Noise Isolation – Music Appreciation

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Young woman using earphones.

Review of Etymotic ER4SR Earphones

There are basically four ways to listen to music; Live, over-the-ear headphones, open-air headphones or earphones.  Until now, I’ve thought the over-the-ear headphones, especially the Bose active noise-canceling headphones, were the best, but now I’m thinking otherwise.  The Bose and other active noise-canceling devices have microphones that listen for noise.  By reversing the polarity of that noise and inserting the “opposite of noise” into your ears, the noise is canceled out.

But I just got my hand (and ears) around the Etymotic ER4SR earphones, which depend on the simple technique of isolating ALL sound from your ear canal, and then inserting just the sounds you want.

Mead Killion, Ph.D., founded Etymotic Research in 1983 to design products that accurately assess hearing, improve the lives of those with hearing loss, protect hearing, and enhance the listening experience of musicians and music lovers.  Etymotic invented insert earphones in 1984 with an original earphone design which used balanced armature receivers.  These speakers became the gold standard for high definition in-ear earphones and created an entire category of consumer electronics. The ER-4 earphones are still produced and channel-balanced to within 1 dB in Etymotic’s labs in the US.

The sophisticated box for the ER4SP slides open to reveal a thickly padded foam interior worthy of a Smithsonian artifact case.

You can easily test the sound isolating capability of any earphones by inserting them in your ears in a noisy e

Each Etymotic earphone comes with its own frequency printout, executed at the factory before the device goes out the door. This is mine!

nvironment – say near an air conditioner.  The Etymotic ERSR’s standard sound isolators are silicone three-flange eartips through which the unusually long sound production tube extends.  These take a little practice inserting, but once you gently twist them into place a jackhammer would have a hard time disturbing your wa.  If you don’t manage to get used to these isolators, the ERSR comes with two other sizes of silicone eartips, and two sets of simple, foam rubber eartips.


My complimentary review earphones arrived in a very “value added” black box that gave me the immediate feeling that here was something special.  Justified.  After spending about $350 for something you can hold in a closed fist, the packaging should be impressive and the Etymotic folks don’t let you down. The first thing you’re going to find within all the neatly nested boxes is a “performance report.”  This is no joke.  Someone at the factory puts the earphones on a signal generator and several graphs are produced, verifying the frequency responses of your device.  Nice.

There are also two nicely sewn fabric pouches, a small one for the earphones themselves, and a larger one for the small one and all the bits and pieces that come with the unit.  I didn’t use these because my set went right on my backup cell phone by my bed and directly into service serenading me at night and playing CSPAN in the morning.

These are the ER4SR devices up close. Note the long black shafts that get the sounds right smack up to your tympanic Slingerlands.

Results?  Spectacular.  My first playback was a simple tone generator test using the #Pro Audio Tone Generator app from Dutchmatic.  Except for the 4,000 Hz range which I sacrificed by playing in a rock band, the perception of pure sound was just great.  While over-the-ear headphones enclose small pockets of air around your ears within which a certain degree of special presence is created, the Etymotics manage to produce a comparable effect with less than a centimeter of space between their tiny diaphragms and your eardrums. To test this I loaded some loud Bach with a big bass-to-treble range as expressed in Diane Bish’s Sinfonia Cantata 29 on a big ass church organ.  Yes, sir!

This is the entire set. The black case holds all the pieces AND another, smaller black case, just to hold the earphones themselves.

I think I fell asleep with the earphones in on my favorite World Music #Pandora station playing Ginger Baker’s drum solo with Fella Kuti.  In the morning, the physical portion of my left ear hurt a little bit from the lump against the pillow, but I just turned over and switched to #Washington Journal on CSPAN and got ready to write this review over a fresh pot of coffee.  Maybe I’ll try a smaller set of silicone earplugs, but the foam plug substitute?  Not on your life!


George started writing professionally at 16 with an interview of Ray Charles. He founded a leading NYC multilingual…

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