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.

Review: Etymotic Research ER-4S/ER-4P Earphones

[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.

Answered Prayers

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.

The Particulars

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.