Etymotic ER-4PT review: Clarity, redefined

Price when reviewed

There are three types of audio aficionados: those who call themselves audiophiles, and spend inordinate amounts of money on exotic separates and upgrades; professionals and engineers who regard these people as misguided fools and buy equipment to do a job and not for what it looks like or costs; and the rest of us, who just want to enjoy listening to our music, podcasts and radio shows.

Etymotic ER-4PT review: Clarity, redefined

It’s clear which group the Etymotic ER-4PTs are aimed at: with a frequency graph printed on a leaflet in the box and a no-nonsense design, these in-ear headphones are for anyone who only cares about the sound. They may be professional and semi-professional musicians, producers or those who care solely about audio fidelity.

Etymotic ER-4PT MicroPro: Design, fit and accessories

If you’ve ever bought a pair of headphones based on the way they look, the ER-4PTs are definitely not your kind of product. They’re built almost entirely from rough-looking black plastic, while the cables are made from shiny black vinyl. They feel robust enough, but don’t look like a £249 pair of headphones.

The only spark of visual interest is the braided cabling that leads from the right and left earbuds to the Y-junction on the headphone cable. This is supposed to reduce the annoying “microphonic” effect that occurs when in-ear headphone cables rub against clothing.

Alas, the braiding doesn’t seem to have much effect. In fact, the cables on the ER-4PTs seem particularly bad in this respect, transmitting every rub, thump and bump of the cable as you walk down the street. However, using the bundled clothing clip seems to fix the worst of it and is highly recommended.

The ER-4PTs might look plain in design, but a beast of a pair of headphones lurks inside. In typical Etymotic style, they use balanced armature drivers, a technology widespread in hearing aids and professional monitor earphones.

What’s the difference? Balanced armature designs take up less space than dynamic drivers, and don’t rely on shunting lots or air around to create sound, so they can be smaller – hence their use in hearing aids – and they typically have faster transient response, which means superior high-frequency performance.

Etymotic ER-4PT MicroPro review: The soft case helps keep the earphones safe, but they're robust and tough

To emphasise their professional credentials further, Etymotic includes a 3.5mm inline adapter that flattens their frequency response and reduces their sensitivity – ostensibly for use with powerful headphone amps or as in-ear monitors by musicians.

You get plenty of accessories, too. In the box, there’s a soft carry pouch, along with three pairs of Etymotic’s trademark triple-flange silicone ear fittings, plus four pairs of variously shaped expanding foam inserts. In other words, whatever the shape and size of your ear-canal, you should be able find something here to your liking.

Etymotic ER-4PT MicroPro review: A huge selection of tips is included in the box

My personal preference is for the smallest triple-flange tips. They take a little getting used to at first, since they have to be pushed right down your ear-canal – further than normal tips – but once you’ve got them in, the noise isolation is superb. Etymotic claims they block out up to 98% of ambient noise, and if that isn’t good enough for you, the firm offers a custom moulded option, although you have to pay extra for that.

Other accessories in the box, aside from the aforementioned inline adapter, include a hard storage case, a tool for removing the earwax filter from the end of the earphone housings, two pairs of replacement filters, plus a 3.5mm to 6.3mm plug adapter. What you don’t get is an airline adapter or an inline remote.

Etymotic ER-4PT MicroPro review: A hard case is included to keep all your bits and bobs safe

Etymotic ER-4PT MicroPro: Sound quality

After listening to these headphones for several weeks, I have to say that there’s very little about them I don’t like. The sheer detail and attack in mid-range and high-end frequencies has to be heard to be believed. If you listen to a lot of classical, choral and acoustic work, you’ll be staggered at how good the instrument separation and stereo imaging is.

There’s also an incredible amount of aural detail presented here. If you like being able to pick out those little cues in live performances – the sound of fingers sliding along guitar strings, the breathing of the soprano, the annoying sniffling of audience members with colds – these are the headphones for you.

Etymotic ER-4PT MicroPro review: Other accessories include a 6.3mm adapter, clothing clip and replacement earwax filters

The flipside to this is that anything more multilayered, complex and forceful can be a little tiring to listen to, meaning I haven’t been listening to much Metallica or Manic Street Preachers lately.

If big, fat juicy bass is your thing, you may also want to look elsewhere. Although Etymotic says the ER-4PTs cover the full range of audio frequencies, from 16kHz right down to 20Hz at the low end, I found the volume tailed off pretty quickly below 30Hz. The result is that they simply can’t reproduce the sort of skull-throbbing bass that headphones such as the Sennheiser Momentums can.

Still, when you do experience bass at around the 30-40Hz mark, it tends to be ultra-tight, incredibly well-controlled and highly enjoyable to listen to. For example, the conclusion of Holst’s Jupiter still retains all its emotion and power, pounding your eardrums with weight and impact, while the low notes on a track like Trentemoeller’s remix of Les Djinns lack the visceral punch they have on bassier headphones. In short, it depends largely on the recording whether the bass sounds good or not on the ER-4PTs.

Etymotic ER-4PT MicroPro review: The adapter flattens the frequency response and turns the ER-4PTs into pro monitors

Etymotic ER-4PT MicroPro: Verdict

The ER-4PTs are truly great in-ear headphones, capable of reproducing an extraordinary amount of detail. They’re unrelentingly revealing, aggressively detailed, highly musical and accurate to a tee, but they’re not for everyone.

Their reproduction of bass can lack oomph, the tips take a little getting used to and they’re expensive, not to mention being horrendously ugly. But they bring music to life in a way many other in-ear headphones I’ve listened to simply don’t. I’m smitten.

  • Fancy something with bit more bass? Read our review of the Sennheiser Momentum In-ear earphones – they might be more your thing

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