ER-4 vs. E5 - Sound Characteristics
Apr 25, 2004 at 3:28 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 2


Headphoneus Supremus
Jan 13, 2004
miami / nyc
Sonic Signature: ER-4 vs. E5

Ipod 2’nd gen (no eq for E5) (bass boost for ER-4*)
Using ER-4P with the conversion cable –> ER-4S – what I will be referring to.

* the etys seem to be the first phone I’ve heard that is capable of handling the ipod’s bass boost and not faltering much. This helps Etymotic’s sonic signature tremendously in my opinion.

First of all, let’s remember this review is about my ultimate PORTABLE solution. That means, ipod -> in-ear earphones. No other amps or sources were used here. I am just trying to find my personal portable perfection, and I’m writing this to help others do the same. If you want to know about the subtle nuances and improvements these headphones are capable of maxed out on a high-end setup, you’re in the wrong place. But don’t forget, while sound may improve with the addition of an amp or a higher level source, a headphone’s sound signature will remain the same, and in that respect, you will hopefully be able to take away something useful from the following.

Let me preface with the fact that I have sensitive ears, I am not a fan of sibilance (is anyone?) and I think it is extremely important for treble to be well-controlled in a canalphone. That being said, I am going to be as objective as I can.

Although I was given the “P” version with the conversion cable, I found myself listening basically exclusively to the “S” version with the conversion cable. There is definitely a difference in the immediate perceptible low-end frequency response of the P version. However, the S version seemed to make the highs sparkle and it “added air” to the ER4-P, which I liked. There is also a huge volume difference between the S and the P models, which is to be expected due to the differences in impedance between the higher impedance S, and lower impedance P version. With the P-version I can get satisfying listening levels at 50-60% volume on my ipod, where with the S version I have to crank the volume to nearly full, which is not at all a problem.

So, I thought the S version did sound, albeit somewhat subtle, legitimately better; enough so that I really did not spend much time with the P version. Actually, to my ears, it was obvious the P version did sound rather “washed-out.” I could really tell this right away. So if your question is “ER-4S or ER-4P?” I would say get the ER-4S, strictly from a sonic standpoint. However, if you are interested in the “versatility” of having both, it’s not too much more money, especially if you make your own higher impedance cable, to get the P version, and have both. Also, the braided cable offering of the P model is something that I would certainly want to have if it did in fact reduce cord microphonics, which I am nearly certain it would. I guess what I am saying, is that if I were on the market for some ER-4’s, and Etymotic released a braided ER-4S model that is what I would buy, without hesitation.

Much, (an understatement to say the least) has been said about the Etymotic’s sound signature. I am going to consider what I have read before, as well as of course, my experience listening, and speak about what I agree or disagree with from previous posts, and also what I found to be best and worst about the ER-4’s, while comparing them to the E5’s.

TREBLE -Listening to Grieg’s Peer Gynt is where I found the Etys to be most impressive. There is no question that they are more “extended” than the Shures when it comes to detailed high frequency response. I was pretty impressed, (but not surprised) to hear texture all the way through to the highest violin notes. In other words, when a violin bowing is reproduced (and violins do show the etys high-end prowess very well) on the ER-4’s, there is a clarity and texture heard throughout, which is not approached by the E5’s.

When you hear a violin playing in the highest registers on the ER-4’s, you can audibly sense that the violin is being played with a bow made of many individual horsehairs, and tell that there is an element of micro-varied intensity in terms of the amount of friction between the bow and the violin string. The E5 is capable of this level of texture and detail as well, but is not able to extend its capabilities in this area to the match the level of the ER-4 in the highest registers.

So the ER-4’s ability to resolve the highest highs does capture more “textural” nuances on this pole of the frequency spectrum than the E5’s can. However, there is a negative implication to this, and it is precisely what I had anticipated.

As I said my ears are very sensitive, and one of my favorite qualities of the E5’s with the tri-flange tips, is their sheer lack of piercing highs and lack of sibilance. While I will admit that I did not find the ER-4’s to suffer from much (if any) sibilance, and I found their highs are very controlled, the fact these perceptible (even if they are euphonic) high tones are being played a mm away from my ear drum is not a favorable characteristic for me in a canalphone. Where this really starts to hurt, is in prolonged use. Despite impressive clarity in the high registers, the very fact that these notes are reproduced with such high- end detail, started to get tiring on my ears after close to an hour. This never happens to me with the E5’s, and I have listened to them for 5 hours non-stop before.

Another thing I just noticed as I am listening to Peer Gynt, is the “brmpphh” you notice when a trumpeter or trombone player is starting up his note. Again, there is an element of texture here that is not there on the Shures. You can hear the different stages of the air moving through the twists and turns of the metal tubes of the horn, and notice a level of clarity in this respect that is not evident on the Shures.

I know some people like to talk about the “magic” of the ER-4’s cymbal reproduction and such, but I truly do not think it beats the Shures here. Listening with my E5’s to a triangle being played, I can hear all 3 times the player strikes each side of the triangle clearly, and it sounds very real. (The longer note decay also helps here with the realism, but that will be touched upon in a bit.)

Actually, something that’s very funny, there is this one orchestral piece that I used to listen to when I had my E3’s. There was a gong buildup and a chime sweep that sounded phenomenal. When I got my E5’s and listened to this piece, I did not feel this one lick sounded as sparkly on my E5’s as it did on the E3’s. It’s just this one little thing though, I guess that’s what the E3’s did best for me. They made the chimes in this one song sound great. I just listened to this on the ER4’s and actually thought it sounded less sparkly than on the E3’s, although I swear I just think I heard the chimes still clanking together a few seconds longer than I’ve ever heard them before. Anyway…

MIDRANGE and BASS -Once out of the upper stratosphere of the frequency spectrum, the ER4-s quickly lose any chance they might have had at being a better phone sonically overall, in my opinion.

I spoke a lot about texture of the etys in the high end. The reason I only mentioned the word texture and did not attempt to elucidate precisely what I meant by this, was because there are only so many words I can use to describe the traits of the Shures and the Etymotics, and I felt the word texture, best matches with the sonic reproductions of the high-end on the ER-4’s. However, there is more than just texture that creates a sense of realism when we listen to music. Yes, there is texture, but there is also air displacement, (the physical force a notes sound-waves will have on our bodies and ears) tonality, (one of the most important characteristics to me) and resonance. All of these characteristics add up to life-like sound. While the ety may have a textural level of resolve at the highest end that the Shures do not, when it comes to every other characteristic here, the Shures do many things that the Etymotics do not even attempt to do.

The Shures ability to capture tonality, impact and resonance of notes (notice I am speaking in technical terms and not opinionated terms, I just had “emotion” and erased it because I feel it would be biased to say) is not only better than the Etymotics, but truly impressive in making me feel like I am listening to live music.

Yes, for the highest violin strokes, the Shures sound too smooth, and lack the micro-detailed quality of the Etymotics, but what it lacks in the upper ranges, it more than makes up for in the entire rest of the spectrum. The Shures, lack the highest highs but they appear to lack nothing to my ears when it comes to the lower and middle registers. It is the Etymotics that are lacking here.

When a violin is played in the middle ranges and a cello is played in the lowest ranges, all that the Etymotics capture in texture in the highs, they also capture in the lows too. But now so do the Shures, with much more tonality, impact, and resonance. This creates a much more life-like, real and full sound.

Bass is more than just a low frequency response reserved for drums. As I mentioned before, (and as everyone knows) sound-waves have a physical impact on our ears and bodies, and while neither of these phones can rattle our bodies, (probably a good thing) the Shures can deliver this impact at least to our ears, and capture a piece of the physicality of actually being there. This is not just important for drums, but for instruments like cello and tuba as well. With the Etymotics you hear the bass, and in fact can sometimes “feel” it a bit too, but at nowhere near the level as with the Shures. Now, some people may not want to feel it, so I am not going to say the Shures are better here, but they are more lifelike, because if you were to hear these instruments in person, you would feel them.

So the bass reproduction of the Shures, which is so smooth and controlled, really goes a long way in capturing the impact characteristics of the music, and serves to be quite instrumental in helping the E5’s to deliver a very lifelike and involving listening experience in this respect. The Etys are not nearly as involving. And right out of the ipod, the Shures reach deeper than the Etys do and are much more audible at the lowest lows. (I do think that due to the dual driver design of the Shures, they would continue to beat out the etys in the lows all the way up the amp and source ladder. However I do not know this for sure, so someone who know, please feel free to say so.)

Overall, the Etymotics midrange and especially low-end, while controlled, does not just seem analytical (as opposed to the Shures being exciting) but dull. It lacks tonality, impact and the resonance that actually listening to live music gives you. The Shures are truly remarkable in this respect. They really do deliver an involving, startlingly real and “you’re there” kind of performance in this regard.

SOUNDSTAGE -Something I regret not mentioning in one of my earlier posts about the E5’s is how they appear to take the sound and move it half an inch away from the tip earphone itself. The sound seems to be slightly backed away from your ear. This does wonders to reduce listening fatigue. Not only do the E5’s with the tri-flanges remove any harsh highs that killed my ears with the E3’s, but the sound is also backed up somehow. It is something I still do not understand, but absolutely adore about the E5’s.

The soundstage of the E5, due to the abilities of the E5 to reproduce tonality, impact and resonance makes it much more dynamic, and life-like. Many people say in reviews about the E5’s that it is hard to believe they are listening to canalphones and not headphones. I would say this too, but I think something else should be said here that is more applicable and not so hyperbolic.

The soundstage of the E5, in terms of area, can extend beyond the earphones a few inches. What I first mentioned about the E5’s movement of the sound by a half an inch or so out from the earphone, does wonders to “open” the sound, and make it easier to listen to. These two things combined make a very comfortable and non-fatiguing soundstage. It is impressive that you are listening to a canalphone.

The last thing that affects the soundstage of the E5’s, is perhaps the ability to reproduce low tones so well. Because our ears are least able to track the origin of low tones, I believe that the E5’s ability to create them, gives the E5’s a sonic characteristic that contributes to an ability of the E5’s to sound as if it is occupying a large space. Listening to Miles Apart on the new Yellowcard album, Ocean Avenue, the introductory drum solo sounds strikingly real. 2:00 into this song is another drum solo. Here, with the E5’s the bass drum appears to occupy a room in which your head is in. It does not merely seem that a “bass drum” sound is coming out of earphone in your ears. It sounds like you’re in a room with a bass drum. Grab a copy of this album, check out this song and at 2:00 in you’ll know what I am talking about here.

For a laugh listen to Miles Apart with the ER-4’s…sorry, kidding. But the lack of realism is clearly evident with the Etys here.

The Etymotics soundstage is much less “life-like” due to the fact that it is lacking the tonality, impact, and resonance of the E5’s. It does have the more refined texture up top, but this does little to increase the overall sense of realism in the music. Sometimes violins will sound better on the ER-4’s, but this is only during times, when the E5’s can not keep up with the higher frequency response capabilities of the ER-4’s.

There is one defining word that characterizes the soundstage of the ER-4, air. The instrument separation of the Etymotics (yes the etys do clearly separate instruments. and if this is something you want, add a notch to the ER-4’s wall) can at times, give the impression that the ER-4’s have a more “coherent” soundstage. Some people like to say the Shures sound muddy. Saying the Shures are muddy compared to the Etymotics is exactly the same as saying a Ferrari isn’t fast compared to an F-16. They are both really fast, but how fast do you wanna go?

So this extra air, which I have to say is kind of refreshing at first, does a lot to “open,” not necessarily “enlarge” but “open” the soundstage. There also does seem to be a bit more ability of the Etymotics to enable you to “place” instruments due to more perceived space between them. Some people say they can point to instruments when they hear the etys. I can see this being true, but I myself don’t really mind if I can point to instruments, at least not while on the go and listening to my ipod.

I would have to say, and I think a lot of it has to do with my theory on how the bass tones help the Shures sound large, that the Shures do have a bigger perceptible soundstage. But really, I don’t think either soundstage here is necessarily better than another. Perhaps the less fatiguing soundstage would have to go to the Shures for sounding more distant, (not away from the music but as if you are right in a room with all the musicians playing in a radius 10 feet around you.) There is some kind of “protection barrier” with the E5, (definitely not the E3’s) that is not there with the Etys. Also the Ety’s high-end gets tiring quickly, and sometimes works somewhat in reverse to the Shure’s bass, reminding you just how close, the tips of the ER-4’s are to your ear drums.

FALLING NOTE (Resonance)-I am going to start with Lindrone’s comments about this and expand, because I do believe he makes a good point when it comes to the Etymotics and Shures in this regard.

Lindrone has said things in the past like (not word for word): The Etys sound like notes, while the Shures sound like music. And, the Etys do not emphasize the falling note.
(Lindrone if I am way off here, PLEASE say so.)

The Etymotics DO have a falling note, but it falls much more quickly than it would on the Shures, or in real life. I think much of the perceived level of detail on the Etymotics comes from a combination of this characteristic and their high-frequency aural texture.

So I could see agreeing with people who say that the level of detail of the Etymotics is somewhat fabricated by the ER-4’s tailored sound response, however this detail exists within the music. The ER-4 does not create detail, but reveals it. However, this extra level of detail comes at a price of realism.

This did strike me as a pretty noteworthy difference between the Shures and the Etymotics. I feel that a lot of life is sucked out of the Etymotics in this regard alone, and I already spoke about how much life the Ety is lacking compared to the Shures in impact and tonality. So the bottom line with the Etymotics is, the extra detail comes at the price of resonance and realism. I do not think that this is a worthwhile tradeoff.

The Shures, as mentioned before excel in this area, (or should I say, have a resonance closer to that of a real live performance in an acoustic hall) and this goes a long way to breathing life into the music

ENJOYABILITY –This is where anything you read can be shrugged off as a matter of opinion, because what is enjoyable to me may not be enjoyable to you. If everyone just honored this idea we would have a lot less useless flaming posts…anyway…

Strictly Objective Viewpoint – Let’s take the best strengths of the Etymotics and the best strengths of the Shures and see if we can make some sense here. Remember, these strengths that I am speaking of are based on my experience out of an ipod. I know all our ears are different, but these are things I would bet would be more or less agreed upon among a large group of rationale listeners.

ER-4’s – Extended treble response with greater texture than the Shures up top. More instrument separation and much more readily viewable detail. There is bass, and it can sometimes be felt, but it should not be considered heavy bass, nor should bass be considered a strength of the Etymotics, as much as it should be considered a solid capability.

If this is what you are looking for, you will want the Etys.

E5’s – Extended Bass response, with tonality, impact and resonance that is very similar to a real-life listening experience. The E5’s have just as much textural detail as the ER-4’s (if not more) from the lowest low to the middle-highs, where the Ety beats it texturally.

If you want a “life-like” experience with incredible bass, the Shures are for you.

My Viewpoint – Now I finally get to say what I want! ; )

The Shures are much, much more fun than the etymotics. I was impressed, (as expected) with etys textural resolve up top. However, I was disappointed (again, as expected) by the listening fatigue that set in rather early on my sensitive ears with the ER-4’s.

What absolutely blew me away was the ergonomic…absurdity…of the etys. I already spoke of how I felt about Etymotic’s design of the ER-4 in my initial thread post, but after the release of, and owning the E5’s, these things are too much of a step backwards comfort-wise for me to ever consider purchasing them. I did not spend any time outside with the etys and I would be lying if I said I wouldn't have felt at least a little uncomfortable walking around with these things in public.

So, I can FINALLY say with personal justification that the E5’s are my favorite consumer canalphone. And because of how great it sounds, along with the 100 dollar life-long replacement option, it is a purchase that I see no reason not to keep, even after I pick up some 2X’s. It’s always just a matter of time you know…

Happy listening.
Apr 25, 2004 at 3:50 AM Post #2 of 2


King Canaling
Aug 25, 2003
Hmm... who's going to copy'n past the comments from the other thread here?

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