Dead-Finger Tech: Etymotic Research ER-4 earphones

Summary:So-called "dead-finger tech" is usually the one that must be pried from cold fingers — that's how important it is. Instead, here's a choice that must be pulled out of the ears: Etymotic Research's ER-4 earphones.

So-called "dead-finger tech" is usually the one that must be pried from cold fingers — that's how important it is. Instead, here's a choice that must be pulled out of the ears: Etymotic Research's ER-4 earphones.

All day long, I listen to music, podcasts and audiobooks on my collection of iPods. At the same time, I worry about my hearing. Even with Apple's volume guards activated, it's very easy to jack up the volume with ordinary earbuds, especially in noisy environments (street and office) or very-noisy places such as airplanes.

For more than a year and a half, I've used Etymotic Research's $299 ER-4 earphones on a daily basis. If I'm not listening, they are clipped to my shirt.

Some folks may protest at the price of these earphones, which likely cost more than the iPod player they are plugged into. I don't understand that argument — there is a big difference in the sound produced by an inexpensive pair of earphones or headphones than that from a device like the ER-4. Isn't the quality of the hearing and the listening important? Then again, I run Macintosh computers instead of PCs. 'Nuff said.

The sound produced by these earphones is brilliant and clean. For my taste, there's plenty of bass with a clear, open midrange and top.

I would characterize the sound a bit dryer (or "less-warm") than other earphones I've heard, such as the precursor to Shure's current SE 210 and SE310 earphones, which I owned and liked. The appreciation of quality is a matter of personal taste and I suggest anyone considering noise isolation earphones try the Shure lines, which are excellent products.

Dead-Finger Tech: Etymotic Research ER-4

The Etymotic Research ER-4 with 3-flange eartips.

In addition, the ER-4 is the most comfortable pair of earphones that I've owned. Over the past 7 years, I’ve purchased many different brands and styles of the passive earphones, including entry-level, prosumer and professional flavors from Apple, Etymotic, Sennheiser, Shure and Ultimate Ears. Some were uncomfortable. I find that I can wear the ER-4s all day long with no problems. (Note that I bought all of these earphones; no testing models here.)

Check out: A vote for passive noise isolation, not active reduction

There is a trick to inserting these in-ear devices correctly (Etymotic now has a video about this).  When I'm puttering around the house, I usually have one of the earphones sealed deeply and the other just resting in my ear, which lets me hear ambient sounds, such as my wife trying to get my attention. Etymotic says that the 3-flange rubber eartips can cut down 35dB of noise and up to 42dB with the foam eartips; I don't care for the foam versions.

Etymotic's customer service is also excellent. One of the wires in my earphones developed a fault after a year of use and the company fixed it for free — I sent it back to them and they actually swapped out the wires.

I've long been a proponent of noise isolation technology over noise reduction systems (also called noise-canceling) for playing mobile music. Isolation blocks out the noise by sealing the ear canal — in other words sticks something way inside your year. These earphones offer a chance to provide better sound with fewer artifacts than canceling technology (none really ) and it is greener, since it uses no batteries.

Read: More notes on the active-passive noise cancellation debate

Topics: Mobility


David Morgenstern has covered the Mac market and other technology segments for 20 years. In the recent past, he founded Ziff-Davis' Storage Supersite, served as news editor for Ziff Davis Internet and held several executive editorial positions at eWEEK. In the 1990s, David was editor of Ziff Davis' award-winning MacWEEK news publication a... Full Bio

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