Thursday, 10 November 2016

Etymotic ER-4SR Studio Reference Earphone Review by mark2410

Etymotic ER-4SR Studio Reference Earphone Review by mark2410

Thanks to hifiheadphones for the loaner.

First Impressions:  Ahh now I had a tiny play with these back at Canjam London but no I have a pair in my hands.  Now from what I recall of the time the SR was as close to the normal ER4, P or S because let’s face it they are very, very similar, yeah yeah the additional impedance does make an improvement but not a vast one.  These then I thought of as, err just like the ER4 with a rebuild.  It’s a metal thing and it feels waaaaaaaaaaaaay nicer in the hand than the somewhat janky ER4 of old.  It sounded amazing but it wasn’t a looker.  These seem to be a much nicer looking variation. 

Opening the box you get a certificate of certification whatever, each pair having been channel matched and tested, with your pair’s individual measurements.  Fancy.  So the next thing I notice is that no more the giant plastic box, it’s a case thing. Oh! No it is the case, no seriously Ety, no little pouch thing anymore???  Also you serious, this is the case, what do you think I’m going on holiday or something and need a suitcase?  I mean the case seems really nice but its huge, seriously, the thing is massive.  Ety, shame on you, you should know better and this is just ridiculous.  Sigh, so if you buy a pair go buy a sensible case.

Now from past experiences my favourite tips are not the Ety tri-flange things.  Those are, err, apparently something you can get used to but no.  I long suggested the ER stood for ear rape with good reason.  Ety’s are very deep seated IEM’s and are more like brain implants than earphones.  Get either some small Comply’s or small Shure olives is my advice, skip all the supplied tips.

Olives on and in they go.  Good god you forget what these are like.  They isolate a frightening amount, just sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much its weird being so cut off completely from the outside world.  Nothing isolates like an Ety.  Then the music comes on.  Yeah these are just how I remembered them and just like the ER4.  There is a reason these are called Studio Reference, these things are the gold standard of IEM’s, they have been for the last, errr 20 soemthing years.  Acoustically I can’t say I notice anything different from the old ER4.  Though without an A/B session it’s almost impossible to notice much different between the ER4 and the much cheaper HF5.  These are exactly as you’d expect.  Stupidly accurate in every way imaginable, just so pristine sounding.

Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5 and Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear. 

Lows:  These are the same lows that Ety have done since the dawn of time.  If you have heard an ER4 then you, for all intents have heard these.  These may be easier to drive than the old ER-4S so they can device dependent, sound fractionally different.  However the difference is tiny.  I mean how many people ever felt that the ER-4P was all that different in the lows form the ER-4S version?  The difference is miniscule to the point I cannot even say with absolute confidence that they are actually different in the bass or its brain placebo.  I think I can hear a difference but I’m not completely convinced I could in a blind test pick the SR from the S.  That is how similar these are.  Hell, in the lows how many noticed the difference between the ER-4P and the HF5?  In the treble, yeah you can but the bass…….. it is tiny.  So if you have an ER4 then don’t expect any change in the bass unless you are using the most weedy of courses which if your using and Ety, you probably aren’t.

Now the bass here is a paragon of near perfect neutrality.  You need to jam the things is so far that they must be earphones the Borg use.  If you do get them all the way in they are acoustically perfect.  You have to keep in mind you will only hear the bass, the rest of your body and ear get nothing so if you haven’t trained your brain to just listen to the bass, only with your ear drum you will find them very bass light.  This is news to no one.

So while the quantity will be an issue, what about the quality?  Duh, they are Ety’s.  If Ety say that can go down to 20 Hz then I have no doubt that they do.  The detail and articulation is of the absolute highest order.  It’s so clean and unencumbered, effortlessly fast but never feels hurried.  It is in quality terms, perfect.  Boringly so but no question it’s so exact and accurate.  Classical works especially sound magnificently detailed, you feel like you can pluck out every instrument in the orchestra and examine it in fine detail.  It’s just so precise an analytical tool.  Now that makes the music you listen to extremely exact and if you enjoy something it will sound excellent.  The thing is if you were really there you would not just hear the sounds, you would feel the sounds with your whole ear, your entire body and the real life orchestra with all that can move you in a way that is vastly more soul stirring.  These are a deadpan exact photograph of a beautiful vista, yes its technically perfect but it lacks that abstract depth.

Mids:  See above.  These are, as everyone expects fantastically accurate, detailed, good god are they detail monsters.  Vocals are so perfectly accurate, really, they really, really are……. but……. you don’t get that full feeling the real life version would give you.  You aren’t at some majestic live performance, just the artist and you.  You are in an acoustically treated quiet room, the artist and you.  It’s all the other junk, the variances in the room acoustics, the interactions, the interference and flaws that make something live more invigorating.  These are acoustic perfection for sure but, well they are so perfect, like a distilled and deionised glass of water.  As humans much of what makes something more real are the things that are wrong, the mistakes, the imperfections are what makes things feel more real.  The ER4’s don’t do that.

Now don’t get me wrong, these do sound beautiful, if you feed them something beautiful they will reproduce it, exactly.  With the way we perceive sounds this makes them come across as a little deadpan, a little bit dry and cool.  Vocals can sound a little bit lacking.  Super detailed and nuance exposing but you know, something detached.  Strings however, well they aren’t alive and their more naturally dry texture is outstanding.  Violins and violas are exquisite.  You can practically feel every tiny detail of them, the strings, the movement of the bow across the strings, the resonance, the musicians movements along those strings.  Everything is rendered with just a crazy level of precision.  If you get same very high quality recorded stuff, high bit rates then these are you want to use to extract the most subtle of information from a piece.

Highs:  This, if anywhere are these actually in anyway “better” than the old ER4 it’s in the treble.  You see the old S was the high impedance, 92% accuracy version, just like these are said to be by Etymotic.  The low impedance version, the ER-4P only had an accuracy of 86%.  Now as the only difference was the impedance you could add an adapter to turn your P into an S.  The only place the difference was really apparent was in the treble accuracy.  The S was better.  Now you had to have a good source, good quality recording, good quality amp to actually tell but if you did then you could.  What Etymotic have done is make the S but with a lower impedance.  I swapped back and forth a few times with the S version and these and well, they are kinda the same.  I thought the SR came across as the slightly more analogue waveform sounding but I really cannot say with certainty that I actually was over it being the placebo effect.  If I ran it in P mode yes you can tell under the right circumstances but you only in certain things.  Then even trying the HF which is vastly cheaper, isn’t channel matched nor individually measured and tested for its extreme accuracy, half the time you can’t tell it from the old ER4 or the new SR.  Granted the HF is the one that’s for if you are only running out of your phone, not examining everything and getting the SR in those circumstances is a waste.

The SR is essentially an easier to drive ER-4S.  They are less of an earphone, they are the quintessential IEM.  In Ear Monitor.  They are not so much for the casually listening, enjoyment of music but a tool to tear something apart and forensically probe it in the most intimate of ways.  The detail they can extract is like using a microscope.  You can zoom right in, to everything, EVERYTHING!!!  Good god if you feed it crap you’ll know about it.  The treble is so bang on, dead on, so analytical, so digital.  I would still hand the more rounded waveform to things like the RE-272 but these are soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo detail hurling.  So much detail, so expertly rendered and presented for your examination.  If you want to notice details in a favourite old track, these are the tools to do it with. 

Now, about the extension.  I know some will look and wonder at why they only go up to 16kHz, even dirt cheap dynamics will claim they can hit 20kHz.  Ety are more truthful than most and the reality is that most humans cannot hear anything at 20kHz.  Not just that, there isn’t really anything musical (intentionally anyway) going on up at those ranges.  Nor do they even go anywhere near them.  Google the numbers, things we think of as highs aren’t in numerical terms all that high. 

Note:  From this point onward until we hit the Amped/Unamped section, is a direct copy / paste of my ER-4XR review.  They are in large part, in many of their attributes identical and it seemed silly to use any different words to describe exactly the same things.

Soundstage:  These are Ety’s,  they are rather upfront in their presentation and while if you get them super deep in your ears they can be surrounding, music tends to not have much distance.  There isn’t that open sense of spaciousness, because there is no space.  Ety’s are like brain implants.

Fit:  Well I know what I’m doing.  I’ve had Ety’s for years and I have long worked out that what works for me is small Shure olives, although Comply’s are good too.  Then I roll them in my fingers to squish them down then lick round the outside of the tips.  You just want the tiniest bit of saliva round the outer sides then you can slide the little beasts inside you.  I have for years joked that the ER stands for ear rape.  I do find that while Etymotic themselves seem keen on their triple flange tips but…… while if you use them long enough you get used to them, supposedly.  If you made the people held in Guantanamo Bay use them with the triple flange tips I’m sure The Hague would be getting involved.  They are not just violating but so deeply uncomfortable that I do not understand why Ety still seem so keen on them.  Likewise the foam tips they come with you from Ety too, they are just horrible.  Less horrible than the triple flanges but still, when you order a set of these, order a set of small olives or Comply’s, you will want them.

Comfort:  They are the deepest sitting IEM’s out there.  If you aren’t used to any IEM, things actually going in your ear these may not want to be the ones you start out with.  Make no mistake you will feel like you’ve been violated.  They are more brain implant than earphone.  Now you will get used to that. Once you do they are actually pretty comfortable to wear all day.  Just don’t use if you need to be pulling out constantly to hear people.  Not only will that get annoying it will rub sensitive bits inside your ear.  One thing to note that these isolate so much that you will feel completely cut off from the outside world.  If you aren’t used to this it can feel rather disconcerting.

Cable:  While it’s nicer than the old one, more flexible anyway the upper reaches are still the same old braided strands.  It’s a good cable, it’s also user replaceable so if you kill them you can just buy a new one.  One thing I would note that I’m rather irked by is that the connector from cable to bud housing is still angled like the old ER4.  Why!?!?!!? They could have and should have made it more of a right angel so they would be more suitable to wear up.  You can wear them up, I did, but they stick out and look a bit silly where if they had gone with an HF3 like angle it would have been better.

Microphonics:  Wearing down you do get some.  The braiding rubbed on my collar when I turned my head.  There is a chin slider to help but I wish they had just made them more amenable to wearing up.  Hopefully custom cable makers will oblige us on that front.

Isolation:  These are Ety’s they are the most isolating of isolating IEM’s that have ever been.  Etymotic quote them, as they do the old ER4’s at -35 to -42dB.  These isolate so much that if you aren’t used to it, it can feel extremely disconcerting for some people.  Nothing isolates better than these do.  Easily good enough for everything including Tube commutes and flights.  Honestly if I was Tube commuting every day, there would be little doubt these would be what I’d use.  Nothing isolates like Ety’s do.  Oh and yeah, so traffic, you’ll either learn you absolutely must use your eyes because you will be effectively stone deaf to the outside world.  You will not hear traffic until your skull is bouncing off it.

Aesthetics:  They look quite nice.  Most certainly much better than the old ugly ER4.  However it’s not like you can actually see anything when wearing them because they sit so far inside there is nothing showing.  You think I was kidding when I said they are like brain implants?  Also any one that actually even cares what these look like needs a slap, these are all about the audio, looks don’t matter.

Build Quality:  Well they are Ety’s.  They have a 2 year warranty and the company is famed for being incredibly helpful if anything goes wrong.  Plus they have removable cables and then the buds are metal, frankly if you damage them it’s not going to be from wear and tear, it’ll be you dropped then stood on them kinda thing.  They are a very high quality product.

Now we resume with specific SR stuff.

Amped/Unamped:  These are ER-4S’s but with an impedance closer to that of the ER-4P.  If you were the person who wanted the S level of accuracy but your source of choice could only really drive the P then well, yeah, the SR are technically better suited to you, they are, really, on paper they are.  The reality is if you want a Pair of Ety’s you probably are comfortable with their sound, their bass levels and you probably have a powerful source anyway.  Now while the SR was better sounding out of the 1G Shuffle and the phones but, come on, really?????  The difference wasn’t all that much.  It’s not like the P sounded so terrible and if you’re using anything so weedy it’s likely to be the limiting factor in audio quality waaaaaaaaaaaaaay before you hit the limitations of the P’s abilities and accuracy.  So I get sort of why on paper Etymotic have done this.  The fact is, they as well not have bothered the SR is technically an improvement but it’s such the tiniest imaginable sliver ever that if the old ER-4P wasn’t for you, these still aren’t.  Now the XR you get the hint better, the tiny bit better bass with it being a touch more abundant too is a difference you’re more likely to notice.

Now since I had the impedance adapter in front of me I thought I’d give it a try with the SR.  Was there a difference, yeah I think so.  It seemed diminish the treble a tiny dash.  I want to say it refined them but again I can’t say it with enough confidence that it’s wasn’t a placebo.  If there is a difference it’s pushing the limits of perceptibility.  Still brain placebo or not I liked them more with the adapter.  How strange.

Value:  If you have an ER-4 already, and think these may be an “upgrade” well don’t, they are so similar there I cannot say spending 300+ on them will gain you much of anything.  You’d see more gains buying a kick ass amp.  Now if you take the SR and the HF range, again, while this time I can tell the difference its very small and of course if your wedded to using your phone then the HF you can get with a mic so for less than half the price, you’re better off buying it.  If you must use your phone then I doubt you’ll get anything appreciable buying the SR as your phone is going to be the limiting factor.  So in most circumstances, well they just aren’t “good value” so why would you buy them?  Well because they are and have been since I can remember, the gold standard in IEM’s.  Sure there is highly diminishing returns in the SR over the HF but these are the quintessential IEM benchmark and they will be for at least the next twenty or thirty years.  You want that, then be prepared to take the wallet pain.

Conclusion:  These are the ER-4S but a little more easy to drive.  They are technically “better” sounding and with an impedance adapter still in the mix I think they are the ultimate in reference grade perfection.  The biggest alteration though acoustically is that they can be more easily driven but frankly if you were hitting the limits of the P versions audio quality I just can’t see a real life situation where the limiting factor was the P.  Sure these out of your crappy weak phone are technically better but, but nooooooooooooooooooo if you must use these with your phone you’ve already made the decision to compromise on the audio quality, so are you going to care enough to throw your wallet down for these?  Well maybe, an ER4 using friend uses them specifically because they isolate like mofo’s.  Ety’s are the clearly undisputed kings of isolation so in that case yes you would gain something but 300+ is a lot for a very slight gain.

If these have a problem it’s not that they are reference level bass response, if thats your problem you can always look to the XR but I think that these are so little changed over the old ER4.  These are so close, soooooooooooo close that they are for most intents the same product.

Now if we think of these not as a new ER4 but just as an IEM then they are the ultimate reference grade analytical tool.  Their incredible isolation takes the outside world and removes it from your perceptions.  Not only do they give such clarity and pinpoint precision but they take away any distractions.  There is just you and the music.  If you have never used an Ety before then this complete severing you from external sounds is extremely odd.  It’s like taking the outside world, the background and siting you down on a completely blank canvas.  If they then produce a single tiny note then all you experience is that single tiny note.  Your brain isn’t having to filter out all the other extraneous crap.  It can be a strange and revealing experience.

So would I / should you buy one?  Since I have an ER4, well no I couldn’t justify them and if you have an ER4, er even HF5 I’d say they just aren’t a cost effective upgrade.  They are just so marginally improved it’s not worth it.  Now if you don’t have the old ones, then I’d still say these are expensive compared to gains you get over the HF5 but if you want reference grade perfection these are it.  Not to mention their insane isolation.  That is another reason to be though, if you for isolation reasons, such as if you have a daily Tube commute I would want Ety’s no question of that.  Now personally I’d more likely grab the XR but the SR are undeniably a masterpiece.  These are as good and high end reference grade stuff as they were when the ER4 launched, as they are today and I have no doubts will be in 30 years.  With their build quality it’s entirely possible if you buy a pair today they will still be working in 30 year’s time too.  This new ER4 that the ER-4SR is, is a master of acoustic perfection.  Welcome to Head-Fi and sorry for your wallet.

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