The Elk Grove Village, Illinois-based firm Etymotic Research is arguably one of the oldest, if not the oldest, makers of high performance earphones in the world. Long before Apple created the iPhone or iPod and long before Beats by Dre came into existence, Etymotic was building its iconic, high accuracy ER•4p-series earphones. The operative phrase there “high accuracy”; from day one Etymotic was fiercely committed to building earphones that delivered linear, neutrally balanced and true high-fidelity representations of the recordings being played. In sharp contrast to the tonal ‘flavour-of-the-month-club’ approach we so often encounter these days, Etymotic was, is, and probably ever shall be an accuracy-first earphone maker.
The early ER•4p earphones were marvels of miniaturisation and were among the first commercial earphones to be based upon purpose-built, precision-matched and custom-tuned balanced armature-type drivers (then more uncommon than they are now). The tiny ER•4p’s featured extremely slim cylindrical earpieces fitted, in most cases, with Etymotic’s signature triple-flange silicone ear tips. Remarkably, those earphones offered between 35dB – 42dB of passive noise isolation, making them the world’s first true noise-isolating earphones—ones that even today offer unmatched levels of noise reduction.
While the ER•4p models remain in production today, Etymotic has expanded its product range to include three new families of earphones: the top-of-the-range ER4SR/XR models, the mid-level ER3SE/XR models, and the new entry-level ER2-series models selling for $159 or £169. Present-day ER4 and ER3 models use balanced armature-type drivers, while the ER2 models introduce new high performance dynamic (or moving coil) type drivers. At Etymotic’s suggestion this review focuses on the ER2 models, partly because they are the firm’s newest offerings, but also because they represent the lowest cost means of accessing Etymotic’s famous high accuracy sound.
Like most Etymotic earphones, the ER2s come in two versions: the ER2SE (Studio Edition) that promises dead neutral tonal balance and flat frequency response, and the ER2XR (Extended Response) that adds a generous but not egregious dollop of added bass lift. From the lower midrange on up, the two models sound more or less identical, so that bass output is the real differentiator between the two. Rest assured that whether we are talking about the ER2SE or XR-version earphones, Etymotic simply doesn’t do grotesque sonic colourations; it’s not in their corporate DNA.
Etymotic’s founders were audiologists who have a deep, abiding concern for hearing health and hearing preservation. This concern manifests itself in Etymotic’s commitment to building earphones offering extremely high (35dB – 42dB) levels of noise isolation. Etymotic explains that the ER2 models feature “a variety of ear tips to provide 35dB+ of noise reduction so you will hear all the detail buried in the mix without raising the volume to compensate for ambient noise” (italics are mine).
The ER2SE/XR earphones feature slim, cylindrical metallic blue metal earpieces embossed with white text on the earpiece barrels to indicate which model is which. Accessories include a set of protective filters and a filter removal tool, a shirt clip, one set of compressible foam and two sets of 3-flange silicone ear tips (sizes M and L), a detachable four-foot signal cable and a compact zipper-closure storage pouch.
For my listening tests I ran the ER2SE and ER2XR earphones in side-by-side comparisons, while driving them with Astell&Kern’s excellent SP1000M digital audio player. The player was loaded with standard and high-res PCM and DSD music files and also provided access, via Tidal, to a wealth of MQA material. Here are my findings.
First, as a long-term user of Etymotic ER•4p-series earphones, I was struck by the strong sonic family resemblance between the classic ER•4p’s and the new and far more affordable ER2-series earphones. The ER2’s carry forward Etymotic’s traditional deep-insertion ear tip and earpiece design motif (more on this later), but they introduce slightly revised (and nominally more comfortable) versions of the firm’s signature triple-flange ear tips. The ER2’s also feature detachable and user replaceable signal cables—a feature the venerable ER•4p’s did not have.