In Praise of… Etymotic and ER-4P

I’ve been meaning to write something about Etymotic and their wonderful service for quite some time. While I’ve never managed to settle on a main pair of headphones – going from Sennheiser HD595 to HD650 to Hifiman HE–400 and now looking for alternatives again – when it comes to canal earphones I’ve been pretty much an Etymotic loyalist. I bought ER–6i back in 2004, upgraded to ER–4P in 2007, and aside from very brief flings with Shure’s E5c and Sennheiser IE8 I’ve stuck with ER–4P. With headphones I’m plagued by upgraditis, but as far as portable earphones are concerned ER–4P is it. Despite having tried better sounding rival earphones in shops, I’ve never felt a genuine desire to buy them. Quite a lot has to do with the price-to-quality ratio, in which ER–4P has few rivals. Shure’s iterative upgrades to their E-line canal ‘phones have seen the prices rise inexorably, and the general upward trend has been abetted by the rise of smartphones (and their MP3 playback capabilities) and the aggressive entry into the market of hideously over-priced Monster and Beats ‘phones. In contrast, at the time of purchase ER–4P was around KRW 270,000 (just over $240), and the price has more or less resisted the effects of inflation and market trends. Not many earphones sound better than ER–4P full stop, so to have bought them at half the price that more ‘hip’ companies charge is something that makes me smile inside every time I listen to music on the go.

What makes this even better is Etymotic’s customer service, which is not just sterling but almost fairytale-like in its amazingness. 2 years ago, the tip of the left unit on my ER–4P broke off, which meant that the filter wouldn’t stay in, preventing me from listening to it at all. The 2-year warranty had long expired by that point, but I was loth to write it off, and decided to send it to Etymotic’s Service Department in the hope that if the repair came within a reasonable amount, I would pay for it. Within 2 weeks, my ER–4P came back with a brand new left unit, and Etymotic didn’t charge me a penny. The greatness didn’t end there: last autumn, the sound in the right unit started to flicker in and out, and again I sent it to Etymotic, thinking that this time they would surely charge me. I was willing to pay quite a bit, too, still grateful for the service previously rendered. Once more, however, the earphones were returned with a brand new right unit, and at no cost. This was a full three years after the expiration of the warranty! Even the shipping costs were covered by the company.

I should probably mention the sound quality as well. It’s a very subjective field, but the generally accepted wisdom for a long time was that ER–4P was the more accurate earphones, while Shure’s equally venerable E5c had fuller bass and warmer tone. The argument over whether ER–4P was truly accurate used to rage over at head-fi.org all the time, and detractors vociferously claimed that ER–4P’s representation of bass was horribly underwhelming and tinny to the ears. The market trend has more or less favoured Shure’s approach, with most high-end canalphones – Sennheiser’s IE8 and its sequels, Ultimate Ears products, Westone Labs, etc – adopting multiple transducers and booming bass. Shure themselves have not shied away from iterating on their flagship product, with SCL5, SE530, and now SE535 leading the company’s lineup while successively increasing the price points. This has had the rather ironic effect of making ER–4P’s qualities all the more valuable, because so few canalphones have seen fit to emulate them. Increasing the bass has the immediate effect of making songs sound more impressive, and bass is great almost as a default in most modern earphones, but they tend to swamp treble and particularly mid-section, and make the overall sound a little fuzzy around the edges. ER–4P’s biggest selling point is its exceptionally crisp, clean sound. No part is more pronounced than any other, bass is not booming but tight and punchy, and best of all the treble is gloriously sharp and detailed without being sibilant or harsh. Whether ER–4P is truly detailed or merely gives the impression of being detailed is kind of moot now: almost no other high-end earphones today sound the way they do, and they stand alone when it comes to a representation of music that tries to be more controlled and less affected. Every now and then I would try other earphones, and find them very enjoyable for brief periods of time. But it never lasts, because sooner or later I would tire of the sheer heaviness of the bass, the lack of clarity in the upper reaches of the sound, and the inescapable feeling that the music is being skewed one way or another. So I always reached back to ER–4P, and after a while the need to sample other products lessened to the point where I didn’t bother anymore. ER–4P probably isn’t for everyone. If you enjoy hip-hop, or house, or heavy metal, the kind of sonic philosophy that ER–4P champions is anathema. But for me they more than any other bring the ears closest to the melody of the songs being played on my iPhone without having to invest $1,000+ on custom in-ear monitors.

So here’s to you, Etymotic. If I should lose my ER–4P, or break it completely, or they get run over by a truck or chewed up by my cat, I will go straight out and buy a new pair. It’s a promise.

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