Review: Etymotic Research ER-6i Isolator Earphones
Pros: iPod matching transparent and white plastic earphones with great sound balance and crisp detail for the lower mid-range price.
Last week, we selected Sony’s MDR-EX81 white in-canal earphones (iLounge rating: A) as our top low-end ($60 or less) pick to replace Apple’s packed-in iPod ear buds. Today, we’ve selected Etymotic Research’s ER-6i Isolators as our current top pick in the $150 or less category, following in the footsteps of the company’s ER-4 series headphones ($330), winner of our iPod Audio Accessory of the Year award.
If part of the appeal of any product is its beauty, the ER-6i earphones are an iPod lover’s dream. With white and clear housings for their drivers, white cords and white rubber triple flanges that fit into your ears, they’re as interesting to look at as they are to wear and hear. Five feet of cord guarantee that you can show off your iPod from a distance, and a simple thin white and gold-tipped headphone plug guarantees compatibility with any iPod case you might purchase. A white plastic clip right below the Y-joint of the headphones lets you attach the ER-6is easily to clothing, too.
The single-driver earpieces combine the triple flanges of Etymotic’s expensive ER-4 series with far more attractive, partially see-through housings marked L and R. We find the silicone rubber flanges to be more comfortable than average – not the equal of Sony’s MDR-EX70 series or EX81s, but better than most other alternatives we’ve tried, including expensive custom-fit earphones for that matter. As advertised, the three ribs of rubber plug your ear canals, isolating music inside while blocking off outside noise. Etymotic’s triple flanges do a better job than most if not all of the active noise cancellation systems we’ve tried, and don’t require gigantic ear cups to achieve the effect. (Two foam rubber earpieces are also included for those who prefer to get a more personalized fit; we liked the flanges better.) And best yet, the ER-6is are very lightweight, including their thin and unobtrusive cords.
Etymotic also includes a filter changing tool, replacement wax filters, and a carrying pouch with each set of ER-6is. The carrying pouch is Etymotic’s best yet, and a leading contender for coolest pack-in we’ve seen. Made from strong ribbed plastic on the outside, lined with soft fabric on the inside, and sealed with circles of Velcro, the pouch looks great, holds the earphones well, and manages to do both without typical pouch zippers or ballistic nylon. Though marginally less secure because it doesn’t zip closed, we prefer it to the cases included with the ER-4 headphones, Sony’s MDR-EX81s, and numerous other cases we’ve tried.
Sound quality is exactly what it should be at this point in time for Etymotic’s $149.00 asking price: noticeably clearer than and decidedly preferable to the Sony EX81s we liked at a lower price point, but not quite as clean and mind-altering as the more expensive ER-4 series. The ER-6is are enough of a step above “standard�? earphones to justify their higher price tag, providing wonderfully balanced treble and bass response, plus a level of clarity that lower-end earphones rarely deliver. Critically, you do not have to turn the volume up to hear details in your music that you’ve never heard before; the ER-6is just deliver them to you, regardless of volume level.
In keeping with the preferences of typical users, Etymotic added a little extra bass to the ER-6is, deviating from their standard practice of neutrally representing sound, and at this price point we think the decision was wise. There’s enough bass to give a little thump, but not an overpowering, flat or distorted booming. Treble is similarly pleasant, not exaggerated: the ER-6is never sound tinny or shrill. For such tiny drivers, they create a believable sound stage with more than adequate richness and depth, but crisp, well-defined treble is their hallmark. Instruments generally stand apart from each other rather than blurring together.
To put these comments in the broader perspective of our recent headphone reviews, we’ve tested $900 headphones from Ultimate Ears and found them to be remarkably similar to (though modestly better than) Etymotic’s considerably cheaper ER-4Ps. The similarity factor there was 95%, give or take a few percent. Comparing the ER-4Ps to the ER-6is is closer to 80% - a more noticeable step down. But from our perspective, the ER-6is represent a 30-40% step up from Sony’s EX81s, a major improvement in sound quality at an acceptable premium.
And for some people, the sound difference between the ER-4P and the ER-6i earphones will not be enough to justify their $179 price difference. We could understand this way of thinking entirely, and simply say that it makes complete sense that Etymotic would offer something cheaper and iPod specific that’s more reasonably priced than the professional grade ER-4 series, with only a modest performance hit. But we do think that the sound difference between the ER-6is and the EX81s is enough to justify the purchase of Etymotics’ earphones if you’re willing to spend the extra money, particularly given that some retailers are selling the ER-6is at the $120.00 mark. Like the ER-4 series, the ER-6is will reveal layers of your favorite songs that you’ve never heard before – just not as clearly as the ER-4s - and we feel quite confident that you will seriously enjoy your music more having used them.
While we recognize that it’s virtually impossible to satisfy everybody, we only like to recommend products at our flat A level when we feel confident that any person who spends the money to buy them won’t walk away feeling disappointed. Etymotic’s ER-6i Isolators are one such product. From their design to their sound quality and pack-ins, they couldn’t be much better for the dollar, particularly when sold at a discount.
As you can guess from the fact that we’ve issued A grades to headphones at several different price points, not all A-rated products are equal. But if it wasn’t for the existence of significantly more expensive headphones like the ER-4Ps, these are the headphones we’d use most often, and they’re definitely the ones we pick if we want to show off our iPods in public. Because of their design, performance, and price point, the ER-6is are a serious contender for the best audio product award in our next Buyers’ Guide, primarily because we think they’ll appeal to an even wider audience than their older, better and pricier ER-4 brothers. Fantastic job, Etymotic.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school - ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.