Thursday, January 30, 2014

Etymotic ER4S Earphones sound so great, and here's my story!

I just wanted to make a post on the earphones I've come to love and use as my main "phones" (Etymotic ER4S).  Below you'll find my story of how and why I love the ER4S.  I'll post my eq settings shortly and more info as well.  You can also check out some info on these on my youtube review channel dentReviews  Without further ado...

The ER4S with added cord lock and right identifier.

I truly believe the er4s is the best earphone in the world so far that I've heard, and I've heard a lot from $10 to $1000 and none of them sound as good overall.  Some have certain aspects that are nice.  The Audeo Phonak PFE 112 is by far the most comfortable i've ever worn (and still pretty flat).  The Shure 535 is almost a backwards ER4S.  Great flat bass up to the mids, but rolled of treble.  Although the treble roll off of the 535 is much worse than the sub bass roll off of the er4s.  But still, decent bass overall for the 535.  I could go on, but when I put the er4s in, eq or not, the overall sound is what I expect from overall flatness.
They are silky smooth, uber isolating and uber detailed.  They aren't perfect, but they have the first place spot in my rankings.  I'm amazed, because I find a good deal of $300+ earphones far inferior to the $300 ER4S.  Some are nice mind you, but a lot of them are noticeably deficient.  The ER4S only has two major flaws in my opinion and one slight flaw.

First, let me say that I'm using triple flange with no issue right now (not always the case), and although they need more frequent replacement I find comply foams incredible with the er4s as well.  Nonetheless, compared to other iems, the ER4S are one of the worst in comfort.

Very exaggerated ;-)

 I'm not saying they are horrible, as I don't think they are.  However, after wearing something like the PFE 112, the ER4S starts to feel like ancient daggers aimed at your brain.

Audeo Phonak PFE 112

Etymotic ER4S

Second, they have a reasonable roll off in the sub bass.  Luckily, this is "much" more acceptable than a rolloff in the treble to me.  Also, it isn't drastic.  Yes, to me, it requires eq to make me truly happy.  But then, every iem i've ever put in my ears requires a lot "more" eq to be truly satisfying.  And even then, no matter how much eq I apply, none of them have ever sounded "as" good as the ER4S.  That is awesome for the er4s.  If you told me that I couldn't use my treble eq bands, I'd still be extremely happy.  They are only a very minor improvement.  The bass on the other hand I would want eq'd.  But even still, I'd probably take the ER4S over almost, if not every other iem without eq.

Superb isolation!

The slight flaw I mentioned would be the sensitivity/loudness on a given amp.  They do require more power than most iems.  I'd say they are fine even on iDevices, however, once you add eq and the necessary gain cuts, they can sometimes require maximum power on portable devices.  I was listening to a song today on my Sansa Fuze at +6 (maximum) volume.  Granted, it was a very quiet song, but I'd still prefer not to push something to the max and I'd like to have a bit of headroom left.  However, I understand that damping is necessary for the er4s to achieve its quality, so I'm more than willing to accept the loss of volume to achieve the accuracy they have.  Still, I've yet to "need" any amp with any device with my ER4S.  But I could see it being desirable in certain situations.

The ER4S with my JDS Labs C5 headphone amplifier

With the flaws mentioned, I still consider the ER4S to be very, very accurate overall, and I'd gladly recommend them to everyone with those caveats.  I wouldn't hesitate for a minute to buy another pair at full price if I lost mine or something happened to them.  And what "really" blows my mind is that Etymotic has been making these for how long?  10-20 years depending on the model!?!?  That is impressive!  All these fancy dancy new iems with their huge price tags, and I wouldn't even buy them over the ER4S if you told me they were 1/4 the price.

I guess you could say that makes me a happy customer.  :-P  Add to that the fact the Etymotic has awesome customer service, and you have a legendary iem in my opinion.  Now I understand what people were talking about before I got into Etymotic.  The irony of it all is that I originally tried the Etymotic HF5 (similar for factor and sound) and was so put off by the comfort and lack of bass as well as the highest treble, that I "almost" wrote off Etymotic completely.

My ER4S next to a Sansa Fuze and Sansa Clip Zip

However, the more and more earphones I heard and compared with graphs, the more and more the ER4S looked so close to perfect on paper.  The last straw was the PFE 112.  I re-bought those darn iems three times.  So sad.  I originally found them a bit too light in the bass region, but overall they sounded so good. Then, after listening to 20+ iems, I realized how flat they actually were and bought them again.  After more listening and reviews, I decided the PFE 232 must be amazing since they are an "upgrade" in price from the same makers of the PFE 112.   I bought those and was somewhat impressed.  The company had let me swap them with the PFE 112 I had originally bought from them.  After a while though, I just couldn't get past the uneven, V-shaped frequency response, and I had to have the PFE 112 back.  I could eq them well, but what was the point of using eq to make the PFE 232 sound closer to the PFE 112 for three times the cost?  This started revealing to me how powerful eq could be.  So I swapped the PFE 232 for the PFE 112 again.  Third times a charm right?  I still have the PFE 112 today and still love them.

My PFE 112, Sansa Fuze and JDS Labs C5 headphone amplifier

After a long time with my new favorite iem, I found that I was noticing the treble peaks on some music more than others, and I was starting to always want to use eq to fix it.  Up to this point I had never wanted to touch eq.  Primarily, because I wanted to use any device without needing to have an eq solution all the time.  Which, realistically, the PFE 112 serve that purpose almost better than any other iem.  However, after using eq and hearing how amazing they could sound, I saw the ER4S graphs.  They looked very similar in overall smoothness and flatness to the PFE 112, except the ER4S treble was a lot smoother with no big spikes.  The bass dropped off in the lowest regions, but it was smooth itself and didn't have any weird dips, just a smooth roll off.  I just had to try Etymotic one more time to hear them.  What if I never did?  I'd always wonder.  After debating because of the comfort issues with the HF5, I went for it.

At first, I wasn't sure if I had made the right choice.  I was a little put off by the bass roll off, but the treble really was incredibly smooth.  So smooth overall, in fact, that I almost returned them once, because of the bass and comfort, but I couldn't find it in me to let go of them because of how silky smooth they were.  I decided to hold off and see how it went with the comfort and sound a little longer, after reading about the tips getting softer and sealing better.  Whatever the reasons, they really did get better.  Ultimately, I found that I was inserting them deeper and deeper every time, until finally I hit my brain matter one time.... kidding.  But really, the deeper they got, the more and more I felt the bass wasn't really that rolled off.  (still not flat, but not half as bad as when I first bought them).

Where did they go?

So, I stuck with them, and I am "so" glad I did.  I've come to value them above the PFE 112, which were my prize earphones.  After listening and eq'ing them both, I "think" I started to hear that the PFE 112 has some harmonic distortion (shown in graphs) and this distortion was actually audible to some very, very small degree.  I'd still take them over anything else, but the ER4S was even a step above these!

The more time I spent with the ER4S the happier I became.  Not because of break-in or even "mind" break-in, but just because I got more comfortable with them, with the depth they need to be inserted to, and I started applying eq as well.  Because the ER4S is so easy to eq by simply adding one single point of sub bass boost, I accepted that I could use them on any device.  With no eq I could be happy, but if I "did" want eq in any given situation, almost any eq app in the world can do a single band of eq.  And it's easy to adjust by ear to get the desired bass, since the roll off is so smooth and isolated to the lowest region.  Unlike the pfe112 for instance, where, while it is easy to eq, you really need a graph to start with the right regions and go from there, and there are more noticeable peaks that you need to deal with.  The ER4S eq is very simple in contrast.

My ER4S eq settings in bandwidth values
(You can get 90% of the benefit of these settings with only the two bass eq bands)

The more I used eq, the more I started thinking that I really wanted to see what these things are capable of.  So, I started tweaking the eq and comparing multiple graphs and doing listening comparisons to get the right fixes and flattest possible signature.  I have compared them to both speakers and headphones, trying to see where I thought they lacked accuracy.  The only problem is that they actually started making me hear where all of my other headphones and speakers lacked accuracy.  Ha!  The only pair that bests my ER4S is my Alesis studio monitor speakers.  And those basically sound like the ER4S with more sub bass and a speaker-acoustic "sound".

My ER4S with small tips next to my Apogee interface and other devices

So, ultimately I just decided to see how good I could get the ER4S eq, and ended up with the eq I will post shortly.  My goal was only to adjust the frequencies that were masking things no matter how small (hence some 1db adjustments).  I didn't want any coloration, but rather just neutrality as much as possible.  I really don't think an earphone could get any better to me personally.  They sound like studio monitors in my ears now.  The only improvement would be getting a more comfortable earphone that has this eq'd sound signature without needing eq and while having a bit more volume from a given source.  But I'm still happy with them as they are.  I have even considered starting a web site dedicated to them and all things related to them.  Anyone think that would be a good idea?  Leave me a comment and let me know.

I'll stop here as.  If you read this far you must be patient and I award you a gold star! :-P  Please let me know if you have an comments or questions.  Check out my youtube channels and subscribe if you like them! - Music - Reviews (Some ER4S videos)

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