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]