If you travel a lot and you need to listen to livestreams, webinars and podcasts — and, of course, music — on the go, then noise-reducing or noise-isolating headphones are a boon. Noise-reducing headphones use white noise and other tricks to mask the background noise, while noise-isolating headphones are earbuds that fit so snugly into your years that the background noise doesn’t get in. That also has the advantage that you don’t have to turn the volume up and risk damaging your hearing.
Etymotic Research pioneered the in-ear, balanced-armature headphone with the ER-4 in 1991; the latest model is the ER4XR. That stands for Extended Response, giving a little bass boost to the flat, neutral sound for which the company is famous.
The ER4XRs are tiny, which means they can go deep into your ear canal to get a good seal, and light, which means you can comfortably wear them for a whole transatlantic flight. The body is aluminium rather than plastic, so it should be sturdy. You do have to find the right pair of tips for your ears and three styles are included, in two sizes: rounded silicone buds; heat-sensitive (if rather scratchy and square) foam tips that you squash in your fingers so they can expand to fit your ear canal very snugly; and triple flange tips. If you haven’t used in-ear headphones before the tips can take a little getting used to — the triple flanges go in deeply and you’ll want to experiment to see which tips work best for you.
For the mainstream user, Etymotic has been making headset versions of its in-ear, noise-isolating headphones for over a decade. If you’ve invested in custom inserts for these, it’s a bonus that they will also fit onto the ER4XRs.
With the right tips — or especially with custom inserts — the noise isolation of the ER4XRs is superb. Crying babies and engine noise on your flight disappear, and you’re not going to hear the other passengers on your morning commute. All you hear is the sound, which is also excellent.
If you’re used to a lot of bass, you’ll still find the ER4XRs on the subtle side — the ‘extended response’ doesn’t make for a big sound. But what you get is fantastic reproduction that’s full of detail and precision. Flat doesn’t mean boring; it means accurate. Treble is clear, crisp and bright, mid-tones are full and detailed, and bass is firm but not overwhelming. Expect to hear new details in your favourite music, and to catch whispered asides on web conferences. The soundscape is broad; it doesn’t feel like the music is coming from deep inside your ears and stereo separation is excellent — sounds that are meant to be on the left or right are very clearly on the left or right, and if you’re using them for gaming you can hear where other players are in the room.
If you’re used to the hf3 headphones, or some other balanced-armature in-ear models like the ACS Evolve, the volume of the ER4XRs is a little on the low side, so you’ll find yourself turning the sound up a little.
As well as the range of tips, you also get an adapter for 6.3mm headphone sockets, spare filters and a tool for fitting them when the original filters clog up with ear wax, and a clip for the cable. If you can clip the cable onto your clothes to stop it rubbing you’ll want to, because you do get cable noise when it catches — which is annoying in headphones of this price. It’s long, strong (Kevlar reinforced) and doesn’t curl up or tangle, and the right-angle headphone jack keeps the cable neatly out of the way when plugged in. Sturdy as it is, it’s nice that the cable is replaceable, although there isn’t a spare in the box.
In fact, even with all the extras, the zipped carry case is far too large for the headphones; you could easily fit an iPod and a spare battery for your phone and a few other conveniences in this enormous pouch.
The ER4XRs aren’t cheap, at $349; that’s about twice as much as the hf3s, which are still excellent for the price. But you’ll notice the improvement: as well as the stronger bass, the sound has more definition. These are tiny, powerful headphones that definitely deliver.
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