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.
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.