Etymotic Research Isolator Earphones


Busts external noise, not your wallet

I’ve used Etymotic’s product for years and the ER-6’s offer great audio quality (it’s astonishing to hear the clear noise of a pick hitting guitar strings, or a singer quietly breathing during an instrumental), but what’s most impressive is just how phenomenal their noise isolation performance is, particularly with blocking low-level noise in airplanes. 34-36 dB, depending on which ear tip you use. They come with foam tips like the UM In-Ear Monitors or rubbery flange tips which are quieter, but may not fit everyone as well. These headphones do better than any of the expensive, battery dependent ANC headsets I’ve come across, including the top shelf ones I used when I was a private pilot. And they come close to silencing the droning hum of a passenger airliner. The noise isolation is so very good I’d be nervous to wear these while jogging — you wouldn’t hear someone shout a warning at you.

Etymotic has a lot of data about the frequency response range and noise isolation characteristics of their headphones on their website (I’m a neuroscientist, so lots of data makes me feel comfortable). Westone (makers of the UMs) doesn’t provide as much detailed information, but from what I gather the UMs, which are a bit more expensive, don’t have quite as deep base response — they go down to 40 Hz while Etymotic’s go to 20 Hz. Etymotic also provides data on accuracy of sound reproduction across the frequency range. They demonstrate 90% accuracy for the ER-6, which they claim is the highest accuracy of all in-ear headphones except their own more expensive ER-4 (92%).

I’ve tried loads of less expensive headsets and a few higher end ones like the Bose X ANC headset and some models from Shure. In my hands the ER-6 vastly, vastly outperforms any low-end stuff — so much so that it blows my mind that people listen to their iPods with the standard earphones. On the high end, the Bose works well with ANC but terribly when the batteries die — and its sound reproduction isn’t as convincing as the ER-6. The more expensive Shure models are pretty much the same as the Etymotics (I think the Shure E3c is the most direct match up in the product line). There may be some technical advantages one way or the other, but I really couldn’t hear the difference. Both companies offer a high-end model, which is substantially more expensive — in those cases I could hear a very small advantage over the cheaper products, but certainly not enough to justify the huge price difference.

I haven’t tried any dual-drivers in general, because many are a chunk more expensive than the Etymotics (about $100). With that price differential I’d expect some to be substantially better in quiet environments, on par with Etymotic’s ER-4 line. But the ER-6 still claims substantially better noise isolation than Ultimate Ears, for instance (35 dB versus 26 dB, a massive difference on the log scale). I frequently use my ER-6’s on airlines without plugging them into anything, just to quiet things down while I sleep.

One last point: The ER-6 has a relatively high impedance, which means that devices like the iPod won’t have enough power to play at extremely high volumes. This has never been a problem with my iPod, because the excellent noise isolation means that lower volumes are preferable. You trade off a little sound accuracy in exchange for low impedance, but for those who prefer VERY loud music, the low-impedance model called the ER-6i would be a better choice (ed.: see below*).

— Ashish Ranpura


ER6i Isolator Earphones

These tiny in-ear units sound fantastic, feel comfortable, and do an excellent job of blocking out ambient sounds. When I write, I like to get out of the house and into a coffee shop, where I can enjoy free WiFi, fresh coffee, great vibes, and walls of art. But the main attractions of a public space (other people) can also be their biggest problems (crying babies, the espresso machine or the barista’s choice of music). To block the noise, I started wearing high-density foam earplugs, but I like to listen to music when I work. Even with nice headphones, my music was frequently swamped by the house music. The best, relatively inexpensive solution I’ve found has been a pair of Etymotic ER6i’s.

I generally keep the sound level far from loud, but there are times when I’m listening to very quiet passages outdoors, and the ability to crank up the volume at those moments lets me catch nuances that would otherwise get lost amidst birds, kids, and so on. Some spoken-word podcasts seem to reliably dip into barely-audible once or twice per podcast, so I also ride the gain at those times.

The earbuds come with four different types of removable isolators (three are variations on plastic flanges, the other is a nub of high-density foam), so you can find the type that is most comfortable and effective for you. I resisted earbuds for years because they usually make my ears hurt after only a few minutes, but I can wear the ER6i buds comfortably for a couple of hours at a stretch before wanting a break.

It’s important to note that the very qualities that make these earbuds so attractive in a coffee shop can be dangerous if you’re outside: you may very well not hear a car horn, a shout from an approaching bicyclist, or a piano dropping on your head from high above. These earbuds would be a poor choice for jogging or even walking in the park, but in a safe, stable environment they’re terrific.

The ER6i buds are a version of the company’s ER6 model, modified for use with portable players in both indoor and outdoor environments. Compared to their predecessors, the ER6i models are offer a lower impedance (making them more energy efficient), and have a slightly modified frequency response, offering a touch more bass and a little less treble.

The buds also come with a convenient carry bag, so you don’t have to wrap up the cord tightly, which can put a lot of strain on them and cause internal breakage. Just smoosh them up into the bag and zipper it shut. This almost always keeps them free of tangling.

— Andrew G.

ER6i Isolator Earphones
Available from ProVantage

Or $82 from Amazon