The ER4 Fit
The one fundamental truth of all in-ear monitors is that if you can’t get the right fit, you won’t get the right sound. While the ER4SR and XR “deep-insertion fit” isn’t unique to these in-ears, it is the primary difference between Etymotics and the vast majority of other reference-level in-ear monitors. Some audiophiles will find that a deep-insertion in-ear monitor is not comfortable, no matter what size triple-flange ear tip they employ. Etymotic does offer a foam-tip option for the ER4, but for most listeners the foam’s fit will be quite different from the triple-flanges—it will not be as deeply inserted into the canal. For me the foam tips are slightly more comfortable but less sonically successful in that they do not have the same ability to seal my ear canal or get their barrel as far inside it.
Using the triple-flange tips the isolation level of the ER4SR and XR is probably the best of any, including custom-fit in-ears, that I’ve experienced. Clapping my hands together as crisply as I could was completely imperceptible when music was playing through the ER4s at a “normal” listening level. With the foam tips, isolation wasn’t as complete and I could hear that clap, albeit muffled. If you need in-ears with maximum isolation, so you can listen to Led Zep as loudly as you can stand it in the “quiet” section of your local library, the ER4 with triple-flange tips is the way to go. Also if you are a musician who needs a highly isolating monitor for performing or recording purposes, I found that you can even sing (or jump around) with the ER4 triple-flanges in your ears and they will stay in place.
During the first couple of weeks I had the ER4SR and XR, I went back and forth between the large foam and smallest triple-flange tips. I finally settled on the triple-flange for both versions because they stayed in place better, requiring far less adjustment after the initial installation. The triple-flanges also had better isolation, more fully extended bass response, tighter imaging, and finally, reduced chances of catching the cables on something because the triple-flanges stuck out about ½" less. [Etymotic says that when inserted correctly, the foam tips provide greater attenuation than the three-flange tips, and that the foam tips don’t protrude from the ear canals. The company refers readers to the video on their website showing the correct insertion method. —RH]
According to Etymotic and its supplied frequency curves the ER4SR and ER4XR have identical response above about 200Hz. Below 200Hz the ER4SRs are flat until about 80Hz, at which point they have a slight 1 to 2dB roll-off by 20Hz. The ER4XRs are flat until about 150Hz, at which point they have a slight rise in their bass response that increases their response by 3 to 4dB by 25Hz. My listening confirmed that, indeed the ER4XR does produce additional bass energy compared to the ER4SR. Which of these seems more correct will depend more on your personal preferences and musical choices than any other factor. My own tastes pointed me more toward the ER4XR than the SR. Initially I was concerned that the XR would have a muddier and less refined mid and low bass, but the upper bass or lower midrange wasn’t obscured by the additional bottom-end energy. Also on much of what I regularly listen to I felt that the ER4SR didn’t have that last dollop of lower-octave energy that I get from other reference earphones and loudspeakers.
The ER4SR’s overall harmonic balance was much closer to that of the original ER4 than the ER4XR. If you’ve been using ER4s as your reference you will find the ER4SR delivers a very similar but less mechanical and more relaxed overall sonic character. Both of the new ER4 in-ears under review deliver a larger and more precise soundstage and imaging than the original; the differences weren’t huge, but they were noticeable.
With their published sensitivity of between 104 to 106dB with 200 mV drive and 45-ohms impedance the ER4 in-ears were easy for all my portable players, including the new Astell&Kern AK70, to drive to satisfying volume levels. I did hear a small amount of background hiss when attached to the Mytek Brooklyn and Grace m9xx DAC/pre’s, but the Auralic W2000 DAC/amp was silent.
Soundstage size can vary mightily with in-ear monitors. Some, like the Westone W60 and the Empire Ears Zeus, can produce very wide soundstages that seem to extend a good ways outside the confines of your ears. Others, like the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered and the Astell&Kern AKT8iE, produce a three-dimensional soundstage that may not extend outside of your head’s boundaries but create a state-of-the-art level of image specificity. The SR and XR’s dimensional characteristics are closer to the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered, with a between-the-ears soundstage that placed each instrument with precision.
The Etymotic ER4 has, since its original inception, been an in-ear that prospective users either love or hate, not because of its sound, but due to its fit. If you are not comfortable with the ER4’s deep-insertion fit you probably won’t enjoy your time with the SR or XR. You could opt for the foam tips, but unless you get the ER4’s tip firmly in your ear canal you won’t be hearing these in-ears at their best.
If you are comfortable with the ER4’s deep-insertion fit you will be rewarded with category-leading isolation levels and precise imaging with excellent depth recreation. Whether you opt for the SR or the XR, you can either have an earphone that has a nearly ruler-flat bass response, or one that gives you a bit more low-frequency punch. With either, you get an extremely well-designed and constructed in-ear that, like the original version, should stand up to any abuse that a traveling audiophile or musician can dish out.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Balanced-armature, in-ear
Impedance: 45 ohms
Sensitivity: 98dB with 100 mV drive, 104dB with 200 mV drive
Weight: 0.9 lbs.
ETYMOTIC RESEARCH, INC.
61 Martin Lane
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007