Etymotic Research ER4XR review

The company that pioneered hi-fi earbuds just brought them into the 21st century

Etymotics new ER4XR in-ears bring superb bass performance to their classic soundstage.
Etymotics new ER4XR in-ears bring superb bass performance to their classic soundstage.
Etymotics new ER4XR in-ears bring superb bass performance to their classic soundstage.

Highs

  • Clear, punchy bass response
  • Dynamic and revealing sound stage
  • Excellent passive noise isolation
  • Great variety of accessories and ear tip choices for optimum performance
  • Solid build quality

Lows

  • Can be tough to get a good seal with certain ear tips

There’s a lot of history behind each line of Etymotic’s in ear headphones, but especially that of their latest ER4XR and ER4SR models. The company’s ER-4 “Canalphone” marked the first ever high-fidelity in-ear monitors available in the consumer market when they launched in 1991 and, through various performance-based updates, the headphones have remained beloved in the audiophile community ever since.

For its latest iteration of the classic in-ear model, Etymotic has equipped two aesthetically identical headphones with two slightly different sets of drivers, giving the Extended Response (XR) a boosted low end, while retaining its classic “flat” profile for the Studio Reference (SR) model. Since both models are essentially carbon copies until you get to the actual sound signature, we’ve cut one review into two, with the only difference coming at the all-important performance section.

Despite their shared looks, plentiful accessories, and excellent build quality, we can’t help but prefer the one with the extra bass — especially since it retains the same level of high-end clarity that we know and love from the brand. Follow us below to see why, or if you prefer Etymotic’s flatter sound, click here for the ER4SR review.

Out of the box

Both sets of headphones in the new ER4 line come identically packaged, save for a slight color difference on the digital soundwave which appears on the exterior of the black box; The XR gets a lime green soundwave, where the SR gets one in what we like to call Digital Trends blue. Once an exterior sleeve is slipped off, the headphones pull out of a classy black box inside, where they are tastefully displayed peering out of their included hard case.

The hard case sits, mostly hidden, below a white envelope which congratulates one on the purchase, along with a thorough performance certificate — a nice touch for $350 earphones, which should alleviate concerns of any defects, further buoyed by Etymotic’s stellar track record.

The case is a fairly hard neoprene shell with a raised Etymotic logo which unzips to reveal multiple pockets. The headphones store safely in the back divider of the right side, with zippered pockets that contain two pairs of the three different ear tip options (two triple-flanged in different sizes, one foam), a cable clip, quarter-inch adapter, and four replacement filters with a replacement tool. That’s a lot of goodies; Suffice it to say that this package has just about everything you could possibly need.

Features and design

As mentioned, the look of the new ER4 series is identical regardless of which model you are looking at, and should be familiar to those who’ve seen any vintage model in the ER4 line. The in-ears are thin black tubes with durable wound cables, leading to a sturdy cable divider and a long rubberized cable the culminates in a gold-plated 3.5mm jack.

Feed them top-quality recordings and they will sing siren songs that cut to your soul.

The company has added an MMCX connector to each earphone, meaning that the cable can be replaced if it undergoes extra wear and tear. An especially nice touch is a fitted slot that keeps the MMCX connection from rotating (a common gripe with other MMCX connections) which Etymotic calls a “keyhole.” The body of the earphones has been upgraded to machined aluminum, in hopes of making broken earphone stems a thing of the past. They feel hard and sturdy, but still extremely lightweight.

The three sets of ear tips offer many size and fit options. As usual, the two sets of triple-flanged ear tips (one big, one small) offer the flattest sound response, with the foam tips providing the best sound isolation and long-term comfort. Despite slightly boosted bass and cloudier upper register sound in the foam tips, the added comfort and sound isolation made them our go-to choice. We also liked their consistent seal, which some of our staff found difficult to achieve with the tri-flanged rubber.

Overall, the new ER4s aren’t any flashier than the old ones, but they aren’t meant to be. These are a subtle design upgrade to the previous model, with physical changes that should make them sound better and last longer, rather than look cooler. Given that they can be fitted with custom-molded tips for on-stage use, the ER4 models retain their heritage as a masterclass in purpose-built design. These are sleek, simple, and well-thought out all-around.

Performance

With their slightly boosted sub-bass curve and flat, balanced, upper register, the the ER4XR take their storied line firmly into 2016.

Offering a different balanced armature driver than their Studio Reference sister, the XR gives the impression of a fuller soundstage, especially on tracks with more bass-laden mixes, like Kaytranada’s Together. The fullness that the tiny in-ear drivers are able to produce comes without sacrifices up high, with the hi-hat sitting jovially up top, and the vocals swimming happily through the middle.

The ER4XR aren’t exclusively for low-end Beats lovers: They are for discerning purists who like their headphones to adapt to whatever they’re listening to, new and old alike. Where the ER4SR feel inadequate at reproducing some modern subwoofer-mixed music, the Extended Response more than pick up the slack.

On more classic jazz mixes like Art Blakey’s Moanin’, the bass content doesn’t overwhelm, adding a depth to Benny Golson’s silky-smooth saxophone and Blakey’s simmering ride cymbal that uncannily simulates the smokey club it could have been heard in half a century ago. That track can immediately be followed up by Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper, or Kanye West’s latest and the same sort of overall fidelity and soundscape is present. That’s the sort of versatility that helped make the ER4 line famous in the first place.

Etymotic ER4SR and ER4XR
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

That said, much like their sister model, these headphones are what they eat. Feed them CD-quality audio via a nice DAC and they will sing siren songs that cut to your soul. Toss them musical scraps through 128k Pandora streams and you will cringe at every hint of unwanted digital compression that ekes through the internet airwaves. Such is life with uber-accurate earphones.

Warranty information

The ER4SR and ER4XR both come with two-year manufacturer warranties for defects in build and sound quality.

Our Take

With extreme definition in the mid and high ranges, and punchy, warm sub-bass response, the ER4XR take the ER4 line firmly into the 21st century.

What are the alternatives?

The $350 price point puts the new ER4 models at something of a middle ground in the audiophile market. Long-term competitors like Shure offer their brilliant dual-driver SE425 model for $50 cheaper, and those looking for higher-end models will want to consider both the highly durable Westone W40, or the strikingly musical Audiofly AF180.

How long will it last?

With detachable cables, upgraded aluminum stem, and replacement sets of every set of ear tips as well as filters, there is no reason to believe the Etymotics ER4SR and ER4XR headphones won’t last for many years to come.

Should you buy it (ER4XR)? Yes. With clean mids and highs, and the ability to employ punchy sub-bass when needed, the ER4XR are a good solution for those looking for high-end in-ear monitors that represent the full spectrum of today’s music.

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