphone jacks.
I should also note that the company is a delight to deal with. My phone and email inquiries have gotten prompt and helpful responses. My overall impression is that this company wants me to be totally satisfied with my purchase.
There are three ER models: the B, which are Binaural; the S, Stereo; and the P, which is the high gain model. I have personally tested both the S and P models. Other than the higher gain P model, which one might prefer to use with portable devices, I have found it difficult to discern differences in sound quality, though I would tentatively say the S model seems a bit smoother in response.
Too Good to be True?
Is there a catch? Is all this too good to be true? Well, these things do cost $330.00. (I should note here that Etymotic does produce an “inexpensive” earphone at $160.00. I have not heard this model.) As you might imagine, I had to take a deep breath when I saw the price before ordering them directly from Etymotic Research. But Etymotic has a thirty-day return policy. I figured if these earphones don’t absolutely, positively, without a doubt, ain’t no jive no how, blow my mind, I WOULD return them.
Instead, I ended up buying a pair for my wife, and our dog didn’t even have to eat her iPod’s earbuds.
ER-4P Update: August 25, 2006, by Jeremy Horwitz
In what turned out to be a great irony of this review, iLounge has subsequently gone through three pairs of Etymotic ER-4 headphones, not because any pair failed, but because our first two pairs were eaten by a naughty dog - not Edward’s - and we had to replace them. “Had to” are the operative words here - the ER-4 series has stood the test of time, continuing to compare favorably in virtually all respects to the best in-canal earphones subsequently developed by Etymotic’s many competitors. Even with dozens of other options left unchewed, the ER-4s were worth replacing.
As we’ve noted in multiple iLounge Buyers’ Guides and Free iPod Books, the company’s ER-4P is best-suited to iPod use, and arguably the single best value in premium in-canal earphones we’ve seen. Now retailing for $299 but available for as low as $180 if you shop around, the ER-4P won our Headphone of the Year award two years ago when it was still selling at a higher price, and has only become a more mandatory purchase as the price as fallen. We continue to strongly agree with the comments made in our original review; the ER-4 series reveals details and presents music on a level not conceivable in lower priced - and even many higher-priced - in-ear offerings, helping you to re-experience tracks you thought you knew, but in a whole new, and better way.
Over the past two years, Etymotic has quietly continued to improve the ER-4P’s design, tackling four of the most common complaints users developed as competing offerings tried to polish Etymotic’s formula. The company switched its cables to a twisted wire design that eliminates the microphonic effect - amplification of cord movement noise - heard in earlier ER-4 series phones when you walked around or shifted positions. It improved the portable zippered carrying case, going to a sleeker, softer design that holds the coiled earphones and replacement flanges. And most recently, it changed the color of its earpieces and cord splitter from the familiar bright red, blue, and green colors to jet black, as well as modestly decreasing the size of its minijack plug.
These changes have largely been for the better - all that’s been lost is your ability to quickly visually identify the Red earbud as the one that goes into your Right ear; now L and R letters aid in that process. And yet the core of the ER-4Ps - their superb sound and convenient size - remains intact, and more fashionable than ever.
We’ll be the first to admit that there are in-canal phones out there now with more bass, a bias that some users prefer, but it’s exceptionally rare to find an in-ear listening device that reveals as much or more detail than the ER-4Ps, while remaining neutral and “transparent.” In our opinion, it’s basically impossible to do today for the price. The only in-canal phones we’d pick as decisively better are Shure’s E500-series, which provide equivalent detail but augmented and highly appealing added bass, but currently retail for $250 more, and can’t yet be had for under $500. Since the ER-4Ps sell for $320 less - yes, the price of a full-sized iPod - if you shop around, you should strongly consider them as an alternative. Years after their introduction, they remain the reference standard for sub-$300 earphones, and entirely worthy of our highest recommendation.