Hi all. Would just like to start off by saying that this has been a very useful website for many a purchase so thank you all!
So anyway, recently the left channel of my SE420s quit, and while I was waiting for my replacement set (which I planned to sell) I decided to upgrade to Etymotic ER-4Ps, but what came back from Shure was the SE425s! And being the sucker for IEMs that I am I decided to keep them. So I thought I'd do a rather original take on a side by side comparison, in a more literal way! Hopefully it will help any potential buyers choose between these similarly priced 'phones.
Here's what I did in order to control all the variables, so that I could make the best judgements:
1. Spent some time trying out each earphone with many different tips, in the end I settled on the medium size Shure foam tips for both, as they offered the best seal and sound quality.
2. Plugged each set into one of the jacks on my Fiio E7 headphone amp (connected to laptop through USB)
3. Plugged the left SE425 earphone into my left ear, and as they are symmetrical the left ER4P into my right ear. (over the ear style to eliminate another variable, people have said this isnt possible for the ER4P but it works perfectly for me and I get a great seal plus it reduces microphonics so i dont know what they mean)
Now that each ear was hearing the exact same thing with the same seal from the same source at the same time, I was ready to start playing some music, all at 320kbps (indiscernible for me on this equipment from FLAC). in order to make my judgements I switched between both earphones at the same time, and then one or the other (by simply plugging and unplugging them from the E7s outputs.) If you have any doubts about my hearing ability, I am only 17 so my ears are still in great condition.
Here are my results:
Initial impressions - They sound by and large the same! Volume level is equal and if I don't remind myself that I should be hearing things in perfect mono, I wouldnt guess I was listening to different headphones. Don't disregard all my opinions too fast though after this odd statement that might jar some tensions among the hardcore IEM commuity, as obviously if I analyse what I'm hearing, there are differences, and they are important.
Comfort - With the Shure Olives in both they feel the same inside my ear canal, but as the 425s have a larger casing, it sometimes rubs against part of my outer ear in a slightly uncomfortable way. Also, the ER-4Ps are far lighter so they definitely win this category.
Clarity - This is the big one here. The er4ps definitely win in terms of clarity. From The Beatles, to Biffy Clyro, and many bands in between, one great example was how much clearer the high hat was, sometimes I couldnt hear it in my 425 ear but it was crystal clear in the er4p ear but not at all in a distracting or shrill way. Other differences are that little vocal nuances, such as a breath an instant before a note, or the way an 's' sound lingers after a word, are brought out very nicely in the er4p in a way that the 425s dont quite manage. Also, I tested some spoken word podcasts, and the Etyss definitely benefit from their flatter response, whereas in comparison the 'bass-boosted' 425s alter voices slightly in a way that is annoying (only when heard side by side with the real thing). In testing some classical music (Yo Yo Ma's unaccompanied Bach cello suites) the ER4ps emerged victorious once again. The 425s suffered from a slight muddying in the sound of the bow against the strings. (the 'scrape' wasnt as clear'.) So if clarity is your thing, go for the Er4Ps.
Bass - Of course, the expected answer here is the 425s win. But in truth, it depends on they type of music you need bass for. For most electronic music, the ER-4Ps actually sound better to me because of their superior clarity, but as you get down to really low frequency stuff, such as dubstep and a cover by james blake called 'limit to your love' (youtube it, the bass drop is so low on most speakers you cant hear it) the er4ps start to really thin out and lack the oomph of the 425s.
Treble - No contest here. Er4ps hands down. From stuff like the high hat i mentioned earlier, to the nuances of more breathy female vocals (namely, the band warpaint) the ER4Ps are just clearer and louder.
Isolation and microphonics - I turned up music on my speakers gradually until i could hear it through the seal, and also played some music on my phone up to my ears one at a time. The Etys have the better isolation, but you pay for it with microphonics. Dont let the worse isolation of the Shures put you off unless you need great isolation for a specific application, the 425s are still great and will easily do for an loud airplane journey for example. However, the microphonics of the Etys can be off putting. I would say that tapping the cable while against my chest produces a sound twice as loud as the Shures. Footsteps can be heard too, depending on the tip and style of wearing, so i dont really recommend them for jogging.
Soundstage - I ditched my split set up to test one of the most important aspects for me, soundstage. My test pieces were a collection of accompanied violin sonatas by Edvard Grieg in which the long piano runs have been produced excellently in stereo. Again, both had excellent ranges but if i had to describe a difference it would be this: The ER-4Ps are slightly more forward, and almost in front of you, but still reach all the way out the the sides. The shures almost sound as if everything was been pushed round the circle to the back ever so slightly, leaving a gap at the front at the 'seam' of the split where nothing happens.
Conclusion - I honestly can't pick a winner and that is why I will be keeping both. Everywhere where I have described a clear winner, it is only been because the fact that there even was a difference is clear, not that the difference is drastic, as at no point are there any head-turning distinctions between the two except the microphonics. The Etys are indispensable for their ability to perfectly reproduce recordings, classical in particular but for when I'm on the move, or at the gym jogging and listening to some bassy tunes, the Shures are the obvious choice. If you are thinking about buying either of these and want me to conduct any further tests, on a specific song maybe, just ask and I'll let you know of any difference I can discern.
EDIT: My initial impression that ER-4Ps are not suitable for jogging because of the thud of footsteps was based on when I used tri-flanges, and as the cable noise persisted with the Shure olives I assumed this other form of microphonics would to. I'm happy to report that this is not at all the case, the pounding was not at all present when I went out today.
Edited by theo2012 - 5/19/11 at 12:52pm