Exceptionally accurate mids and highs coupled with rich, full bass response. Detachable, high-quality cable. Plethora of eartip options in various sizes and styles. Ships with several accessories, including zip-up case.
No inline remote control or mic.
- Bottom Line
The stunning Etymotic ER4 XR earphones deliver the sonic accuracy sound professionals need, and add some subtle depth in the lows to complement modern mixes.
By Tim Gideon
I'm often asked which pair of earphones I've tested are "the best." It's a question that drives me crazy, because there's no one answer. There are so many earphones that bring a wide variety of excellent traits and nuances to the table, and personal taste is obviously going to play a major role in what makes a pair an ideal choice for you. But if the question is about wired in-canal earphones, and which pair offers the best audio performance under, say, $500, my current vote would go to the subject of this review, the Etymotic ER4 XR. At $349, the ER4 XR earphones aren't cheap, but they're worth every penny.
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If you've read any of my other reviews, you know that I value accuracy when it comes to audio. The most accurate in-ears are probably the ER4 XR's siblings, the Etymotic ER4 SR. Yet the ER4 SR might sound almost clinical and a little light on bass response to many listeners, while the ER4 XR (which stands for "extended response") earphones deliver nearly identical high frequency definition while adding in a little more bass response. The result is superb clarity matched with full-bodied richness—every realm of the frequency range is delivered with exciting detail. And so the ER4 XR earn our Editors' Choice, but also receive an exceptionally rare five-star rating. These earphones are ideal for sound engineers, musicians, and music lovers seeking accuracy without sacrificing the depth many modern mixes call for.
Essentially identical to the ER4 SR, at least visually speaking, the ER4 XR earphones are offered in black, with thin, braided cabling descending from each lightweight earpiece. The earpieces themselves are cylindrical and narrow, and ship with flange-style eartips in place, though there are several pairs of additional eartips included in various sizes—four pairs of flange, and two foam pairs.
The fit of both eartips is quite secure, and when you create the proper in-ear seal—essential for optimum audio performance—the narrow earpieces feel like they are actually floating. Once you get the right fit, which does involve allowing the tip to enter the canal slightly more deeply than most, it's easy to forget the earphones are even there. A side effect (or fringe benefit) of this secure, deep fit is passive noise reduction—the eartips eliminate a significant swath of ambient room noise.
The braided cables join into a single, thicker cable at mid torso. The cable is detachable, and can thus be replaced, adding to the value of the earphones and making the price seem less daunting, as they can be considered a long-term investment. Those looking for an inline microphone or remote control will disappointed, however—these earphones are aimed at professionals, whom Etymotic assumes will not be listening on a mobile device. The lack of an additional cable with a mic and remote is really the only oversight of the design.
There's certainly nothing to complain about when it comes to the rest of the included accessories, however. The earphones ship with a 0.25-inch headphone jack adapter, a shirt clip, a set of replacement filters for the eartips, and a filter replacement tool. The tiny filters help protect the inner earpiece from ear wax, and they also smooth the frequency response a bit, according to Etymotic. Everything ships with a zip-up carrying case that has multiple compartments to house it all.
If there's a complaint to be made about the ER4 XR's sibling, the ER4 SR, it's that they're so accurate they can sound almost clinical. This is hardly a legitimate gripe, since that's the basic point of the ER4 SR's existence—total accuracy. But Etymotic realizes that plenty of listeners want the clarity and accuracy of the SR with a little added bass presence. The ER4 XR deliver this additional bass response beautifully.
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like the Knife's "Silent Shout," the earphones deliver the power of the lows with grace and definition. There's definitely a boost compared with the ER4 SR, but it isn't over the top—instead, it allows modern tracks, often mixed with added sub-bass and bass presence, a chance to sound more full and rich without compromising the integrity of the mix. The higher frequency ranges sound nearly identical to the ER4 SR's high frequency response, so we are basically talking about some extra bass push.
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Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the ER4 XR's general sound signature. Heavily bass-boosted earphones can make the drums on this track sound insanely thunderous, whereas clinically flat earphones tend to make them sound like polite tapping. Through the ER4 XS, things fall perfectly in the middle. Basically, this track doesn't have too much bass, so the earphones don't bring it out too much. This mix sounds more crisp and bright than anything else, with Callahan's rich baritone receiving some definition in the high-mids and the guitar strums and higher percussive hits benefiting from the excellent high-mid and high frequency clarity.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," every aspect of the mix shines equally. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with gusto—nothing too intense, but there's definitely a subwoofer-like feel to their presence. The kick drum loop's attack gets plenty of treble presence, allowing it to stay sharp and slice through the layers of the beat, while the vinyl crackle in the background isn't pushed too far forward, but is definitely illuminated a bit more than it is through earphones that have less presence and clarity in the high-mids and highs. The three vocal performances on this track are always clear and crisp—there's superb definition in the high-mid and highs, but never any added sibilance or harshness.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, sound phenomenal through the ER4 XR. The lower register instrumentation gets a little added depth, but never anything that sounds unnatural. The higher register strings, brass, and vocals are delivered with strong definition and brightness, but the mids are never ignored. You hear detail and definition throughout the frequency range, with beautifully resonant lows when they appear in the mix, and excellent clarity on the brass stabs and vocal performances. The sound of the bows on the strings sounds about as true as one could hope for—the ER4 XR are those rare earphones that conjure depth and space, allowing it to feel like you're in the room with the musicians.
It comes down to taste, but when I know a mix has serious bass thump to it, I want to hear it—without the bass overwhelming the balance. Through the Etymotic ER4 XR, you get the thump when it's there, but there's no bass added when the mix doesn't call for it, and the clarity and detail throughout the entire frequency range is phenomenal. Mix and mastering engineers checking their work can view both the ER4 SR and the ER4 XR as indispensable tools. Music lovers who want accuracy without sacrificing bass presence should gravitate toward the ER4 XR's detail matched with added depth.
If these models are out of your price range, we are also fans of the Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2, the Westone W10, and the RHA CL750. These models deliver more boosting and sculpting, though they all sound excellent and at least use flat response as a starting point. But Etymotic's ER4 XR earphones win our Editors' Choice and our highest rating, delivering a standard of accuracy blended with listenability that is rare and most welcome.
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By Tim Gideon Contributing Editor, Audio
Contributing Editor Tim Gideon has been writing for PCMag since 2006. He specializes in reviewing audio products, and is obsessed with headphones, speakers, and recording gear. More »
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