Review: Etymotic ER4-XR & ER4-SR – Impressive!

Sound

When you’re used to listening to warmer or bass heavier IEMs, like most people do, you’ll be in for quite the surprise when plugging in these neutrally tuned inears. At the same time you easily and quickly get used to the sound signature of the Etymotic ER4, simply because they sound so good. Once you’re used to the top quality sound of the ER4-series, going back to thicker, slower, bass heavier and warmer sounding IEMs actually is very hard.

The ER-4 XR and SR certainly are among the most clean, clear and precisely tuned monitors I’ve had the pleasure to listen to. They’re detailed, fast and have the best possible separation and spacious presentation you can imagine. If you don’t believe that more analytic gear can sound musical, I suggest you listen to the Etymotic ER4-series as they will immediately prove you wrong.

Back in 2010, we described the ER4-series as follows and that description still is perfectly valid today:

The ER4 has a very specific sound that is very polarizing. Comments on ER4’s sound range from bright, sibilant, thin, lifeless, baseless to clear, accurate, and detailed. However, after having the ER4 for a long time, I will describe the ER4’s sound as articulate, pristine, quick, and precise, though definitely a little on the thin side in the sub-bass area. There are so many things that the ER4 does really well, and it all adds up to a sense that you are listening to the music using a precision instrument. You get a feeling that you are hearing all the clarity and details that you have never heard in your music before, as if the music is injected straight into your brain without the obstruction of air. Each sound and instrument is very distinct and separate from each other, and you easily can listen to and focus to each instrument and sound in the music.

The difference between the SR and XR models mainly can be found in the bass region although the treble – looking at the measurements that came with the XR – is a tad further extended as well. According to Etymotic, the ER4-SR is the most accurate in-ear earphone delivering a flat response across all frequencies while the ER4-XR has high accuracy, but with slightly enhanced bass. When I first got these I mixed them both up and started listening to them while not looking at which one I was listening to. My preferred tuning and model turned out to be Etymotic’s ER4-XR version which has the slight bass boost as you can see in the frequency comparison. But in all fairness the difference between both models isn’t that big.

Bass in both models is fast, tight and precise with an excellent level of detail. The difference is that it is slight boosted on the XR model. The flattest frequency curve is that of the Studio model so if it’s absolute neutrality you seek, go for the that version. The XR-version sounds a bit more musical as the bass impact is bigger and it’s easier to like, especially if you’re used to bigger bass sounding IEMS. The XR will however make it easier for you to listen to the SR once you’ve adjusted to their sound. The only “bad” thing I can say about the bass is that it doesn’t have that typical rumble down low which a dynamic driver delivers. Bass focus is on the upper bass and lower bass in the mids section.

The mids are rich, detailed, clear and clean just like the bass is. Aside again the depth there’s nothing bad to say about them. Balance is perfect, there’s an excellent L/R separation and you get a very dynamic presentation. The treble section probably is where the Etymotic ER-4 series really shine even more. Incredible detail, precision, speed and extension. You get realistic and excellent sounding treble that is not fatiguing or harsh.

Multiple (and way more expensive) BA design monitors will give you better depth, deeper bass and better layering but with only one BA-driver in use, the sound quality of the ER4’s bass, mids and treble simply is ridiculously good.

Driveability & Sources

From the Astell&Kern KANN you get good body from bass to mids with good bass impact, especially on the XR. The KANN is a somewhat smoother and warmer sounding DAP and that shows when listening to the ER4’s. It does make them easier to listen to, so a lot of people will like this combination with a powerful musical sound.

The Fiio’s X5III body-wise is a bit lighter than the KANN but you still get a smoother and maybe slower yet musical sound in the end. I actually prefer this combination over the KANN setup as it sounds more energetic. The Cayin N3 is very energetic and dynamic sounding and the ER4’s sound fast, clear and precise. The clarity is also the best of the before mentioned DAPs and I absolutely love the little N3. Bass is a little lighter but has pretty good layering, mids are rich and spacious and treble is spot on. This combination is very good. Fiio’s X7 with AM3 module installed is clean, clear, fast and precise. The X7 shows more detail than the N3 and the depth is better as well. To me this is the best DAP for the Etymotic ER4-series.

With the Alo Audio CV5 connected to the Fiio X7’s line out you get a very rich sound with superb mids. The bass has a little more body and the treble is softer, it’s an easy combination to like as it’s pleasant to the ears and not fatiguing in any way. With Fiio’s A5 IEM amplifier you get a wide and airy sound but it doesn’t sound as rich as the CV5. With the bass boost off, bass is very light and the voices are a little too forward. With the bass boost turned on however, bass gets a little bloated and loose. I don’t really find the Fiio A5 to be a good match for the Etymotic ER4’s but it does depend on the music you’re listening to as well. Pop music in example with the bass boost on sounded very engaging.

One of the devices I liked the ER4-series a lot with is the Chord Mojo. It has great extension and balance, with a detailed, clean and clear sound. Bass has the right amount of impact, the mids are incredibly rich and the treble is energetic and dynamic. The AudioQuest DragonFly RED is my other favorite source (used via Roon) and like the Mojo this combination simply works. There’s a little more bass compared to the Mojo but you get even more mid-section richness in return. Overall the RED sounds more musical but the Mojo is the best for what technicalities is concerned. I do like the treble more on the Mojo though.

Conclusion

What a nice and pleasant surprise and experience listening to the Etymotic ER4-series has been. My ears and brain very quickly got used to the sublime level of clarity and cleanness and going back to other IEMs was quite the challenge. The ER4’s precision and speed is remarkable and it clearly shows Etymotic has all the experience to make this happen.

The Etymotic ER4-XR and SR both sound incredibly good and looking at their price, they’re an absolute steal. I absolutely recommend everyone to get one of these at least once to experience the Etymotic sound signature. You can’t call yourself an audiophile if you haven’t 😉

But seriously though: Etymotic, I love you.

 

Review: Etymotic ER4-XR & ER4-SR – Impressive!
3.9 (77.22%) 36 vote[s]

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

28 Comments

  • Reply June 6, 2017

    Guntis

    One problem remains — frequency response. 16 kHz is too low. Maybe I can’t fully hear so high frequencies, but I can feel that the treble is lacking the sparkle at the top end.

    P.S. Another possible problem — quaility of the outer isolation material of the cords. I had hf3 headset, after 5 years cord isolation broke apart (headset was kept in its original pouch) and headset becamse useless.

    • Reply June 7, 2017

      Icarus89

      16KHz is all the treble extension you will practically ever need in an iem. And trust me, the ER4 does better in the 10-16KHz range than the vast majority of iems today, most of which usually show a drop off after 10KHz.

    • Reply July 19, 2019

      JP

      16Khz isn’t what gives you ‘sparkle’. If anything, presence above 13-14k gives a feeling of ‘airiness’, where 5-6k and 10-12k are more responsible for high end presence and sparkle. The tuning is usually more at fault than the frequency range covered when it comes to high end perception.

  • Reply June 7, 2017

    Dave

    1) If you think 16kHz is a problem you’re probably kidding yourself. Most males over 18 can’t hear that high; most recordings have little energy above ~10kHz anyway. The usual practice is to quote ’20-20K’ (no +/-tolerance given) because that is ‘the (official) range of human hearing’. It’s always been theoretical more than practical. Etymotic’s spec is based on measurement, not just pulling a number out of a hat. I applaud their honesty. ‘Headphone X’ that lists ’20-20K’ probably is no better in this regard; they’re most likely just saying what they think people want to hear. The ‘sparkle’ probably actually happens at a lower frequency than you think, but may be a valid point.
    2) I have hf’s also (about 2 yrs) and hope they hold up; the user-replaceable cable on these is a very attractive feature.

    • Reply September 5, 2018

      Steven Zore

      I run burn in tones on my Fiios X7 II, using Shure 846’s and I can hear past 20KHz. Not ‘loud’ at that frequency, but I can hear it.

      • Reply July 19, 2019

        JP

        Are you an infant or a mutant? Because thats probably the only way you could hear 20KHz. That said, if you can hear it consider it a privilege. I can sense ‘energy’ up to 17k but tonality starts to fall apart after 16 for me. In a testing environment I can reach a tad higher. I’ve found that nearly all IEM’s, regardless of what the paperwork says, tend to crap out about 15-17k max. Most have very little output past 14k despite saying 20Hz-20KHz on the box. When playing a frequency generator off a pro console through them, almost none give representation at 16k and only one or two pairs could be heard at 17k.

  • Reply June 8, 2017

    NMA

    Hi Lieven,

    Wanted someones professional opinion on this, is there any point getting a pair like these for using mostly with an Iphone on the go? I had a pair of HF3s which were brilliant, and lasted ages. Apart from the sound love the level of noise isolation.

    Now that they have died ive been offered to upgrade to these at decent price – do you think its worth the bother, or will it just be overkill?

    • Reply June 12, 2017

      Lieven

      No I do think you should upgrade to the XR. 🙂

      • Reply June 13, 2017

        NMA

        Thanks, thats what I wanted to hear 😀

  • Reply June 18, 2017

    Hynek

    Hi Lieven,

    thanks for such a nice review. I was wondering, if you could compare these to Etymotic’s hf5. I have had hf5 for few years (and I’m quite happy with them, I like the sound and the overall build), but you know, always looking for something better :-). Is XR or SR is closer to hf5? My primary source is usually ipod classic, sometimes paired with fiio e07k.

    Thanks!

    • Reply June 20, 2017

      Lieven

      I’m sorry but I don’t have the HF5

  • Reply June 24, 2017

    riku

    Great review Lieven.

    I would agree that the XR are far from being just analytical and are incredibly musical to listen to. I’m not sure whether I prefer these or the new q-jays though, both with incredible separation for the price. I would love to know how they compare to the Final F7200, if anyone has them.

  • Reply September 4, 2017

    Ben

    Compare with UE TF 10. Etymotic can be better for rock music ? Can you give me any option.. Tks

  • Reply November 28, 2017

    Richard

    Hi Lieven – I have the ER4 XR and love it, what do you think would be the next ‘big upgrade’ for people who love the ER4 XR? I’m finding the jump into the $1k+ does not bring more clarity or detail, maybe a little more separation, definitely more sound stage/ imaging and definitely more defined bass. It is definitely not like the jump from $100 IEMs that I experienced going to the ER4 XR.

    • Reply November 28, 2017

      Lieven

      That is difficult as the Etymotic is so unique in what it does. Have you tried the Beyerdynamic Xelento?

      • Reply November 28, 2017

        Richard

        Hi Lieven thanks for replying – well the alternative question might be ‘if I kept the ER4 XR’ what would be the high end complementary IEM?

        I have auditioned the k10 encore, andromeda, Vega (not resolved enough). The andromeda was very fun with a much deeper bass than the k10 – the k10 is like a full sounding ER4 in many ways.

  • Reply January 7, 2018

    Jonathan

    How would these compare to the Westone W30?

  • Reply January 9, 2018

    Petros

    Hello , which version is like HD800 and can be used for classical music?

  • Reply July 13, 2018

    Augusto

    Cable is melting away, I have 10 dllr headphones not suffering from this issue…what a shame for otherwise great headphones

  • Reply September 18, 2018

    Steven Zore

    I have the XR and I am not a fan. This sizzly high end sounds like someone put ground glass in my ear…. Yuck!

    • Reply September 18, 2018

      Lieven

      It’s a matter of getting used to it. Or just get old, like me 😉

      • Reply September 18, 2018

        John Churn

        Haha I second that & I have tinnitus too. High end sound tame to me.

  • Reply October 22, 2018

    Ralph Gerard

    Interesting, the build is a tad better than the x10 image I own.

  • Reply November 6, 2018

    GPW

    Which one would say works best with X5iii? the XR or the SR?

    I bought fiio F9 Pro’s for my X5 iii but I’m now regretting it and your review is making me seriously considering switching to the ER4

  • Reply November 12, 2018

    Sagar Shah

    Can you compare etymotic ER4-XR with A&K billie jean?

  • Reply May 20, 2019

    Howard Olsen

    I came across these ER4XRs while trying to decide if I should go for the new BGVP DM7s. I’ve got the Shure SE535s with a new set Knowles filters in them and they do sound very good but I started toying with the idea upgrading to the S846. but then come along these DM7s and In my research I found several comparisons between them and 835s and the Etymotic ER4XR …. so now I have decided I’m going to get a new set of IEMs and convert my 535s to BT with a ES100 for use in Gym and Cycling…… If you could only have 1 IEM and your choice was the ER4XR, DM7 or SE835 which would it be? I think we’ve reached the place where price can no longer be considered an indicator of SQ (at least in this $300 to $800 range). Thanks

    • Reply May 22, 2019

      Lieven

      well they’re very different in sound and budget. IF I would get to choose just one, it would be a custom IEM to be honest. But hmmm, Etymotic!

  • Reply May 25, 2019

    Howard Olsen

    Done.. Ordered! Thank you. I love the 535s can’t wait to hear the Etys

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