There are basically four ways to listen to music; Live, over-the-ear headphones, earphones, or open air headphones. Until now, I believed that over-the-ear headphones, especially the Bose active noise-cancelling headphones, were the best. But now I’m thinking otherwise. Active noise-cancelling headphones like the Bose use microphones that listen for noise. By reversing the polarity of that noise and inserting the “opposite of noise” into your ears, outside noise is effectively cancelled out.
But I just got my hand (and ears) around the Etymotic ER4SR earphones, which the company describes as a “must have for discerning engineers, audiophiles, and consumers wanting the most accurate in-ear earphone available.” The ER4SR uses the simple technique of isolating ALL sound from your ear canal, and then inserting just the sounds you want.
Mead Killion, Ph.D., founded Etymotic Research in 1983 to design products that accurately assess hearing, improve the lives of those with hearing loss, protect hearing, and enhance the listening experience of musicians and music lovers. Etymotic invented insert earphones in 1984 with an original earphone design that used balanced armature receivers. These speakers became the gold standard for high definition in-ear earphones and created an entire category of consumer electronics. The ER-4 earphones are still produced and channel-balanced to within 1 dB in Etymotic’s labs in the US.
You can easily test the sound isolating capability of any earphones by inserting them in your ears in a noisy environment, like near an air conditioner, for example. The Etymotic ERSR’s standard sound isolators are silicone three-flange eartips through which the unusually long sound production tube extends. These take a little practice inserting, but once you gently twist them into place a jackhammer would have a hard time disturbing your wa. If you can’t to get used to these isolators, the ERSR comes with two other sizes of silicone eartips, along with two sets of simple, foam rubber eartips.
My complimentary review earphones arrived in a very “value added” black box that gave me the immediate feeling that here was something special. Justified. After spending about $350 for something you can hold in a closed fist, the packaging should impress, and the Etymotic folks don’t let us down. The first thing you’re going to find within all the neatly nested boxes is a “performance report.” This is no joke. Someone at the factory puts the earphones on a signal generator and several graphs are produced, verifying the frequency responses of your device. Nice.
There are also two nicely sewn fabric pouches, a small one for the earphones themselves, and a larger one for the small one and all the bits and pieces that come with the unit. I didn’t use these because my set went right on my backup cell phone by my bed and directly into service serenading me at night and playing CSPAN in the morning.
Results? Spectacular. My first playback was a simple tone generator test using the Pro Audio Tone Generator app from Dutchmatic. Except for the 4,000 Hz range which I sacrificed by playing in a rock band, the perception of pure sound was just great. While over-the-ear headphones enclose small pockets of air around your ears within which a certain degree of special presence is created, the Etymotics manage to produce a comparable effect with less than a centimeter of space between their tiny diaphragms and your eardrums. To test this, I loaded some loud Bach with a big bass-to-treble range as expressed in Diane Bish’s Sinfonia Cantata 29 on a big ass church organ. Yes sir!
I think I fell asleep with the earphones in on my favorite World Music Pandora station playing Ginger Baker’s drum solo with Fella Kuti. In the morning, the physical portion of my left ear hurt a little bit from the lump against the pillow, but I just turned the other way and switched to Washington Journal on CSPAN and got ready to write this review over a fresh pot of coffee. Maybe I’ll try a smaller set of silicone earplugs, but the foam plug substitute? Not on your life!
Visit www.etymotic.com to learn more about the Etymotic ER4SR in-ear earphones.