We put leading IEM specialists Etymotic Research’s new flagship design to the test.
I play drums in a number of function bands and, like most working musicians, end up in a very wide variety of pubs, clubs and corporate venues, surrounded by very loud music, several nights of the week. After many years of post-gig ringing ears and the real fear of permanent damage to my hearing, I became a recent convert to IEMs (in-ear monitors).
My current IEMs (and point of reference) are the Shure SE215 sound-isolating headphones, which retail at around £95 and are probably considered ‘entry level’, so I’ve been very much looking forward to trying out the Etymotic Research ER4SR ‘Studio Reference’ earphones, which, with an RRP of £430, should be a significant step up.
The ER4SRs are packaged in a classy slide-out box that, when pulled open, reveals a large neoprene hard case embossed with the Etymotic name. Inside the case are several pockets containing five pairs of eartips (two foam, two triple-flanged and one olive-style), four spare filters with a replacement tool, a quarter-inch jack adaptor, cable clip, user manual and, of course, the headphones themselves. Further enhancing the quality feel is an individually signed ‘certificate of performance’, detailing the frequency response, sensitivity and THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) of each earpiece.
The earpieces themselves are very simple smooth aluminium cylinders, with a long stem, on to which the eartips fit snugly. At the end of the stem you’ll find the filters (for wax and general ear debris). As mentioned earlier, they can easily be replaced using the supplied tool.
The 1.5m cable is quite thick, which adds to the premium feel and seems to prevent it tangling easily. The cable splits into two by way of an anodised metal cylinder, and around 30cm of thinner dual-twisted cable connects to the left and right earpieces via customised MMCX connectors. This allows for easy replacement or upgrading of the cable, should the need arise, but it’s worth noting that an off-the-shelf cable probably won’t be compatible.
Etymotic emphasise the importance of a good in-ear seal for achieving both the best audio quality and the best noise isolation. There is a definite technique to getting the ER4SRs seated correctly into the ear canal, and a handy video on the web site explains the best way to do this. These IEMs go in deep! This level of aural invasion may not suit everyone but I had no problem with it. You’ll need to experiment with which tips give you the best combination of comfort and seal and also the best way to insert the earpieces; for me the smaller triple-flange silicone tips worked perfectly.
My preference is for an over-the-ear cable design, which keeps things nicely out of my way physically, but also makes the earphones more discreet for live performance. I found the ER4SRs could be worn over the ear, but without the memory wire normally associated with this kind of design to keep it in place, it didn’t work so well. The long barrels also mean the earpieces protrude a fair amount, so allowing the cables to drop down naturally makes everything slightly more comfortable and discreet. The cable can then be tightened behind your head, using a small aluminium ring that slides up and down the ‘Y’ part of the cable.
As a drummer, I make quite a lot of noise, so the isolation of the ER4SRs worked really well for me. What I was hearing was coming from the monitor mix and included very little of my ambient sound. This enabled me to create a mix that sounded great and was very enjoyable to play with.
I can see how this level of isolation might not work for everyone. If you don’t have a monitor system that includes ambient mics for stage or audience, you may feel too ‘removed’ from the actual performance experience, particularly if you’re a frontperson and interacting with the crowd. For me, sitting at the back, I’m very happy to be immersed in my own world. With the right mix, it really is like playing along to a CD.
The frequency response is quoted as 20Hz to 16kHz, rather than the more common 20Hz to 20kHz ‘ideal’, but everything sounded nicely balanced; the vocal blended well but with a little push around 3 to 5 kHz it just pops out enough, without anything sounding at all harsh.
It’s not unusual for common or garden ‘earbuds’ to have an enhanced bottom end, particularly those you might use with your MP3 player. This also extends to IEMs, to varying degrees, as these are as much designed for simply listening to music as they are for serious monitoring. If anything, the ER4SRs could be described as bass light, but remember, the SR stands for Studio Reference, so Etymotic are aiming for a flat, not an enhanced, frequency response. Comparing them with my Shure SE215s, there was most definitely less bass, something that I immediately thought would be an issue, but after a little adjustment of my own monitor mix I actually found this worked really well. Although there was less thump, the kick and bass had a lot of clarity and sat nicely in the mix. (If you are looking for an enhanced bass, Etymotic also offer the ER4XR, which does have an enhanced bass response).
There are a lot of IEMs to choose from in this price range and there really is no easy way of knowing which are going to work for you. What is ideal in an IEM may not be what you would want in headphones for casual listening or mixing.
What you get with the ER4SRs is a very flat, balanced listening experience that sounds sonically accurate and doesn’t bring on the fatigue over long periods that bright treble and pounding bass can cause. Even though the external fit isn’t my preferred over-the-ear design, I found them very comfortable to wear, and at no point did I feel they were going to fall out. The anodised aluminium earpieces are lightweight but feel solid and hardwearing, and the cable is yet to tangle in use.
All in all, this is a great pair of earphones that, despite not having quite the styling I like, have become my preferred IEMs for all my gigs.