If you have the money, the $350 Etymotics ER4XR (Extended Range) in-ear headphone is tuned to near perfection, with just a smidgen more bass than their equally good-sounding and like-priced ER4SR (Studio Reference) cousins.
Etymotic claims on its website that the company invented the noise-isolating in-ear headphone. But noise isolating simply means blocking your ear canal so you don’t hear outside sound. This is not to be confused with active noise cancellation, a process by which ambient noise is recorded with an onboard microphone and then played back exactly out of phase with the original material to (mostly) eliminate it.
Truth be told, anything you stick in your ear will block some noise from reaching your ear drum, and some audio purists prefer that strategy over active noise cancellation. Either way, the more ambient noise you can block, the less you’ll be tempted to turn up the volume so you can hear your music instead. And listening to music at too high a volume can result in hearing loss before you realize it.
The ER4XR’s have a bit more bass than the SR studio version.
Many earphone manufacturers rely on memory foam for noise isolation, because it forms a seal by expanding to fit the unique shape of your ear canal. Each of Etymotic’s ear tips consist of three increasingly large soft plastic flanges, with the smallest entering your ear first, to reflect the decreasing diameter of your ear canal.
I very much liked this design, because once they’re fully inserted, the ear tips stay in place without blocking all ambient noise. When you’re out at and about, ambient noise helps you maintain situational awareness so you can avoid being hit a bus (or any number of other potential disasters that could befall someone who can’t hear what’s going on outside their immediate field of view).
That said, the ER4, when fully inserted, do block an awful lot of noise. Etymotic claims a 35- to 42dB reduction, and while I don’t the laboratory equipment to verify that claim, I don’t doubt it, either. I also found the three-flange design spreads the pressure on my ear canal more comfortably than a single piece of memory foam, and I didn’t grow weary of them nearly as quickly.
Two alternate-sized ear tips are provided so you can choose which fits your ears best. Etymotics also includes two pairs of foam tips if your experience with the comfort of the flanges doesn’t match mine.
The ER4XR comes with a carrying case and alternate ear tips, including tow sets of memory foam.
The ER4 are modular, so you can use any MMCX cable or Bluetooth adapter in place of the stock cable. Etymotic doesn’t offer its own Bluetooth adapter right now, but the media relations contact told me one is in the works.
A replaceable filter inside the unit prevents ear-wax intrusion and also balances the sound. A removal tool is provided. Also in the box are a zipper carrying case, those extra ear tips, a shirt clip, and a 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch stereo adapter.
For $350, any headphone had better sound very good. The ER4XR do. I A/B-tested them with several other headphones, plus several sets of speakers and they came off very well—better than I’d expected to tell the truth, and as musical to my ears as the best of my stuff. The XR stands for extended range, though the only thing that’s extended compared to the like-priced ER4SR is the bass. And the range is extended with taste—just a nice dose to get the bass instruments more involved in the mix.
If you want a flatter EQ curve (less bass, but still slightly accentuated upper mids), you should opt for the like-priced ER4SR.
If I had to be picky, I’d say I’d like a wee bit more high-end sparkle, but that’s just a matter of taste, and sparkle can get tiring over the long run. The ER4XR are still parked in my Focusrite audio interface, which is rare when a review is over. I normally switch back to my full-sized, closed-back Sony MDR-7506 over-ear’s almost immediately when a review is done. But the ER4XR sound as good and take up a lot less space!
If you hadn’t noticed already, I like Etymotic’s ER4XR—a lot. They sound nicely balanced throughout the frequency gamut, with just slight boosts where most people, including myself, like them. And as I said, I find the flanges far more comfortable for the long haul than memory foam—at least for me. You could spend a lot more and not get better.
You could also spend a lot less and get almost as good, something I feel compelled to say about any headphones priced more than a hundred bucks. Money aside, Etymotic, in my book, has pretty much nailed sound and comfort with the ER4 series.
Note: If you bought previous versions of the ER4, Etymotic provides an upgrade path that will save you $125 or so.