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iPod Accessory Reviews: headphones

Etymotic ER-6i Isolator Earphones

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Reviewed April, 2006 by Jacob Spindel, Chief iPod Correspondent

Even if you have all the great music from all your favorite artists on the iTunes Music Store, your iPod will be of limited use if your earbuds produce poor quality sound or are easily drowned out by outside noise. Since iPods are probably the most luxurious audio player, they deserve luxurious earbuds too, preferably with high quality output that can resist being overwhelmed by surrounding noises. If you're looking into the luxury earbud market, the Etymotic Research ER-6i earbuds are a new contender for you to consider.

Etymotic ER6i earphones



Etymotic's latest earphones are aimed at a pro-level audience, providing high quality output while blocking out ambient noise. The earbuds certainly look good on paper: Etymotic says that they feature a frequency response range of 20 Hz to 16 kHz, with an impedance of 16 Ohms and a maximum output of 120 dB. The 5 ft cord has a built-in shirt clip and leads to a standard 3.5 mm stereo plug.

Like many high-end earbuds, the ER-6i is meant to be inserted directly into the ear canal, and includes multiple eartips you can choose from for an ideal fit. Underneath the eartips, each earbud has a filter designed to smooth the frequency response of the earbud. A tool is included for changing the filters; the filters are replaceable, but not reusable once they have been removed.

Besides looking good on paper, the ER-6i earbuds also look pretty good themselves. The earbuds, which include an elegantly designed storage pouch with a zipper, are available in a white color that complements iPods well (a version in black is also available). Each earbud has a transparent area with an easy-to-see "L" or "R" printed on it. This makes it easy to tell the two channels apart while also giving a glimpse into the underlying technology. So the Etymotics definitely do well in the "style" category as well—so how do they sound?


I tested the Etymotic ER-6i earbuds with several different types of music and audio to get a feel for their overall abilities. Here are my results:

A cappella/vocal: Thanks to their extensive use of higher-pitch notes, most a cappella tracks worked well with the ER-6i earbuds. The lead singers received a strong emphasis without washing out the background vocals.

Rap/R&B: Although the earbuds produced a good level of clarity that made even smaller details noticeable, I found that the bass output was not as good as other high-end earbuds, and in fact many moderately priced speaker systems have significantly better bass than the ER-6i's do. Since bass is especially important for many rap and R&B songs, the earbuds proved to be less than ideal for this type of music.

Podcast/voice: No problems here. Most podcasts have low bit rates and limited quality already, but advanced earbuds like these are able to make the best of what limited quality podcasts do have. Voices were easy to understand and accurately reproduced.



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Country: Many country songs extensively use mid-range tones, and the ER-6i's did well with this type of song. Both the lead singers and the backup music came through with a strong level of detail without fading into a background "blur" of sounds that aren't very distinct from one another (which can sometimes happen with cheaper earbuds).

Rock/Pop: Most rock and pop songs also suffered due to limited bass output. Although the foreground audio sounded fine, the subtler background details were not brought to light as well as with some other high-end earbuds.

Rather than requiring a battery for noise cancellation circuitry, the ER-6i's take a simpler approach by using their in-ear eartips to block and absorb ambient noise. I found that this worked to some extent, but even some other earbuds using this "simple" approach have reduced noise more than the ER-6i's did in my testing.


Sound Advice

Although I hate to admit it, I think I've become spoiled. The XtremeMac FS1 earbuds (which I reviewed here) produced such stunning output quality that the Etymotic ER-6i's, at about the same price, feel somewhat inferior by comparison. The earbuds do well for higher-pitched sounds and are nicely designed with handy accessories, but due especially to their limited bass, personally, I'll stick with the FS1s for now.

Pros: High audio detail level; nicely designed; includes stylish case.

Cons: Very limited bass compared to competing models; noise reduction not as effective as some other earbuds.


Price: $149

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Freq. Response: Frequency response range of 20 Hz to 16 kHz, with an impedance of 16 Ohms and a maximum output of 120 dB.

Cord and Connector: Standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, 5 foot cord.

Colors: Available in white or black.




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