Sunday, October 07, 2007

Etymotic ER-4P In-Ear Monitors

I had long resisted buying an iPod. As a classical music aficionado, I value quality above all else and I just didn't feel the iPod would live up to my expectations of an audio component. I finally caved when I began a new exercise program that pretty much demanded some form of entertainment to get me through. I went for the 80gb video iPod (of course after a few months, there's a 160gb for the same price). After much research, I knew I would need some quality headphones, not the el cheapo earbuds Apple includes. I settled on the Etymotic ER-4P as the best price/performance in-ear monitors. I needed the isolation from the sounds of my Nordic Track and something that wouldn't slide around on my sweaty head like full-size cans. I did try a few workouts with some Sennheiser 280 Pros and I thought my ears would melt after only 30 minutes! By the way, there are also the ER-4S monitors. These are designed for connection to a headphone amplifier or in-home audio system. There are more difficult to drive and are therefore not suitable for use with portable devices. The P can be converted to the S with the addition of a $60 cable from Etymotic that changes their impedance. If you want to use the S with an iPod, it is recommended to use a headphone amp like the ones available from Headroom. I have read the sound quality with this setup is even better but it's not for the faint of wallet. A cheap headphone amp will run you about $200. Of course if you have the means...

I purchased the ER-4Ps from Amazon a few months ago for $175. This is far better than their $299 MSRP. They arrived promptly as everything from Amazon usually does. Included in a very nice plastic case were the monitors, extra filters with tool, and 2 kinds of earplugs, rubber and foam. The rubber ones are very easy to insert but the seal is a matter of luck depending on the shape and depth of your ear canal. This is very important. If you don't get a good seal with these monitors, the sound quality is poor at best. You also need to get them in as far as possible to enjoy their full frequency response. As a popular magazine says, "You don't wear them so much as implant them." I installed the foam tips. These have a small tube protruding from one end. This the end that goes in the ear. They are made of the same memory foam material as regular earplugs. You roll them between your fingers, insert, and wait for them to expand inside the ear canal. I used them this way for over 2 months and loved them. They are very comfortable and the sound quality is simply amazing. There is a level of detail in recordings that simply cannot be heard in a listening room setting. I can hear musicians breathing and shifting in their chairs. On one of my old Solti/Chicago Beethoven recordings, I can actually hear a telephone ring backstage! Podcasts take on a whole new feel as the voices really are in your head!

After awhile, I began to explore the prospect of custom earmolds. Etymotic recommends several labs that will make these for you. As I am near New York City, I contacted
Scientific Plastics and arranged a time to have my ear impressions taken. This involves a technician filling your ear canal with a green substance that hardens in about 5 minutes and is then removed. The result is a perfect representation of you entire ear canal. I had no idea it was so deep! A week later, my molds arrived in the mail. They were bored out specifically for the ER-4Ps. It took me a few tries to really fit them properly and get used to them. After a few days I am completely accustomed to them. Let me tell you, the sound quality took quite a leap. The bass response is now stupendously good rather than merely excellent. I can actually feel the lower instruments in my head. The seal and sound isolation is also much improved. Only the loudest sounds can penetrate now. I can't wait to try these on a bus or plane trip. Another tip for top sound quality: save your music in Apple's lossless format. Compression will destroy the transparency, dynamic range and soundstage of any classical recording. My CD collection is smaller than average. I fit about 50 hours of music into 20gb using lossless. Now that a 160gb iPod is available, there really is no reason to compress your music. Pictured below are the monitors sporting their somewhat eerie looking ear molds. Thanks for reading and enjoy your listening!

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