We used to love Marvel’s old “What If…” comic books, like “What if the X-Men died on their first mission,” and “What if Spider-Man had never become a crimefighter?” Now a small company called Ultimate Buds has its own entry in the series: “What if you merged Etymotic’s ER-6i Isolator Earphones with Apple’s iPhone Stereo Headset?” The answer: you’d have something like the Ultimate Buds Apple-Etymotic ER-6i iPhone Earphones ($146), also known as the Original Ultimate Buds for the iPhone.
Why would anyone pay for a mash-up of these two products? Well, the ER-6is are superb, A-rated earphones, but they’re deficient for iPhone use in three primary ways: Etymotic’s cord and plug combination doesn’t fit in the iPhone’s recessed headphone port, lacks a microphone for telephone calls, and is also missing Apple’s single button control box to let iPhone users accept or end calls, plus pause, play, and skip tracks. Since the iPhone Stereo Headset’s cords have all of the things the ER-6is lack, why not clip the cords off and attach them to the ER-6i’s buds?
That’s what Ultimate Buds has done, without noticeably shortening or damaging Apple’s cord in the process. Consequently, you get a pair of fully iPhone-ready, high-quality isolating earphones with microphone and call controls, yet you’ll actually pay less through Ultimate Buds than you would if you bought unaltered ER-6is directly from Etymotic. You still get everything from Etymotic’s package, including a nice zippered carrying case, foam and silicone ear tips, and a shirt clip.
And the experience is pretty much as expected.
“Pretty much” means that Apple’s microphone and control box make the jump to the ER-6is mostly unchanged—callers told us that the Ultimate Buds mic was just a little quieter than it was when we switched to Apple’s Headset, but still sounded great. The control box works without any issues, and of course, Apple’s plug fits the iPhone properly.
Finally, there are the ER-6i earbuds themselves. As with the microphone, the volume level is a hint lower than with the original Etymotic cabling, but there’s actually a commensurately subtle bump in the buds’ bass as well.
Generally revered for their almost surgically detailed, treble-enhanced presentation of audio, the ER-6is lose a very small amount of that edge in favor of slightly warmer mid-bass, which we frankly didn’t mind as much as we could have; most people will actually prefer the modest coloration. In any case, the Ultimate Buds audio is still considerably more neutral and less bass echo chamber-like than v-moda’s Vibe Duo, and the isolation remains excellent—a huge step up over Apple’s standard iPhone earbuds.
The only reasons the Ultimate Buds don’t rate our high recommendation are related to warranty and pricing. By snipping up a pair of ER-6is, Ultimate Buds immediately voids Etymotic’s 1-year warranty, and replaces it with a 90-day alternative, which means you’ll be out of luck if you have cable issues later down the line. Though we’ll give Ultimate the benefit of the doubt on its cable attaching work, and note further that Apple’s cables are a bit thicker than the almost notoriously thin standard ER-6i’s, if you’re susceptible to cable problems, bear this limitation in mind.
It’s also important to note that, despite its $149 MSRP through Etymotic’s site, the ER-6i sells for around $75 online, so you’ll actually pay a premium of $70 or so—think $30 for the Apple Headset, $40 for labor—for this modification.