Etymotic ER6i Earphones

Photo ©: Etymotic Research

Audiophile Earphones for Your iPod

By Eric LoBue
Date: July, 2005

If you are one of the more than 30,000,000 unique individuals out there who owns an iPod, then you know that you’re way cooler than the rest of us 6,422,058,382 poor saps who don’t. You’re already practically the legal definition of cool, but what if I told you that you could be even cooler? Distinguish yourself from those 10 million other iPod owners and improve the sound quality of your iPod by upgrading those cheesy earbuds that came with it. Hear what your iPod is capable of.

Etymotic Research is a manufacturer of audiophile earphones and other ear related audio devices. They’ve been in business since 1983, working with a big emphasis on research & development on all aspects of human hearing. Founded and operated by a group of very experienced audiologists, and holding 90 patents with more on the way, it’s safe to assume that they know a thing or two about human hearing. The result is a solid line of high performance earphones. Want proof? Etymotics’ line of earphones has been winning rave reviews here on AudioReview.com and in the press for years now.

So it would seem inevitable that one of the top earphone manufacturers would develop an earphone specifically for the worlds’ top digital audio player. Apple, meet Etymotic. The 6i from Etymotic Research is an in-ear earphone based on Etymotics ER6 model, but customized for portable players. They’re higher sensitivity than Etymotics typical models, making them more easily driven by portable audio players that generally have lower powered headphone outputs. Also, they’re white.

You may have noticed that I have avoided calling these “headphones.” These are what they call “earphones” because they are inserted into your ear canal, sealing it up so that the only sound you hear is what comes out the drivers, the rest of the world is muted.

Listening

I listened to these earphones with several different sources: a Sony Discman, Virgin 5gb Player, Apple iPod, and music from my computer via the Headroom Total Bithead I reviewed a couple weeks ago. I used CD’s, digital audio files (Apple Lossless and MP3), and internet radio. In the Bithead review I described a noise problem I experienced when using the Bithead with these earphones and another type of in ear headphone I have on hand. Because this occurred with both in-ear phones I had on hand, I chalked it up to a compatibility issue between the Bithead and in-ear type phones.

These cans are real performers. They do all that audiophile stuff - very neutral - no frequencies are emphasized over any other for juicy effect. It is like a straight magnification of whatever you are playing. Example: Some might say that there is not a lot of bass, but it's not that they are really lacking bass; they just don't exaggerate the bass. The bass is very much present, very tuneful and quick; it is just not going to overpower you. This is something that I think we’ve grown accustomed today; overemphasized bass and subwoofers with the volume too high. With regards to detail, you get more of that audiophile stuff. Details and background noises that are usually obscured or lost in the background are clearly articulated, creating a nice sonic “soundscape” out of your music that you may not have experienced before.

The result is a very easy going and enjoyable sound - if you've got a good recording and a high bit-rate "rip" of that recording. That's always the flip side of a real audiophile transducer; poor or low bit rate recordings are revealed for just what they are, occasionally making it more difficult to enjoy your music. So if you’re all you are listening to is low bit rate MP3 files, these phones might be overkill for you (This is becoming my standard disclaimer for reviewing digital audio-related components).

Wearing

A good seal is mandatory to getting good sound out of these types of earphones, and that can be difficult to obtain. I was unable to get a seal with the flanged plastic plugs that come pre-installed on the earphones. Without a seal, the sound is tinny and just plain bad. After some time listening and fiddling with them, trying to get that elusive proper seal, I installed the foam earplugs included in the package. Much better. It was much easier to get a seal with the foam plugs, and the sound quality improved tremendously.

The seal is great in situations where you want to block out sound. On an airplane is one of the first places that come to mind. Ever wear conventional headphones on a plane? It can be darn near pointless, with the noise of the plane and others around you forcing you to crank up the volume until you’re threatening serious damage to your ears. With sealed earphones, that’s not a problem anymore. All that obnoxious external noise is blocked out and you’re alone with your music.

The sound quality of these phones, when inserted correctly, was fantastic. In terms of pure sound quality, they easily bested the Sennheiser HD-497 that I own and love (and recently reviewed). But with earphones, that’s not all there is to it. This isn’t just a piece of audio gear; it’s audio gear that you wear. Not only that, you actually have to insert them into a part of your body. Now, for me, anything that has to be inserted anywhere is going to get uncomfortable after a certain amount of time. I usually found that I had to take a break from wearing them after a couple hours. My girlfriend wouldn’t even try them on. Some people will be OK with them; others might not. It is definitely a matter of personal preference and something you should consider before purchasing.

Deciding

If you’re looking to for a really sharp upgrade for your iPod or other portable player, and you can deal with wearing earplugs and blocking out all other noise, the Etymotics are a seriously good set of earphones. The sound quality is great and really can make the most of your portable players’ abilities, without having to add an external amp or a big pair of headphones to clash with your pretty white iPod.

Summary:

Strengths:

  • Superb Sound Quality
  • Tiny and easily portable audiophile headphones
  • Two earplug options

  • Weaknesses:

  • Can become uncomfortable after long listening sessions
  • Can be Difficult to obtain a proper seal
  • Complete isolation of outside sound can limit use

  • Etymotic ER6i Earphones
    $149, available direct from www.Headphone.com.
    Read and Write Reviews of the Etymotic ER6i here.