Review: a week with the Etymotic ER-4 microPro

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We’ve reached the point where I can dwell on positives: the last three headphones in the queue–from Shure, Sennheiser and Etymotic–represent the best headphone technology in the industry.

These are the flagship products of their companies, and it shows. Pick up any of these headphones and you’ll find amazing tonal separation, unerring clarity, faithful sound reproduction and a superlative listening experience.All, however, are strikingly different from one another. If you’re in the market for high-end in-ear headphones–noise isolation aside–which you choose is entirely a matter of taste.

Etymotic’s dedicated pursuit of audio perfection is relentless, which is awesome if you’re the kind of person who has (or wants) a pair of $15,000 Kef reference 207s and only listens to virgin vinyl. If you’re that guy, have I got the right headphones for you.

The $299 ER-4 microPro, like the less expensive hf2, presents clear, true sound reproduction. Distortion and overall clarity are pristine. With these headphones, I can count how many strings are in a guitar chord, and I’m pretty sure I can identify picked versus plucked notes. Classical and acoustic fans will adore the ER-4.

Truth be told, I’m a lot more ordinary than Kef 207 Guy, and you probably are too, with an iPod and a mishmash of mp3 files of varying sound quality. This creates a different listening experience. Etymotic’s products don’t bother to smooth out inadequacies in your audio; they show you what you have, warts and all.

It’s fun to discover hidden breaths and guitar-string squeaks in a song you’ve been listening for years. It’s also quite fascinating, if disheartening, to discover the true limitations of your compressed audio files. Etymotic’s ER-4 microPro will happily do both.

Because of their purity, ER-4s need to be cranked a bit to appreciate them best, since low-end tones are not equalized or amplified (a common trait in all Etymotic headphones). That doesn’t work for me so well, since my volume knob is often turned down low. At my level, the ER-4 loses a lot of its bass response, making the listening experience less enjoyable, and in my mind not representative of what the ER-4 has to offer.

Turned up, though, they sound great. They’re capable of bringing rock and pop music to life, much more so than the hf2, and the overall sound presentation is pleasant and balanced.

They also do a solid job with noise isolation, providing moderate sound suppression of a variety of noises, and muting an airplane’s whoosh while still reproducing good audio.

Having played with three different Etymotic headphones, I can confirm their fidelity and commitment to perfection across the model range. The ER-4 microPro is the best of the bunch, with incredible clarity and dynamics. Musical purists will find the Etymotic line near to heaven.

Product Page [Etymotic]

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17 Responses to Review: a week with the Etymotic ER-4 microPro

  1. ChiarasDad says:

    I’m really glad to see these great earphones reviewed here. I’m a longtime owner and I just love mine.

    To your review I’d like to add a brief word about headphone amplifiers, because anyone contemplating the ER-4 should know that they aren’t hearing all that this earphone is capable of unless they are feeding it with something much stronger than the headphone-out of common consumer electronics like iPods.

    The common reaction to headphone amplifiers is, “why do I need one? It’s already loud enough.” You get an amp for the same reason people get a high-performance engine for a car that could perfectly well hit 60, 70 or 80 mph with the stock engine. Without the performance engine, the car doesn’t really obey your will. It’s sluggish. Your telling it to do something is taken as a suggestion, not an order. In the same way, the standard headphone-out of portable players (and many home stereos) doesn’t really have the energy to move the transducer in exact synchrony with the music waveform. Try to reproduce a hi-hat strike at the same moment that a good strong bass note is sucking all the juice, and it just doesn’t come through cleanly and accurately. The whole thing gets kind of rounded-off and mushy-sounding.

    People often don’t hear the difference between amped and unamped listening right away. It’s relatively subtle for people who are beginners with this kind of equipment. But you develop an ear fairly quickly, and if you listened primarily amped for a month and then had to give up the amp, you’d quickly notice the change. You’d feel the loss of dynamics, the thuddiness of the bass and the milkiness of the treble when compared to the amped version you’d grown accustomed to. With an amp and top-quality earphones or headphones you can really pick apart the timbre of instruments, and hear more of the instruments in a band or orchestra, than you can without an amp.

    Whether you care about and really enjoy that much extra fidelity, or view it as irrelevant to the enjoyment of music, is an individual preference. But I feel confident in saying that the sort of person to whom the differences between the Etymotic hf2 and ER-4 are meaningful is the sort of person who should be planning for an amp.

    The ER-4 comes in three versions, ER-4P, ER-4S and ER-4B. I own the former two and have owned all three (the 4B is for special uses, ignore it for this discussion). Most people should get the ER-4P, which is efficient enough to be driven loudly from portable sources (though for best fidelity it still benefits from an amp). The 4P is a little less accurate than the 4S, but some of the inaccuracy comes in the form of a small amount of bass boost, which some listeners appreciate. Best of all, the 4P can be made into a 4S (more accurate, but wants an amp even more) with an add-on adaptor, making the 4P almost a best-of-both-worlds solution aside from the $65 list price of the adaptor.

    As to amps: these range from very cheap (the $25 Fiio E5 mentioned some time ago here on BBG, a nice piece of kit but not good enough to show the ER-4 to best advantage) up to the thousands of dollars. Personally for price/performance I like the Mini3, a DIY design that can be assembled for under $100 or bought prebuilt for $125 or so (plans and list of builders @ http://www.amb.org/audio/mini3/), but there are many commercial amps and amp companies with outstanding products. To name a few: headphone.com, headamp.com, raysamuelsaudio.com, ttvj.com and Meier Audio. You can read spirited debates of the merits of these and many others at http://www.head-fi.org.

    Lastly, it should be said that the ER-4 is so accurate and so revealing that it really pays to feed it the best-quality audio you can. Prefer higher-bitrate MP3s or AACs to lower-bitrate ones, and if you have the space and inclination to deal with lossless music files (FLAC, ALAC, WAV) or actual CDs, then go for it. The playback hardware makes a difference too: some amps offer built in USB audio adaptors which sound better than the onboard audio in almost any computer.

  2. mdh says:

    I can hear the pixels.

  3. The ER-4′s are frankly extraordinary. But for day to day use with my iPhone the HF-2s are sensational. I call them both “traffic hazards”…as in if you are wearing them you need to watch out for traffic as you feel like there is music from God in your head.

    Both are highly recommended and the team at Etymotic is truly first class too.

  4. strider_mt2k says:

    -because with out the bag of magic water, the bag of magic sand just won’t work.

  5. Otter says:

    I’ve owned them for eight or nine years, and commenters can make all the cracks they want. I’ve demoed them for lots of people, and _everyone_ has _immediately_ heard that they’re much better than the iPod buds.

  6. Dan says:

    David
    Well, OK. But I’ve also heard a few (not the Sennheiser), and from my experience and discussions w/others, I think its often to each his own. I’ve used & loved ER4′s for a couple years now; they seem to me to be the flattest. But I also auditioned the UE10′s (mind you playing a good LP with nice electronics) and they blew me away.

  7. haineux says:

    David, see if you can arrange to review the livewires earphones. They are now sold by two different companies, at http://www.fidelitycustomearphones.com/ and http://www.mylivewires.com/

    (I believe both produce identical products, and I know they have in the past had “uncustomized” units for trade show testing, so it might not be a big deal to get an audition.)

    The hook is that with a customized fit, they end up being a good value, since getting, say, Etymotics plugs customized costs as much as buying livewires, so you end up with really nice custom fit earphones for about $50/$100 cheaper.

    I suspect the sound is similar to entry level Etymotics, such as the 6i, because I have 6i’s and LiveWires, and the sound is pretty similar, and I refuse to listen to more earphones for a few more years, for fear of sudden wallet implosion.

    One nice benefit of the LiveWires is that they are super-sensitive, which means that even the smallest iPod will drive them well.

    On the other hand, that’s also a curse, because if you listen to your computer’s audio output through them, you have to turn the volume way down, and so you WILL hear EVERY LAST BIT of the clamoring racket of electrical noise inside your computer.

    Luckily, you can go to Radio Shirt and get an in-line volume control for $10, and that will fix most of that problem.

    ON THE OTHER HAND, doing so causes the opposite problem, as the attenuators will eat up most of the power your computer audio circuitry can produce, so if you totally minimize noise, the sound suffers.

  8. haineux says:

    How you (the average reader) can tell if you “need” a headphone amp:

    There are two simple, common problems: noisy audio, and inadequate power. iPods, except for the cheapest models, don’t have much noise. On the other hand, computers almost always have both problems.

    To hear how noisy your computer is, put your earphones in, and then plug them into your computer when no audio is playing. Turn the music up to a normal listening level, then pause off the music. Hear the noise? If you are using sensitive in-ear phones, I bet you do.

    Inadequate power has three common symptoms:
    1) Overall, the bass is weak or muffled, especially at lower volumes (I know, that sounds counterintuitive, but many computer amps have crappy circuitry that attenuates the volume after amplification, wasting the power heating up the volume control potentiometer.)

    2) During peak power demands, the stereo imaging collapses. To me, it sounds like suddenly the band no longer sounds 3D but flat like a picture. Instruments on the left will usually stay on the left, but instead of sounding closer or farther away, the sound flattened out, all at the same distance away from you.

    3) Less obvious, but along with the above, the high notes sound like they are in the next room.

    The best, simplest solution to all of this is to go into your living room, swipe the amplifier from your A/V setup, and run a digital audio output (either optical or USB) into the A/V amp, and use it to drive your headphones.

    If you don’t hear a drastic reduction in noise along with an improvement in the three signs of under power, above, either you have some kind of super-fantastic sound card in your computer, or you went to way too many rock concerts back in your hippy days.

    (Or you are trying to listen through the earphones that came with your mp3 player. I like to tell people that iPods come with “the very best earphones $1 can buy.” Except that Apple probably pays a lot less than $1 for them.)

    The only problem with all this is that you probably don’t have another A/V amp sitting around, and your wife wants to watch TV.

    Luckily, you can get a small headphone amp with D/A converters for what many people might consider a reasonable price.

    I like the $150 HeadFi “Total BitHead” a lot because it’s the size of an iPod, can run for a long time off plain old AAA batteries or a wall wart, and can even run off the USB bus at your computer (for most headphones — USB doesn’t supply a lot of power).

    And yes, they absolutely will give you a 30-day listening trial. If you listen for 3 weeks, and don’t feel like it’s worth the money, send it back.

  9. Trent Hawkins says:

    Yeah, I use to use these but frankly through most of my commute it’s hard to hear the difference and they tend to get destroyed when I have to toss them in to a bag in a hurry.

    So I settled on using some JVCs (I think they’re discontinued now) that have a good bass for commute and a pair of these at the office.

  10. gregger says:

    I’ve owned mine since 2000 – before all the “noise cancelling” headphones caught on. The high end big Bose cans and these cost the same at the time and the Bose weren’t worth it in my experience.

    I was travelling a lot and needed something small, that blocked noise, and sounded great. Noise cancelling to me sounds like “very loud nothing”, so in-ear headphones were the best option. At the time there were about 3 options.

    Anyhow, if you take care of them, they should last forever. I wouldn’t recommend tossing any headphones in your rucksack if you actually like them.

    I screwed up my wires once (I let a door slam on the headphones while walking out the door), so I sent them back and they refurbed them for $50.

    The only complaint I can think of is that the wires can transmit vibrations directly to your ears.

    Medium quality in-ear earphones nowadays will work for the usual commuting duties. If you’re expecting awesome quality from any earphones while at the subway station, removing the subway is probably the best remedy.

  11. gregger says:

    Oh, and http://www.headphone.com has good resources and reviews.

  12. roboton says:

    Etymotics are not “audiophile” toys, but “studio” quality heaphones. They reproduce to a flat line reference with no hype on the bass or the treble.

    Audiophilism is a religion, audio engineering is a science. Learn how to differ the teo.

  13. kerry says:

    Otter:
    I don’t make a habit of knocking audiophiles, but to say that these headphones must be the greatest ever because they sound better than the stock phones is silly. The stock phones sound like crap. Go buy an $50+ replacement and you will have superior sound. Again, I’m not saying these phones aren’t wonderful and audiophile-quality, I’m just saying that comparing them to the Apple phones to prove the point seems a bit disingenuous.

  14. David Wertheimer says:

    @Dan #7 yes, actually. This is the eighth headphone review I’ve done for BBG this summer, covering seven different manufacturers at price points ranging up to $550. Check out the archives for details (Ultimate Ears is in there).

    I can tell you that we were unable to procure test units from several interesting companies, including Westone, Denon and Bose. Some smaller manufacturers may not be here. But for this niche (in-ear noise-isolating headphones) we have indeed covered much of the landscape.

  15. dan says:

    “We’ve reached the point where I can dwell on positives: the last three headphones in the queue–from Shure, Sennheiser and Etymotic–represent the best headphone technology in the industry.”

    That’s just silly. Have you listened to Ultimate Ears, Sleek, etc. etc. Sure these are nice phones, but there are many many more.

  16. Joe says:

    It’s simple. ER4S needs an AMP.
    ER4P DOES NOT need an AMP.

    Why this was not mentioned in the review is beyond me.

  17. mdh says:

    also, they look like a sex toy.

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