There's spending a lot on headphones, and then there's spending a lot on headphones. A lot of my friends would look at me like I'd lost my mind if I spent $150 on a pair of headphones. What about double that? The team at Etymotic has been building high-end headphones for decades and I've finally gotten my hands on a set for review. The ER4SR Studio Reference in-ear headphones clock in at $350. So are they worth $350? Who are they for, anyway? Let's dive into how they sound and what they can do to find out if they make good on the promise of a $350 investment.
Build & Style
The ER4SRs are truly in-ear headphones. They're not like Apple's Earpods, which sit at the entrance to your ear and kind of just hang there. These go into your ear.
That right there is going to cut out some of the potential audience. The same way that I can't handle putting contacts in my eyes, some people don't like the way in-ear headphones feel, and I totally get that. If you're into the seal those can create, though, Etymotic's buds offer some nice features worth mentioning.
These guys are pricey, and they come with a loadout of accessories that help hammer that home. Inside the hard cardboard box is a rigid cloth zipper case with 3 elastic pouches and two zippered ones. Inside, you'll find the earphones themselves and the and a detachable cord, as well as a 3.5-mm to ¼" stereo plug adapter (Hey Sennheiser, take notes!). You can then attach any of the six sets of eartips to the phones before cranking up the music. There are two sets of small and two large 3-flange eartips, and two sets of grey foam eartips. Next – no, we're not done yet – is a shirt clip to cut down on vibration noise, and a tool for changing the filters that the headphones come with; those cut down on earwax getting into the phones themselves, as well as help smooth out the frequency response. There's also a signed certificate in the box to let you know that an Actual Human from Etymotic quality-checked the earbuds.
Yeah, these are the real deal.
The earbuds themselves have a different design from a lot of the earbuds I've seen and used. Instead of a little ball of tech onto which the eartip attaches, the phones themselves are half-inch long gunmetal grey tubes. They're some of the smallest earphones I've used in terms of the music-making part on its own.
At first, I found the layout a little confusing. My Shure SE215 earphones have an asymmetrical design that makes it easy to tell which earphone is which even without looking. If I'm walking around or working at the cafe, I'll often run them up through my shirt and let them hang there until I want to use them, and those SE215s I'm used to just dropping in without looking. The ER4SRs are more or less symmetrical, so it took me a little while to get used to them. There are little raised L and R symbols on the back of each cable, so I can put them in pretty-much blind at this point, but there is a learning curve associated with that.
I spent a good amount of time with both the foam earbuds and the rubber 3-flange tips. This is going to be largely subjective with regard to comfort, but I found myself quickly preferring the rubber tips. I was able to get a consistent, strong seal from the rubber tips that I couldn't reproduce with the foam tips. The rubber tips are also easy to wipe off or even wash off in warm water if you have particularly waxy ears, while the foam tips tend to show every bit of that kind of stuff. It's an unpleasant look if you like to hang them from your neck like I tend to.
The phones themselves are good looking little things, but they're so small that they all but disappear into the background. The 5′ cord is the more visible part. The last foot of the cable splits not only into the usual left and right segments but splits those into a pair of smaller braided cables. Etymotic's reasoning behind this assuaged my immediate concern of the cable's durability, explaining that the braiding is meant for extended life through improved flexibility. And even so, the replacement cable is a mere fraction of the price of new earphones, so I'm not complaining. The braided cable will stand out visually, but it's not hard on the eyes.
One thing some might consider missing from the ER4SRs is an in-line remote for manipulating volume and switching tracks, but it wasn't something I noticed until it was pointed out to me. These aren't meant to be general-use earphones and shouldn't be treated as such.
I'm really pleased with the accessories and aesthetics of the ER4SRs. The modular build tells me the company wants you to hang onto these for a long time. They'd rather get a few bucks from you here and there for new eartips and a new cord than have you grumble that your $350 headphones were worthless when your cat chewed through them.
This means you, Quigley.
Quigley would never do that.
They're comfortable to wear, and they disappear when you put them in instead of trying to make a statement.
The other limiting aspect of the ER4SR earphones comes from the last two letters of the model name: SR. These are Studio Reference headphones. That means that Etymotic is going for accurate sound reproduction above all else – these should be delivering exactly the sound your playback device is outputting and, ideally, the same sound you would've heard in the studio.
If you dig a lot of bass in your music, then, these might be disappointing earphones. You might consider checking out the ER4XR, which crank the low end up a little bit for better bass response, but I can't speak with authority about those as I haven't tried them for myself.
And indeed, the ER4SR earphones do have somewhat limited bass response. If you're going to listen to bass-heavy rap and electronic music and you're not working in a studio environment, these are hard to recommend.
Okay, so these are Studio Reference earphones. They don't pump up the bass or try to otherwise enrich the music. How do they sound in general?
These are earphones that I had to warm up to. At first, I wasn't super keen on them, but after some fiddling they might be some of my favorite in-ear earphones ever. Part of it is getting them to sit comfortably in your ear with the right tips and then getting the right seal.
My favorite part of the ER4SRs is the amount of detail they bring to music. They have good instrument separation, but with tracks like 'Roundabout' by Yes or Dick Dale's 'Misrlou,' I didn't find the bass to be quite as engaging. Both are really brought to life by their driving bass, and that's not quite as prominent here. But I also heard instruments in 'Roundabout' that I hadn't noticed before. That's the compromise with reference audio equipment.
While it might feel to some like the bass isn't quite as full as it should be, the detail lends itself nicely to the mids and highs. Hi-hats never sound overly bright or crinkly, and vocals sound especially good. I can sit and pick out each instrument in a track like Blue Oyster Cult's 'Burning for You.' The crash of cymbals that accents the driving riff in Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song' is clean and crisp – I can hear the metal of the instruments. Meanwhile, these headphones complement the late Layne Staley's voice on albums like 'Jar of Flies' and 'Alice in Chains Unplugged' incredibly well, and the latter album sounds like a new album with how many new instruments I'm spotting in each song.
These headphones are not for everybody, but they're not meant to be. They're expensive. They go for $349 most places. They're the kind of headphones that you keep the case for and put back in the case every time you take them off. The bass response is something some listeners might identify as lacking.
But these are headphones that you can use for personal listening sessions and for work. They're going to last a long time thanks to the modular aspect. You can clean the ear tips and replace the cord. Etymotic is even looking at options like adding in a USB Type-C cord the same way Shure is already doing for its headphones. That means that if you spend the cash on these, you'll likely be able to use them for years to come with a variety of devices even as technology marches forward. They're expensive, but they offer a kind of value a lot of other headphones simply don't. I don't really want to go back to other earphones.
DISCLAIMER: We received a review unit from Etymotic and spent hours listening to and travelling with them over the course of a month, trying the foam and rubber tips and listening to them on a Google Pixel, a Nexus 6P, and through a FiiO E10K amp before writing this review.
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