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Etymotic ER4XR IEM Review

Rate this IEM:

  • 1. Poor (headless panther)

    Votes: 39 24.8%
  • 2. Not terrible (postman panther)

    Votes: 71 45.2%
  • 3. Fine (happy panther)

    Votes: 32 20.4%
  • 4. Great (golfing panther)

    Votes: 15 9.6%

  • Total voters
    157
I remember when the ER4’s were the reference for neutral IEMs. Oh how times have changed. Even though my go-to now are the Zero Reds, I still have my ER4XR’s with me because they’re great for listening to audiobooks/interviews and I’ve yet to use anything that beat them for isolation..
 
From what I can tell, Amir tests all IEMs at 94, 104, and 114dB SPL.

You can click through all IEM reviews here to confirm:


Not sure what you mean by differentiate.

THD % is simply the gap between the fundamental dB SPL and THD dB SPL, converted from dB to %.

It's the same data, presented in a different manner.
Right but how do you read it when its not in %?
 
I still have my ER4S which I used with a CD walkman and portable amplifier from the company I bought them from, forgotten the company now. I found them uncomfortable and ended up getting moulded earpieces made at my audiologist.
I hate listening on earphones/IEMs but was travelling for work all the time so I was stuck with it for decades.

One thing I did notice over the years was that IEMs encouraged the build up of ear wax for me. I needed treatment from time to time but not at all since I stopped using them. Ordinary headphones seem to be OK too.
 
Right but how do you read it when its not in %?
Bigger vertical gap between fundamental and HD -> Less distortion.
KZ Castor Tuning Adjustable Dynamic Dual Driver Earphone IEM Harman Target 2 THD distortion me...png
 
I'm pretty bummed out to see this review. I've been using Etymotics for around 20 years, mainly in professional environments -- used them when I was working as a boom op for commercial video, as a live sound engineer for PFL listening in noisy environments, and once when I was on tour with a band I mixed an entire record with the ER4S on the tour bus during drives. Later, after losing my home studio to a fire in 2022, I mixed another record in my crappy temporary apartment on a pair of ER4SRs. The isolation and portability have given me so many opportunities and fun memories. I own 3 pairs of ER4SRs, 2 ER4XRs, and one each of the ER2XR and old ER4S. I had an ER4P and ER6i that I used for so many hundreds of hours that I eventually killed them. I've traveled to 45 countries doing music and have ALWAYS had a pair of Etymotics in my bag.

All that said, just a couple of thoughts here. One is that the insane isolation means that I rarely listen to Etymotics above ~85dBSPL. In studio mixing, it's common to shoot for 85-87dB SPL because "that's where our ears are the flattest." Not a really meaningful statement from a technical standpoint, but 85dB seems to be a good spot to get into a range where you can hear "deeper" into a mix without damaging your ears or creating rapid fatigue that causes you to make bad decisions. I suspect that the distortion inherent to a single BA driver is much less an issue at 85dB SPL than it would seem to be in these tests. Not surprisingly, Etymotic themselves, being in the business of hearing protection, promote the deep isolation as a way to listen at lower SPLs without missing details.

I'll also note that I am not an enjoyer of the Harman IE target, and generally feel it has too much bass. I like the 4XR tuning a lot and am surprised that it measured "flat" here rather than what I *experience* it to be, which is roughly a 3dB shelf above the diffuse field target. That's pretty much my ideal. I *really* like whatever the Etymotic target is, plus about a 3dB shelf below 100Hz. The 4XR gives me that. Harman, to me (after spending decades listening to anechoic-flat monitors in the near field), seems excessively bassy and also missing information in the top octave. (I am 41 and can still hear to 16kHz -- I see an audiologist every year -- this is a result of both careful hearing protection and genetics, apparently). I use Genelec 8351Bs and Neumann KH120IIs for my mix work, at roughly 2m and 1m listening distances, respectively. This is in a treated, medium-sized room (14' x 29'), with DSP correction. I find that the Etymotics are much more representative of what I hear listening to my monitors than any Harman-tuned IEM. I trust them a lot, so it's pretty disappointing to see these measurements.
 
I used to own the er4xr. Tbf they sounded decent . They were a little bass light sure but I recall them having great clarity that didn’t fatigue me. During the dark age of iems, Etymotics stood out compared to other iems that were put out. Also, I am not surprised by the distortion graph. BA drivers don’t do well there. The times have changed and the etymotics are showing their age.
 
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I found the measurements that came with the earphones.
 

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I also found my ER4SR measurement and thought I would share it.

It is interesting that the sensitivity and THD are different from the ER4XR.
 

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I also found my ER4SR measurement and thought I would share it.

It is interesting that the sensitivity and THD are different from the ER4XR.
Interesting also that in your measurements the FR stops at 100Hz.
 
Interesting also that in your measurements the FR stops at 100Hz.
Some time after the ER4SR/XR was released, Etymotic stopped printing the full frequency response.

Maybe to reduce the number of customer returns, who knows.

If you buy one today, it'll come with 0.1-10kHz FR graphs.
 
I'll start with a disclosure: I worked at Etymotic for 18 years and worked on these earphones. I obviously feel a certain bond with them, but I'll do my best to keep my replies on the scientific side of things. I should say that my comments are meant to be a supplement to the review, not necessarily to dispute it.

1.) Treble - The treble is definitely higher than one sees in the Harmon Curve, but follows the Etymotic internal target. It is actually reduced from the original target (diffuse field at the ear). The ER-4B is more directly fit to the diffuse field, but most users found it bright. We conducted an internal study and found that most commercial recordings added a treble emphasis, so we could reduce the treble by a defined amount and still call it accurate. In the end, our fundamental target was always accuracy to the record, not to a preference curve. For right or wrong, Harmon is a preference curve and it wasn't our target (Plus, this was all done a couple of decades before the Harmon Curve existed). There is a paper on the research we did and the application of the results in modifying the target curve, but I don't seem to have a copy anymore. It's out there somewhere.

2.) Bass - Believe it or not, I had a hell of a time even getting the 4XR going as the Etymotic ethos at the time railed against anything that was intentionally inaccurate (which a bass boost is). The earlier ER4P model wasn't purely a bass boost, it was an overall frequency tilt that brought the bass up a bit and the treble down via an impedance reduction. It was an internal concession at the time to portable players (particularly portable CD players) that had incredibly wimpy output stages). As far as the bass bump level, well that was what we wanted. We wanted a subtle increase that still felt in line with an accurate IEM. We implemented a larger bump with the ER2XR, which also has the advantage of being a moving coil that has greater diaphragm excursion, which is one of the limits of the ED sized receiver that we used in the ER4XR. Keeping to the ED sized receiver helps facilitate the deeper insertion that Etymotic is notorious for. This allows for greater isolation, but obviously the deep fit works great for some but not for others.

3.) THD - There are some limitations to a small single BA driver and THD is one of them. You can definitely reduce distortion by going with a multiple driver system or switching to a larger receiver, but you'd also lose some of what makes an ER4 an ER4. Also, I should note that 114dB is VERY loud; at that point, you are starting to run into saturation of the driver itself. Also, at that level, the distortion inherent in the human hearing system is pretty high (~10% if IIRC), so I am not too worried about Amir's findings there.

4.) Sensitivity on Printouts - There was a point where we transitioned manufacturing to a new test system and, quite frankly, the engineering team screwed up. The drive voltage switched from 200mV to 100mV (which we used for everything else). As such, some of the printouts have a sensitivity that is 6dB lower, even though the sensitivity of the earphones is nominally the same.
 
Bass - Believe it or not, I had a hell of a time even getting the 4XR going as the Etymotic ethos at the time railed against anything that was intentionally inaccurate (which a bass boost is).
How does one accurately and objectively translate a concert's or mastering studio's visceral bass response and whole-body sensation into an IEM?

I think that has always been a pain point with my ER4XR.

Its flat bass response may be accurate to the recording from a theoretical point of view, but to my ears, it simply doesn't reproduce the perceived sound of the recording played back on a neutral loudspeaker system.

Perhaps similarly to how an anechoically flat loudspeaker may sound great indoors, but thin and unnatural outdoors.

IMO, we tilt open-air PA systems warm to restore perceived balance, just as most IEMs nowadays shelve bass up to restore perceived balance.
 
How does one accurately and objectively translate a concert's or mastering studio's visceral bass response and whole-body sensation into an IEM?

I think that has always been a pain point with my ER4XR.

Its flat bass response may be accurate to the recording from a theoretical point of view, but to my ears, it simply doesn't reproduce the perceived sound of the recording played back on a neutral loudspeaker system.

Perhaps similarly to how an anechoically flat loudspeaker may sound great indoors, but thin and unnatural outdoors.

IMO, we tilt open-air PA systems warm to restore perceived balance, just as most IEMs nowadays shelve bass up to restore perceived balance.

I think that's a reasonable question. Personally, I've always appreciated a bit more low end, which is why I pushed to do the EVO multi-driver, as well as other designs that never saw the light of day. That said, I've never had any IEM or headphone replace the tactile feel of actually being at a live concert where I can feel my body physically resonate. I'm not really sure I totally want that experience at home either, but I will concede that opinions vary there.

My primary argument for increased bass was less about recreating the tactile feel of a (likely too loud) live environment and more towards the Fletcher Munsen loudness curves of just how our ears perceive sound. One of the advantages of a deep sealing, high isolating IEM is that you can listen at a lower level, in which case the brain perceives a reduction in bass.
 
How does one accurately and objectively translate a concert's or mastering studio's visceral bass response and whole-body sensation into an IEM?

I think that has always been a pain point with my ER4XR.

Its flat bass response may be accurate to the recording from a theoretical point of view, but to my ears, it simply doesn't reproduce the perceived sound of the recording played back on a neutral loudspeaker system.

Perhaps similarly to how an anechoically flat loudspeaker may sound great indoors, but thin and unnatural outdoors.

IMO, we tilt open-air PA systems warm to restore perceived balance, just as most IEMs nowadays shelve bass up to restore perceived balance.
Speaking of Etys, for me the ER2XR gets the bass pretty much right. My only quibble is that I feel the bass shelf starts a little too soon, so I use a graphic equalizer to reduce the 270 Hz band by a couple of dB. Flat bass response in an IEM (I owned an HF5 for years) for me simply doesn't convey the same sensation as bass in a concert hall. Psychoacoustics have to be accounted for in any useful definition of accuracy which is why I feel Harman took the right approach.
 
Speaking of Etys, for me the ER2XR gets the bass pretty much right. My only quibble is that I feel the bass shelf starts a little too soon, so I use a graphic equalizer to reduce the 270 Hz band by a couple of dB. Flat bass response in an IEM (I owned an HF5 for years) for me simply doesn't convey the same sensation as bass in a concert hall. Psychoacoustics have to be accounted for in any useful definition of accuracy which is why I feel Harman took the right approach.
If you'd like, try the PEQ preset attached below for a slightly refined bass response.

2dB less midbass, 1dB more subbass, nothing major:
Etymotic ER2XR (oratory1990) vs static IEM target.png

The preset only corrects <600Hz.
 

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A question I’m really curious about: what’s the *#*%¥ about bass and Ety’s deep insertion?
I’ve read eternal flames theories about: deep insertion = better contact with the “bony” part of the ear canal = no need for that much bass…

Is there any truth to that? Is it flat out wrong and it’s only about noise isolation? Or is it some trade secret you can’t discuss? :D
 
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