Thursday, 10 November 2016

Etymotic ER-4XR Extended Response Earphone Review by mark2410

Etymotic ER-4XR Extended Response Earphone Review by mark2410

Thanks to hifiheadphones for the loaner.

First impressions:  I first heard these back, first thing in the morning on the first day of Canjam London.  These were one I wanted to try and I was pretty confident I’d just want full stop.  The old ER4 is as old and venerable as it’s possible to get in the IEM world.  So these, these are supposed to be better and by Extended Response what they mean by it, is more bass.  If there was one complaint about the way the ER4 sounded it was that it was too bass light.  Now they be super accurate but the way we perceive bass, we use out full ear and whole body and in ear things, well they don’t do any of that so we perceive them to be not very bassy.   What’s made Ety all of a sudden go, hey let’s make a more bassy one, I really don’t know.  It’s not like some one’s going to be sat thinking hmm, a pair of Beats or some Etymotic’s. 

Anyway, since I’ve literally just written about the opening of the SR box, the short version is, you get your own custom certificate for them having been matched and stuff.  With your own measurement curve.  Which is rather fancy I must say.  The other thing of note is that Ety for some reason, I can’t fathom, retired the old Ety pouch and given you a massive case.  I don’t mean a little bit big I mean huge, seriously Ety????  In what universe is that case practical???  If this was some random new company I’d never heard of before or these were really cheap I’d be more forgiving but Etymotic basically invented IEM’s and this is just not acceptable.  You should not on buying a £320 pair of IEM’s and have to buy a case.  Speaking of such, the other thing you need to buy is some small Comply’s or small olives.  The Ety tips are all, err, yeah not going in my ears.  Their Triple Flange things, those are horrific monstrosities.  If you made Prisoners of War use them you’d be marched up to The Hauge quick smart.  If you must test them, lick them first, they need lubing or they will tear you up in the most of uncomfortable ways.  There is a reason I used to say the ER stood for ear rape.

Now that I’m done bitching about silly things that Ety could fix in 30 seconds how do they sound?   If you have ever used an ER4 and used it with a bass boosting amp.  It’s pretty much that.  I think the treble is a touch tamed too but all the detail is all still there.   When I heard these the first time I knew instantly I wanted these in to review and they are nothing short of epic.  I think if I was forced to only have one IEM, only one for the rest of my life, this would be a very strong contender.  These are for all intents as good as good gets.  The isolation is supreme, their detail extraction and accuracy is flawless and they have a pretty perfect sound balance.  Some will want still more bass as while they are more bassy than a normal Ety, they are still Ety’s.  These are magnificent beasts.

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:  While the XR will be billed as the ER4’s with more bass and they do indeed have more bass, they are not bassy.  By no means are they a bassy IEM, these are only ever so slightly bumped up, I don’t see where Ety have explicitly said how much but I think it’s 3db.  Given that Ety’s are usually perfectly ruler flat to human hearing this is only a slight tiny bump.  So get it straight, yes these are technically more bassy but if you heard the originals and hated their bass output don’t think these are going to be radically different, they are not.  Otherwise these and their bass performance is just like that old standard, the benchmark defining IEM that has been the ER4.  These are tweaked versions so you get the same somewhat cool, slightly dry, flavourless reproduction.  What these still don’t have in quantity they more than compensate you with quality.  Ety’s are and have been THE benchmark by which everything else has been compared with for the last 20 or whatever years.  They are for all intents acoustically perfect.  The detail of the bass that these extract is so flawless.  If you’re playing back very high quality recordings, preferably very high bit rate stuff too and you want all of the detail your ears can possibly feed to your brain, yeah these.  Grandly symphonic and sweeping acoustics flow through the musical spectrum with ease and such accuracy.  These offer just the most subtle of nudges towards fullness.  The music is more filled and while is a smidge more in quantity the tone is still dead neutral.  No warmth nor softness creeping in to speak of at all.  Every possible detail of a strings rendition is there, casually, presented in the most unencumbered presentations. No lightness, no darkness, no warmth, no softening, as plain and deadpan as you like.  These are all about the accuracy, the process of relaying of audio information to you.  While that means they aren’t about trying to add anything themselves other than a tiny bass increase. The objective of the XR is still to let you hear what was recorded, almost exactly as it was recorded. 

The negative to this is they aren’t party fun time machines.  The bass can dance on the head of a pin but there is no richness imbued, no grandiosity, no, dare I say, no fun.  Classical works are strikingly well presented and in no way could I ever impinge on their accuracy to what was recorded but……while I play back more pop orientated music these aren’t flavouring things.  Things such as Lady Gaga’s catalogue it often seems are produced with crappy inaccurate bass reproduction as an expectation.  These will throw it out with such solidity and with that little bump makes you notice that some modern music is simply bad.  Most pop doesn’t have these in mind, the XR with its bump and its Ety accuracy means they can actually hit 20Hz  so some tracks have a random deep low that was likely intended to be far less in amplitude relative to the more middling bass notes.

Mids:  Like the bass, Ety’s are all about the accurate reproduction of their input.  They are in comparison to other still a bit dry.  I do like a Shure like buttery mid for vocals but….. strings, ohhh yeah Ety’s nail them like Luther at a church door.  That not adding in a dash of cream means that strings are just so well-articulated, you can practically see and touch violins and violas.  It’s right there, so close, so exacting, so right in front of you.   There is just so much detail, soooooooooo much that every nuance and imperfection is right there before you.  Again this means, you really do want to only play back good quality stuff, bitrates, source etc etc.  Quantity wise the mids are possibly a little forwardish.  They aren’t really but their clarity means they are extremely well presented and in comparison to many other earphones, these do not have the mid-range plunged into some valley.  They are super neutral as is the Ety way, it’s just not what most are used to is all.  I would specify that on the whole, female vocals work better.  Not because they are ill balanced but that there is a tendency that female vocalists are primarily vocalists, they aren’t singing a track because they wrote it.  They are there because they have a fantastic set of pipes on them.  Of course there are great male vocalists too and the XR is a tiny bit better at them than the normal SR.  Male vocals often reach lower and that tiny fractional bump in the lows can add a soupçon of fullness to proceedings.  So if you’re all Josh Groben, John Stevens, Mr Bubbles then I would say you may want the XR over the SR. 

Tonally the overall mid-range presentation is like all Ety’s it’s a bit flavourless, bit deadpan.  They will accurately present exactly what they were handed but like a perfectly accurate photo.  However it’s often the HDR, contrast and colour saturation boosted one we prefer.  You may know in your head that’s it’s not technically accurate but like a glass of perfectly pure water, most would rather take a flavoured beverage.  They haven’t that hint of warmth, any butteryness or cream added that we are very often used to.  These are just pure and unfettered.

Highs:  See the bass and mids.  These are all about the purity and unadulterated accuracy.  The treble is superb, no question it’s one of the very best, most accurate, most detailed, most linear etc etc.  While I normally say that the best treble is more likely found on a dynamic, that’s true but…… these are so detailed.  These have the same measured accuracy of 92% as the old ER-4S, you know the high impedance one.  They are extremely detailed.  They are extremely cleanly presented too.  Now I won’t lie, they like power and they mostly like a slightly warm to neutral source and amp over a cold one.  You feed these from something like the Icon Mobile and you think that you can get away with some mp3, yeah, not so much.  If your ears work properly you will not just notice the brittle, edgy, scratchy, spiky and ear stabby you may not notice anything but.  If you’re buying these you’re going to be a fairly hard-core audio person so I’d expect you will be very aware of the shortcomings these shall present to you.  These on more than one or two songs I really like but there is no way I could listen to them on these.  Goyte’s “Somebody I Used To Know” the hiss in that is just song destroying.  It cutting in and out is just sooooooooooooooooooooo noticeable if I hear that song on these all I can do is hear that hiss.  It’s like you just sat down at a barbeque and just as you go to eat something a seagull fly’s over and poops on your plate.  It doesn’t matter that almost all of what you have there is still good, it has been marred in a way that means the lot absolutely has to go.

The detail here is the start attribute but it in itself can be a negative.  For instance the extension these have.  While some may look at the spec and think, oh but they only say they go up to 16kHz, my £5 earbuds say they go up to 20kHz so these must be crap.  No, they are not crap, Ety just are very honest and I can assure you while we generally say that humans can hear from 20Hz to 20kHz, most cant.  I can also assure that there is roughly zero possibility that your music intentionally contains anything that hits 15kHz, or even goes anywhere near it.  These are for all intents, flawless.

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.

Amped/Unamped:  So Ety are kinda making a thing out of these being ER-4S good but being easier to drive like the ER-4P.  The only difference between them was 75 ohms and the S then being the more accurate and resolving.  These are easier to drive.  However while you can play them out of your phone and they will sound very good they respond to having lots of power thrown at them.  This won’t be news to anyone I’d have thought.  When you’re talking about a product of this quality level then I’d be surprised if they didn’t noticeably make use of better sources and amps.  So while you technically don’t “need” an amp if you use these then it’s likely you will eventually.  Potentially a bass boost button containing one too.   Everything just gets better with more power.

So since I had it to hand I thought I’d give the impedance adapter a whirl and….. I think it nudged down the highs and did it maybe refine and round them?  I’m not convinced it wasn’t a placebo as I really couldn’t point to anything clearly being different but I seemed to find them just more pleasing.  Weird.

Value:  Well, they are a little bit wallet ouchy. At £330 or US$350 and thus I cannot say that these are super-duper awesome value.  They aren’t, it’s that simple.  That the little RE-00 exists and is stupid cheap and nearly as good sounding (of course the isolation is very different) there isn’t a way to say these are great value.  However you buy these and you can leave them to your grandchildren in your will.  They are the benchmark standard not only acoustically but in terms of durability and that’s when they were plastic.  Being now metal surely they must be even more hardy.  You pay top drawer money and you get a top quality product.

Conclusion:  So, yeah they are, as I’m sure everyone expected, awesomely good.  The old ER4 has been around since the dinosaurs and has been ever THE benchmark that have been kept in mind as acoustically perfect.  They were when they were first made and they have been always.  That these are the first real revision to the ER4 line since they made the lower impedance ER-4P, is huge.  Lots of companies churn a new thing out every year, a slight tweak here, a little revision there and so on.  Etymotic haven’t bothered, their stuff was pushing right up there at the bounds of human hearing so just what do you do to improve on that?  Well the answer is you don’t.  These are the XR or Extended Response branded version but really they are the exact same thing Ety have made for years but with a little nudge up in the bass.  They are also a bit easier to drive than the ER-4S was so really, all they have done is reduced the need for a little FiiO E6 in the mix.  That’s it.

In terms of down sides there are several but you know what, none of them actually matter.  For example I’m still perplexed by Etymotic’s insistence on pushing people to use the triple flange tips.  They are deeply unpleasant to use I find and even the foam ones they do aren’t much better.  Now while I slightly prefer the Sure Olives over the Comply’s and I can see that Shure might not want to sell them to Etymotic, Comply sure as hell would happily do so.  Then the case.  Just what the actual F Etymotic!!!! Can we have the little pouch things included in the box please?  Both those things are stupidly easy to fix, you just buy a case and buy some tips but it’s just so silly Ety haven’t done it themselves.  Also that the cable angle is such that they really do want to be worn down.  Why????? If they had just made it more like that on the HF5 it would have been much better.  I am sure cable makers will be working on it as I write this.    

The other issue, the elephant in the room is the XRness.  Yeah, so they are the bass boosted ones but really, I can’t help feeling that while Head-Fi people will be highly pleased, I feel that anyone who wanted mega high isolation and this sort of sound quality wasn’t exactly going to not buy the old ER4 because they were so bass light.  Any little bass bosting amp would add in more bass and granted with that same amp these will have more, the level of the addition here isn’t all that dramatic.  If you old ones weren’t for you with an amp, these aren’t likely to be either.  Nor will their being easier to drive be a vast change.  If you stick these into your phone and you compare to the ER-4P or even the HF5 I really can’t tell much of any difference. These being a little more bassy aside, in that chain the limiter is the rubishness of the phone.  So if you absolutely must use your mobile phone as the source you’re basically still as well just to get the HF5, or better yet the HF3 with a microphone on it.  These aren’t that much different to justify spending two and a half times as much. If you want to make these shine you’ll still need a good source and a good amp, not your phone.

So would I/ should you buy one?  Well as I have an ER4 and an HF3 these wouldn’t be worth “upgrading” to.  They are a tiny sliver of an upgrade over the ancient and venerable ER4.  The bass it’s a hint boosted and they are easier to drive but I use decent stuff anyway.  So if you think these are going to give you something more than the original, sorry but they don’t.  Now if you don’t have an ER4 then things become radically different.  They are a product that I’d expect to be around for the next 20 or 30 years just like the old one.   If you want something that is an incredible analytical tool with gobs of detail in abundance then it’s tonally flavourless and has only a slight bump in the bottom?  Then these are perfect, they really are outstandingly good sounding and of the two versions, XR and SR I’d expect that while audio snobs would be inclined to towards the SR because it’s the more sonically pure, I bet of everyone that actually hears them both will go with the XR.  That bass bump is small, very small but it just adds a little something that makes the SR beside it sound a little less engaging.  In short they are Ety’s, they are the gold standard by which everything else in earphones are judged by.

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