- Review Price: £189.99
The problem with the majority of digital music players is that for the most part the bundled headphones range from below average to downright awful. Unfortunately most users tend to just use what’s given to them, without ever realising just how much better the sound could be from their iPod, Zen, Walkman etc. I can understand why most people don’t want to walk around with huge cans stuck to the side of their head, but these days you can buy some truly exceptional in-ear headphones that will allow you to appreciate just how good your player can sound.
Recently we’ve looked at some high end in-ear headphones from both Shure and Ultimate Ears, and for me the Ulimate Ears super-fi Pros represent the benchmark in this area. Their dual driver design provided superb clarity coupled with strong bass response – exactly what I was looking for from a set of headphones. The Shure e4c set also offered pin sharp clarity, but the distinct lack of bass let them down in my opinion, although Spode is still a fan. Now I have a set of Etymotic ER.4 microPro headphones, which also play in the high end, high cost in-ear headphone arena, and put in the simplest of terms this set sits somewhere between the Ultimate Ears super-fi Pro and the Shure e4c sets.
As you’d hope from a high end set of headphones, they don’t just arrive in plastic, blister packaging – oh no, these babies come in a large presentation box with all the parts laid out like an assassin’s weapon case. The design of the ear buds themselves is very distinctive in a kind of love or hate way. The first thing you notice is that the headphones are not labelled R and L, instead they are just red and blue, with the red one being for the right ear. I guess that this isn’t something you’d forget once you read the manual, but I honestly don’t see why they can’t ALSO have R and L embossed on them.
On a more positive note, the cable is not only very long, but also coated in thick and strong black PVC, giving it an almost industrial look. There’s also a cable clip in the box, so you can make sure that you don’t snag the long cable on anything and pull a headphone from your ear. Continuing the distinctive look are the headphones themselves – I have never seen a set of in-ear headphones that look quite like these. Rather than having a bulbous end with an ear-tip like most in-ear designs, the ER.4 micorPros are long and thin, and protrude a fair way out of your ear. In fact, the headphone casings are so thin, that it’s hard to believe that there can be anything resembling a decent driver inside, but believe me, there is!
The ER.4 microPros ship with three sizes of triple flange silicone tips, none of which I found comfortable. I couldn’t manage to get a good seal with any of the triple flange tips, but then I don’t even like double flange tips and far prefer single flange designs. Thankfully you also get five pairs of foam tips in the box and these work very well indeed. The sound isolation is first rate using the foam tips, and I also found these headphones very comfortable to wear for extended periods using the foam tips.
Also in the box is a 3.5mm to full-size headphone converter, in case you want to use these with your home hi-fi. But it was the inclusion of a little plastic tube containing four tiny metal cylinders that confused me at first. A quick flick through the instruction manual revealed that each headphone is equipped with a tiny filter, ensuring that no ear wax or dirt ever makes it near the driver. If the filters become clogged or blocked they can be replaced with the spare units in the plastic tube – there’s even a specific tool provided for replacing the filters. I have never seen anything like this before, and it means that you don’t have to dig around inside the headphone to clean it when it gets dirty, thus saving your expensive audio device from any inadvertent damage.
When it comes to sound quality the ER.4 microPros don’t disappoint. Once I’d switched to the foam tips, the noise isolation was excellent and the bass response much improved. Etymotic market these headphones as “the next best thing to live music”, which is a pretty bold claim. With this in mind I fired up the Rolling Stones classic, Paint it Black, having heard it played live at the Millennium Stadium only a few days ago. The result was very impressive – the guitar intro comes across as subtly haunting, just as it should do, while the vocals are strong and incisive.
Next up was the live rendition of Hotel California by The Eagles, and again the ER.4 microPros did themselves proud – every pick of every string on every guitar could be separated from the next, while the percussion was strong but not in any way overwhelming. Spybreak! by the Propellerheads showed that these headphones don’t suffer from a lack of bass response like the Shure e4c set, although the sound still wasn’t as full as with the Ultimate Ears super-fi Pros.
But where these headphones really excel is when they have to cope with a wide dynamic range. I found myself listening to Breath Me by Sia over and over again. The solo piano intro is crystal clear, while the sound of Sia sighing before drawing a breath to begin singing is easily audible, while on other headphones it can sound muffled. The introduction of the xylophone adds weight to proceedings and again, each strike can be picked out over the piano and vocals, without intruding on them. As the song builds to its crescendo ending, you can still pick out every single instrument, despite the fact that your whole head is just awash with sound.
So, there’s no denying that the sound quality from these headphones is first rate, but is it better than the Ultimate Ears super-fi Pros? To be honest it’s a very close fought contest, but I think that the Ultimate Ears just take the win. The Ultimate Ears provide a more powerful sound than the Etymotics, meaning that you don’t need to crank the volume quite so high. Also, the silicone tips on the super-fi Pros just fit my ears like a glove, in a kind of reverse simile way, thus cancelling even more ambient noise than the Etymotics. That said, the Ultimate Ears headphones are quite bulky, which could put some users off, while these Etymotics weigh practically nothing, so much so that you barely notice that they’re there.
Of course there’s also the issue of price to consider, and while many would balk at the thought of paying £140 for the Ultimate Ears headphones, at £190, the cost of the ER.4 microPros will seem downright scary to many potential buyers. To be fair though, the ER.4 microPros are far from the most expensive in-ear headphones available – I’m in the middle of testing the Shure E500PTH headphones and these carry a heart attack inducing £420 RRP!
The Etymotic Research ER.4 microPro headphones are very good, there is absolutely no denying that. The sound quality is excellent, the bundle is extensive and the build quality is solid. £190 is definitely a lot of money to spend, especially if you’re plugging them into an MP3 player that cost you a fraction of that price, but as with most audio devices, you get what you pay for.
The ER.4 microPros definitely produce a more balanced and pleasing sound than the Shure e4c set, but given the choice I would still opt for the Ultimate Ears super-fi Pros. It’s a close call, but the fuller, more powerful sound and lower price point of the Ultimate Ears, mean that the ER.4 microPros just miss out on a Recommended award.
Score in detail