Etymotic Research ER-4S Canal Phone earspeakers Page 3

But these aren't one-trick ponies. The sound overall is vivid and transparent. Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade, the audiophile recording company, claims that much of the clarity and impact of his productions is due to his custom PZM microphones, which feature capsules with tiny diaphragms—less mass to push, you know. It makes sense; certainly when I listen to his remarkable recordings I'm inclined to believe anything he says on the subject.

Well, the ER-4Ses benefit from that in reverse. These babies are fast! Kendra Shank's Afterglow (Mapleshade 02132 CD) perfectly illustrates both Sprey's talent and the ER-4Ses' ability to bring it to life. This CD is one of the most realistic vocal albums I've ever heard—Shank sounds alive and embodied, as physical as breath. Her band, which consists of Larry Willis on piano (a Steinway Model O), Steve Novosel on bass, and Steve Williams on trap-set, is joined by Gary Bartz on alto sax for "Paris Bossa." All of the signifiers are there: the sheen of brass on Williams's cymbals (and silver from the triangle); the creaking of Willis's piano bench; the breathiness of Bartz's sax; the slight catch of Shank's voice. And, I should add, the 24dB reduction in room noise makes them seem even more present than when listening on my main system. I almost wrote "so real it's eerie," but "awe" is truer to my response.

Still and all, you give nothing up in terms of sheer power—if that's what you're looking for. Frequently (very frequently), that's exactly what I'm looking for, and then I pull out Corigliano's Symphony 1 (Erato 61132-2, CD), with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Barenboim. This superb recording features orchestral tuttis capable of blowing the roof off a concert hall, interspersed with melodies heard from a distance, as if in memory. Holy guacamole, how can they fit all of that inside my head? The power and the majesty of the CSO at full-tilt boogie is portrayed to perfection by the ER-4Ses, but never at the expense of the quiet (offstage) piano and cello reveries.

In fact, this is probably a good time to caution all headphone listeners—but most especially those using transducers capable of as much power as the Etymotics—to be really, really careful about listening at extreme volume. Etymotic, because of their experience in the hearing-aid industry, can actually give specific guidelines, and they point out that there are limits to the amount of time you can safely listen at high outputs—limits that change drastically based on loudness.

For example, they cite 16 hours/day as the safe limit for listening at 85dB, but only one half hour for 110dB! Having said that, I should also point out that, by the nature of the ER-4S's ambient noise reduction—spec'd at 24dB by the company, which feels about right—one tends to listen to the Etymotics at lower levels. As a city dweller, I've measured my own listening environment as having an ambient noise level of 35-42dB, so it's probable that I actually listen to music at much lower levels through the ER-4Ses.

The sum of all our ears
I do have a couple almost petty caveats, but they do belong in any discussion of these 'phones. The first concerns the stiff, very microphonic cabling used in the ER-4Ses. As it rubs against your clothing or bumps into objects, it transmits every sound with remarkable clarity straight into your head—and through bone conduction directly into your ears. It can get awfully loud in there. Etymotic supplies you with a clothing clip, and I strongly encourage any ER-4 listener to very carefully dress the cable to minimize contact with buttons, zippers, and other potentially percussive objects.

My second warning concerns snacking: you wouldn't believe how noisy eating potato chips can be while wearing the ER-4Ses! Wow, you won't do that a second time. Actually, it's not just brittle foods that can intrude on your sonic landscape; swallowing liquids, heavy breathing, and everyday borborygmus can become quite audible when the outside world is reduced by 24dB. Lastly, while I didn't find the Etymotics uncomfortable, neither was I ever unaware of their presence in my ear canals. For comfortable, in-home listening, I still prefer my Sennheiser HD-580s by a very wide margin; they compare favorably sonically, as well.

However, there are situations in which the Sennheisers—and practically every other high-end headset out there—just won't function at their optimum. These include high-noise environments, situations in which the sonic bleed-through of open-backed designs is undesirable, and times when, because of physical activity, normal headsets would become dislodged. For recording engineers, I think the ER-4Ses would be an indispensable tool—isolation plus accuracy make a difficult combination to top. For travelers, I can't recommend anything more highly. They help me arrive more rested—through the reduction of rumble—and in a great mood, since I've amused myself on my journey.

I've spoken to folks who use them while vigorously working and working out, and they all rave about them—although I wouldn't recommend them to joggers or bicyclists, because they're too good at isolating you from your environment to be considered safe. If I have any quibble about them, it concerns long-term comfort, and that problem can seemingly be solved—although at a cost of $100 or more—by having custom ear-molds made. (I'll try this and get back to you.)

If you're looking for high-quality headphones for home listening, the Etymotic ER-4Ses deserve to be included on your short list. They're accurate, transparent, and fast—and, properly seated, capable of bone-jarring bottom-end.

If you're not planning on staying home, though, and want to take high-quality listening into places where it just hasn't been possible before—well, I'm not even sure you have another choice. It really is that simple.

Etymotic Research
61 Martin Lane
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007
(708) 228-0006