Etymotic ER6i In Ear Monitors
Go stick it in your ear!
Review By Jeff Poth
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I miss my office. Sometimes it was
peaceful and I had a CD changer and a Van Alstine version Dynaco ST70, a sub and
some lovely speakers. Sadly those benefits are gone, as is the supply of Vegex.
My new position offers me a cubicle, no unique food products, and a distinct
lack of personal space to enjoy music. On the other hand, it's an excuse to get
some headphones for use at my cube and in the gym, so we have to look at the
hi-fi lining to this cloud!
Enter Etymotic Research. This company was one of
the early builders of quality in-ear headphones. Having been in this hi-fi thing
a while, I spoke to an acquaintance of mine there who recommended the er6i as
being generally preferred to the er6, particularly for portable apps and
high-background noise environments. Since I'd be mostly using these in my
relatively noisy cubicle *sigh* and the gym, it seemed a perfect match.
Upon receiving the phones and a variety of
earpieces (the Etymotic people are wise enough to have a variety of tips
available for their phones) I settled on the smaller white ones as the best fit
and had at it. Most of my playback was done with an iAudio 7 player. This device
was selected for having flac playback and known for high sound quality
(including an excellent set of audio options). Flac is my preferred lossless
format for the digital rips of my CDs which I playback through either a music
server (Roku M500 or Slim Devices Duet) or the iaudio player.
Naturally, I was excited to try these out, and
the er6i did not disappoint. With a good seal (I have to moisten them prior to
insertion for this) the noise isolation is stunning. I can avoid listening to
the idiot box that's always on in the gym, or lay down with my headamp by my
side, shut my eyes and be totally relaxed and focused on my music, without any
distraction. This lack of external noise made an incredibly low noise floor, and
thus amazing detail retrieval. This is one of the things that make people want
to crank their stereos, is to overcome ambient noise. With the er6i, this was
not necessary by any stretch, they were able to sound dynamic and enjoyable at
lower levels than I have to use with non-isolating phones (open backed or
earbuds). The isolation also enhances some of the advantages headphones have
over loudspeakers. They minimize the necessary transducer size and excursion.
This is a function that's reached by a combination of noise isolation and
proximity to the ear, as SPL is decreased with increasing distance, and
headphones are usually hundreds or thousands of times closer to your ears than a
pair of speakers. This eliminates the need for multiple drivers and crossovers
and the like, all of which push to give headphones significant performance
advantages over even the best loudspeakers.
I spend a great deal of time listening via
phones. My daily workout is an hour, during long drives I often let the wife
drive and pop on some tunes, and on those rare occasions when I have the time to
do nothing else I just sit and relax with my phones and some music. Things
get more impressive with a more serious amp behind them. For this duty I
employed the Bottlehead Enhanced SEX amp, which is a flea powered single-input
SET integrated amp with a resistor-loaded headphone output. The 6DN7s give about
a watt each, more than enough to drive a pair of headphones.
Due to being such effective isolators, these
didn't work for one of my intended uses. In my cube, they were far too effective
at isolating me from noise, and I needed to have better audibility so as not to
be snuck up on by coworkers, miss a phone call, or my boss hollering at me. The
lack of background noise can be disconcerting, and isn't recommended for some
environments, or for people who don't do well with sensory disconnects. By that,
I mean that humans are aware of the acoustic space around them. We have memories
of the way a given space sounds, and have visual impressions that also give us
an idea of how a space should sound. With headphones, you're more removed from
that acoustic environment, but some people are bothered by an awareness that the
space they're in is different than the spatial cues they're picking up from the
Do you like sticking things in your ears?
Applying saliva to little pieces of rubber to ensure a good seal? Seeing what
comes back out when you remove the in-ears? The actual insertion and removal can
be rather unpleasant due to these factors. Case in point, replaceable filters
are designed in, to prevent ‘clogging' of the channels or contamination of the
diaphragm. There is another challenge with noise isolation as well. If you're
going to need to speak to someone, you'll find yourself having to insert and
remove these frequently, which isn't the most pleasant process. I find these to
be more useful for longer listening sessions.
Many of these headphone's strengths are due to
the format, likewise, the downsides noted above are the same. Sonically, they
are superb, and rate along with the better Stax I've heard in terms of overall
sound quality, but with a distinct character of their own. Essentially they're
more even-handed and ‘clean' but without quite as much transparency and sense
of ease. They're designed with the inside-ear environment in mind, and indeed
include a resonant peak to compensate for a loss of said resonance from the ear
canal when something is inserted. They're clean, involving, and absolutely
enjoyable. I highly recommend these for people who don't have to frequently
interrupt a listening session and aren't bothered overmuch by the downsides. A
plane, train, or long car ride (as a passenger) makes these phones heavenly, as
they dramatically reduce environmental noise. Likewise, for a completely
immersive one person listening session they're great. Overall, despite the
challenges above, I heartily recommend these, as they're the most performance I've
heard at this price point, and punch well above their weight.